I maintain that even if we’re lucky in our social norms and evolved psychologies there will still be a lot of sexual misery. Why?
Consider these theses:
(1) Human beings are obsessed with status. Every known society has a system of differential status for its members, with those who have high status receiving admiration, respect, and deference and and those who rank lower having a pretty miserable time of it. So people work very hard to maintain and perhaps to advance their statuses.
(2) We ain’t getting rid of status. Sure, we can get rid of any given system of rankings, but people are really good at inventing new status systems. (This is a large part of the reason why the aftermaths of revolutions range from disappointing to disastrous.)
(3) Status is determined in large measure by who you successfully affiliate with. The old saying is that “it’s who you know, not what you know” that matters in the this world, and it’s largely right. It matters a great deal who your friends and allies are. Having more of them raises your status, but perhaps more importantly, having ones who are themselves high in status raises your status (and having ones who are low in status, lowers it). It’s not an accident that a large part of what we think of as social class isn’t just how much money you make but what clothes you wear, where you went to school, how you spend your leisure time, how you talk, and where you live. These are indicia of affiliation.
(4) Sex has a high degree of social visibility. Dorothy Parker once wrote
As I grow older and older
And totter toward the tomb,
I find that I care less and less
Who goes to bed with whom.
This little quatrain is striking because most of us care rather a lot about who goes to bed with whom, and we can usually form pretty shrewd judgments based on not overtly sexual behavior of other people (nudge nudge wink wink you know what I mean). For those who we (or our friends) can’t observe directly, there are always the tabloids and related media, which I understand to be doing a perpetually brisk business.
(5) Having sex with someone is about as successfully affiliated as you can get with then. Probably I don’t need to spell this out.
With an understanding of (1-5) in mind, it becomes pretty easy to see how sex is going to get enmeshed in all sorts of status gamesmanship. There are many possible games, of which I’ll suggest two while inviting you to think of your own. Before doing so, however, a caution. I am not interested in having an episode of Angry Gender Wars breaking out here at Diabasis, so let me be clear that neither of these proposed games is a “male” strategy or a “female” strategy. They are human strategies played in various ways by all genders and orientations (asexuals possibly excepted). That said, here they are.
Too Good for You. Obviously it generally will not do to be known to be having sex with someone of lower status, although there are some exceptions to this if you can some keep the sex socially invisible (e.g. through patronizing prostitutes). In a sexist society it appears to be the case that women suffer more stigma from having sex with the “wrong” partners (or with “too many” partners), but there’s some for men as well. (Try to say “he married that floozy” in tones that sound anything but disdainful). Conversely there are status benefits to having socially visible sex with someone of higher status: you’re a stud, or you’ve made a catch.
Now this gives people a fun incentive to reject sexual offers, playing the game of Too Good for You. If A rejects the overtures of the at least nominally attractive B, A is signaling that (1) A is confidant enough to suggest that A really is somehow better than B and (2) A might really be better than B, because A can (probably) get the sex A wants without having to get it from B. All the merrier of knowledge of the rejection travels in common social circles of A and B.
Naturally this game cuts into sex both directly (giving people an incentive to reject otherwise attractive offers).and indirectly, because people will often decline even to advance offers for fear of the humiliation (i.e. status lowering) of receiving rejection. Big-time awesome Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates once put it memorably (though you should mentally substitute your preferred gender-neutral terms of choice for “man” and “woman” in the passage):
No one likes rejection. No man walks into the bar and says “You know what will be awesome? If I strike out repeatedly tonight.” Very often, men…don’t approach the woman they’re most attracted to–they approach the woman who they think they have the best shot at.
And so people spend lots of resources trying to look more impressive so they don’t get Too Good for You played at them. But since everyone else is likewise spending resources, it’s a treadmill, or perhaps more accurately an arms race, during which all sorts of people spend time not having sex with each other and working too hard too boot to generate the resources consumed in the status competition that results in not having that much sex. Ugly. Very ugly.
But of course the ugliness doesn’t stop there. Human beings an ingenious in the ways of misery. Consider another possible game.
Monogamy for Thee. Having access to rare things is good for status, but ownership, the ability to exclude others, is even better. You get a lot more social mileage out of having Old Master in your study than just going to see one in a museum, owning beachfront property has far more cachet than just being able to go to the beach, and your securing admission to Princeton is made all the sweeter by knowing that for every applicant who got in, eleven are rejected.
There are many things that make people sexy. Some appear to be universal or nearly so — youth, health, wit, artistic and athletic ability and so on, while others are more local, having perhaps to do with the prevailing standards of beauty or talent particular to one’s culture. But all of these things are at least somewhat scarce, and their combination in a single person is scarcer still. Nature is grossly inegalitarian in how it distributes favors.
Now if people are actually fairly promiscuous, then how socially awesome must you be if you can somehow monopolize the sexual attentions of a very attractive person? Impose a sacrifice of sexual opportunities on them? (Or at the very least, push their sexual alternatives into socially invisible spaces — the tryst with the gardener, the dalliance with the call girl.) At the extreme end of human societies we have potentates (marvelous word!) constructing harems with enforced monogamy for many, but even our humble middle classes have their own version of this, grabbing what little status they can by imposing monogamy on each other.
And if you can’t make it work monogamously? If you think you have a monogamous relationship but are cheated on, or if you can’t establish any monogamous relationship? Then you’re an object of pity and contempt, and woe is you. But woe is you anyway, because given your promiscuous nature, monogamy really ain’t all that much fun for you.
Thus the games spin on, and so does the misery.