"Monogamy and its discontents; challenge to western sexual values"
by William Tucker
Originally published in National Review (1993), reprinted here: <http://www.snappingturtle.net/jmc/tmblog/archives/005331.html>
Why sexual morality, apart from religious edict? As both the highest and lowest strata of our society demonstrate, a culture abandons monogamy only at its peril.
"It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices that civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible." --Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
AMERICA IS in a period of cultural crisis. For as long as we have been a civilization, monogamy, heterosexuality, legitimacy, and the virtues of marital fidelity have been givens of nature. The major religions have sanctioned them, as do four thousand years of Western history. Out-of-wedlock births, homosexuality, and other forms of sexual "deviance" have always existed, but have never laid claim to the mainstream.
All this is now coming under challenge. Part of it may simply be cultural exhaustion--the foolish confidence that the major battles of civilization have been fought and won and that it is now time for a little self-indulgence. Or it may be that the taste for the exotic and forbidden, usually confined to a small minority, has at last become available to the average person.
All this must be tolerated. In a free country, you can't stop people from doing what they want, especially when they have the money and leisure to do it. The situation is complicated, however, by the existence of a vast American "underclass" that does not generally share in the affluence, but is daily exposed to the sirens of self-indulgence. While the abandonment of cultural norms may have an exotic quality for the affluent, it is a palpable threat to the upward aspirations of the poor.
On the matter of single motherhood and illegitimacy, members of the underclass--particularly those of African-American origin have proved peculiarly susceptible. Single motherhood has virtually become the norm in African-American society. (Over 65 per cent of black children are now born out of wedlock.) The failure to adhere to monogamy and two-parent child-rearing now forms the single greatest obstacle to the advancement of America's underclass.
Yet to speak in favor of monogamy, sexual modesty, fidelity, restraint, and two-parent families in the current cultural climate is to find oneself subject to the charge of being a bigot, a religious nut, or just hopelessly out of touch. The common assumption, particularly among the intelligentsia, is that all the traditional arguments for monogamy and two-parent families are religious and that everything that could be said in their favor was spoken centuries ago.
I CANNOT AGREE. For as much as monogamy has been sanctioned by Western culture, I do not believe that its function as the center of our civilization has ever been completely understood. There is in everyone a vague awareness that monogamy produces a peaceful social contract that is the framework for cultural harmony and economic advancement. Yet this subconscious recognition has rarely been explored at any great length. There is never any real articulation that monogamy is an ancient compromise whose breakdown only lets loose antagonisms that society has long suppressed. Monogamy, after all, is only one possible outcome of the age-old sexual dance. There are others, whose characteristics may not be quite so appealing.
Yet like all hard-won compromises, monogamy does not produce a perfect outcome for every individual. When examined closely, it proves to be the source of many private dissatisfactions, which form a nagging undercurrent of discontent in any monogamous culture. Ordinarily, these disaffections remain a form of "deviance," generally suppressed and disapproved by the vast majority, although virtually impossible to eradicate. Only when the core ideals of the culture come under attack--when people begin to celebrate these discontents and embrace them within themselves--only then does the underlying architecture of the social contract come into stark relief.
The question that we face today is how much free rein we can give the discontents of monogamy before we risk overturning the central character of our culture. Society, of course, is not without its defenses. The longstanding, almost universal dislike and disapproval of child-bearing out of wedlock, of sexual infidelity, of easy divorce, of public prostitution and pornography, and of widespread, blatant homosexuality--these are not just irrational intolerances. They are the ancient, forgotten logic that holds together a monogamous society. As long as these attitudes remain unexamined, however, they can play little part in the current debate and will be easily dismissed as mere prejudices.
What we need, then, is a defense of monogamy based on a rational understanding of its underlying principles. Here is an attempted beginning.
The Arithmetic of Reproduction
LET US START with some basic arithmetic. In any reproducing population, the laws of chance dictate that there will be about the same number of males and females. There are thus three ways in which the population can arrange itself for mating purposes: 1) polyandry, in which one female collects several males as mates; 2) polygyny (often called, less precisely, polygamy) , in which one male collects several females; and 3) monogamy, in which each female and each male mate with only one other individual.
