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Feministing Friday: Why Serial Monogamy is bad propaganda for women

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Feminsiting Friday is a series of posts dissecting hip-hop and pop culture for its sexist influences and/or portrayals on women and girls. Offering insight as an evolutionary biologist, I promise to be analytical, scathing, and downright snarky.  I began the series at my previous blog, SouthernPlayalisticEvolutionMusic on the Southern Fried Science Network.

I still have some things to get off of my chest.

 

In a previous post about EPC (Extra-pair copulations) stirred up some conversations about serial monogamy in real life. Serial monogamy is actually very common among people, especially in our modern society. It goes a little somethng like this:

Boy and girl meet. They flirt. The date and decide they like each other. They decide to be a couple. They break-up. Repeat.

Let’s say you want to marry someone who’s right for you and by a certain period of time in your life. Playing by the serial monogamy rules you would date one person at time, give each a relationship serious go – say a year, then break up for what ever reason, take the time to learn and heal, and do it again. Even if you meet someone who may seem to be a better fit, you either have to let them them pass or end your existing relationship to find out more information. If you were to play the field you could date as many individuals as you like, for as long as you like. Honesty is encouraged, of course. For either strategy, you still have to be mindful of other people’s feelings (and STDs). Dating is not a consequence-free endeavor.

The point I’m making is that in life there are no guarantees that you will meet the right person in a certain amount of time. Heck, there’s no guarantee you’ll meet the right person, ever, but there is hope. And in an effort to hedge the odds in your favor, why wouldn’t you date as many great people as possible? Yet, more often than not young women tend to date serially, and young men do not.  I’m a rather vocal objector to these dating and relationship customs.  And frankly, I find the social support of serial monogamy sexist.  Here are my reasons why.

1. It’s a way to moralize feminine sexual behavior. A woman who can boast no or few lovers is better regarded than a woman who can boast many lovers. Moreover, serial monogamy allows one to qualify the number of partners by attaching those lovers to a relationship. It’s a way to clarify her reputation. Simultaneously, boys and men are encouraged to play the field, sow their oats, and get as many notches on their belt as possible. Hip-hip idolizes male committmentphobia and villifies women for comparable behavior.

(NSFW)

NO where is this more enforced than the many ritual of Bachelor night. Grooms are publicly encouraged to have a last rut with the most provocative women they can be collectively procured by their buddies, many of whom are also married.

2. It’s a very successful way for a man to lock in a sexual partner. Entering a monogamous relationship is a sure way to secure a sexual partner is available to you. Particularly, if you are a manipulative man, or not very attractive, or even lazy, then getting booed up is your best bet to secure a woman.  But remember, there is nothing that prevents either from engaging in EPCs or extra-pair copulations, also called cheating. Hip hop culture routinely encourages this behavior with boys and men: advice to men for managing your wifey or mainchick, sidechick, and/or jumpoff. Socially, men are allowed to have their cake and eat it, too.

And I’ll own up t my own sexist prejudices on this.  Most of the men I have met who seem to be interested in getting into a relationship very quickly or settling down at a very young age just struck me as sub-par on some level. Okay, there are some good guys out there who are gentlemen and want to get married, have a family and ‘do it honest’.  But for those men who had no ‘moral clauses’ they just came off as lame or needy.

My thought is, if it’s good for the goose….

We can’t simultaneously teach boys and girls different lessons about dating and sex. We can’t continue to set different expectations for men and women sexually and then wonder why we can’t have healthy adult relationships with each other. The playing field should be leveled. Women should enjoy dating and flirting as much as men and not feel guilty about it or not be given a hard time if she hasn’t settled down ‘by a certain time’.

I mean if you really want to get married to the right person by a certain time, then it really is better to date many people at a time. Dating only one person at a time (for an extended period of time) prevents you from meeting the one in a timely manner. You look up and you’re 25. You’re complaining about running out of time and realize you’ve only dated a handful of people. It’s then that you see the reality and your dates become high-powered job interviews. Not a good look.

You want someone to put a ring on it, then my advice is to field many candidates.

Which brings me to my ultimate reason why I think serial monogamy does women a disservice.  It makes women into these pitiable creatures if we’re still unmarried by a certain age. I really, really hate it when someone asks why a beautiful woman, aged 35+, isn’t married. I hate it more when those same women whine about not being married. I’m so damn tired of these trite conversations about single professional black women or hear another cocktail party rehashing of Steve Harvey’s commentary about Smart Professional Black Women being single I’m gonna scream.

