Sunday, August 01, 2010

Was free love really so free?

Have you ever heard of the Oneida Community? It was founded in the 1840s by the American John Humphrey Noyes.

Noyes started out as a theologian. He recognised that the Bible was strong on marriage, but thought that believers were called upon to live in a "resurrection state", i.e. to live posthumously, as if in the afterlife. And in the afterlife there were no laws regarding marriage or divorce. Instead, there was openness and service to all, equally.

Noyes therefore held that believers should reject monogamous marriage and replace it with pantogamy, in which there would be no "selfish possession" when it came to sexual relations. As the Oneida Handbook put it,

In the resurrection, marriage was to be superseded by universal unity ... We have thus far carefully traced the doctrine of Christ and Paul on the subject of marriage ... We have found them not in favor of divorce, and not polygamists, but pressing toward the cessation of marriage itself ...

pantogamy ... recognizes the continued existence of the sexual relation, but excludes ownership, and replaces human beings where they were as children - in friendship and freedom, without selfish possession.

... in that posthumous state which we are taught to pray for and expect on earth, the relation of the sexes will be that described in Christ's prayer - "that they may all be one, even as I and my Father are one" - which we call pantogamy.

It seems that if you were an American radical in the 1830s you still had to find justification for your views in the Bible. But this wasn't Noyes's only source of authority. He mixed the Bible with scientism - his aim was to achieve "scientific" forms of social organisation (rather than "sentimental" ones).

And he often sounded something like a radical left-liberal, believing in feminism, freedom, equality and progress to human perfection.

It was Noyes who coined the term "free love" to denote the abolition of marriage and its replacement by non-possessive, multiple sexual relationships. He founded a community of several hundred people on this basis that lasted for 30 years. So how did it work out in practice?

The commune

The commune had a conception of itself as being "free, open and democratic," as "enlightened," and as practising "sexual freedom".

It also saw itself as feminist, with women there pioneering the wearing of pants and working alongside the men:

Always concerned for the plight of women in modern society, under Noyes' belief in the equality of the sexes, the group went in for communal cooking and housekeeping as well as group farming, the men and women sharing in all the work.

But the "free love" practised at Oneida was in reality not so free and not so loving. The community was highly regulated, with "a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections" for just 300 people.

One of these committees, headed by Noyes himself, decided who would be allowed to embark on a sexual relationship. There was a principle of Ascending Fellowship, which meant that older members of the community were paired up with younger members. This meant that Noyes and a few of the other older men were paired up with very young girls (twelve or thirteen years old). Noyes at times used his power to determine relationships to maintain control over the community.

So relationships weren't really so free. And there were limitations on love as well. Couples weren't supposed to get too attached to each other, as this was thought to be too exclusive and detrimental to a commitment to the community. It was condemned as "idolatrous worship".

Nor was there much opportunity for maternal or paternal love. In the early years of the community, Noyes sought to prevent children being born. Men were supposed to practise "continence" as a form of birth control (i.e. withdrawal). Later on, Noyes became interested in the science of eugenics. He set up another committee, with himself at the head, to decide on applications from those wishing to conceive.

The children born from this system of stirpiculture were allowed to stay with their mothers, for breastfeeding purposes, for 15 months. Afterwards, they were removed to be raised communally by those considered expert at the job. The children were rotated at night between different members of the community according to a principle of "non-attachment".

So there was sex and work but a repression of marital love and maternal love. In this, the Oneida communists (a term they used themselves) were strikingly similar to later radical moderns. I'm reminded of the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s who passed a resolution stating that for those comrades suffering from "the sickness of love ... a change of commune will be recommended". Alexandra Kollontai, the Russian Bolshevik of the 1920s, wrote similarly that love was,

an expenditure of precious time and energy ... utterly worthless ... We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labour power.

It is certainly true that we ... were able to understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its center...

For those who wish to control or manage people according to a perfectionist ideology, love and marriage will often be looked on as a threat - as binding people to each other and creating independent sources of loyalty and commitment.