Of the three possibilities, the first--polyandry--is the rarest in nature. An understanding of the basics of reproduction tells us why.
In nearly all species, the female role in reproduction is the "limiting factor." This has to do with the differences between eggs and sperm. Sperm are small and motile, while eggs are large and relatively immobile. The egg generally comes wrapped in a package of nutrients that will feed the fertilized ovum until "birth." Because eggs are more complex--and therefore harder to manufacture--a female generates far fewer eggs than a male generates sperm. (Among mammals, a single male ejaculation often contains more sperm cells than a female will produce eggs in her lifetime.) Since there are always more sperm than eggs--and since it takes one of each to produce an offspring--eggs are the limiting factor to reproduction.
As a result, females have generally gone on to play a larger role in nurturing offspring as well. The principle that determines this responsibility has been identified by biologists as the "last chance to abandon." Here is how it works.
When fertilization of the egg takes place, one partner is usually left with the egg in his or her possession -- often attached to or within his or her body.
Most often, this is the female. This leaves the male free to go and seek other mating opportunities. The female, on the other hand, has two basic options: 1) she can abandon the egg and try to mate again (but this will only leave her in the same dilemma); or 2) she can stay with the egg and try to nurture it to maturity. The latter is a better reproductive strategy. As a result, females become "mothers," caring for the fertilized eggs, and often the newborn offspring as well.
The few exceptions prove the rule. Among seahorses, the fertilized egg is nurtured in a kangaroo-like pouch on the male's stomach. This makes the male the limiting factor to reproduction. As a result, the sex roles are reversed. Male seahorses become "mothers," nurturing their offspring to maturity, while females abandon their "impregnated" sexual partners and look for new mating opportunities.
The logic of reproduction has produced another universal characteristic in nature, called "female coyness." Males can spread their sperm far and wide, impregnating as many females as possible, while females may get only one mating opportunity per season. Therefore, females must choose wisely. In almost every species, males are the sexual aggressors, while females hold back, trying to select the best mate. Often the male is made to perform some display of strength or beauty, or go through some ritual expression of responsibility (nest-building) before the female agrees to mate with him. With seahorses, once again, the roles are reversed. Males are coy and reluctant, while females are the sexual aggressors.
It is for these reasons that polyandry--one female forming a mating bond with several males--is uncommon and unfavorable. Even though a single female might consort with several males, she can only be impregnated by one or two of them. Thus, most males would be unsuccessful. Moreover, the attachment of several males to one female would mean that other females would be left with no mates. The outcome would be a very slow rate of reproduction. In addition, any male who broke the rules and left his mate for an unmated female would achieve reproductive success, making the whole system extremely unstable. For all these reasons, polyandry is very rare in nature.
Polygyny, on the other hand--the form of polygamy where one male mates with several females--is universally common. (Although " polygamy " can refer to either polyandry or polygyny, it is generally used interchangeably with polygyny.) Polygamy is probably the most "natural" way of mating. It is particularly predominant among mammals, where the fertilized embryo is retained within the female's body, reducing the male's post-conception nurturing to near-zero. Given the differences in size, strength, beauty, or social skills among males, it is inevitable that--in an unregulated sexual marketplace-successful males will collect multiple mating partners while unsuccessful males will be left with none. A successful male lion collects a pride of seven to ton female lions, mating with each of them as they come into heat. A male deer mates with about six to eight female deer. A silverback male gorilla collects a harem of five or six female gorillas. Biologists have even determined that the sexual dimorphism in a species--the size difference between males and females--is directly correlated to the size of the harem: i.e., the bigger the male is in relation to females, the more females he will control. On this scale, we are "slightly polygamous," with male humans outweighing females enough to collect about one and a half mates apiece.
Polygamy's Winners and Losers
POLYGAMY CREATES a clear social order, with distinct winners and losers. Let us look at how this works. A dominant male wins because he can reproduce with as many females as he can reasonably control. Thus, he can "spread his genes" far and wide, producing many more progeny than he would be able to do under a different sexual regime.
