Are Women Naturally Monogamous?

Gaugin--300x184[1]Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, was skeptical of evolutionary psychology, which sees women as monogamous and men as polygamous, due to genetics. Let’s take a closer look.

Children have the best shot at surviving if their mothers mate with only one man, who sticks around to provide support and resources. Thus, women prefer men who are older and richer. Moms put a lot into their kids because they have a small number of eggs compared with the millions of sperm that men produce. And all this is genetic, so says evolutionary psychology.

On the other hand, men will have more children (and reproduce their genes) if they are promiscuous because of their large sperm count. Again, the behavior is in the genes.

This premise seems to contradict the prior point that children are more likely to survive if their fathers are around to support them. Maybe more survive than don’t. Or perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest worldview: Babies who can survive without resources improve the gene pool?

The bigger dilemma: How do men manage to enjoy many partners when women are monogamous?

Men also value beauty above all else because attractiveness indicates health and an ability to reproduce. Oddly, supermodels are the most sought-out, yet they’re often so thin that they no longer menstruate. And I hadn’t known that so-called unattractive women were infertile. But never mind.

Returning to Darwin’s concern – and it doesn’t take a genius like him to make this observation – while evolutionary psychology had fit nicely with British middle-class behavior, where women sought resources and men sought beauty, Darwin pointed out that the theory did not fit with the British upper class. There, men were more concerned with wealth than good looks.

Now that Western women are able to make their own money, they have become more concerned with looks than in the past. And men now like to marry women who can earn some money – it’s a plus.

Other cultures don’t fit the theory so well, either.

Gauguin’s infatuation with Tahiti likely came in part from the women’s desire for many sex partners (prior to European influence).

Meanwhile, Europeans who were among the first to arrive in the Americas were shocked by similar behavior among the native women.

In these Tahitian and Native American societies the entire community cared for children, and property passed through women, so men’s resources weren’t an issue. These women weren’t called sluts, either.

Once Europeans transformed the cultures, things quickly turned around.

It appears that social structure and culture trump biology in explaining women’s monogamy.

There is more to discuss, but I’ll leave that for later.

For now I must ask: Are evolutionary psychologists unfamiliar with this information, or do they simply ignore it because the theory so well justifies a status quo in which women are told to stay monogamous, but understand men’s need for many partners, aka the double standard?

After all, it’s in men’s genes – or was that jeans?

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on December 20, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, race/ethnicity, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I think the question you poised is fascinating because it is something, I think, a lot of women are unsure of about themselves. They often feel guilt for having feelings for more than one person, while a man tends to blame his impulse, his lack of interest, or “needs” as factors regarding having multiple partners. I’m sure we are all familiar that a man is a “player” while a woman is a “whore.” However, the idea that monogamous relationships rest in biology is false. As we have seen, cultures throughout the world, some in Asia where an imbalance of sexes favoring the men have led to matriarchal societies where women have multiple husbands and control the majority of resources; in contrast to patriarchal societies these communities tend to be tribal and egalitarian. Another example is in Africa, where men normally have multiple wives and, if possible, father children with each– these societies tend to have a high level of patriarchy where men control almost all of the goods and resources. I guess the idea that monogamy is “right” is one of moral inquiry and not biological; the question would better be suited on the discipline of philosophy or sociology than anywhere else. I will argue on a philosophical basis; however, other complex factors that contribute to the culture and socially defined phenomenon contribute to our notions of ourselves and our place in the world take part in shaping ideas for women. There is this constant mental push and pull between women’s individual choices and the influence and makeup of our culture and society. Especially in western culture, dating back to religious doctrines and monarchies, there has been a purposeful intent to hold women inferior. I think the most daunting of the problems is not necessarily that women internalize much of this on to their character, we are all women and have felt an internal battle in some way or another. We are aware (to an extent) that we are not treated as equal, that the playing field is different for us and that we are held to standards our male counterparts are not. I think this idea runs through not only gender but race and class, as well. The biggest problem is that males have accepted, even the humblest among them, that their place in this world is guaranteed, or better yet– owed to them. However the case, men do not posit such thinking in a western democratic society where values are held on the basis all humans are equal. It is the male naïveté that drives the wedge between the sexes further into the future; it is the issue of white naïveté that drives issues of race into oblivion. Within this naïveté, there is no room for debate since one can argue he is on both sides, but what he fails to do is abstractly think about a situation different from his own. The bourgeoisie, especially the conservative right, tend to hold traditional values of absolute male superiority. In this absoluteness, everything else derives from it, it is an essence of the only possible standard. So the biggest gain in oppression is making the oppressor feel superior in everyway. Back to the question of monogamy, because of males absolute status, they are superior in their relationships, therefore their choices and impulses are superior. There is no question in a mans mind that monogamy is good but when he engages in polygamous relationships there is no question either. He is free. While women are seen to serve the ends of man, we can prove this principle throughout history in philosophy, religion, literature, and so forth. Therefore, women are serving the absolute male and whatever he may dictate as the “ideal” women. For example, throughout the 1950s-60s, the ideal housewife was raised as the “right-type of women” giving praise to the housewife who is so innocent, unaware, and obedient. The case against this, is that even though is the deepest roots of oppression, women can use their agency to denounce the destiny men has set forth for them because there is no good reason to believe the men who cannot even begin to fathom the scope of their privileges. The question of women is not a trivial one, just as race and class, and should not be treated as such. We possess autonomy and different sexual desires. I think today; there is a push toward a more sex-positive society; however, there will always be extreme resistance to any change in the social framework that has allowed such male privilege to dominate and shape society. We must not be fooled by such hollow words of praise toward the “good women” or damnation of the “whore.” There is no mystical entity enforcing these alterities among the sexes. The way forward is to push the standards an gain back our agency, not just a woman but as an individual. We should not allow the discussion to fall into the hands of destiny, because there is no such thing, although we tend to believe it.