It's interesting too that Noyes promoted mediocrity as best suited to life in an egalitarian commune:

We must all be mediocre and avoid abnormal or excessive development in the individual, since forms of excellence are at the expense of other individuals who are less endowed.

How did it end?

Two factors led to the demise of the Oneida community. First, there were younger men who did not accept that the older men should have the rights over the younger women. So an oppositional faction to Noyes emerged.

Second, when the women were finally allowed to have children, they then started to want to marry for the purposes of security. There is possibly an insight into the nature of women here. When women are young and childless they are possibly more accepting of acting from sexual impulse alone. But when they have young children, the instinct for the security provided by a husband is at its strongest. Women at this point in their life can develop the qualities associated with the "loving wife and mother".

Perhaps that's one reason I'm troubled by the advent in Australia of paid maternity schemes. At just the time that a woman might look to her husband for security and develop the qualities in herself that are likely to ground a lifelong marriage, the government steps in to provide security instead.

Anyway, an ageing Noyes did finally concede and allowed the women to marry. By the 1880s, the Oneida experiment went into decline.

There are many conclusions to be drawn from the Oneida Community. But perhaps one of the most significant is that attacking traditional marriage is unlikely to lead to a "sexual utopia" in which people freely and equally exchange partners.

At Oneida, in spite of the idealism and the rhetoric about free love, once the traditional restraints were gone the older men used their power in the community to win sexual access for themselves to very young women (to girls). They were in effect reverting to the customs of more primitive societies: they were enacting a civilisational regress rather than a progress.

Whatever its faults, traditional marriage is more egalitarian than the alternatives (allowing everyone a strong chance to partner, to have a sexual relationship and to bear children); it avoids generational conflict (in which fathers and sons are set against each other in competition for women); it is pro-natalist (as the emphasis is not on keeping all women available for sexual purposes); it provides protection for women from more primitive customs of pairing girls with much older men; and it also forms an independent unit of society that helps to prevent total power over individuals by those governing society.

29 comments:

  1. I had vaguely heard, years ago, of the Oneida Community; but until I read this posting I was unaware that it was, in practice, nothing more than a trial run for 21st-century Australia, lacking only the institutionalised worship of football for the prefiguration to be complete.

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  2. Rob, put so drily you made me laugh, but you are right, of course, that there are some disconcerting parallels between the Oneida Community and our own.

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  3. Best article you have ever written Mark. More in this style will be greatly appreciated.

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  4. "At just the time that a woman might look to her husband for security...the government steps in to provide security instead."

    Nailed it in one.

    No mocking of football, its the last male bastion!

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  5. I heartily concur with the judgment of James, an enormously interesting and instructive piece.

    Its first virtue, particularly for the work of conservative proselytism, is doubtlessly the tenor - mild and fluent, scholarly and methodical, yet forgoing that acidic sarcasm and thundering vehemence which creates the best pulpit eloquence but offends the more rational and disinterested spectator.

    Still, as much as sober people are disgusted by the dangerous, romantic chimeras dreamt up by self-styled prophets, clothe these same prophets in an academic's cap and replace their religious expressions with fairy terms like "fairness", or "gender equality", and instantly half the populace is drawn under their hypnotic sway. Worse still, men of good sense can't summon the fierceness to debate and resist measures which experience and conviction warn them are atrocious.

    And let's be frank here, ordinary political venality is not the only motive for this. It's what is moving Abbott, and Gillard (probably), but the intellectual authors (I tarnish two noble words) of this scheme are extremists acting from ill-will against Christian European bourgeois society. They have some visions of a bare-breasted, Phrygian cap republican coquetry which 'parental leave' promotes.

    Oh, and as the Roos lost, I agree, Down with uncultured, all-levelling football!

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  6. Hesper said,

    "Worse still, men of good sense can't summon the fierceness to debate and resist measures which experience and conviction warn them are atrocious."

    This is the issue of our time. As the left have largely moved by flanking maneuvers guys are often left in a dubious position to argue from. Here's some of the things they think or hear before countering.

    1. Why complain? You're the patriarchy after all so you're in charge. Your status is confirmed the more you're criticised.