But low-status females are winners, too. This is because: 1) Even the lowest-status females get to mate; there are no "old maids" in a polygamous society. 2) Nearly all females get access to high-status males. Since there are no artificial limits on the number of mates a male can collect, all females can attach themselves to a few relatively desirable males.
The effect upon high-status females is approximately neutral, but the clear losers are low-status males, the "bachelor herd" that is shut out of the mating equation. In some species, like elephants, the bachelor herd forms a dispirited gaggle living relatively meaningless lives on the edge of society. In others, like various monkeys, the subdominants form all-male gangs that combine their efforts to steal females from successful males. In a highly social species, such as baboons, the bachelor herd has been incorporated into the troop. Subdominant males form a "centurion guard" that protects the dominant male and his harem from predators. Among themselves, meanwhile, they engage in endless status struggles, trying to move up the social ladder toward their own mating possibilities.
Altogether, then, polygamy is a very natural and successful reproductive system. Since all females mate, the reproductive capacity of the population is maximized. There is also a strong selective drive toward desirable characteristics. As the operators of stud farms have long known, allowing only the swiftest and strongest males to breed produces the most desirable population.
Yet despite the clear reproductive advantages of polygamy, some species have abandoned it in favor of the more complex and artificially limiting system of monogamy. Why? The answer seems to be that monogamy is better adapted to the task of rearing offspring. This is particularly true where living conditions are harsh or where the offspring go through a long period of early dependency. The task is better handled by two parents than one. Quite literally, a species adopts monogamy "for the sake of the children."
Among animals, the most prominent example is birds. Because the fertilized egg is laid outside the female's body, a long period of nesting is required. This ties the male to the task of nurturing. Most bird species are monogamous through each mating season, and many mate for life.
Once mammalian development moved the gestating egg back inside the female's body, however, the need for "nesting' disappeared. With only a few exceptions (beavers, gibbons, orangutans), mammals are polygamous.
Yet as human beings evolved from our proto-chimp ancestors, the record is fairly clear that we reinvented monogamy. Present-day hunter-gatherers--who parallel the earliest human societies--are largely monogamous. Only with the invention of horticulture did many societies around the world revert to polygamy. Then, when animals were harnessed to the plow and urban civilizations were born, human societies again became almost exclusively monogamous. This wandering pattern of development has been the cause of much confusion. When monogamous Western European civilizations discovered the primitive polygamies of Africa and the South Seas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they assumed that the earliest human civilizations had been polygamous and had later evolved into the "higher" pattern of monogamy. It was only with the discovery of monogamous hunter-gatherers that the mystery was finally resolved. Rather than being an earlier form, polygamy is actually a later development in which many cultures have apparently become sidetracked. Both the earliest and the most advanced (economically successful) human civilizations are generally monogamous.
What has made monogamy so successful a format for human cooperation? First and foremost, monogamy creates a social contract that reduces the sexual competition among males. The underlying assumption of monogamy is that every male gets a reasonable chance to mate. As a result, the do-or-die quality of sexual competition among males abates. When one male can collect many females, mating takes on a deadly intensity. With monogamy, however, a more democratic outcome is assured. The bachelor herd disappears.
Second, because monogamy assures the possibility of reproduction to every member of the group, a social contract is born. One need only consider the sultan's harem--where male guards must be eunuchized--to realize that a society that practices polygamy has an inherently non-democratic character. No offer can be extended to marginal or outcast members that entices them to be part of the group. Under monogamy, however, society can function as a cohesive whole.
This is why, under monogamy, other forms of cooperation become possible. Males and females may pair off, but they also maintain other familial and social relationships. Both males and females can form task-oriented groups (in primitive societies, the line between "men's" and "women's work" is always carefully drawn). As society becomes more complex, men and women frequently exchange roles and, although there is always a certain amount of sexual tension, males and females can work together in non-mating settings.
Other social primates have never reached the same level of complexity. Gibbons and orangutans are monogamous--but almost too much so: mated pairs are strongly attached to each other, but live in social isolation, rarely interacting with other members of the species. Gorilla bands generally ignore each other--except when males raid each other's harems. Baboon troops are more organized and task oriented, often encompassing as many as fifty to a hundred individuals. But behavior is rigidly hierarchical. Females are kept at the center of the troop, under close supervision of the alpha male and his associates. Subdominant males guard the periphery. Only the alpha and an occasional close ally mate with females as they come into heat.
