Jul 032011

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 visibilityDorothy 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.

  28 Responses to “You don’t screw enough, Part 2”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with monogamy being the wrong thing to do, but I’m not sure your pessimistic conclusion is the right one; internet meet-ups, I think, are really starting to reverse the trend. Casual sex is getting ever more popular, and more and more people – of both sexes – are using it to quickly fulfill their desires. The social norms, I think, are changing slowly but surely too, so eventually the misery, as you say, may actually be put to an end for good (for once in human history). I’ve recently seen a website advertised in a newspaper myself, that said it was an ‘ugly dating website’ – imagine it, instead of chasing the unattainable adonises and aphrodites, these people are realising that status isn’t everything and are reversing the trend towards ‘all or nothing’-type sex.

    • I would certainly be glad if this were correct, though I wonder.

      (1) Is casual sex really becoming more popular? It’s hard to tell, at least for me. There does seem to be some pushback against it at the very least, what with all those creepy father-daughter virginity pledges, the phenomenon of slut-shaming and so forth.

      (2) Interpretations might vary, but an “ugly dating website” looks like evidence of a rather oppressive status hierarchy in sex to me.

  2. The problem with Internet dating is that the sex ratio is usually skewed 2:1 at least, male to female. Each female has an overblown and amplified sense of ego because of the amount of male attention they get. Also the quality on dating sites isn’t that great, it’s usually aging, used up females with less options, not young college girls. Even the college girls who are on such sites are typically attention whores or have reputations for being sluts.

    The problem with status is that it is truly a zero sum game. You can’t be high status without plenty of low status people. The race to get ahead of others is one that makes you a slave to others’ expectations. This comic comes to mind: http://www.viruscomix.com/page357.html

  3. Dali-

    it’s usually aging, used up females with less options, not young college girls

    Are you implying that any woman beyond college age is an “aging, used up [whatever that means] female”? Holy fucking shit.

    • I think he’s in college himself.

      I’m not attracted to people more than about two years older than myself. But yeah, it’s not nice to say people are “used up;” just say “postpartum.” <3

    • It’s the harsh truth, deal with it. Someone is overly insecure about not being able to compete with her younger peers.

      • I thought you said earlier than you had trouble getting laid?

        • More like zero motivation, if that counts.

          • I don’t bring it up to be mean. Everyone knows that youth is associated with physical beauty. But there’s a difference between asserting this obvious truth, and asserting that this is the only relevant fact at play.

            Gender differences in sex drive/motivation (especially for sex per se, as opposed to sex as a component of a more complicated social relationship) limit sexual opportunities for men much more than age, or even obesity, limit sexual opportunities for women.

            There’s a difference between keeping it real and keeping it empirical.

      • I guess I am old enough to remember the time when antinatalist blog comment sections were filled exclusively by insightful thought-provoking postings from commenters who actually valued other people as independent sentient life forms who did not deserve the suffering inherent in life. Now, with all the recent publicity antinatalism has received and the advent of AN Youtube videos, there has been a lot more AN activity on the internets, which is terrific. But, of course, there is a price for everything; in this case, having to encounter the inept and rebarbative ejaculations of individuals (such as yourself) who are unable to identify half the human population as anything but cum dumpsters to be “used up” as opposed to human beings with interests and goals other than competing with other women. And competing for what, exactly? Attention from misogynistic pricks? I must have missed the memo on this one because it’s not something I’ve ever been interested in doing.

        You should take some advice from my wise aging 25-year-old ass and start entertaining the idea that your idiosyncratic preferences may not be the universal standard of what one finds attractive in a mate. And this one is going to come as a real shocker: your empirically unsupported beliefs about reality and your ability to diagnose other people’s motivations don’t exactly constitute “the harsh truth”.

        • Since this comment is about Sister Y’s expressed view I shall leave it to her to respond to the substance if she chooses to do so. I do think, however, that the tone of this comment is often strikes me as unfortunate. I expect for there to be civility in the comments section. Kindly take note and proceed accordingly.

        • …”who actually valued other people as independent sentient life forms who did not deserve the suffering inherent in life.”

          You forget that there is also misanthropic antinatalism, the belief that people should not reproduce, not to avoid suffering, but because people suck.

          • Aside from being immature, that seems contradictory. If you acknowledge that life is suffering, and you hate people as much as you claim, shouldn’t you be a misanthropic pronatalist?

          • I could do without the “immature” but I think this is otherwise an excellent question.

          • It is also based on the denial of happiness.

  4. There’s a certain ethic that comes from the men’s rights movement, that encourages people to speak freely – and harshly – about female beauty and lack thereof. It is in opposition to the feminist move of fighting “fat hate” and “ageism” and such things, which often takes the form of asserting obvious counterfactuals, like asserting aesthetic beauty in obese, old, or postpartum women when such objective aesthetic beauty is not present.

    There’s something about the feminist move that’s “nice,” and about the Roissy-esque thing that’s “mean.” However, there’s also something else going on: the “anti-fat-hate” or “anti-ageism” or shapeofamother.com’s “postpartum is beautiful” ethic also, to some degree, aims to hide the awful truth from people. It’s a dangerously optimistic move, in addition to being nice.

    No, it’s not always relevant to judge us based on aesthetic cues. In blog comments, it’s generally irrelevant. But I think we have a right to know how bad things are, in terms of others’ aesthetic evaluations of certain conditions. Specifically, I think it’s important for young women to know how severely pregnancy harms one’s looks. Ditto obesity and aging, although there’s less you can do about the latter. (I’m not sure if Dali realizes that the woman defending him is 33. <3)

    How can we achieve civility without sacrificing truth?

    • I am a little skeptical that it’s actually an ethic, as opposed to plain old inability to see women as anything but a resource.