  2. Though Charles Darwin is claimed to be “the father of evolutionary biology”, I don’t believe his claim of women being monogamous and men being polygamous due to their genetics has any worth behind the statement. Like many past historians, Charles Darwin was a while male – meaning there’s a 89% chance his opinion was bias due to the (inaccurate) general belief that 1) males are the superior sex and 2) white is the superior race. With his statement, Charles Darwin probably didn’t take into account past tribe cultures that followed matrilineal beliefs and encouraged women to be sexually involved with multiple men.

    Darwin’s theories were altered to the British middle-class culture – which is not a universal culture. His source of observations where predominately white and all followed the same cookie cutter lifestyle with the belief that males were superior to females due to the propaganda that brainwashed society. There is no validity in stating that women are monogamous due to genetics from observing 1 out of 10000000 cultures.

    The Tahitian and Native American were successful in their cultural beliefs of polygamous marriages and lived peacefully with their beliefs until the “Europeans transformed cultures” (which is a light way of stating that the Europeans colonized America and forced a cultural genocide amongst anyone who wasn’t white and right).

    Social structure and culture do not trump biology in explaining women’s monogamy because a woman’s choice of how many men she prefers to be with is not a genetic scheme – it is a choice. I cannot say whether evolutionary psychologists do or do not know of this information, but anthropologist are well aware that today’s belief of women having one partner and men have multiple is a socially constructed idea that is not due to genetics.

    • Yeah, evolutionary psychology has two schools of thought which are contradictory. One of them says that men are naturally polygamous while women are more naturally monogamous. This is the more popular school, probably because it fits in with our patriarchal double standard that we have all grown up with.

      Interestingly, although Charles Darwin got the ball rolling with evolutionary psychology, Even he critiques the theory that supports the double standard, pointing out that the theory only fits the British middle class. Looking to the upper class, though, resources were just as important to men as to women. And many a Jane Austen novel has revolved around this point.

      I agree with all of your points except this one which I don’t get: Social structure and culture do not trump biology in explaining women’s monogamy

      We know for sure that they do, At least in how people behave, because in Victorian society women were very monogamous since they were so punished if they were not.

      On the other hand if you look at *preference* roughly half of men and half of women prefer a variety of partners over monogamy. Also just disproving this theory of evolutionary psychology.

  3. Thank you for posting this! My good friend and I had this conversation the other day actually. I am single and she is in a serious monogamous relationship. I tend to yearn for a stable relationship, but also love the idea of being free. She loves the comfort of her relationship but also fantasizes about other men. We wondered if either is better or how we should be living our lives. What is nature or nurture? How should we be going about our love lives now that we don’t have to worry about having children early or them dying off? Very real issues for women in the past.

