Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor and YouTube celebrity, received a hostile profile by the New York Times on Friday, from which the big takeaway was this section:
There has been a great deal of feminist commentary, much of it angry, on this section, to which some of the people I follow on Twitter responded with evidence on the robust relationship between polygyny and violence, among men and against women:
From both a cross cultural and historical perspective, it seems likely that monogamy reduces violence; as Ed West points out in Saxons versus Vikings, the population pressures in pagan Scandinavia were a significant driver of the Viking raids that beset medieval Europe, pressures intensified by polygamy; @NoamJStein expands on this point:
Earlier this month, Ross Douthat wrote a much-hated column entitled “The Redistribution of Sex.” In it, he argued that enforced monogamy was a desirable but unlikely resolution to current sexual unrest, and that given the unlikelihood of returning to conservative norms, the normalization of prostitution and substitution of various forms of enhanced masturbation (virtual reality pornography or sex robots, for example) for sex were the more likely result, in a society which takes sexual fulfillment as a highest good but is committed to resolving unhappiness solely through individual atomization and consumer choice. Douthat’s article, coming on the heels of a mass murder in Toronto committed by a self-described radicalized “incel” (involuntary celibate) and riffing off of economist Robin Hanson’s unpopular argument that sexual inequality does not receive commensurate sympathy or attention to economic inequality, produced equal anger to Peterson’s remarks. It was seen not only as normalizing the demands of violent and misogynist men but suggesting through its very headline that sexuality should be a matter of collective coercion instead of individual free choice.
While I’m sympathetic to Douthat and Peterson’s views (and possibly to Hanson’s, too, though that’s a bit like sympathy for a sex robot), enough to think the associations between certain kinds of monogamy and relative social equality, civil peace and social dynamism are no accident, I think both most feminists and many of their critics are analytically and empirically wrong when it comes to the “incel” phenomenon. In particular, there is a widespread misapprehension that large numbers of unmarried and unpartnered young men are an historical aberration within Western societies, when the opposite is likely the case- Western Europe was distinguished by its late marriage patterns for both men and women, and many or most of those men and women were likely celibate until marriage:
My own examination of recent General Social Survey data does not support the contention that the distribution of sex is becoming radically more unequal; for example, black and white young men have in fact largely converged in their number of heterosexual partners:
That was a mean; the median number of partners is much lower, but has barely changed for white and “Other” (Asian and Hispanic) men, while declining for black men.
(The Age Adjustment here simply weights each year of age equally, so as not to be confounded by shifts in the age distribution; you can think of it as the median number of partners by Age 25, roughly.)
The number of young men totally outside the mating market- with zero sexual partners since age 18, is also apparently down since 2000:
This figure may be somewhat misleading, since it appears that some men who responded “zero” are instead simply with the same partner since before they were eighteen. In any case, these young men who state that they have not had any sexual partners since age 18 are no more likely to report “poor mental health days” in the previous month, and more likely to describe themselves as “very happy,”
although men with zero sexual partners are also slightly more likely to say that they have been told they are depressed:
Looking at self-reported sexual frequency, the percentage of young men having sex once a month or more has not declined significantly, while the percentage having sex once a week or more has declined somewhat, most likely due to the decreasing percentage married or cohabiting with a romantic partner at a young age:
For men, but not for women, there is an increase in the percentage of men without any sexual contact in the last year, particularly among GSS respondents who do not identify as White or Black.
Aggregating all groups together and adding confidence intervals, it does appear that, for the first time in recent years, the percentage of young men without any sexual contact is significantly higher than the percentage of celibate women:
Contrary to the current media narrative, this group of celibate men is not particularly concentrated among conservative men. Instead they are somewhat more likely to be self-identified liberals than the mean of all men or than celibate women.
So obviously some young men feel cut out of the sexual ecology, and on some dimensions the measure who have reason to feel cut out may be increasing- but not evidently that fast. Lyman Stone (with a few nudges from me, here and there, cough cough) expanded on some of these analyses in a post for the Institute for Family Studies. On the other hand, if people have few other measures of connection and worth- and little expectation of sexual success or other sources of fulfillment in the future- they perhaps focus enormously on this one. The combination of no expectation of fulfilling sex or marriage in the future, with a culture in which sex is treated as the sole key to adulthood and value, with an envy of others’ real/imagined sex, with little male camaraderie or friendship, all seem likely to compound upon each other to intensify and make what is not in of itself a particularly historically anomalous level of celibacy in early male adulthood a cause for social unrest and despair, without giving us even any cool new orders of warrior monks or nerds in mech suits exploring the bottom of the sea.
To put it another way, any mass shift in mating system is going to be a kind of legitimacy crisis for the society as a whole. We focus on sex, because we have accepted sex as a human need, but the shifts in sexual frequency and increases in sexlessness are actually smaller than the decline in marriage, fertility, and commitment, which are perhaps the larger changes with more far-reaching effects.
You could say that happened for black Americans in the late 1960s with the sudden end of married childbearing and a near immediate social disintegration in black urban neighborhoods.
The “drug war” and mass incarceration came rapidly on the heels of a developing social crisis that must have been at least partially precipitated by a shift in mating system- black out of wedlock births went from under 20 percent of births to 70 percent of births in just a few decades.
And American Indians have gone through a different, but equally concerning social crisis in the last twenty years, an explosive increase in suicides, drug overdoses, and (already very high) alcoholism, also coming on the heels of a decade in which marriages among American Indians diminished extraordinarily rapidly.
In the same period, total fertility rates for American Indian women have dropped from the highest to by far the lowest among racial groups since the early 80s, and overall mortality for younger Indians (under 45) has increased by around 40% just since 2000:
The evidence for a similar social crisis taking place in this decade among lower-education American whites- both men and women- is also quite strong.
And again, this social crisis accompanies- and is perhaps precipitated by- the asymptotic retreat from marriage.
None of these examples is really about an end to “enforced” monogamy, in the sense that in each case (expansion of AFDC welfare programs, expanded casino income distribution, an expanded 2000s welfare state and reduced relative income of men) the likely causes were likely as much or more about shifts in economic forces as relaxation of cultural or religious norms.
Along these lines, the angry young men posting on incel forums aren’t necessarily the most a priori undesirable (Elliot Rodger, for example, was a good-looking, affluent kid) but rather those whose autistic narcissism and rage can’t allow them to detach their ego from their sense that the legitimacy of every aspect of the society is threatened as its mating system shifts. This is part of the reason why these men focus so intensely on the putative undesirability of modern women, rather than on their alleged inability to get a date. Jordan Peterson presents these angry young men as a reserve army of potential danger that must be managed, Robin Hanson talks about them as victims of inequality to be appeased by redistribution, but really no one has any idea how the society shifts- or how long it will take to stabilize- once it abandons one mating system without a clear sense of how it will take on another. This isn’t just about creating new winners and new losers. Nobody has any real idea how our society, built around monogamy, will shift once monogamy is abandoned, though violence and despair and self-destruction are all par for the course, not because of an army of outsiders looking at the lucky ones will begin throwing dynamite but because we are thrown into an almost immediate period of uncertainty, of confused alarms of struggle and flight.
We often conceive of the social movements of the last half century as unleashing erotic energies hitherto constrained and bound, but an alternative perspective is that they are increasingly anxious attempts to summon Eros back to the continent after his banishment by technological civilization, and no one knows what will live here after Eros leaves.