Friday, 1 June 2018

Against enforced monogamy

The issue of sexual violence has never gone away. The #metoo movement is just one more response to it, though so far one that’s been getting more notice than many. In the last, I don’t know, month or so, the media at large has at last started to notice the well-established connection between misogynistic violence and mass shootings, and the word “incel” – involuntarily celibate – has achieved a greater currency than it had before. I gather “incel” was first coined to describe the experience of being queer and unable to find someone of the gender you like who likes people of your gender, but it has now unfortunately been very firmly appropriated as a self-identifier for that subset of men who (a) aren’t getting sex and (b) believe they are owed sex. And this of course has led to suggestions that maybe mass shootings would be averted if more women would “take one for the team” and have sex with incels. Because, apparently, some people aren’t content with being horrible human beings in the privacy of their own homes.

I have seen it claimed, mind you, that incels aren’t real because it’s not actually hard to find someone to have sex with and these men must be just being needlessly picky (or obsessive) about their choice of partner. I can’t hold with this. For some people it may be easy to find people to have sex with, but there are many circumstances which make it difficult for others. One, as already noted, is being the only queer person in your offline circle. Various disabilities – physical and social – have similar effects. It’s not the not getting sex that makes incels horrible people, it’s the belief that they are owed it. Men who believe they’re owed sex are horrible people whether or not they’re getting it, which brings this digression nicely back to the point.

A couple of weeks ago a guy walked into Santa Fe High School in Texas and shot people, killing ten of them. Following an excellent suggestion that’s been passed around Twitter and Tumblr, I’m going to refer to the perpetrator as “Shooter #101” (this was the 101st mass shooting in the United States this year). The mother of one of the dead, Shana Fisher, has claimed that her daughter was repeatedly harassed by Shooter #101 for a date and ultimately turned him down publicly in front of the school, and that she was the first person he shot. Several articles on the incident have used this for a lede. Apparently it hasn’t been corroborated by witnesses – which is bad enough, but I’ve worked in journalism in a very small way, I can understand going ahead with the article on the assumption that the mother knew what she was talking about. What’s not forgivable is that this was how they framed this element of the case:

Spurned advances from [Shooter #101] provoked Texas shooting, says mother of girl killed (NZ Herald)Texas school shooter killed girl who turned down his advances and embarrassed him in class, mother says (LA Times)

And these are far from the worst. You see the narrative being put forward here? Men (overwhelmingly) do the shooting, but never fear, we can always find a way that it’s ultimately a woman’s fault. Women are put on earth to meet men’s needs, and men go astray when women fail to fulfill that function. Men’s sexual and romantic yearnings give them a proprietary right over women’s bodies, attention, and time. Most commentators would recoil from this position if it were stated openly; the danger of framing male violence as the headlines above do is precisely that this narrative sneaks under the radar as a tacit premise instead of being exposed to challenge as an explicit proposition. To men who do believe that women owe them sex, this subtextual confirmation helps that belief fit just that little bit more comfortably into their picture of the world. (If you’ve ever wondered why some stripes of liberalism place such a high value on freedom of speech, even abhorrent speech, this sort of thing is why; but that’s a topic I can’t treat adequately in an aside.)

So it’s not especially surprising that some people have been raising solutions involving women meeting men’s needs more than they currently do. That New York Times article proposing “redistribution of sex” was (I’m very nearly certain) intended to lampoon the concept of redistributing wealth; the outrage at its face-value proposal, while entirely just, played straight into its author’s hands. A cogent criticism would have been to point out the rather large differences between sex and wealth, such as that (a) your paycheque isn’t your body and (b) no-one ever starved to death for want of sex. But other suggestions have been made in all seriousness which are equally objectionable on the same grounds.

On the day of the Santa Fe shooting the New York Times ran another article about Jordan Peterson, who I’d barely heard of before this month, and his call for “enforced monogamy”. Peterson hastened, on his blog, to clarify: “enforced” only means enforced by social conventions, not a police state à la The Handmaid’s Tale, and also this is standard anthropological terminology and the New York Times interviewer is a fool for not knowing that. For the record, my degree (from way way back in the day when I was studying for myself instead of taking notes for other people) is in cultural anthropology, and I’d never heard of it.