  4. Britney Fratus-White

    I did not know there was an evolutionary psychology associated with women and monogamy. I can not argue mostly because I do not fully understand this concept. I believe that monogamy is socially conditioned into our brains. The idea of monogamy being solely attributed to women is interesting. I do not agree with the author’s opinion on men in this scenario. I believe men crave the social and emotional well-being that is conjoined with monogamy just as much as women do. In practice I do not believe it is ideal to be monogamous. Ideally we as humans require an individual to assist us through different stages of life. However, this individual does not need to be the same throughout all of life.

  5. Men often use this evolutionary psychology to justify cheating on their partners and force women to be tolerant towards their boyfriends or husbands.This hypothesis is so prevalent that even my father have always used this annoying hypothesis to teach me how to understand guys. I usually just listen to his words without any refute. But one time, my father tried to teach me that a girl should be encouraged to sleep with only one guy in her entire life, but a guy should not.” I was tired and upset. So I finally said, “Father. Suppose there is one mature girl. The more males that she has slept with, the more various sperms she will get in her body, which helps her egg to decide the strongest sperm which survives the competition among extremely various and numerous sperms. So maybe her instinct might want her to sleep with as many guys as she can.” I know my hypothesis is also ridiculous, but I was too tired at that time to listen quietly.

  6. this isn’t much related to this topic but it has to do though with nurture-nature subject and gender roles. Are we socially constructed the way we behave or is it natural.
    Have you hear about Kibbutz ?

    “The Israeli kibbutz system has proved to be a large natural experiment in the persistence of sex roles. Men and women were initially encouraged to drop all sex roles in kibbutzim: Haircuts and clothes were unisex; boys were encouraged to be peaceful and sensitive, while girls were treated like tomboys; men did household chores and women went out to work: Yet three generations later, the attempt has largely been abandoned, and kibbutz life is actually
    more sexist than life in the rest of Israel. People have returned to stereotypes. Men politick, while women tend the home; boys study physics and become engineers, while girls study sociology and become teachers and nurses: Women manage the morale, health, and education of the kibbutz, while men manage the finances, security, and business: To some this is easily explicable: People have simply rebelled against the eccentric pattern set by their parents: Yet that explanation is more condescending than one that treats them as agents of their own choice, choosing according to their natures: Women clean house in a kibbutz because, like women everywhere, they complain that men would not do it properly. Men
    do not clean house in a kibbutz because, like men everywhere, they complain that if they did, their wives would say it had not been done properly.”

    • I responded to someone else about this before. Just because you change of social structure doesn’t mean the culture changes.

      For instance, American Indians before contact with Europeans (and just after -– Which is why we know this) were open to people having sex with whomever they wanted. 1960s open love communes didn’t work as expected. People tended to pair up. The difference? Culture.

      Culture gets unconsciously embedded in our brains. So even if social structures change they don’t necessarily affect the culture. You have to make people aware of the unconscious, taken for granted, notions that they have so that they can consciously critique them and change over time. Change still might not come. I have worked harder than most to become less racist and less sexist. When I take tests of unconscious bias I do better than most Americans. But even with all of the work that I put in I am not without bias.

  7. I had gotten into a skirmish with a co-worker of mine who told me that “women can’t have casual sex like men because when they get older they ovulate like crazy and get clingy emotionally”. That sounded like it made sense considering that women only have a certain number of eggs and when they reach the age of thirty-five it becomes harder for women to conceive. The older they get past that age the harder it becomes. So it would make sense that women would become more emotionally attached.

    I wanted to argue by using the article I read where men fall in love faster than women, and how men believe in love at first sight. So men actually get clingy. But I didn’t think that would hold my argument up. How should I retort to him?

  8. Monogomy all depends on the person and their culture. In some cultures they don’t care about sex and it’s okay for women to be “loose”. and in others such as the american cultures it’s not okay for people to have multiple women. In the muslim culture it’s okay for a man to marry multiple women. But in others that is looked down upon. I feel that the more women are oppressed to this idea the more women will want to explore. I don’t feel that because you are a women you are suppose to be manogomous. Thats is something that society tells you that you should be and i don’t feel thats right. Their is to many lables when it comes to peoples cultures esecially in the American culture.

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