See even in the questions and media coverage, the conversation is focused on what’s wrong with women. Where is the outcry for unmarried black men? There isn’t any. That’s because the whole conversation is sexist.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. yannisguerra 10:26 am 03/2/2012

    Some comments and questions
    Do you find the problem is that the men are having the EPCs? or that women do not have the tacit social approval to have them? I agree with you that there is no particular reason for the EPCs to be morally problematic for women but not for men. But I didn’t get from your article if you advocate that the women should do what you find not correct in men(i don’t want to attribute opinions to you, it is what I understood from the article)? Or you do find it correct in men, but are not content that there is no equality for women in that regard?
    Reproductive/sexual strategies should not be moralized, unless they actively harm somebody. I do agree with your comment about STD, which is probably,besides unplanned pregnancies, the worst problem about EPCs. Following this then how would you respond to the argument that there is a (large) group of people that are not very responsible with their sexuality, and by equalizing up the EPC (man and woman have them in equality of frequency) you are increasing the chance of the bad outcomes to happen (compared to equalizing down the EPC, therefore man are also under the rigors that women have for EPCs). Some statistics for this are http://www.americanpregnancy.org/main/statistics.html (I do not know if there is any secondary goal for the people on this site, only used it for the statistics)

    Where I do disagree with you is that to meet the ONE you have to date a significant amount of people.
    The concept of the “one” is also very shaky, in my regards, meaning that you need somebody with a supernatural capacity to fill your life with “completeness”. Besides the fact that a person should have a partner for companionship, but not to fill up personality needs, the concept that there is somebody out there just for you reeks of supernaturalism and western bias. There are millions (probably billions) of people that have been assigned to their partners in a directed fashion throughout history, and I would be very interested in knowing if their relationships are better or worse than the ones made by our “looking for the ONE” strategy. Looking for the “ONE” discounts all the effort and compromise that you have to do to sustain a long term relationship.
    Much better framed (and way funnier) than anything that I can say about that is what Tim Minchin has said before http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn6gV2sdl38&feature=fvst

    Also outside of this argument, there is the issue with humans capacity to choose appropriately and avoid the paradox of choice. Looking through multiple partners may(and again, I say may, because I have not read research directly associated to partner choices, I am extrapolating from other psychology of choice research)leave you with more dissatisfaction than looking through a 3 or 4 of them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paradox_of_Choice:_Why_More_Is_Less, and http://www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles/choice.htm)

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  2. 2. kclancy 12:02 pm 03/2/2012

    Very thoughtfully done, Danielle. Thanks for writing this!

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  3. 3. DNLee 2:25 pm 03/2/2012

    Thanks, Kate!

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  4. 4. Heteromeles 8:01 pm 03/2/2012

    Hm. Maybe Big Pharma will come up with a oxytocin promoter that anyone looking for a monogamous relationship can slip in a shared drink…

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  5. 5. DonPaul 11:12 am 03/3/2012

    To summarize the complaint: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Or maybe in this case: “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?”

    Why indeed do those caddish male human animals and long-suffering female human animals behave in roughly gender-determined ways in all situations all over the globe? Why does it become a notable event when they don’t? Why does biology stubbornly refuse to bend to the latest theory of intergender political justice?

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  6. 6. llewelly 2:00 pm 03/3/2012

    DonPaul: “Why indeed do those caddish male human animals and long-suffering female human animals behave in roughly gender-determined ways in all situations all over the globe? Why does it become a notable event when they don’t? Why does biology stubbornly refuse to bend to the latest theory of intergender political justice?”

    By your logic, humans have been committing murder for millions of years, and do it in all cultures, so of course we should do nothing about it!

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  7. 7. DonPaul 9:13 pm 03/3/2012

    for llewelly, well you read quite a bit more into my comment than was actually there, but, your point is interesting. Yes, humans continue to behave sexually and they continue to murder. I’m really curious. What do you suggest we do? Do you have any NEW ideas or just the same old, same old? = “Tut Tut You really shouldn’t do that.”

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  8. 8. el80ne 1:38 am 03/4/2012

    This is an interesting read considering it’s coming from a biologist.

    My question to you would be … are you sure your assumptions are right?

    As I’m sure you’re aware of the latest biological findings as it’s appeared in this very magazine, serial monogamy in the animal kingdom even among species that were long thought to practice it was shown to be a myth. Even swans get a little something on the side to hedge their bets, despite appearances of lifelong commitment. Makes perfect sense from an evolutionary biology standpoint.

    So maybe your concerns are unfounded and the serial monogamers you think are behind the curve adapting to environmental changes are more highly evolved than you’re giving them credit for due to sociobiological factors related to the cultural anthropology of hip hop culture.