    2. Hey stop worrying about "the nation" so much, chill out and look to your own interests first. Perhaps you should look into retirement? After all why work so hard when you can go and live on a beach somewhere.

    3. Can't stop the tides champ. "Change" is inevitable so don't be a sore loser.

    4. Is that a vein throbbing in your head? Perhaps you need some anger management psycho.

    5. Well you've had it good for so long I guess it's your turn to lose for a while. You won't mind that surely?

    6. You wouldn't hit a lady would you? Don't you get into the habit of disagreeing with me too much that's not how we do things.

    7. Guys are silly, stupid, but we still love them! Don't we girls :).

    8. Civilisation smivilisation. Who needs that anyway.

    9. I agree with the girls. Men are all wrong except for me, the exception that proves the rule. *Cough* sellout.

    I'm sure there are more. Before the arguments can be heard men have to be confident that they can raise them without getting their head shot off, be right a lot, or else thoroughly don't give a shit if they're criticised.

    So I was out doing my bit on the election front today, getting the venal Tony Abbott elected, and I noticed frequently that it was guys, rather than women, who got more steamed up over the politics. You shut men up and make them worker bees for too long and they crack the shits.

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  7. Definitely one of your best articles, Mark. I was aware of many high-coloured sects in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, one of those was Young Brigham's Church of the Latter Day's Saints (Mormonism), but you reminded me of Noyes who I had long forgotten. It is an eloquent defence of marriage as a Christian institution that is absolutely necessary for the continuation of order and civilisation, as well as provides effective checks against state control. Keep up the good work!

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  8. Any system of “free love” will always feature women gravitating towards the top of the male totem pole – the men who have social status and social power, in that particular social context. In Oneida it needed to be “enforced” because it was a counter-cultural experiment. Today, it is the mass culture, and so it is self-enforcing.

    It’s a durable trend, I think. Why? Due to female hypergamy. Women, whether promiscuous or not, whether looking for casual sex or a husband, are fundamentally hypergamous. This is not new. What is new, however, is that the system of expected lifetime monogamy has been weakened dramatically (some would say it’s been replaced by a system of serial monogamy, due to the “divorce culture” we live in). Any weakening of norms of lifetime monogamy feeds into hypergamy, because it frees women to seek higher value mates.

    Robert Wright points this out well in his book “The Moral Animal”, where he describes our current sociosexual system as “de facto polygyny”. It isn’t “hard polygyny”, because women have resources independent of men (either self-generated or handed out by the state), and so they are not becoming a part of a group of wives for super-wealthy men who can support multiple wives. However, a system of serial monogamy is also a de facto polygynous system, because it permits women to re-seek new, higher quality mates over the course of a lifetime, as well as foregoing seeking out mating with their peer value males. Wright notes that, even when he was writing that book in the early 90s, the rate of male relationship formation and procreation was falling. I suspect that trend has and will continue as we move forward, because in a system of de facto polygyny, women tend to float up the totem pole and more men get lat out of the market entirely. This is, of course, exacerbated by other factors such as male underperformance, the economic “independence” of women and so on, that have come about largely through various state policies designed to force equal outcomes, some of which have had negative impacts on boys and men.

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  9. But more fundamentally, unless the monogamy “lid” is placed back on sexual mores, we can’t expect much other than continued hypergamy in the years ahead. It’s not the fault of women for this, really. Women are hypergamous by nature – as Roger Devlin so well puts it, they are attracted to the best they can get. In a world which doesn’t restrict this by socially forcing people to pair off fairly early in life and in a stable way, this hypergamous nature of course leads to what we see today. Yet trying to put the “lid” back on will be very difficult to do. The reason for that is that the norm of monogamous lifetime marriage really is a male egalitarian norm that comes at the expense of female hypergamy – it directly represses female hypergamy by forcing most females to mate within a fairly narrow band with people of peer value. This is why the relaxation of marital monogamy through the relaxation of the divorce laws, and the sexual revolution in general, was in a very real way a liberation for women – it liberated women to pursue hypergamy, something which had been repressed for millennia really.

