Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Progressive like a girdle

WWPD readers have heard this before, but it bears repeating: my beef with Dan Savage's "monogamish" is that it pretends we live in a gender-neutral world. It pretends that there isn't a history of men - powerful ones especially - getting to fool around, without corresponding freedom for women. It pretends that a relatively recent feminist intervention - that women are financially independent and socially able to exist without a husband, and thus prepared to leave (and perhaps find someone else!) if dude takes up with whomever - is what we'd been experiencing for all of human history. That it would be liberation - not reactionary regression - if men were allowed to do whatever, and women stuck by them because The Children.

If "monogamish" were about acknowledging that men and women both may have a wandering eye, if it were about asking men who want a little on the side to be prepared for their wives and girlfriends to do the same, and about acknowledging that the whole "men are visual creatures" line is sexist bunk, we might have other objections to it (such as: hetero couples' potential to make babies; all humans' potential to be jealous; the benefits of not having to worry quite so much about STDs), but it might plausibly be deemed a progressive concept. But instead, Savage goes the easy route, readily assuming that women simply aren't noticing men nearly so much as men are noticing women. It's just in men's nature to want sexual variety, whereas it's actually built into women's DNA to enjoy cleaning the kitchen and doing Pilates. While Savage advises men and women alike to consider staying with cheating partners, especially if the couple has kids, gender-neutrality isn't enough. This is, let's face it, about reverting to an era when men could get away with cheating. Which... it's an argument. But how about we don't pretend that it's a progressive let alone feminist one.

Why do I bring this up now? Because a story about a story about political wifedom brings up monogamish in relation to Anthony Wiener's wife standing by him. The young people are, it seems, down with this.

18 comments:

caryatis said...


“While Savage advises men and women alike to consider staying with cheating partners, especially if the couple has kids, gender-neutrality isn't enough. This is, let's face it, about reverting to an era when men could get away with cheating.”

But men are not the only ones who cheat or want to cheat. Savage has explicitly addressed the fact that some men will try to sleep around themselves while trying prevent their wives from doing so, and he has acknowledged that that’s unfair.

I don’t see why, if you have no essential objection to a “monogamish” relationship, you object to a person staying with an unfaithful partner without being unfaithful herself. If you think that it might be a rational decision for a woman to accept her partner’s infidelity in exchange for the chance to be unfaithful herself, why is it not reasonable to accept a partner’s infidelity in exchange for the other benefits of the relationship?

We might surmise that most people who accept a partner’s infidelity without being unfaithful themselves will be women. But the fact that women are more likely to make this tradeoff does not mean it can’t be a rational decision. We all tolerate various imperfections in our partners. Maybe A can’t stand infidelity but doesn’t mind baldness, while B hates baldness but doesn’t mind snoring, and C hates snoring but tolerates infidelity. Surely this is a matter of personal preference.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

As you may notice, I'm not weighing in on my personal feelings re: "monogamish," only on whether it is or is not progressive, as it purports to be. Nor am I saying whether women whose husbands cheat should leave - obviously there's only one correct answer: it depends. Or: not my business.

What I'm addressing is that Savage dismisses the "old" order, in which women whose husbands cheated could say, OK, I'm outta here, as puritanical and sad for children. And it may be sometimes both of those things, but it's necessary to understand what it was a reaction to. And it was a reaction to a situation in which men and women were probably roughly equally interested in "variety," but only men had the dare-I-say privilege of pursuing that interest without consequences. You seem to be making the same mistake as Savage if you're arguing that it just so happens for some essential reason that women are less interested in fooling around than men are.

Phoebe said...

Or, think of it like this: on an individual level, people make all kinds of choices, not as Feminists or anything else, but because those choices work for them. When discussing individuals, we have to allow that that's how it works. But blanket advice is something else. The blanket advice Savage provides is advice that, as long as it remains gender-neutral, simply asks for a return of what I believe was once referred to as "the patriarchy." Until Savage seriously addresses the structural inequalities that make men but not women feel entitled to some-on-the-side, he may use gender-neutral terms, he may give the same advice to both men and women, but he's effectively advocating for a return to an earlier era, and not suggesting any kind of meaningful third way.

caryatis said...