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  9. 9. Cayle 6:39 am 03/5/2012

    This article is based on a false premise, that single men are encouraged to „play the field“, instead of engaging in serial monogamy. Some subcultures (e.g. the Hiphop subculture mentioned in the article) may be that way, but I’d hardly call it mainstream. “Cheating on your significant other”, whether by men or women, is generally considered a bad thing in western culture; though there may be mitigating circumstances that cause people to accept it in certain cases. Open relationships, based on the concept of not tying boyfriend and girlfriend into serial monogamy, tend to be unstable and I’ve never seen one that withstood the test of time.

    The author points out the prevalence of the “right person at the wrong time” problem, but fails to note the problems that a general “playing the field strategy” would have. Let’s call our romantic couple player A and player B. Both are of unspecified gender.

    Risk #1 – If the playing the field strategy is open, players are going to minimize risk. It is well known that humans don’t treat risk and reward equally, skewing towards being risk averse. Player B may not make much investment in its relationship with player A if it thinks it is too high a risk. Moreover, since it is unlikely that Player A maintains a public leaderboard of its current romantic entanglements and their statuses (in Player A’s opinion), player B may not be able to accurately judge its status, causing player B to de-commit resources and focus on relationships with lower perceived risk. If Player B incorrectly underestimates its status, it could have taken one of Player A’s preferred partners out of play, leaving it with less optimal pairings.

    Risk #2 – If the playing the field strategy is NOT open, but prevalent enough to be considered the norm, players are still going to minimize risk and are going to be mistrustful of each other to boot. Any relationship where one or more of the partners is fearful of being cheated on is doomed. Moreover, if mutual trust is never established, then any resulting marriage would also be unstable.

    Monogamy, whether serial or not, carries with it significant benefits with regard to the relationship. It is no accident that homosexuals are campaigning so hard for the right to marry. If neither partner regards the relationship as continually being at risk, both can invest more into it. Also, this reduces the competitiveness between individuals of like gender allowing for cooperation beyond the pair. I’d rather have human levels of cooperation than chimpanzee levels of cooperation. I understand that the author’s blog relates to the Hiphop subculture and not broader western culture in general. Perhaps the solution is simply not to accept men playing the field in that subculture anymore. A much easier solution is probably to date men from outside it.

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  10. 10. DNLee 12:14 pm 03/5/2012

    My rant was primarily about the pre-occupation with serial monogamy prior to marriage. Marriage, I hope is the real deal monogamy. But as my grandmother use to say –”you’re single til you’re married, so don’t go around acting married until then.”

    I get that men and women act in gender-specific ways across time, geography and culture. My issue isn’t about gender-specific behavior it’s with gender-specific judgements and expectations. I believe there are double standards and very unfair ones at that.

    I do specifically point to Hip hop culture, but let’s be honest, Hip hop isn’t a subculture anymore. Hip hop IS Pop culture, mainstream. My experiences and those of friends and associates is that men and women are given very different sets of expectations when it comes to dating and sex, particularly when we are young (teens, early 20s). Yes, feminism has helped moved these lessons to the middle, but I believe by-and-large men and women are socialized to have different agendas, at least early on.

    Being in a relationship can be nice. But here’s my issue: When relationships end then we describe them as break-ups. But let’s do the math. Most relationships are going to end, unless of course you get married. Relationships end. That is sad, no doubt.

    But what I have come to realize is that the only we tend to define’ successful’ relationships by whether or not people get engaged/married. Everything else often referred to as a waste of time or a failure or some other sad negative language.

    I recognize my opinion on this matter isn’t common or one that many women prescribe to. And just because I may date more than one person, doesn’t mean that those relationships are shallow or that I have sex with all them. And if I do, SO!

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  11. 11. Preff 6:01 pm 02/3/2013

    Sorry to come to this so late, but, really, serial monogamy is sexist? Hasn’t there been research for many years that shows that humans are serial monogamists? Not as in dating, whatever that means today, but as in woman selects man as a mate from among her displaying suitors, settles into monogamous relationship, has child, when child is old enough to theoretically be able to survive alone (7 years or so), woman looks for next mate, or mates with whomever she desires until she wants more progeny.

    Single motherhood was the way humans operated, with extended family to take care of the children, until vengeful male gods came along and made men the choice-makers and made marriage “sacred” and made women who wanted to widen the gene pool unclean. As a species, and since you are a biologist I would expect you to know this, humans are serial monogamists, however our culture has distorted that fact. Human testes size, in comparison with other primates and their mating norms, corroborates this, and in our hunter-gatherer past (and in present examples of same) the child-rearing has little to do with men, so to settle into monogamy with one man was not a suitable concept for the survival of the progeny.

    Time to get off the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic “holy” marriage vows, which are summarily broken anyway, and to understand our true nature. It is empowering for the female to be the selector of her mate, and empowering for her to choose the fathers of her children, and then those men with whom she will ‘have fun.’ Yay for serial monogamy!

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