In Peterson’s own words:

Men get frustrated when they are not competitive in the sexual marketplace (note: the fact that they do get frustrated does not mean that they should get frustrated. Pointing out the existence of something is not the same as justifying its existence). Frustrated men tend to become dangerous, particularly if they are young. The dangerousness of frustrated young men (even if that frustration stems from their own incompetence) has to be regulated socially. The manifold social conventions tilting most societies toward monogamy constitute such regulation.
That’s all.
No recommendation of police-state assignation of woman to man (or, for that matter, man to woman).
No arbitrary dealing out of damsels to incels.
Nothing scandalous (all innuendo and suggestive editing to the contrary).
Just the plain, bare, common-sense facts: socially-enforced monogamous conventions decrease male violence. In addition (and not trivially) they also help provide mothers with comparatively reliable male partners, and increase the probability that stable, father-intact homes will exist for children.

I’m going to lead by example here, and coin a less misleading term and refer to it as conventional monogamy. I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Peterson has got his basic facts right and conventional monogamy does indeed reduce male violence. It’s not implausible on the face of it. Certainly violent crime has fallen in many frontier situations when women start moving in and marrying the men. If so, the introduction of marital monogamy by Christianity and Roman Empire Judaism (a fusion of the Abrahamic precept that a man may have sex only with his wives and the Graeco-Roman law that a man may only have one wife) could be considered a major moral advance in civilization, on the order of the abolition of slavery. It does not follow that this is the last moral advance that could be made in this area, nor that monogamy per se is the critical element.

Certainly marriage has evolved since the West first became Christian. In the early Middle Ages, marriage was a property transaction plain and simple, to cement an alliance of purely economic interest between two patrilineal families, with women as the currency. Whatever its effects on violence, this system was no improvement as regards gender justice, and in Northern Europe it was indeed a major step backwards. From the Church’s point of view, marriage was a safety-valve so that people who already sinned in thought by desiring sex didn’t also sin in deed by having it with more than one person. Celibacy was better. (In a sinless world, according to St Augustine, people would have sex only when they rationally decided it was time to procreate, and there wouldn’t be all this distracting business of lust and orgasm and pleasure attached to it.)

Needless to say, people went on feeling lust and pleasure and also falling in love, usually not with their designated spouse, as people everywhere always have. In the twelfth century a new attitude arose, beginning in southern France and northern Italy, which celebrated erotic love as a high and noble feeling, one that could help you make good decisions that would increase your happiness (previously it had been held on a par, in that regard, with being drunk). At this point, however, love still had nothing to do with marriage; the ideal was a steamy adulterous affair between a knight and his lord’s lady. The most familiar surviving example of it as a literary trope is probably the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was indeed inserted around this time into the much older canon of Arthurian lore. The Church responded with the same kind of ineffectual spluttering it would later use to counter the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.

At the beginning of the modern period another change began: people started connecting marriage with love. This I think must be considered another moral advance, as it granted a greater degree of agency to women and allowed people to act on their desires, at least some of the time, without having to weave a web of deceit around them. The latter was one of the big points of contention between the Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers, who threw out the ideal of celibacy in favour of marital fidelity. Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is a milestone in the process; previous versions of the story had presented the moral “Don’t let your teenagers follow their hearts or they’ll kill themselves,” but Shakespeare made it “Do let your teenagers follow their hearts or they’ll kill themselves.”

But just because romantic monogamous marriage is an improvement over what went before doesn’t mean it’s the best we can possibly do. The romantic ideal creates problems in its own right. If being in love with someone means you’re supposed to marry them, what do you do if they don’t love you back? Nine centuries of love literature answer: keep wooing until you win them. Far from assuaging the violent anger of the incels, this is one of the roots of their toxic belief that women owe them sex.

Conventional monogamy, whether romanticized or not, has further problems. Not least, whatever side benefits it might bring in reduced male violence, it invariably fails at its stated purpose. Humans have sex in private and cannot directly scrutinize one another’s sex lives, and therefore no-one ever refrains from having sex they want to have for the sake of a social convention. Personal conviction, yes; social convention, never. What they do instead is deceive their families and friends and throw shrouds of secrecy over their connections, which is corrosive to social trust. Society counters with chaperoning and other forms of surveillance, which is also corrosive to social trust. Shame is a weapon and, like other weapons, should only be used when necessary to prevent worse harm.