Perhaps the most interesting attempt at creating a more complex society is among our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Chimps practice a polymorphous polygamy, where every female takes care to mate with every male. Sex takes place in public and is relatively noncompetitive. When a female comes into estrus, her bottom turns bright pink, advertising her receptivity. Males queue up according to status, but every male, no matter how low on the social ladder, is allowed to copulate.
This creates its own social harmony. For males, it reduces sexual rivalry. Within the "brotherhood" of the tribe, there is little overt sexual competition (although it persists in other subtle ways). As a result, male chimps cooperate in establishing territories to exclude other males and occasionally hunt smaller animals such as monkeys.
The system also creates an advantage for females. Within a polygamous social group, one of the greatest hazards to child-rearing is male jealousy. The male owner of a female harem constantly guards against the possibility that he is wasting energy protecting the offspring of other males. When a new male lion displaces the former owner of a pride, he immediately kills off all the young in order to set the females to work reproducing his own offspring. The heads of polygamous monkey clans do the same thing.
But with chimpanzees, things are different. By taking care to mate with every male, a female assures each male member of the troop that he might be the father of her offspring. By "confusing paternity," females create a safe harbor for themselves, within which they are able to raise their offspring in relative tranquillity.
These techniques of unrestricted sexuality and indeterminate paternity have been tried from time to time in small human societies, notably among small religious and political sects. However, they have generally been a failure. The difficulty is that we have eaten too much of the tree of knowledge. We are too good at calculating which progeny are our own and which are not. (Child abuse and infanticide are most common when a man doubts his paternity.)
Rather than living in collective doubt, we have developed complex personalities that allow us to maintain private sexual relationships while sustaining a multilayered network of relatives, friends, acquaintances, associates, co-workers, and strangers with whom our interactions are mainly non-sexual. The result is the human society in which we all live.
The Price of Monogamy
HUMAN MONOGAMY thus holds out distinct advantages. Yet these advantages--as always-are bought at a price. Let us look at where the gains and forfeitures occur.
The winners under polygamy, you will recall, are high-status males and low-status females. Under monogamy, these parties lose their advantages, while compensating advantages are gained by high-status females and low-status males. High-status females no longer have to share their mates with low-status females, a particular advantage where long periods of child-rearing are involved. Low-status males, instead of being consigned to the bachelor herd, get a reasonable chance to a mate.
Perhaps we should pause here a moment to define what we mean by "high" and "low" status. High status usually has to do with desirable characteristics-- beauty, strength, swiftness, bright feathers, or intelligence-whatever is admired by the species. In agencies where males fight for control of females (elk, lions, kangaroos), size and strength are usually the deciding factor. In species where females exercise some choice, physical beauty tends to play a greater role. As Darwin first noted, the bright plumage of the male bird is solely the result of generations of female selection.
In almost every species, youth is considered a desirable quality. In females, it implies a long, healthy life in which to raise offspring. In males, youth and vigor also suggest a wide variety of resources for child-rearing. Among the more social species, however, age, intelligence, and experience can play an important role. The alpha baboon is usually quite mature and sustains his access to females not through sheer strength or aggressiveness, but through the skillful formation of political alliances.
Under monogamy, another crucial characteristic is added--the willingness of the male to be a good provider. Yet this creates a dilemma for females. Unfortunately, the two favored characteristics--physical attractiveness and willingness to be a good provider--do not always come together. In fact, they often seem mutually exclusive. The peacock, the most beautiful of male birds, is notoriously a philanderer and a poor provider. With polygamy, females can ignore this problem and attach themselves to the most attractive males. With monogamy, however, females find themselves caught on the horns of the dilemma. Juggling these competing demands becomes a vexing responsibility--one that, at bottom, most females would ultimately like to escape.
