Love vs Sex 36

Controlling Women deceptively through Monogamy

(Note: I have minorly edited these passages to present a more concise presentation of the subject. I believe I have done so without excluding any relevent information or including any personal bias. I highly recommend that you consider reading the entire book if this subject matter captures your attention.)     


Indeed, in sheerly Darwinian terms, most men are probably better off in a monogamous system and most women worse off. This is an important point and warrants a brief illustrative detour.   

(I am skipping the illustrative example to present more relevant information in this writing, but I can provide the example to anyone interested.)

 The basic point stands: many, many women, even many women who will choose not to share a husband, have their options expanded when all women are free to share a husband. By the same token, many, many men can suffer at the hands of polygyny.

All told, then, institutionalized monogamy, though often viewed as a big victory for egalitarianism and for women, is emphatically not egalitarian in its effects on women. Polygyny would much more evenly distribute the assets of males among them. It is easy—and wise—for beautiful, vivacious wives of charming, athletic corporate titans to dismiss polygyny as a violation of the basic rights of women. But married women living in poverty—or women without a husband or child, and desirous of both—could be excused for wondering just which women’s rights are protected by monogamy. The only underprivileged citizens who should favor monogamy are men. It is what gives them access to a supply of women that would otherwise drift up the social scale.        

Monogamy is neither a minus for men collectively nor a plus for a women collectively; within both sexes, interests naturally collide. More plausibly, the grand, historic compromise was cut between more fortunate and less fortunate men. For them, the institution of monogamy does represent a genuine compromise: the most fortunate men still get the most desirable women, but they have to limit themselves to one apiece. This explanation of monogamy—as a divvying up of sexual property among men—has the virtue of consistency with the fact that opened this chapter: namely, that it is men who usually control sheerly political power, and men who, historically have cut most of the big political deals.     

The idea, rather, is that polygyny has tended to disappear in response to egalitarian values—not values of equality between the sexes, but of equality among men. And maybe “egalitarian values” is too polite a way of putting it. As political power became distributed more evenly, the hoarding of women by upper-class men simply became untenable. Few things are more anxiety-producing for an elite governing class than gobs of sex starved and childless men with at least a modicum of political power.  

This thesis only remains a thesis. But reality at least loosely fits it. Laura Betzig has shown that in preindustrial societies, extreme polygyny often goes hand in hand with extreme political hierarchy, and it reaches its zenith under the most despotic regimes. (examples excluded) It stands to reason that as political power became more widely disbursed, so did wives. And the ultimate widths are one-man-one-vote and one-man-one wife. Both characterize most of today’s industrial nations.

This Darwinian analysis of marriage complicates the choice between monogamy and polygyny. For it shows that the choice isn’t between equality and inequality. The choice is between equality among men and equality among women. A tough call.       

There are several conceivable reasons to vote for equality among men (that is monogamy). One is to dodge the wrath of the various feminists who will not be convinced that polygyny liberates downtrodden women. Another is that monogamy is the only system that, theoretically at least, can provide a mate for just about everyone. But the most powerful reason is that leaving lots of men without wives and children is not just inegalitarian; it’s dangerous.     

The ultimate source of the danger is sexual selection among males. In all cultures, men wreak more violence, including murder, than women. (Indeed, across the animal kingdom, males are the more belligerent sex, except in those species, such as phalaropes, where male parental investment is so high females can reproduce more often than males.) Even when the violence isn’t against a sexual rival, it often boils down to sexual competition.

Fortunately, male violence can be dampened by circumstance. And one circumstance is a mate. We would expect womanless men to compete with a special ferocity, and they do. An unmarried man between twenty-four and thirty-five years of age is about three times more likely to murder another male as is a married man of the same age. Some of this difference no doubt reflects the kinds of men that do and don’t get married to begin with, but “the pacifying effect of marriage” element cannot be viably denied as at least a significant component of the equation. Unmarried men are also more likely to commit the other crimes of robbery, rape, and drug/alcohol abuse.

This is perhaps the best argument for monogamous marriage, with its egalitarian effects on men: inequality among males is more socially destructive —in ways that harm women and men—than inequality among women. A polygynous nation, in which large numbers of low-income men remain mateless, is not the kind of country many of us would want to live in.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of country we already live in. The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny.     



The Moral Animal – Why we are the way we are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

R. Wright            1994                      

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