Sexual Selection and Modern Dating
The other day my beautiful wife emailed me a link to this City Journal article entitled “Love in the Time of Darwinism” by Kay S. Hymowitz about the selective pressures which the modern dating environment places on the mating pool. It seems the same author had written another article earlier this year entitled “Child-Man in the Promised Land” about the phenomenon of single men in their twenties and even thirties who, rather than shouldering the “grown up” interests of their forefathers a generation or two before, linger in an extended adolescence of playing video games, watching cartoons and gross-out comedies, and seeking only uncommitted sex rather than marriage on the dating scene. In response to this first article, the author had received numerous emails from young men informing her that the reason that they behaved that way was essentially that the actions of the women on the dating scene left them little other choice. Hymowitz sums up their reaction this way:
Their argument, in effect, was that the SYM [single young male] is putting off traditional markers of adulthood—one wife, two kids, three bathrooms—not because he’s immature but because he’s angry. He’s angry because he thinks that young women are dishonest, self-involved, slutty, manipulative, shallow, controlling, and gold-digging. He’s angry because he thinks that the culture disses all things male. He’s angry because he thinks that marriage these days is a raw deal for men.
And so this article is basically an investigation into how accurate this complaint is.
As with many such articles, what follows is a mix of anecdote, analysis and mild titillation. Hymowitz essentially takes the position that in a society with no fixed paradigm for what what women can or should have as expectations in dating, women on the modern dating scene often simply choose to expect that men fulfill whatever expectations they happen to have at the moment:
But then, when an SYM walks into a bar and sees an attractive woman, it turns out to be nothing like that. The woman may be hoping for a hookup, but she may also be looking for a husband, a co-parent, a sperm donor, a relationship, a threesome, or a temporary place to live. She may want one thing in November and another by Christmas. “I’ve gone through phases in my life where I bounce between serial monogamy, Very Serious Relationships and extremely casual sex,” writes Megan Carpentier on Jezebel, a popular website for young women. “I’ve slept next to guys on the first date, had sex on the first date, allowed no more than a cheek kiss, dispensed with the date-concept altogether after kissing the guy on the way to his car, fucked a couple of close friends and, more rarely, slept with a guy I didn’t care if I ever saw again.” Okay, wonders the ordinary guy with only middling psychic powers, which is it tonight?
In fact, young men face a bewildering multiplicity of female expectations and desire. Some women are comfortable asking, “What’s your name again?” when they look across the pillow in the morning. But plenty of others are looking for Mr. Darcy. In her interviews with 100 unmarried, college-educated young men and women, Jillian Straus, author of Unhooked Generation, discovered that a lot of women had “personal scripts”—explicit ideas about how a guy should act, such as walking his date home or helping her on with her coat. Straus describes a 26-year-old journalist named Lisa fixed up for a date with a 29-year-old social worker. When he arrives at her door, she’s delighted to see that he’s as good-looking as advertised. But when they walk to his car, he makes his first mistake: he fails to open the car door for her. Mistake Number Two comes a moment later: “So, what would you like to do?” he asks. “Her idea of a date is that the man plans the evening and takes the woman out,” Straus explains. But how was the hapless social worker supposed to know that? In fact, Doesn’t-Open-the-Car-Door Guy might well have been chewed out by a female colleague for reaching for the office door the previous week.
The result, according to Hymowitz’s analysis, is thus that men eventually decide that women are essentially out for whatever they happen to want at the moment (which in cases like some of those above certainly appears to be the case) and so decide they might as well seek to find tactics for getting whatever they want out of life (in this case: video games, sex and fart jokes.) The result is what Hymowitz describes as a Darwinian struggle in which both men and women seek tactics to get what they want out of the other without giving commitments or putting up with behaviors they don’t want.
While I recognize that any “struggle for survival” has in our culture come to be referred to as “Darwinian”, I can’t help finding this a rather peculiar use of the term, since to the extent that all of this churn in the dating world is intended to be entirely sterile it really has nothing to do with “reproductive success”. Hymowitz says
No, the problem with the Darwinian tenor of the Menaissance is neither antipathy to women’s equality nor a misguided reading of female nature. It is an uncompromising biological determinism that makes no room for human cultivation. We are animals, the new Darwinians seem to say; get used to it. They define manhood as alpha-style toughness and unsentimental promiscuity. And in that spirit, they cultivate manipulation, calculation, and naked (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) self-interest. “Nature doesn’t care about hurting people’s feelings,” explains dating coach Mike Pilinski. “It cares ONLY about reproductive success.”
And yet one of the things that strikes me about this described system is that while it is a struggle shaped by the ways in which certain tactics achieve or fail to achieve their goals, it is a wholly un-natural situation. The whole reason why the scene that the article describes is even able to exist is that modern technology allows people to totally separate (or at least, imagine that they are totally separating) sex from its traditional context of producing offspring.
And in that regard, when I read this sort of thing (which apparently the parents on our local Catholic homeschooling email list are forwarding around with proclamations of how this seals their determination never to allow their children to date) I can’t help wondering how real and widespread a phenomenon is actually being described here. I don’t doubt that the people interviewed in the article, and in the books and studies quoted in the article, exist. But what percentage of the population has actually experienced anything like this sex-saturated primal struggle to get everything one wants without compromising any of one’s own desires? Perhaps it’s huge and I’ve somehow managed to live in a small corner of the Catholic sub-culture where I missed it. However, my impression is that while the dating scene described in the article doubtless exists among people of a certain income and background, in certain areas of the large cities throughout the US, for most people the post-sexual-revolution dating scene is one in which most people end up having sex before marriage, but nonetheless fairly quickly find themselves in long term relationships where they have children, share bank accounts and argue about who left the dishes undone.
There must be, it seems to me, a strong pull towards a moderately “traditional” lifestyle inherent within the human person simply because we are creatures made to associate sex with the closeness necessary to form a family able to nurture the children which naturally result from it. So to the extent that the culture described in this article is widespread (rather than just a good story for scaring parents and exciting those who wish they knew what bars the interviewees were hanging out at), I don’t see how it could be sustainable. It’s a culture which one can only bring new people into the world by leaving, and as such it seems like something that would naturally burn itself out fairly quickly. Even in the present of birth control technology which is obviously socially disruptive, if people are indeed going to keep reproducing and having anything vaguely resembling a stable family culture, this kind of sub-culture must be either very small or very transitory.
As Christians, our duty is to make it clear through word and example what the sane alternative is.