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.

[Cross Posted]

  1. I can only say that this article describes perfectly the dating/hookup culture of my junior high, high school, college (at a Catholic college), and grad school years.

    It also conforms with my first decade of life in the workforce. While I was married and settling down, I was surrounded by coworkers a decade older than myself for whom life revolved around puerile humor, the quest for physical gratification, and ever more exotic diversions from the essential emptiness of existence.

    I realize that anecdotal evidence isn’t dispositive. But my observations for the last 15-20 years are accurately summarized in this article.

  2. This culture is not a subculture, but the norm as far as I have ever seen it for those in their 20′s and 30′s. As a 29 year old male, this is the sort of thing that I am bombarded with on TV, in ads, in magazines and more importantly at the workplace and in the classrooms.

    Even for those who seemingly reject it and get married, unless they understand the evil of it, they will still live it out as far as they are able in their conversations and probably their fantasies.

    You make a lot of good points about the problems with this approach and I completely agree with you except to say that the roots of the problem are deep. If you doubt this I would challenge you to page through any issue of Maxim Magazine or Cosmopolitan.

    The traditional understanding of men and women, their roles, and how they should interact is completely forgotten and young men and women have to rediscover it. This can only be done with great effort because of the scars we all have, and the poison we are being fed.

  3. It seems to me there are two different things going on here. For some men, this type of activity is a transitional phase that lasts anywhere from their mid 20′s to their late 30′s. Others, however, simply give up on the idea of marriage altogether (Hymowitz cites a study indicating 22% of those interviewed show a strong aversion to marriage). If observation of class-mates and siblings is any guide, there is a lot of chaos in terms of dating expectations, and people develop different strategies to manage it.

    I had a conversation with a 40 year-old co-worker several years ago who assured me that ‘when he did get married, it would last,’ although that was not going to anytime soon. I thought, but did not say, that the vow ‘until death do you part’ would probably keep getting easier to keep with every passing year. In any case, I think the article inevitably over-dramatizes the situation, but touches on some important aspects of the current dating culture.

  4. Good post, Darwin.

    As you noted, it’s hardly Darwinian–the drive remains but the effect frequently falls short of reproductive success. Not much of a survival strategy, is it?

    I often wonder what happened –while young adult promiscuity was common enough during my salad days, I think that ol’ Darwinian bonding impulse still had a strong pull on the culture–including (if to a lesser degree) the male of the species. Most of the gals (and many of the guys) I knew then didn’t bedhop purely as a form of recreation; if they weren’t all practicing continence until marriage there was at least the recognition of sex as bond and engaging in it triflingly wasn’t thought of very highly.

    While “women don’t know what they want, so we act like animals” is a sorry excuse, I think there is a grain of truth to it. Young people today have as a group been underexposed to self-restraint and fidelity and overexposed (at increasingly young ages) to sex divorced from its moral or emotional aspects and to sex as a means of exploiting others (and the girls, having more maturity and emotional control, can be as much or more the offenders in that regard.) In other words, my generation and the one just previous have done a poor job of setting the example (high divorce rates, serial “monogamy,”) and pop culture promotes the tomcat lifestyle as normal. I’ve encountered young teens who whiled away their idle time with Mom’s porn video collection or the soaps or whatever filth was on HBO while parents were off chasing their latest flame–with that background, we can hardly expect a healthy and holistic view of sexuality.

    As a feminist, I’m troubled by the view (not merely a perception of my own as I’ve read plenty of remarks made by young women that confirm it) that equates immodesty, promiscuity, and consequence-free sex with female power. All this time I thought the struggle was for fair pay, respectful treatment, equality before the law, and educational access: to be more than sex objects. Then along come these kids who never had to do without those claiming the right to be nothing more than sex objects in the name of liberation. It’s a concept that can only harm them as persons and will ultimately undo any good that feminism has ever done.

