Wednesday, August 7, 2002

the virtues of promiscuity?

thanks to adam for passing on this article from alternet on the "advantages" of sluttiness.

my students are always curious about issues of sexuality, and despite teaching first-year sociology now instead of anthropology, i often use cross-cultural examples to demonstrate the relativity of their convictions. students are always stunned by the realisation that monogamy and free-choice marriage are the least frequent cultural responses on the planet. and inevitably, every year, students come to talk to me about being gay or cheating on their girlfriend/boyfriend. last year, one student said that she chose to talk to me because she felt that i was the only one who would not pass moral judgement on her. i hold these moments close to my heart and am thankful for being a teacher. but every year i have to read at least three dozen very emotional papers dealing with sexism, homosexuality, prostitution or pornography. and i've come to believe that much of the harsh judgement emerges from the confusion and anger that comes when 19 year olds are introduced to ideas and practices that directly conflict with what they have been told makes a "good" woman or man.

my first thought while skimming the article was to file it away for class discussion in the fall. but in reading it through, i loathe to think of where that discussion might lead. given the journalistic tendency to oversimplify, i wasn't surprised by this opening statement: "Anthropologists say female promiscuity binds communities closer together and improves the gene pool." okay. show me the source. and so: "This book is the first to explore the concept of partible paternity, the aboriginal South American belief that a child can have more than one biological father--in other words, that all men who have sex with a woman during her pregnancy contribute to the formation of her baby and may assume social responsibilities for the child after its birth." (might be worth a read...) but as you might imagine, anthropologists do not agree on how to make sense of these practices.

you are probably familiar with the "man the hunter" myth pushed by anthropology for many years. part of that model may involve polygamy and male-domination as evolutionary mechanisms that ensure the survival of the tribe. more often than not, the model positions women as chattel (in the sense of moveable property), concerned only with securing a mate that could economically and socially provide for her and her offspring. the article puts it nicely: "Fathers provide meat for the family, and in exchange, moms offer fidelity and the guarantee of paternity. While men -- who produce millions of sperm -- are inveterate philanderers, gals, stuck with relatively few eggs that require a significant investment, tend to be choosy and coy. Men therefore are biologically prone to spreading their seed far and wide, while women focus on finding the perfect pop... [but] some [anthropologists] say today's emphasis on female monogamy may have more to do with socio-economic trends than evolutionary instincts." no shit! and it's true that the examples cited in the article do much to challenge this sort of evolutionary perspective, which has been criticised for its tendency to justify and perpetuate social inequality.

but here's the problem: to explain these practices in terms of "promiscuity" is incorrect. in order to be promiscuous, one must live in a place where monogamy is the accepted norm (and probably, accept it to some extent oneself). with the exception of those cultures recently impacted by trade and missionaries, monogamy was clearly not the standard at hand. in other words, you couldn't be a 'slut' in those cultures until we came along. i've long believed that by studying the "other," anthropologists have learned much more about "us" than "them." and this article is a continuation of that phenomenon. for example, we get this sad interpretation and closing statement: "Modern relationships are not all that different. High infidelity, remarriage and divorce rates may have less to do with modernity than with our collective sexual past... If the anthropologists are right, monogamy may well be counter-evolutionary or an adaptation to modern life. Or perhaps the nuclear family has always been more of an ideal than a reality."

I laughed out loud. Did we really need to be reminded that the nuclear family is a myth? That other people through space and time have done it differently? i would have much preferred a little reflexivity on the part of the author... and maybe some clarity on whether these were, in actuality, non-evolutionary arguments ;)

truth is, i'm afraid that she wanted this information to "sexually empower" women. but before we all go cheering on the ethical slut, let's remember that polyandry (or polygamy) isn't practiced with the same intents or effects in cultures that advocate monogamy. plus, i suspect we're the only ones obsessing about these questions in the first place - why else would so many of our explanations come down to who gets to fuck who?

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