Alternatives have always been available--at least covertly. In the 1950s, a research scientist began a routine experiment concerning natal blood type, trying to figure out which characteristics were dominant. To his astonishment, he found that 11 per cent of the babies born in American hospitals had blood types belonging to neither the mother nor the father--meaning the biological father was not the male listed on the birth certificate. The researcher was so dismayed by these findings that he suppressed them for over twenty years. Even at a time when monogamy was an unquestioned norm, at least 10 per cent of American women were resolving the female dilemma by tricking one man into providing for the child of another.
The Sources of Discontent
WITH ALL this in mind, then, let us look at where we should expect to find the major points of dissatisfaction with monogamy. First and foremost, monogamy limits the mating urges of high-status males. Everywhere in nature, males have an underlying urge to mate with as many females as possible. Studies among barnyard animals have shown that a male that has exhausted himself mating with one female will experience an immediate resurgence of sexual desire when a new female is introduced into his pen. (This is dubbed the "Coolidge effect," after Calvin Coolidge, who once observed it while making a presidential tour of a barnyard.)
"Hogamous, higamous, men are polygamous. Higamous, hogamous, women monogamous," wrote Ogden Nash, and the experience in all societies has been that the male urge to be polygamous is the weakest link in the monogamous chain. This has become particularly true in America's mobile culture, where status-seeking males are often tempted to change wives as they move up the social ladder. "Serial monogamy" is. the name we have given it, but a better term might be "rotating polygamy. " A serious op-ed article in the New York Times a few years ago proposed that polygamy be legalized so that men could be compelled to support their earlier wives even as they move on to younger and more attractive women.
Marital infidelity, the lathering of illegitimate children, the pursuit of younger women, the "bimbo" and "trophy wife" syndromes--all are essential breaches of the monogamous social contract. When a Donald Trump deserts his wife and children for a woman almost twenty years his junior, he is obviously "wrecking a home" and violating monogamy's implicit understanding that children should be supported until maturity. But he is doing something else as well. By mating with a much younger, second woman, he is also limiting the mating possibilities of younger men. One swallow does not make a summer, but repeated over and over, this pattern produces real demographic consequences. In societies that practice polygamy, competition over available females is always more intense.
The problems with male infidelity, then, are fairly clear. What is not always so obvious is that women's commitment to monogamy is also somewhat circumscribed. The difficulties are two fold: 1) the general dissatisfaction of all women in being forced to choose between attractive males and good providers; and 2) the particular dissatisfaction among low-status women at being confined to the pool of low-status men.
In truth, low-status people of both sexes-or perhaps more significantly, people who are chronically dissatisfied with their status form a continuing challenge to any monogamous society. Unless there is an overwhelming cultural consensus that marriage and the joint raising of children forms the highest human happiness (which some people think it does), low-status males and females are likely to feel cheated by the relatively narrow pool of mates available to them. Their resentments and underlying desire to disrupt the rules of the game form a constant undercurrent of discontent in any monogamous society.
For males, one obvious way of by-passing the rules is rape. Although feminists, in their never-ending effort to repeal biology, have insisted that rape reflects some amorphous "hatred against women," the more obvious interpretation is that it is a triumph of raw sexual desire over the more complex rules of social conduct. Rape overwhelmingly involves low-status men seeking sex with women who are otherwise inaccessible to them. (Rape is even more of a problem in polygamous societies, because of the more limited options for low-status males.) If "hatred" is involved, it is more likely to be general resentment of monogamy's restrictions, which inaccessible, high-status women may come to represent. But this is all secondary. The basic crime of rape is the violation of a woman's age-old biological right to choose her own sexual partners.
The other avenues for low-status males are prostitution and pornography. Each offers access to higher -- status females, albeit under rather artificial circumstances. Individual females may benefit from pornography and prostitution in that they are paid (however poorly) for their participation. There is always a laissez-faire argument for allowing both. But when they become public and widespread, pornography and prostitution become another nagging reminder of the dissatisfactions some people will always feel with monogamy. In other words, they disrupt "family values."
Female dissatisfaction with monogamy, on the other hand, is not always as obvious. Yet the restrictions put upon females--particularly low-status ones--will always be present and, in their own way, form their own undercurrent of discontent.
The principal female dissatisfaction is the dilemma of finding a mate who is both physically attractive and a good provider. As many and many a woman has discovered, it is much easier to get an attractive male into bed with you for the night than to keep him around in the morning.