  5. The summary of this essay is- There Are No Rules. I want what’s mine. Whatever Mine may be on any given evening. Remember, many of those in the Hook Up Culture are children of divorce. Used to having Weekends With Daddy, if that much. Or horrible screaming fights leading to protracted divorce cases. Seven years ago, I was in a Chinese restaurant with mutual acquaintances. Each person had multiple personal stories about divorce, abandonment, disjointed families with multiple half-siblings. To which I went- gulp. Mom and Dad married happily for 45 years until Dad shed this mortal veil. Three younger sisters who married three terrific guys- actually four, but poor Tom succumbed to effects of Agent Orange while serving in ‘Nam. Six terrific nieces and nephews. Oh that’s right I lived in a comfortable Catholic bubble until time for the humongous urban circus that was Temple University in the mid 70s. Boy was I fortunate. Boy was I the oddball in the bunch.

  6. This analysis described my college experience perfectly.

    I was too timid to date, not sure what was expected of me at all. It’s not just the men though, but the women too. My wife pursued a relationship with me because she knew what my values were and that there wouldn’t be expectations of sexual activity.

    If young adults with family values are the majority, they are indeed a silent majority. Most of them are shying away from relationships and dating because the loud, promiscuous, substance abusing crowd causes so much confusion. The “good” kids have a lot of friends but rarely date.

    Sadly, my brother (23) has fallen into the video games and garage bands cess pool. I’m not blaming women entirely, but I think that the behavior described in this article is definitely a contributing factor.

  7. I’m 29, so I certainly saw the hookup culture at some of the colleges I looked at, and heard about it from friends who went the secular college route.

    With the exception of some of the middle-aged salesmen who frequented parties at the Playboy Mansion at the company I worked for in LA, I haven’t run into it so much in the working world. Among people my own age it seems like I’d mostly run into:

    a) Women who had been living with the same guy for some time and couldn’t seem to understand why he had no interest in getting married. (Or on the flip side, guys living with their girlfriends who claimed to be perplexed as to why their girlfriends were so obsessed with marriage.)

    b) Nice guys who were unmarried and complained they could never find any sane single women.

    c) Young married professionals who were waiting till their mid thirties to have those one or two kids — or who insisted that they were so overwhelmed taking care of their dogs they couldn’t imagine having kids.

    d) Other people with what I think of as “normal” married lives with several kids — who invariably turn out to be very involved in their churches, often Evangelical but sometimes Catholic.

    The big problem for our culture in the modern US, though, is that all media outlets seems totally focused around the have-sex-with-anyone-you-date-for-more-than-five-minutes culture, and the commonly portrayed alternative is the family made up of a smart alec wife, a overweight and stupid husband, two bratty kids and some interfering in-laws. Regardless of how frequent these two alternatives are, the fact that they’re portrayed as normal by all our cultural outlets has got to be causing a lot of damage to people who are not already getting a strong positive example through some other means.

  8. Two statements. The first is that I have seen quite a bit of the happy-go-lucky sex culture myself, both here at college, and when I worked a summer at construction. By no means did a majority look for rampant promiscuity, but a visible minority had no problem discussing girls they picked up one night, only to discard them the next day.

    The second is in reply to one of the concluding statements:

    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.

    The answer here, I think, is virus. By themselves, viruses cannot reproduce, but once they latch onto a host and convert a particular cell into a factory, they can make many more of themselves (which in turn cannot reproduce without invading some other host).

    Whenever I think that that the culture of promiscuity is going to die out after a couple more generations, I remember the virus thing. The promiscuity culture waits for the non-promiscuous to reproduce, and then it infects some of the offspring, thus guaranteeing its propagation through yet another generation, and another, and another.

    Now, how to make a vaccine…

  9. Eh. I say it sounds like immature young men enjoying every minute of their freedom and conveniently blaming women for their “confusion”. I dated my wife for 5 years (because we met in high school and I didn’t want to be married until I had a degree and a job.) If I hadn’t met her until we were 25, it would have taken me all of three months to propose. That’s not to say there wouldn’t have been other women to date and discern. But when a confident young Catholic knows what he’s looking for, and uses a little common sense and knows where to look for it (NOT at a bar), it should be pretty easy to discover pretty quickly whether she would be a good wife. Shacking up for two years because you’re “just not sure” is total BS.

