Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Women & relationships

Are women naturally monogamous? According to an article I have just read by F. Roger Devlin, it's more accurate to describe women as hypergamous - meaning that women wish to mate with the "top" male (the alpha male). The top male is the one who is the most handsome; who has the most resources; and who is socially dominant.

It's a thought provoking idea. It implies that women, if left to their own natures, would scorn average, decent men in order to hold out for a rare alpha male.

If this is true, then it's the average joe who will be dismissed as a "loser" and those few with the highest status and highest income who will fit the category of "real men".

This is not at all the message of recent Hollywood romantic films. There is a genre of Hollywood films (think Adam Sandler) in which a goofy, poor male meets a beautiful woman who is already attached to a wealthy, dominant male. Our underdog hero finally triumphs and wins the woman by being nicer, less arrogant and more faithful than his rival.

I watched a classic Hollywood film a few years ago which presented things very differently. The plot of "A Touch of Mink" (1962) is that the female lead (Doris Day) is a bachelorette working in a diner. She and her female friend scorn the average joes they associate with; the men are presented as uncouth and unglamorous. She then meets the male lead, played by Cary Grant. He is a wealthy businessman, a leader of a boardroom full of dignified, worthy men.

Grant is presented as the ideal alpha male. He is tall and handsome, wealthy, socially dominant (he addresses the UN) and popular with women (something of a playboy). The challenge for the Doris Day character is to get him to commit to her; no easy task, but she finally manages it.

If women do tend toward hypergamy, as presented in the 1962 film, it means that when women talk of "not settling" it really means that they are rejecting average men and holding out for a Cary Grant type alpha male - for the pack leader.

This can't work. It's not possible to build a civilisation in which women hold out for the pack leader, each woman expecting him to commit solely to her.

Men have long been expected to give up the promiscuous side of their sexuality and to commit to a woman in marriage. In a way, a woman deciding to "settle" is the equivalent of a man deciding to commit. It's what is needed for family formation and (generally) for the well-being of the individual.

So what does persuade a woman to settle? In the late teens and early twenties, it can be especially difficult to hold out. The need for romantic and sexual companionship is felt strongly. It's especially easy at this age to feel lonely without a partner.

Perhaps this helps to explain why women who do hold out emphasise so much the need for a circle of close female friends.

As you get older, and leave the angst-ridden teenage years behind, it's a little easier to cope with being single. Another speculation: this might be why women say they become not less choosy but more so as they advance in years. As they become habituated to being bachelorettes, they feel less intensely the temptation to "settle".

Another window of opportunity is when women start to become bored with their careers and/or when the biological clock makes itself heard (i.e. from the late twenties/early thirties).

Note that feminists are often reluctant to admit to the existence of a biological clock for women. As recently as 2002, the National Organization for Women in the US objected to an advertising campaign by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. NOW objected to posters with the simple message that "Advancing age decreases your ability to have children" and the ad campaign was cancelled.

I've encountered strong resistance from feminists myself when trying to make the same point about fertility risks. It makes me wonder if feminists recognise that women who are aware of the biological clock are most likely to settle, and therefore to begin to identify with the interests of their families, including their husbands and sons - to the detriment of the feminist movement.

Then there are women who will settle because they are more down to earth, or more insecure, or living in smaller communities with a smaller pool of eligible men.

Admittedly what I've written is a speculative and incomplete picture of what happens in relationships. There are plenty of women who do end up marrying the average, decent man. Even so, recognising the existence of hypergamy in women does help to explain the characteristic way that women approach relationships with men.


  1. "It implies that women, if left to their own natures, would scorn average, decent men in order to hold out for a rare alpha male."

    Aren't women left to their own natures in any event? That seems the whole point really: how women choose their mates, based on biological and sociological inputs. In spite of the fantasies of both men and women I think most of us know instinctively that like with like generally works best and that neither an "alpha male" nor a Hollywood starlet are suited to couple with a factory worker.

    More important than *how* females go about making these choices is the fact that they make the choice of mate selection in the first place. By and large, women enjoy (?) the powerful imperative of being able to select or reject a potential mate. For men this is a much reduced ability as we are the suitors and hence vulnerable to their faculty of choosing.

  2. I would say both men and women naturally try to find the most desirable partner they can, but I don't think it to be a big problem.

    That is because there is no absolute scale on which to rate a partner, and it would be very rare for one person to be more desirable in every area then another.

    Desirable qualities are valued differently by everybody, and even what is a desirable quality may be disagreed on.

    I have also noticed that once with a partner someone will tend to rate that partner's stronger qualities as more important.

    In addition, a very valuable quality(although not talked about much in modern times),i.e. being a "good wife" or "good husband", is open to anyone to achieve.

  3. ". It makes me wonder if feminists recognize that women who are aware of the biological clock are most likely to settle, and therefore to begin to identify with the interests of their families, including their husbands and sons - to the detriment of the feminist movement."

    Ding Ding Ding! You've hit the nail on the head. Feminists have, likely the good Marxists they are, have been at war with the traditional family from the get go.

    The family solidifies heirarchical structure, fierce loyalty to its members, some exclusion of outside interests (i.e. the state, the feminist movement), a need for women to place others above their own 'career' aspirations etc...

    Engels and Mills noted, as Millet did later, that in order to set up a strong communist state, the traditional family must go. Children would be better educated in collective nurseries by 'experts' and people could copulate like monkeys with no special attachments.

    So NOW, who has never had anything but the political interests of th radicals in mind, wants to control reproductive education. They push the myth that having babies isn't that important and can be put off because it increases their numbers. It is no surprise that the organization 100% committed to protecting baby-killing would want to discourage young women from setting up families.

    NOW was founded by Friedan who said that women who follow the housewife-mother pattern are "Not fully human."

  4. Leadph,

    I agree that in general like tend to go with like, and most people are realistic about partner choices (at least in the long run).

    However, some middle-class women are becoming excessively fussy about potential partners for a variety of reasons, some pretty superficial

    eg, some successful women stay single because they are neatness/hygene freaks or won't live with someone who eats meet, subsequently they are unable to find a man who fills all their exacting requirements.

    Another thing is that today's society seems to put a premium on extroversion at the expense of qualities like intelligence and integrity.

    Subsequently, the old-fashioned Gary Cooper type tends to be shunned in favour of the entertaining, extroverted Jack Black type.

    Look at all the criticism Mitt Rommey has received about his personal persona in the US primaries - even good looks and money won't help you if you are perceived by society as unfashionable and unable to deliver cocky banter.

  5. Good points by all of you. I must say this is one opf the few blogs where all the regular contributors in the comments section have something to say that's worth reading.

    I don't quite agree with the assertion that nearly all of us are realistic in terms of partner selection in the long term. I have known of a few women who have decided to remain single because their standards are too high. So what Mark describes as speculation is quite true in reality. In the end, they CHOOSE to be single, because they cannot get everything they want.

    In the longer term, I think that this may be all due to the fact that men and women are still relavtively new at having total control over who they choose. As such, many will make mistakes, because many of their parents do not have very good advice for them. Perhaps one day women will realise that only very few of them can get the guy who is intelligent, charming, kind, handsome AND wealthy.

    Well, that's ultimately just my speculation. :)