I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy. What you call the old order and the reflexive assumption that cheating ought to lead to the end of a relationship are both unreasonable. What Savage is going for is a third option, in which the rules apply to both genders equally and individuals get to decide for themselves how much value to place on sexual fidelity. A woman who objects to being cheated on can still leave. Savage is just asking her to weigh the costs and benefits of doing so.

“The structural inequalities that make men but not women feel entitled to some-on-the-side...”

Now you seem to be assuming that women don’t cheat. In fact, I believe both genders are equally likely to cheat. But that doesn’t really matter to my argument, which is that deciding whether to tolerate infidelity is a rational cost/benefit calculation that doesn’t necessarily lead to unequal outcomes..

I think the sort of relationship you have in mind is one in which the woman is economically dependent on the man, so that he has a disproportionate amount of bargaining power in the relationship, and, even though she would prefer monogamy, some combination of his sexual urges, his lack of concern for her feelings, and his bargaining power in the relationship means that he will be unfaithful. But, in this relationship, the essential problem is the power imbalance, not the cheating. If the power imbalance were gone, either he wouldn’t be cheating or she would be cheating or she’d be free to leave.

Phoebe said...

"What Savage is going for is a third option, in which the rules apply to both genders equally and individuals get to decide for themselves how much value to place on sexual fidelity."

That's the idealized way of looking at it. But really, Savage's message is that he's frankly not too concerned with the absence, on the ground, of gender equality in relationships. And no, not just in relationships in which the man makes more/the woman doesn't make anything, although the continued existence of that setup should matter here. The point is, we live in the world we live in, and if we tweak just one thing - monogamy - we have to expect that this is going to have some not-so-gender-neutral consequences. What Savage needs to say, if he wants this "monogamish" to be progressive, is that the burden is on men to be open to women's wanderings. As it stands, he's putting the burden on women, asking them to be forgiving of the "natural" male (and only male) desire for variety.

Phoebe said...

Or, in super-simple terms: Do you believe that we-as-a-society are, as it stands, not as it should be... do you believe that we are as accepting of female infidelity as of male? That women feel as entitled to pursue what they desire (illicit or otherwise) as men do? Do you think there's anything resembling an equal playing field in this area? If you acknowledge - as one must - that there is not, then you see how a gender-neutral application of "monogamish" effectively amounts to a return to an earlier era, just dressed up in progressive-sounding language.

caryatis said...

But he HAS said that if men want to cheat, they need to tolerate women cheating. He's said that repeatedly. He does think that men are more likely to cheat, but, you know, the goal here is to have a satisfying relationship, even if that results in one partner having more sex than the other.

Maybe you don’t find this third way “meaningful” because, since it’s dependent on individual preference, it’s pluralistic. Some people will end up unhappily tolerating a spouse’s infidelity because of a preexisting power imbalance, some will be happily monogamous, some will be happily nonmonogamous, and some will be mismatched and divorce. It’s not an ideal system, but I think it allows both as much gender equality and as many stable relationships as we can reasonably expect.

Phoebe said...

"But he HAS said that if men want to cheat, they need to tolerate women cheating."

Which is what I mean by saying his advice is gender-neutral. It is! Which is insufficient. It works when advising gay couples, what with them being, you know, both men or both women. But it doesn't acknowledge the structurally unequal playing-field-such-as-it-is that men vs. women have to work with here. It doesn't address that the second-wave-feminist wariness of standing by your man wasn't some kind of gratuitous puritanical nonsense, but was in fact a reaction to what actual male infidelity means in terms of power. As opposed to whatever goes on among residents of some entirely gender-equal utopia.

caryatis said...

Yes, there is a double standard. And I don’t know how to get rid of it, but I do know that going back to the Puritanical if-anyone-cheats-it’s-over system is not going to help. You’re saying that Savage’s system is gender-neutral in theory but not in practice because men have more social power, but isn’t the exact same thing true of the Puritanical system?

Phoebe said...

