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Monogamy and Egalitarianism

February 2, 2012

Skarphedin has a post up about monogamy and inter-gender egalitarianism.

He hints at, but doesn’t discuss, the relationship between monogamy and intra-gender egalitariansim. Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, suggests that the primary beneficiaries of universal monogamy are actually lower status men. Many women would be willing to share a high status man, and that would leave a lot of low status men with nothing. Which is a potentially disruptive situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if monogamy emerged as a compromise among men first, and later turned out to also have egalitarian effects across gender lines.

Skarphedin brings this up in connection with the recent legal battles over the polygamous Mormon cult in Bountiful, B.C. The legal prohibition of polygamy has finally been upheld, but Skarphedin wonders how long that will last:

Monogamy seems to have a connection to various forms of egalitarianism, whether between men, or between men and women. It could be a coincidence of course, but then it was born in the move towards Greek democracy, and Roman Republicanism. Perhaps rather than being a direct cause, it is part of a western package of beliefs that mutually reinforce each other. If that is the case, the dangers in isolating one aspect, like socially imposed universal monogamy, and asking whether it specifically can be relinquished, is risking a lot for no apparent benefit. But given the recent enthusiasm for abolishing western civilization, I guess it’s unlikely to be maintained for long.

But this battle is already largely lost, even if not in terms of formal marriage. People get married a lot later than they used to, and have a lot more sexual partners. “Soft harems” already exists. To see this, just look at Kate Bolick’s recent article for The Atlantic, which describes the basically unlimited sexual access enjoyed by a small number of men on college campuses.

In the comments, Skarphedin suggest that excess women may be a worse social problem than excess men. It’s certainly true that excess women create problems, especially for women. Bolick’s article illustrates some of this as well. More women means more competition between women for available (and appealing) men. This means sluttier behaviour from women (which reduces their long term chances of having a successful marriage), and more misogynistic behaviour from me.

The take-away seems to be that polygamy is bad for both men and women on the whole, but perhaps benefits a few men and women, and probably mainly the men.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 7:30 pm

    I think it is clear that there is more variance among men in terms of sexual success/reproductive success than there is for women – or at least reproductively there is (ie. the evidence showing fewer male ancestors than female).

    Nevertheless I’m a bit skeptical of the ‘soft harem’ hypothesis, often stated as 20% of men monopolizing 80% of women (perhaps mostly meant to apply to college). See this posting for example: (and this post is by someone who has very much promoted the ‘soft harem’ thesis).

    • February 3, 2012 9:14 am

      But my point doesn’t require anything like those kinds of numbers (i.e. 80/20).

      It also doesn’t really require that the ‘harems’ are actually constituted by concurrent partners.

      What I’m not sure about but would be relevant is how much the figures have changed over time—from before to after the sexual revolution, basically.

      Your post on black music is relevant here, when you think about how mating trends in the white population were prefigured to some extent by the black population 40 years ago.

  2. Kolchak permalink
    February 4, 2012 6:27 pm

    There is no soft harem. The Centre for Disease Control found 25% of college males were promiscuous (more than 5 lifetime partners) and 25% of females similarly. The sexually active move around with each other. Most students, 50%, had at most 2 partners.

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