Friday, April 13, 2012

Men are Hardwired to Cheat, and Other Silly Stories

I have never been much for the idea that gender behavior is "hardwired." Most of the research being touted as proof is conducted on middle and upper class North Americans, Europeans, and Australians. When you boil it down, essentially what's being said is "hey, white people are doing this, so it must be true." Obviously, the participants in these studies are from racially diverse backgrounds, but if you do the math across studies, it's overwhelmingly white in makeup.

So, while I would never say biology plays no role, I question the hell out of the "hardwired narratives."

This post by Bettina Arndt attempts to defend, amongst other things, the idea that men are hardwired to want multiple sexual partners and are not monogamous by nature. It's an old trope, one that has been used for generations to support male infidelity, pressuring women into unwanted sexual experiences, and even as a defense for rape and incest.

What I found interesting was that so few have really challenged her position so far. Is it because she is woman writing about men? Is it because people actually believe these kinds of conclusions?

What was most curious to me was the following paragraph, tucked into the middle of the article:

There are, of course, high drive women who struggle to live with their own rampaging inner doe. There are many such single women but far fewer in long-term relationships. There are also those who enjoy watching porn, who cheerfully spend Friday nights with their partners munching take-away and watching R-rated DVDs. Women who happily live in open relationships, or go swinging with their partners, or post their own beaver shots on internet sites. And there are women genuinely concerned about their partners’ frustrations. It’s just that these women rarely enter the public debate.

I'd argue the numbers of women like this are increasing. Because after centuries of oppression, women across the globe are slowly - and in some places, rapidly - reclaiming their sexuality. It's impossible for me to ignore the social history around sexuality when considering sexual behavior, and instead of suggesting that men are hardwired to cheat, for example, it seems more likely that the social contracts around monogamy are shifting. Arndt cites well known sex and relationship columnist Dan Savage multiple times in her column, but fails to point out that Savage's writing on monogamish relationships are not gender exclusive. In other words, they aren't about letting men have their flings - they are about negotiated agreements between partners who may or may not both want to engage in sexual relations outside of their primary relationship.

This isn't to say I disagree with everything Arndt wrote. She's right to point out that talk about sexuality often gets shut down. Although it's not just men getting shut down. Which is one of the reasons why everything sex, from blogging to chat rooms to porn, has exploded online. Because so many of us are unable to speak to each other in person, we end up leaving comments on blogs, or disappearing down the rabbit hole of videos and texts available.


  1. It is amazing what technology has done to how we interact with one another. You don't know how many times I've sent the message, "Sorry, I don't to f&%k my phone/computer."

  2. Well....

    I used to agree with you, Nathan. Then I had a kid -- a girl -- and took that girl to daycare, and hung around and watched the kids. This was a crunchy, hippy, queer-positive vegan-wonderland daycare where a boy in a dress was cool and two mommies was par, we don't play with guns, &c.

    Here's what happened:

    The little boys -- we're talking 2, 3 years old -- made giant piles of cushions and climbed to the top and tried to shove each other off while spouting streams of the most incredible bullshit, trying to get people to do things for them. It was jawdropping -- these little boys would *say anything* to get the desired effect. Totally cheerfully, too.

    The little girls went for anything with a sparkle on it, dressed up, discovered social power, and experimented with it by being mean to each other. It was like watching some kind of performance art with people in Boobah suits semi-accidentally beating the crap out of each other with logs they found, forgot about, and found again.

    Back at the ranch -- where we don't have cable, so the mass media's PBS, NPR and C-SPAN -- my 3-year-old was having routine morning meltdowns because she *had to wear a pretty dress or she wouldn't be pretty and Horrible Girl wouldn't let her play because girls who aren't pretty aren't allowed to play*. She's throwing this tantrum at a graying, sleep-deprived woman in a 14-year-old T-shirt who hasn't owned makeup in a decade. I have never modeled this behavior for her. I am the only other person who lives here. Unless she's being spirited away by fairies at midnight for dance parties at the mall, she has no first or second-degree connection to the world of Cosmo.