I'm not saying anything all that complicated. I'm saying that if Savage wants "monogamish" to be progressive, he needs to address and not brush aside the double-standard. He needs to stop assuming men are inherently more interested in variety, as if the fact that they've been permitted this by the double-standard tells us something essential. He needs, in other words, to do a better job of explaining how "monogamish" differs from the old arrangement, and of acknowledging the very legitimate feminist reasons the so-called puritanical turn took place.

caryatis said...

You’re comparing Savage to the ideal. He’s acknowledged the double standard exists, argued it should not exist, and done more than any other piece of writing in the past 20 years to further acceptance of and knowledge of female sexuality.

The disagreement over whether men are inherently more interested in variety is purely theoretical, and of course, you can’t prove they’re not. And I don’t think we need a comprehensive understanding of the social history of sexuality to decide how we should behave in relationships now. Remember it’s a weekly column focused on simple, actionable advice, largely directed at young people. And it’s great! Lots of women are more comfortable with their sexuality, lots of men are more respectful of female sexuality, because of him.

Phoebe said...

Savage hasn't meaningfully acknowledged the double-standard. And what he would need to say isn't that barring social constructions, male and female desire would be identical. Simply that as it stands, the double-standard is social convention, so we really can't know.

And while Savage has done plenty of good (and is all kinds of entertaining), he isn't necessarily doing good with "monogamish." It isn't obviously a good thing for the default for couples not to be monogamy, for feminist reasons but others as well. And that's what he's moving towards. It once seemed that he advocated monogamish for well-established couples on solid ground after years of monogamy. Which seemed logistically challenging, but plausible. But he recently advised a woman who'd been dating a guy for two months, who wanted to be exclusive, that she shouldn't be so presumptuous as to assume this man went for monogamy. Is that how it's now supposed to go? One can no longer take 'wants to see other people' as rejection? That's not how life works. Of course one can. But maybe, if Savage is sufficiently influential, that won't be how it works.

And maybe there is something to be said for accepting that monogamy won't be default for all couples/individuals. There's certainly something to be said for a bit of honesty about how people are, i.e. that those who literally only ever desire one other person their entire lives are highly unusual if not slightly creepy (because what if that person isn't interested/loses interest?). But there's a case to be made for keeping monogamy the default, and that would get lost if monogamish actually did catch on.

Chris Petersen said...

"And what he would need to say isn't that barring social constructions, male and female desire would be identical. Simply that as it stands, the double-standard is social convention, so we really can't know."

I think this is spot on. From time to time we'll get a new survey whose results purportedly support the standard narrative of evolutionary psychology when it comes to "differences" between males and females concerning sex. But these researchers fail to appreciate the point you just made, namely, that separating out what is due to evolved (and so innate)behavior or to social structuring is, short of having a TARDIS to visit our prehistoric ancestors, highly difficult if not impossible to determine.

Petey said...

"And what he would need to say isn't that barring social constructions, male and female desire would be identical. Simply that as it stands, the double-standard is social convention, so we really can't know."

I know this is an almost caricatured reduction of your main point here, but as a standalone, it's a good place to insert myself in opposition.

Humans are an amazingly plastic species, and we can order our gender affairs in lots of different ways. Males and females are pretty much built the same way, with one exception.

But that exception, sexuality, is massive. Males and females really are built amazingly differently in terms of sexuality.

We can discuss male vs female desire in detail. We can discuss male vs female "interest in variety" in detail. But one thing we can know is that they are different. They are experienced differently, because humans are fundamentally built differently across biological gender in terms of sexuality. There really is something important which is "essentialist" in play with sexuality across biological gender.

In short, when considering sexuality across biological gender, one should initially assume things are "different" in the absence of social constructs. It's generally a safe assumption that almost any aspect of male and female sexuality will not be "identical" in the absence of social constructs.

Now the crucial caveats:

- As an amazingly plastic species, we are always choosing to construct various societal arrangements to most comfortably fit around "essentialist" differences in sexuality across biological gender. Some of these arrangements are better than others. Lots of discussion can be had here.

- The precise nature of the "essentialist" differences is highly complicated and by no means settled, even if looking at biology and human evolution should make the basic concept apparent.