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  11. I can tell you from first hand experience that the culture is definitely real and exists for pretty much all singles in their twenties that have not already entered into a long term relationship. You say that the culture is unsustainable because it’s a culture which one can only bring new people into the world by leaving. First of all, it is not a true anthropological “culture” of persons so your existential math is not applicable to it. The culture of “Children” is also not capable of creating new members but the population of children has not declined now has it? The culture is really more a sub-culture. I believe your real question is whether or not this is a lasting sub-culture for it’s individual members and whether or not this sub-culture will go extinct due to darwinian forces because so many of it’s members have a low reproductive rate. Answer #1: no. Members of this subculture will leave it eventually because they lack sexual currency. Answer #2: maybe. Some parts of this subculture will very slowly go extinct because of it’s low reproductive rate but other parts of it have a higher than replacement rate reproductive rate due to the prevalence of single mothers.

    Also, let me say that I disagree with the author in his contention that men are becoming a sort of overgrown adolescent as a form of protest to the wrongs committed to them by women. I do not find that this is the case. I come from a conservative background and had many 1950′s style ideas about dating in my head when I was younger. I have found that being a more responsible, mature, and committal man to women makes oneself extremely unattractive to them. The reason men have become grown adolescents is because that is what women have come to expect and desire. More mature men are considered boring and “lame” by the modern single girl/woman. A man that follows old school dating protocol seems like a prehistoric relic and a completely socially inept person to the modern woman. Also, the women themselves do NOT want to commit until they are damn well ready. And when such a time comes, she will try to turn one of her immature male peers into a more steadfast person. If she succeeds, she will be glad but also secretly disappointed that she was able to cow her man. The adaptation of men to this modern reality is darwinian in the sense that it is something that has evolved randomly in order to gain more success. And also, there’s actually less sex going on than you would think. Hookups happen but since neither party is committed, there are long time spans between hookups. Serial monogamers probably have more sex but fewer partners.

  12. Also, let me point something out to those of you that haven’t already heard about it in the news.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2004-06-02-japan-women-usat_x.htm

    http://www.halfsigma.com/2009/07/herbivore-men-in-japan.html

    Japanese bithrates and plunging and relations between young men and young women are disintegrating. What’s happening there is a more extreme version of what’s happening here.

    I think that a lot of what’s happening is due several factors:
    Less social pressure to get marry.
    It’s easier to financially survive on your own with the rising GDP/capita of the modern world.
    Men are less attractive to women.

    The last one is interesting and exemplified in Japan. I would say that there are very few men that the average japanese women finds attractive and the reason has nothing to do with looks. Japanese men are too nice and unagressive for even the polite and unagressive japanese girls.

    The truth is, women do not like equality when it comes their mate choices. They want men who have higher social positions and are more personally socially powerful than themselves. I believe that the liberation of women was a good thing for moral reasons but women have failed to pay their due and adjust their preferences in men now that they are much more the equal of men.

  13. One of my co-workers is a 27 year old evangelical Christian. She went to college on both an athletic and an academic scholarship. She also happens to be extremely pretty. And yet, she sits at home most Saturday nights.

    She told me quite a while ago that she wants to be a virgin when she marries. That accounts for the solo Saturday nights. She has many first dates (some with men who claim to be Christians), but somehow they never call again. Of course, not all first dates work out. (Actually, I could write the book about horrible first dates). I doubt her moral values (which would have been expected 50 years ago) are helping her popularity in the dating scene circa 2009.

    I admire her steadfastness. I hope she soon meets a young man who admires and values her beliefs instead of thinking “Why should I waste money on a chick who won’t put out?”

  14. I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts and it seems the issue is an imbalance between the number of eligible men and eligible women.

    Note: the following is mainly applicable if there is an absence of traditional norms.

    Between high school and the 30s, there are more eligible women than men, with 80% of women in the market and 20% of men in the market. This 20% of men are known as the “alpha males” and women direct all of their attention to attracting these men. The other 80% of guys can play video games since they don’t have any value in the dating market and would lose even if they tried.

    The general tendency is a polygamy if these alpha men play the field and monogamy if these alpha men settle down.