    People object to this analysis based on the fact that women generally eventually do seek to settle down with stable husbands. But in today’s climate, apart from relatively small groups of religiously conservative women, that time comes after the peak period of hypergamy, during the peak of her own attractiveness. When she has the highest value, she generally indulges her hypergamy, while she can, to see what she can get. If that doesn’t work – and it typically doesn’t, because the targets of this hypergamy typically have many female options and are not interested in committing to any one of them – as her value falls and her ability to practically deploy her sexuality to indulge her hypergamy is waning, she moves to Plan B. This does not mean that she is not hypergamous, however, is means that she has reached a point where pragmatism is in order. (In some cases, at least. There are always the Lori Gotttliebs of the world who, despite being 5 foot 4 refused to settle for any man shorter than 6 foot, and opted instead to become a single mother – hypergamy ran very strong in her, it seems.) And due to the divorce culture and the option to upgrade, hypergamy doesn’t end, really, when the “settling” marriage happens in the early to mid 30s. One can always jettison the Plan B husband, and with the full support of the state’s courts, obtain financial support from him for an extended period of time while pursuing a more hypergamously pleasing Plan C.

    All of this is made possible by relaxing the social and legal norms around sexual monogamy and sexuality outside marriage. The important point to realize is that women were indeed liberated by this – their hypergamous instinct has not been allowed this degree of free reign in millennia, and it’s quite likely, due to dimprohism, that it never has had this degree of free reign. It truly is a paradigm shift of the highest order, backed by very deep wiring inside women – which is why it will probably be a durable trend for some time to come. Of course, not all women are made happy by pursuing their hypergamous tendencies – but what makes one free does not always make one happy.

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  10. Second, when the women were finally allowed to have children, they then started to want to marry for the purposes of security.

    Didn't the Oneida Community provide that security? The handbook says that they did:

    "Free love with us does not mean freedom to love to-day and leave to-morrow; nor freedom to take a woman's person and keep our property to ourselves; nor freedom to freight a woman with our offspring and send her down stream without care or help; nor freedom to beget children and leave them to the street and the poor-house. Our Communities are families, as distinctly bounded and separated from promiscuous society as ordinary households. The tie that binds us together is as permanent and sacred, to say the least, as that of marriage, for it is our religion. We receive no members (except by deception or mistake), who do not give heart and hand to the family interest for life and forever. Community of property extends just as far as freedom of love. Every man's care and every dollar of the common property is pledged for the maintenance and protection of the women, and the education of the children of the Community. Bastardy, in any disastrous sense of the word, is simply impossible in such a social state. Whoever will take the trouble to follow our track from the beginning, will find no forsaken women or children by the way. In this respect we claim to be a little ahead of marriage and common civilization."

    Wiki says about Oneida:

    Postmenopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, providing both with legitimate partners that rarely resulted in pregnancies. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men.

    Oh my God, it was a Cougar Paradise!

    Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting.

    An early form of the Maoist Struggle Session!

    An account of the Oneida Community is found in Sarah Vowell's book, Assassination Vacation. It discusses the community in general and the membership of Charles Guiteau, for more than five years, in the community (Guiteau later assassinated President James A. Garfield). Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley, was also a member of Oneida for a brief time.

    And the place was a breeding ground for assassins!

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  11. The Oneida community will most likely be the community of the future.

    There are three things, though, that will need to be abolished for such a community to succeed: Abolish marriage, fatherhood and motherhood.

    With those three road blocks out of the way, we can all have sex galore!

    What a wonderful world this will be.

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  12. However, a system of serial monogamy is also a de facto polygynous system, because it permits women to re-seek new, higher quality mates over the course of a lifetime, as well as foregoing seeking out mating with their peer value males.

    Do women actually get new, higher quality mates over the course of a lifetime? For the most part a prole female who has had a series of husbands will have a series of prole husbands. The middle class woman will have a series of middle class husbands. If anything, the women don't trade up for better husbands, they get worse husbands, because the man who agrees to marry a cougar with a couple of sniveling brats in tow is a low-quality man - desperate and with no other options.

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  13. Why do reformists always descend into a matriarchal sexual free for all jaunt? Even the proto reformists the Hussites did the same thing.