The Murphy Brown Alternative
THERE IS, HOWEVER, a practical alternative. This is to return to the greater freedom of polygamy, where females can choose the most attractive males without regard to forming a permanent bond. This, of course, is the essence of "single motherhood."
The rise of single motherhood is basically the expression of female discontent with monogamy. Rising female economic success makes it more practical (social scientists have long noted that marriage becomes more unstable as females become more economically independent). This undoubtedly accounts for the rising rate of divorce and single motherhood among affluent Americans.
But the emergence of almost universal single motherhood among the black underclass undercuts the purely economic argument (except, of course, to the degree that female independence has been subsidized by the welfare system). Black women are not opting for single motherhood because of rising economic success. What the availability of welfare does, however, is enable them to dispense with the courtship rituals of monogamy and choose the most desirable man available to them, regardless of the man's willingness or ability to provide domestic support. It is this dynamic of liberated female sexual choice and not just the greater economic support offered by welfare that is driving black single motherhood today.
The essence of single motherhood, then, is status -- jumping. By dispensing with the need to make a single choice, a woman can mate with a man who is far more desirable than any she could hope to retain under the artificial restraints of monogamy. The same dynamic is even more obvious among single mothers of the middle and upper classes. When asked to justify their choice, these women refer with surprising regularity to the unavailability of movie stars or other idealized males. ("I know so many women who were waiting for that Alan Alda type to come along," one unwed mother recently told Newsweek. "And they were waiting and waiting.") Yet when these women get themselves impregnated by otherwise unattainable men-or artificially inseminate themselves with accomplished doctors and lawyers, talented musicians, or Nobel Prize-winning scientists -- what are they practicing but a contemporary form of high-tech polygamy?
The rebellion against monogamy, then, is being led by men dissatisfied because they cannot have more women and women dissatisfied with the choice of available men. (As an aging divorcee, Murphy Brown, despite her attractiveness, had a very limited pool of mating possibilities.) Yet each of these rebellions is driven by the most powerful human sexual dynamic--the desire of every living creature to produce offspring with the most desirable possible mating partners. Monogamy limits those desires.
The Homosexual Alternative
WHERE DOES homosexuality fit in all this? At its core, homosexuality is driven by a different dynamic. In every society, there is a small nucleus of men and women who feel uncomfortable with their sexual roles. For whatever reasons; biological, psychological, or a combination--they find it difficult or impossible to play the reproductive role dictated by their bodies and to mate with the opposite sex. This does not necessarily constitute a challenge to monogamy. Homosexuals and people with homosexual tendencies have often played important social roles. Priests, prophets, witch-doctors, artists, entertainers, cultural leaders--all have often been overtly or covertly homosexual or tinged with an undercurrent of ambiguous sexuality. All this forms no great social problem so long as homosexuality remains largely covert and marginal. The difficulty comes when it breaks out of the underground and becomes a mainstream alternative, particularly to the point of recruitment among the young. (Socrates, remember, was condemned to death for luring the youth of Athens into homosexuality.)
Once again, simple arithmetic begins to assert itself. When male homosexuality becomes widespread, it creates a dearth of eligible young men. This is particularly visible in urban environments. The growing population of male homosexuals in New York and other cities during the 1980s created the widely reported "man shortage" for young women. In the end, this large homosexual population seems to have induced an equally large lesbian population.
Are all these individuals really biologically determined to homosexuality? It seems doubtful. Rather, what seems to be happening is that homosexuality is becoming an acceptable form of protest for both men and women who do not like the choices offered to them by monogamy.
Once again, the problem is most pronounced with low-status people. For example, although there are undoubtedly some very attractive lesbian women, even a casual survey of the population reveals a very high incidence of members whose mating opportunities are obviously limited under monogamy. Moreover, the men who are available to them are themselves likely to be bitter and resentful over their choice of mates--in other words they "hate women." One need only read the melancholy chronicle of Andrea Dworkin's experiences with a string of sadistic, self-loathing men to realize why this woman has become one of the nation's leading exponents of lesbianism. The professed ideology of both these groups is that they "hate" the other sex. Yet it would be much more correct to say that they hate the members of the opposite sex to which monogamy has confined them.