    Also, clothing not pink or purple: unacceptable. And in one of the most hilarious moments of her toddlerhood, we're driving around, Phil Collins on the radio, and she's suddenly apoplectic in the back seat: "This is MAN MUSIC! I don't need this!"

    This followed on an earlier daycare experience, a parent-run co-op that took kids starting at age 6 months. We used to take the kids to the library, which had a construction site next to it. One day we get there and all the heavy machinery's at work. Instantly, all the little boys -- we're talking in diapers, some of these boys less than a year old -- are clinging to the chain-link, rapt, watching the machines. We had real trouble prying them off. The girls, totally uninterested. You couldn't even make the appeal through color ("Look, yellow!").

    Yeah, I believe there's inborn, gendered behavior. A range, to be sure. But I think you'd find a reasonably-shaped bell curve.

    I enjoy your blog, btw.

  3. Oh, and about Dan's columns...well, I think Dan gets women wrong pretty routinely, and is kind of a dick about it. As a single woman with mostly-married middle aged friends in your basic Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice kind of town, I suspect that the men are heavy in the majority in favor of monogamish acceptance, for a pretty simple reason: they value variety over stability, or, rather, they take for granted the stability their wives generate, then yearn for variety. Especially as they get older and the thrills subside. They worry about this. A lot. I get to hear about it (yay.) because I'm the single woman, which I guess means I have a Psychiatrist 5 Cents sign on my forehead.

    The other reason women don't cheat as much? More at stake. It's not about losing their husbands -- not primarily, anyway. It's about protecting their families. If the other moms know you're a slut who sleeps with married guys, you're in trouble and so are your kids. They won't do you the favors and give you the inside info that are essential for getting by as a mother, and odds are decent that you'll watch your kids get left out, not invited. The women are protecting reputation. Men...well, the stakes aren't as high for them. The odds that a wife will actually leave aren't that high, and they convince themselves the wives won't find out anyway. (If the wife does leave, it's a disaster, and the men go to bits.)

  4. Amy,

    I didn't say there isn't any inborn behavior connected to gender. It's more that I'm trying to counter those who argue that our behavior is mostly about biological imperatives. Which is just nonsense. One thing I thought about when reading your comments is that as we grow up, perhaps there is more of a chance to diversify regardless of gender - if we allow that to happen. If people are constantly force fed the idea that men do X and women do Y growing up, then they will more likely conform to those models than do something else. And whatever behaviors that were there as little kids that fit the gender norms will be reinforced, while anything else will be dismissed or diminished.

    I remember enjoying killing bugs and busting things as a ten year old, but because of the people that were in my life and others who came into my life, the aggressiveness behind those behaviors wasn't reinforced. Instead of becoming the adult male who loves shooting stuff, or participating in violent sports, I became interested in a variety of other activities, some of which might be stereotyped as "female" - like cooking. And I was supported in this diversifying. I had enough supportive people around me, as well as enough internal will, that I didn't feel the need to give up what I wanted to explore in order to be more "manly."

    I know this happens for girls too. Those who choose to participate in activities that used to be (or still are) dominated by men get a lot of pressure to stop doing so in their teen years. And others are simply given the message that doing X,Y, or Z isn't something girls do.

    None of this negates that little girls and little boys do frequently act and react differently. But I think we would do well to reinforce a much more open stance towards gender, even if children end up acting mostly like the gender stereotype. Because as adults, they won't have to fight as much to break from the norm, if they desire to break from the norm.

    Oh, and about monogamish relationships. I think it depends where you live and who you're interacting with regularly. Personally, I'm running into more and more women (mostly under 40) who are interested in monogamish relationships. In fact, while I am open to having a monogamish relationship if the circumstances were right, I lean toward monogamy and enter dating situations with monogamy in mind. But I'm in a fairly large metropolitan area, which I think has a large impact on these kinds of issues.

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