Most people want sex, and most people understand that most people want sex, so when society forces them to pretend they don’t want sex, any protestation of not wanting sex is read as part of that pretence. The 1944 song Baby It’s Cold Outside remains contentious to this day: the female character keeps on saying “no, I have to go home, people will talk”, yet everything but her words indicates she would prefer to stay the night with the male character, which is what ends up happening. As an autistic person prone to misreading conversational subtext, I can sympathize with the argument that the convention of waiting until the wedding eliminates any ambiguity in your partner’s “yes”. But I think it fundamentally misguided in two respects. First, consent is only meaningful if it’s revocable; and second, it’s that very convention that creates the ambiguity in the first place.

When any penalty, even a “merely” social penalty, is applied to unapproved sexual connections, it always falls disproportionately upon women, for the simple reason that women about 99% of the time are the ones who are going to come down with an incriminating pregnancy (and incidentally, societies that strictly police sexual norms also strictly police gender norms and try and push that number up to 100%, but that’s outside of today’s topic). The other party can always choose to walk away and deny any involvement, and any penalty for non-monogamy creates an incentive for him to do so. Homophobia is a conspicuous exception to this rule, but of course homophobia specifically penalizes sex acts that are unlikely to cause pregnancy.

Finally, conventional monogamy frequently traps people together in a relationship that makes one or both of them miserable. One would hope this would happen less often if they loved each other to start with, but that’s not guaranteed to last, and more to the point “love” as in erotic attachment isn’t a safeguard against abuse. If not supplemented with a big dose of respect and empathy it becomes mere possessiveness.

So it’s well worth asking exactly what conventional monogamy does to damp down violence. Maybe we can jigger together a new system that keeps doing that, whatever it is, while smoothing out some of the flaws in the old system. Western countries largely abandoned conventional monogamy in the 1960s, apart from pockets of Christian subculture like the one I grew up in, and sure enough there followed a wave of violent crime. That sounds pretty indicative – until you learn that the wave went into reverse in the 1990s and has continued to trend downwards. Because I’ll tell you what didn’t happen in the 1990s; Western countries didn’t all pick up conventional monogamy again. Something else made the difference, and that already tells us that there is something else that can make that difference.

Why do men hurt people less in conventionally monogamous societies? Partly because they aren’t competing over women quite as much. A man in a monogamous society might still have affairs with dozens of women all over the show, of course, but he can’t claim exclusive sexual access to more than one of them and expect it to stick. His incontinence doesn’t condemn other men to a life of loneliness. Partly because a man in an exclusive relationship with a woman has to listen to what she says some of the time, and women are better than men. And partly because exercising self-control in one area of life makes you better at using it in another. So what we need is a social movement that encourages men to (a) exercise self-control, (b) listen to women, and (c) not treat them as trophies to fight over.

Is this a good time to mention the 2012 study that found that the single biggest factor for reducing violence against women was strong, autonomous feminist movements in their communities?

Why America has so many mass shootings these days is either a bit puzzling or thunderingly obvious, depending on which aspect of it you’re trying to explain. The obvious part is “Why America?” It’s the guns, guys. The puzzling part is “Why these days?” Individual homicides, like most forms of violence, have become less frequent; why aren’t mass shootings doing the same? Partly it must be the notoriety afforded by America’s sensationalistic news media, hence the call to refer to mass shooters by number instead of name. But looking at the demographics of mass shootings, why is it young white conservative men who seek that notoriety? Why do so many of them have a history of abusive behaviour towards women?

Unrequited love and sexual frustration are risk factors, but these by themselves don’t drive men to murderous behaviour. Men go on killing sprees, or become terrorist bombers, or perform other acts of mass violence, when they believe they have been wronged. You can’t believe you’re wronged unless you first believe you had a right to something. And that brings us full circle: mass shooters believe that women owe them sex. Conventional monogamy doesn’t counter that belief; feminism does. Which may (along with the guns) help explain the correlation with conservative beliefs. Young conservative men don’t listen to feminists.

So, Jordan Peterson, in the highly unlikely event that you’re reading this – if you’re serious about quelling male violence, now you have a better idea of what sort of politics you need to be promoting to accomplish that.

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