(I sometimes think the high point of America's commitment to monogamy came around 1955, the year that Paddy Chayevsky's low-budget Marty was a surprise box-office success and winner of the Academy Award. The story told of two plain people who, after numerous personal rejections, discover each other at a Saturday -- night dance hall. The message of the movie, as articulated so often during that era, was that "For every girl there's a boy and for every boy there's a girl.")
Despite its disruptive nature, homosexuality as a rebellion has little permanent impact until older biological urges begin to assert themselves and homosexuals want to have children. For men, there are few options. Apart from a few highly publicized cases, there are few homosexual men raising families. But for women, once again, we are back to single motherhood. Numerous lesbian couples are now having children, and lesbians have organized the most sophisticated sperm banks. How these children will react ten or fifteen years down the road to the realization that they are the children of anonymous sperm donors is anybody's guess. But it seems likely they will have difficulty forming monogamous unions themselves and their resentments will only add to the sea of dissatisfactions.
Polygamy in Our Future?
TO SUM up, then, let us admit that no system of monogamy can ever bring complete happiness to everyone. Given the variability among individuals and given the universal desire to be paired with desirable mating partners, there will always be a sizable pool of dissatisfaction under monogamy. The real question is: How far can society allow this pool to grow before these private dissensions begin to rend the social fabric? In short, what can we expect society to look like if the monogamous ideal is abandoned?
It isn't necessary to look very far. Western and Oriental cultures form a monogamous axis that spans the northern hemisphere (Orientals are far more monogamous than Westerners are), but a large part of the remaining world practices polygamy.
Polygamy is tolerated by the Koran--although it should be recognized that, like the principle of "an eye for an eye," the Islamic law that allows a man four wives is a restriction from an earlier practice. The Koran requires that a man support all his wives equally, which generally confines the practice to wealthy males. In most Moslem countries, polygamous marriages are restricted to the upper classes and form no more than 4 to 5 per cent of all marriages.
In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, polygamy is far closer to the norm. In parts of West Africa, more than 20 per cent of the marriages are polygamous. Marriage itself is rendered far more fragile by the practice of matrilinearity--tracing ancestry only through the mother's line. In West Africa, a man may sire many children (Chief M.K.O. Abiola, of Nigeria's Yoruba tribe, a self-made billionaire and chairman of ITT Nigeria, has 26 wives), but the paternal claim he can lay upon any of them. is far more tenuous than it would be in Oriental or Western societies. In West Africa, women can take their children and leave a marriage at any time, making the institution extremely unstable. In these tribal societies, Christianity and Islam which teach marital fidelity and permanent unions--are generally regarded as progressive social movements.
What qualities do we find in societies that tolerate polygamy? First, the shortage of women usually leads to the institution of the "bride price," where a young man must pay a sizable sum of money to the bride's family in order to obtain a wife. (The "dowry," in which a sum is attached to an eligible daughter to make her more attractive, is purely a product of monogamy.) This makes wives difficult to obtain for men who come from less well-to-do families.
The numerical imbalance between eligible males and females also forces older men to court younger women. Girls in their teens are often betrothed to men ten and fifteen years their senior. In some South Seas societies, infant females are betrothed to grown men. These strained couplings make marriage itself a distant and unrewarding relationship, far different from the "peer marriages" of Western and Oriental cultures.
Finally, polygamy tends to produce a high level of male violence. Because low-status males are not assured any reasonable chance of mating by the social contract, they are essentially impossible to incorporate into the larger work of society. Instead, they form themselves into violent gangs or become the foot soldiers of extremist political groups. In Pakistan, the recent news has been that the country is being overrun by these violent gangs, which have become the competing "parties" in the country's turbulent political system. The head of one of these factions was recently accused of raping dozens of airline stewardesses.
Yet even where polygamy is openly sanctioned, childrearing is always built around the formation of husband-and-wife households--even if these households may contain several wives. Only among the American underclass has polygamy degenerated into a purely polymorphous variety, where courtship is forgone and family formation has become a virtually forgotten ritual.