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  14. "No mocking of football, its the last male bastion"

    Damn right, males need common cultural mores to bond with each other, particularly in an atomised modern society.

    Novaseeker:

    I would dispute that women move to higher quality males with each change, it would be truer to say that women constantly TRY to move higher up the totem pole. This is no surety that they can actually do so.

    In a monogamous relationship this is displayed in the impulse to "Improve" her man. To buy low and improve her investment so to speak.

    In a society with more fluid social arrangements it is often easier to simply trade up; particularly if there are a plethora of potential mates in close proximity [like an office].

    In a society where monogamy is valued the male impulse to "spread his seed" is constrained to one woman and the female instinct to "trade up" is channeled into nagging her man into getting ahead.

    That latter example I suspect is responsible for most of human progress.

    Men have invented the modern world driven at least in part by a drive to make themselves impressive to women. When that arrangement breaks down we see the degeneration of culture as it presents today.

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  15. James said,

    "When that arrangement breaks down we see the degeneration of culture as it presents today."

    Yes I think that's largely true and explains a lot of the bitterness.

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  16. Hey Marc and everyone,

    Mr. Shanky posted one of his rants on his blog this afternoon. In it he does to whole "America is a nation of Immigrants" bullshit.

    If any Americans or Even Ozzies want to comment on his post (like say America was Anglo-Saxon British or that "Nation of Immigrants" b.s. is being used in Australia and even Britain of all places)

    www.shankystechblog.blogspot.com

    I figure it's time we start getting our own into the fold.

    I already posted but for those of you against legal immigration as well it's time we start making our voices heard!!!

    Please post!

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  17. Novaseeker: Please define dimprohism. A google search turns up two journal articles about some phenomenon among animals without defining it.

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  18. Glad you cracked this one, Mark.

    In my college history class, the professor talked about the Oneida experiment too. The funny thing is, he basically agreed with your analysis, up until the last paragraph. According to him, the Oneidans were early radicals who, within the Christian context, advanced the egalitarian ideals of our founders.

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  19. Would it be right to say that 1) heterosexuality and 2) hierarchy stopped Oneida?

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  20. Would it be right to say that 1) heterosexuality and 2) hierarchy stopped Oneida?

    Good question. It's certainly true that certain kinds of hierarchy emerged at Oneida, including the practice of nepotism by Noyes. Noyes himself seems to have been charismatic enough to carry it off. But his son wasn't so able to provide the kind of leadership required to sustain an authority based on charismatic leadership.

    As for the role played by heterosexuality, the women do seem to have gone along with the system for a while and there were men attracted to the group who wanted to play the field. But ultimately the more mainstream drives of establishing an exclusive relationship, of marrying and establishing a family of one's own proved stronger.

    I think too that there was a contradiction in the philosophy of Noyes that you can see at work in the Oneida Community.

    On the one hand, he bought into the idea of a scientific, technocratic management of society. On the other hand, he wanted a free, egalitarian community.

    The first part led to an extraordinary level of micromanagement and intrusive regulation and control (applying to a committee if you wanted to have a child or a relationship) - which undermines the idea that you have really created any advance toward freedom in human relations.

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  21. Mark Richardson:
    On the one hand, he bought into the idea of a scientific, technocratic management of society. On the other hand, he wanted a free, egalitarian community.

    The first part led to an extraordinary level of micromanagement and intrusive regulation and control (applying to a committee if you wanted to have a child or a relationship) - which undermines the idea that you have really created any advance toward freedom in human relations.

    The micromanagement was necessary because, having disposed of the normative set of mainly implicit, cultural rules that govern families, Noyce had to replace them with something, otherwise his followers would revert. That "something" inevitably was explicit and legalistic.

    We can see the same pattern playing out in larger societies across the Anglosphere, and not just in family life, either. First, we see claims that the existing order is unfair, it produces inconsistencies and is unjust. But subverting and suppressing implicit, cultural rules seems to just about always produce results that don't meet the expectations of the "social engineers". Frustrated, they then have to come up with explicit, legalistic systems to re-regulate people into doing what they are "supposed to do". These legalistic systems are always more cumbersome than what they replaced, more inconsistent, shot through with injustices and wind up costing more in money, in time, and so forth than what they replaced.