      In any case, it’s not about “niceness” and “meanness” so much as accuracy (note that I’m the one getting rebuked for being uncivil here, despite my pro-“nice” position; BTW, I hope you realize that my earlier comment was in response to Dali, not you). I, for instance, do not find the vast majority of Asian men physically attractive. Nevertheless, I realize that my personal tastes do not represent some some sort of a universal truth since there are plenty of people who do find them attractive. Asserting that Asian men are unattractive as if it’s some sort of a cold harsh truth they should deal with would be idiotic on my part (with the exception of Satoshi Kanazawa, of course; he is objectively unattractive because I massaged my data set until it allowed me to arrive at that conclusion ;)).

      Now, I think it’s an obvious counterfactual that aesthetic beauty (which I still hesitate to call objective; I’m given to understand that there is such a thing as granny porn) is not present (at least, not to an acceptable extent) in 23-year old (post-college-age) women. And yet that’s what is being asserted above. Plenty of people are attracted to people older than themselves; at the same time, I’ve seen many people (men included) claim that after reaching a certain age, they are no longer attracted to the college-age population. Where is the basis for asserting that 23-year old women have less options on dating sites, anyway? I’m sure not seeing it.

      Sweeping generalizations are also being made, such as “Each female has an overblown and amplified sense of ego because of the amount of male attention they get”. First of all, how can he accurately assess what the appropriate ego size is for women he never even communicated with? Secondly, even if their sense of ego is somehow overblown, how does he know why that is?

      There are no conclusive data on the sex ratio on dating sites, either, and I somehow doubt that Dali’s claim about the 2:1 ratio stems from rigorous peer-reviewed research. This Wikipedia article mentions something about eHarmony being 58% female, but there is no citation.

      So as far as I can tell, Dali has not made a single accurate or empirically grounded statement in this thread, so I’m not sure what there is there to defend.

      • It’s not Dali’s comment in particular that I find interesting – it’s just exemplary of something broader. Actually my comment above is the first time I’ve been able to articulate something I’ve been interested in for a long time, which is the relationship of civility and bullshit.

        One general principle that I’m already seeing from this exchange is that “truth” is a function not just of factual accuracy, but of contextual relevance. As I mentioned above, though I wholeheartedly agree that women get less attractive as they age, this does not explain the empirical fact that most 33-year-old women have zero trouble getting laid by 21-year-old guys, if they so desire.

        I would like nasty truths to be freely mentionable. “Fear no fact” is my personal motto. But perhaps this is only emotionally possible among those for whom the suffering of others is a genuine, major concern. My read is that this is a true statement for most of us in the AN community. But this is certainly not true for great swaths of the world, perhaps the majority of the world.

        There is also the problem with nasty truths being deployed for hostile purposes, rather than for truth-seeking purposes. That qualifies as bullshit in the Harry Frankfurt sense at least as much as falsities deployed for comfort.

        • Sister Y: “‘Fear no fact’ is my personal motto. But perhaps this is only emotionally possible among those for whom the suffering of others is a genuine, major concern.”

          More important than being genuinely concerned about the suffering of others, I think, is having come to grips with one’s own suffering. It may be that melancholic people and people in the AN community are more likely to be inefficient producers of utility (for themselves at least), or it may be that they’re simply more aware of the disutility in their lives than are cheerier people.

          People have a harder time accepting facts that make them confront their own suffering than they do accepting facts that make them confront others’. These sets of facts are not disjoint, however, so protecting oneself from facts that would increase one’s own suffering-salience will also make it harder to appreciate the suffering of others’.

          There’s also so much suffering in the world that being fully appreciative of it would be paralyzing and overwhelming for most people who truly have a genuine concern for the suffering of others. The fact that I for one am not doing more to alleviate suffering than I am makes me think either that I don’t have as genuine a concern as I’d like to think or that I am, at some level of consciousness, in denial.

          I think a fact that I’m aware of and yet fear is that I probably don’t care nearly as much as I think of myself as caring. And this is true for pretty much everyone else in the world. So I think the truth may actually be that having “fear no fact” as emotionally possible requires *not* caring about the suffering of others, or, rather, since we all don’t care much about the suffering of others, not being deluded about the strength and genuineness of one’s caring.

  5. It’s actually about Dali’s expressed view (which should be obvious from the text). I did click the reply button under his comment. Your reply box layout here is quite convoluted… so if I’m replying to someone who replied to me, what color should it be? Anyway, I find it interesting that you don’t see a problem with tone when your other commenter is unable to recognize women as anything other than masturbation aids and then attempts to personally attack anyone who might not share that view by attributing some sort of a shallow concern to them.

    • Sorry about this CM. Confusion about who you were replying to may have contributed also to my earlier perception of possible incivility.

      This is perhaps the most complex thread that hsa yet run Diabasis, and I can see your point about convolution. I shall try to find a way to fix it. This might require changing the wordpress theme or getting under the hood and tinkering with the code, things which I have some but not vast experience with, so any fix you see might not be immediate.

    • On further reflection I see your point. “It’s a harsh truth, deal with it” strikes me as normal argumentation. “Someone is being overly insecure…” etc. does look rather personal. My bad.

  6. I’m having a serious problem with the reply function. Sorry, all. #5 was supposed to be a reply to James’s re:my alleged incivility. Edit, please, James, if you can.

    • Kindly see my reply above. Also, I’ll try fixing this as soon as I have the chance (I am sort of on the fly at the moment).

  7. […] learned something today while reading a post at Diabasis with the wonderful name You Don’t Screw Enough, Part 2. Specifically, the post finally let me grok why we tend to put so much energy into the pursuit of a […]

  8. […] important one.  But there are good reasons to believe that standard-issue partnered sexuality isn’t going to work very well for many people, and indeed, might actually generate more suffering than […]

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