In a recent issue of The Public Interest, Elijah Anderson, professor of social science at the University of Pennsylvania, described an on-going acquaintance with a 21-year-old black youth whom he called "John Turner." Anderson described the social milieu of Turner's neighborhood as follows:
In Philadelphia, . . the young men of many individual streets organize informally bounded areas into territories. They then guard the territories, defending them against the intrusions and whims of outsiders ...
Local male groups claim responsibility over the women in the area, especially if they are young. These women are seen as their possessions, at times to be argued over and even fought over. When a young man from outside the neighborhood attempts to "go with" or date a young woman from the neighborhood, he must usually answer to the boys' group, negotiating for their permission first...
At twenty-one years of age, John was the father of four children out of wedlock. He had two sons who were born a few months apart by different women, one daughter by the mother of one of the sons, and another son by a third woman.
This mating pattern is not uncommon in nature. It has recently been observed in dolphins and of course bears a strong resemblance to the structure of some primate tribes. Yet what works for these species is no longer plausible for human beings. Once again, we have eaten from the tree of knowledge. We have too much intimate knowledge of the details of sexual connection and paternity to be satisfied with this vague collectivism.
Thus "John Turner" explains how his efforts to put some order into his life by creating a bond between two of his sons resulted in his being jailed for assault: Well, see, this girl, the girl who's the mother of my one son, Teddy. See, I drove my girlfriend's car by her house with my other son with me. I parked the car down the street from her house and everything. So I took John, Jr., up to the house to see his brother, and we talk for awhile. But when I get ready to leave, she and her girlfriend followed me to the car. I got in the car and put John in. Then she threw a brick through the window.
The unavoidable consequence of polymorphous polygamy among humans is a tangle of competing jealousies and conflicting loyalties that make ordinary life all but impossible. The central institution at the axis of human society--the nuclear family--no longer exists.
Unfortunately, while such a mating system virtually guarantees child abuse (usually involving a "boyfriend"), internal turmoil, and rampant violence, it is also extremely reproductive. While their social life has degenerated into extreme chaos, the American underclass are nonetheless reproducing faster than any other population in the world. This follows a well-known biological principle that when populations come under stress, they attempt to save themselves by reproducing faster, with sexual maturity usually accelerated to a younger age.
The culture of polygamy is also self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. If men feel there is nothing more to fatherhood than "making babies," then women will feel free to seek the most attractive men, without making any effort to bind them to the tasks of child-rearing. As a cultural pair, the footloose male and the single mother, if not held back by the force of social convention, can easily become the predominant type. The result is a free-for-all in which human society as we know it may become very difficult, if not impossible.
Back to 'Family Values'
THIS, THEN, is the essence of "family values." Family values are basically the belief that monogamy is the most peaceful and progressive way of organizing a human society. Dislike and distaste for anything that challenges the monogamous contract easy divorce, widespread pornography, legalized prostitution, out-of-wedlock child bearing, blatant homosexuality-are not just narrow or prudish concerns. They come from an intelligent recognition that the monogamous contract is a fragile institution that can easily unravel if dissaffections become too widespread.
What is likely to happen if we abandon these values? People will go on reproducing, you can be sure of that. But families won't be formed ("litters" might be a more appropriate term). And the human beings that are produced in these litters will not be quite the same either. If marriage is a compromise between men and women, then the breakdown of monogamy can only let loose the natural egocentrisms of both.
It is probably not too alarmist to note that societies that have been unable to establish monogamy have also been unable to create working democracies or widely distributed wealth. No society that domesticates too few men can have a stable social order. People who are incapable of monogamy are probably incapable of many other things as well.
As a basically limiting human compact, monogamous marriage is bound to produce its peculiar difficulties. As with any compromise, each individual can argue based on present or previous deprivation, real or imagined-that he or she should not be bound by the rules.
Yet it should also be clear that, beyond the personal dissatisfactions we all may feel, each of us also retains a permanent, private stake in sustaining a system that creates a peaceful social order and offers to everyone a reasonable chance of achieving personal happiness. If monogamy makes complex demands on human beings, it also offers unique and complex rewards.