    Looking down the road a bit, it is not at all unlikely that these "mandated fairness from above" systems will become so intricate, so complex, so Byzantine that they ultimately cannot function. At that point, any group with a clear, simple, easy to explain social order will likely be able to impose it. Unhappily, Islam is a leading candidate for a variety of reasons, one of them being it controls female hypergamy very well.

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  22. But subverting and suppressing implicit, cultural rules seems to just about always produce results that don't meet the expectations of the "social engineers". Frustrated, they then have to come up with explicit, legalistic systems to re-regulate people into doing what they are "supposed to do".

    Good point. There's a certain strand of feminist thought which this applies to. Women used to have control/influence over men informally through personal relationships and cultural expectations. But there are feminists who either reject such relationships or else think such forms of control/influence aren't explicit enough. They want to reimpose forms of control through the state, particularly through the legal system.

    The most radical proposals I've read about are feminists who want to put the onus of legal proof on men. Men would automatically be considered guilty of crimes like harassment or rape unless they could formally prove consent. Such laws would put enormous legal power over men into the hands of women, albeit at the cost of justice.

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  23. Oneida of the Burned-Over district in New York. Nothing good came out of there. Read this for a primer, especially the "Religion in the district" section. Feminism was strong there, all sorts of social radicalism.

    BTW, I own some Oneida flatware. The company was started by this very sect about which you write.

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  24. Novaseeker: Please define dimprohism. A google search turns up two journal articles about some phenomenon among animals without defining it.

    It means a difference in size and strength among the sexes. In primates, higher dimorphism is associated with keen competition among males (bigger win) for females. Humans seem to have become much less dimorophic about the time we became human (reference: "Before the Dawn" by Nicholas Wade), but still remain dimorphic. Women, for example, still prefer, across all cultures, men who are taller and stronger. When they are queried about this, they tend to get pissed, because it's a visceral thing that they do not like to, but will, admit under pressure.

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  25. Most excellent, Mark.

    Do women actually get new, higher quality mates over the course of a lifetime?"

    You are assuming that they are acting logically, and not instinctively. Women will generally identify some certain trait that they prefer in the New Man, and feel like they are trading up. Once they are stuck with the New Man and realize that's he's just a new version of the Old Man, they get frustrated and begin their search anew. Hence the fact that divorce rates increase substantially with each subsequent marriage.

    Women who eschew "trading up", and stick with the Old Man, do so because they have internalized the lesson that such trading is both pointless and destructive. Women are not oblivious to the superior qualities of the men around them. That one is handsomer than her husband, that one has a more commanding air, that one earns more money, etc. But some of us are smart enough to just shrug our shoulders and be content with the one we have chosen (or, as someone noted, try to improve him in order to "trade up" without "trading out"). Other women do not have that same level of self-control, or refuse to limit themselves in that way.

    Why do reformists always descend into a matriarchal sexual free for all jaunt?

    Because that is the natural state. Patriarchy and civilization are imposed upon that, so any change to the status quo in a civilization is bound to lead back to matriarchy.

    Unhappily, Islam is a leading candidate for a variety of reasons, one of them being it controls female hypergamy very well.

    Not really. It is very good about getting women to wear copious amounts of fabric, but that is not to say that hypergamy is under control. Christianity (specifically Catholicism), which expressly forbids divorce, abortion, and contraception (things Islam allows) is much better at it. The problem is the abandonment of these core Christian principles.

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  26. I wonder how Oneida would have turned out if it had been populated by these guys:

    http://community.livejournal.com/i_am_pansexual

    This is what I was getting at when I asked whether heterosexuality and hierarchy defeated Oneida.

    But your point, Mark, about the drive of monogamy cuts across all of that modern identity calculus. Do you think it's that--monogamy--more than anything else, that will always keep women (and thus, all of us) from becoming "pansexualists" or "pantogonists" or whatever?

    I hope so.

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