- Dan Savage is an abysmally bad advice columnist because he has some enormous blind spots regarding heterosexual women. I really can't emphasize this point strongly enough.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Even if you grant "different," the questions remain: how different, and different how? And you can't even look for essentials by seeing what's constant across different societies, given how radically new (and not yet universal) it is that women can almost entirely control their fertility. Much of the difference stems not from desire, but from fear of unintended pregnancy, and all the cultural things that spring up around that fear.

Britta said...

I am curious what you mean by sexuality. Certainly in terms of biological functions related to sexuality men and women are different (i.e. who gives birth), but, I think it's hard to say anything beyond that about behaviors, norms, or desires. Sexual dimorphism has shaped probably behavior too, and that is a universal bio. characteristic, maybe. I think it's so hard to think outside our own cultural values that it's almost impossible to notice when we're naturalizing something that's not. (One of the many many flaws with ev psych is all their experiments are done on American college students, which really can't tell us about anything except for the mores of American 18-22 year olds.)

One glaring issue that I see is that 'monogomy' as a social value isn't very old at all. We seem (paging Foucault!) to assume that from, say, about 50 years and back our ancestors were uptight puritans, and, say, widespread infidelity is a relatively new thing, instead of pretty par for the course in most of western society. (In so far as I know anything about sexual behavior of actual Puritans, not tolerating male infidelity would separate them out from 17th century England. I do know about 1/3 of colonial era New England brides were pregnant at the time of their wedding, which indicates that at least to some extent our image of their uptightness is overblown.) To the extent infidelity was not tolerated in the 50s (Mad Men paints a different picture, one that doesn't seem historically inaccurate), the 1950s was noticeably more conservative than both the 40s and the 60s, so when people cite data from the 50s to show how society has changed, it's not necessarily indicating a trend in one direction. (E.g., age of 1st marriage in the 50s was several years lower for men and women than it was in the 1900s-1940s, which was lower than in the 1850s. I might be a little off since I'm not going to re-look up the statistic, but average age of first marriage in NW Europe from 1500-1800 was around 27 for women and 29 for men. In that sense, the 50s were an anomaly, and the current age is the norm. But, I digress.) The idea that we've invented or thought of new sexual arrangements seems to be common to every generation, and is never true.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

You're absolutely right to point out (as so many do forget!) that 1950s America =/= all of human history. But what would be, if not entirely unprecedented, largely so, would be a tolerance of extramarital this-and-that on the part of women. It doesn't tell us much in this regard that in earlier eras, pregnancy preceded a wedding, if there ever would be one. (It does help demolish the 1950s fantasy more broadly, though.)

Was there ever a time when men didn't care if the kids they were raising were their own? In principle, with effective contraception and legal abortion, these concerns could be lessened, but they wouldn't be eliminated, certainly not if "monogamish" overlaps with the years a couple is actively trying to conceive.

Petey said...

"I am curious what you mean by sexuality. Certainly in terms of biological functions related to sexuality men and women are different (i.e. who gives birth)..."

The whole kit and kaboodle.

Differing physical anatomy, differing sexual lifecycles, differing roles in reproduction, differing ways of attracting mates, and we can go on and on and on. It's a deep topic.

"...but, I think it's hard to say anything beyond that about behaviors, norms, or desires."

I heartily agree that it's difficult. But difficult or not, I think it's incredibly important to have at least some understanding of the various essentialisms in order to sanely understand how various social constructs around sexuality have popped up in the past, exist in the present, and might be constructed in the future.

"One of the many many flaws with ev psych is all their experiments are done on American college students, which really can't tell us about anything except for the mores of American 18-22 year olds."

No doubt. It's a single snapshot of an amazingly plastic species.

My recommendation is to go way back. Look at chimp and bonobo sexuality, then look at the various extinct human forms that ran around for a few million years and see how much they'd changed from chimps and bonobos in terms of sexuality, and then look at the (relatively short) pre-history and history of our particular species, which, crucially, is the first one to be plastic enough to be able to form social constructs.

My favored intro is Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. (The focus of the book makes it no accident that he copied part of its material to write the shorter Why Is Sex Fun?.)