Dan Savage Gets a Piece of Miss B

3 09 2011

I usually agree with the stuff that comes out of Dan Savage’s mouth, and, yes, he does a great deal of good advocacy work on behalf of bullied gay youth, but I really took umbrage with something he said about the nature of men and women on a (relatively) recent episode of The Stephen Colbert Show.

In the discussion Savage argued that monogamy should not be the sole defining characteristic of a marriage, and that sometimes “fooling around” can actually have beneficial effects on marriage. Fine. I have no problem with that. It isn’t “fooling around” itself I have a problem with—what I have a problem with is Savage’s assumption that men are more inclined to fool around than women are.

Here is the dialogue verbatim surrounding the point I am contesting:

Colbert (facetiously): “Here’s the problem with your argument. It applies to gay people beautifully, I’m sure. I don’t know. I’m married to a woman, okay. I’m not married to a guy. If you and I were married and you wanted to have sex with somebody else, I’d totally understand…”.

Savage (testily): “But your wife is married to a man, and straight women have to be realistic about what men are and what men are like.”

And here is the video clip (or what is supposed to be the video clip):

Seriously, Dan? What are men? Wooly mammoth-hunters spraying their semen on everything that twitches while the women-folk languish back at home in the cave, cooking yesterday’s leftover wooly mammoth meat over the fire and popping out babies left and right? This isn’t the African savanna 100,000 years ago. Women don’t need men to protect them from sabretooth tiger attacks or provide meals and shelter for them, and men don’t need to go screwing everything that crawls. We live in the twenty-first century. Catch up, girl.

There are several reasons why Savage’s reasoning doesn’t make sense to me, and why he should stop promoting the assumption that men are supposed to be more promiscuous than women: 1) for every (straight) man who has sex, there has to be a woman to have sex with him, therefore men are only as slutty as women are; 2) recent insight from evolutionary psychology suggests that more intelligent and evolved men (but not women) are actually more monogamous; 3) it’s pretty rich for a gay man to excuse men’s desire to spread their seed as much as possible when gay men have no desire to breed with women; 4) it’s really annoying to watch gay men defend effeminate bully victims only to propound masculine stereotypes in the same breath; 5) what if men were more promiscuous than women? Why should men’s interests take precedence over those of women?; 6) it’s really just a package of fallacies (appeal to nature and tradition and the “is therefore ought” fallacy).

The first of these seems pretty straightforward. For every (straight) man who has sex, there has to be a female to have sex with him. Take out a pencil and paper. Seriously. Do it. It’s much easier if you can visualise it. Draw four Venus signs down the left margin of the paper, then four Mars signs down the right margin. Now connect each Venus sign with each Mars sign by a line. If each of four men has sex with each of four women, each of four women must have sex with each of four men. You can’t have men being slutty with as many women as possible without women being slutty with as many men as possible. It is logically required.

But there is a twist to this first point. There might actually be reason for women to be even sluttier than men. I had never thought about this until it was pointed out to me by my brilliant friend Christine, whose baking and food blog Angry Cherry is an unparalleled oeuvre of hearty yet sumptuous baked goods. I can’t possibly recapitulate her thought process without diluting or compromising it, so let me simply paste what she wrote to me:

Whenever someone tells me that it’s more “natural” for men to sleep around, I like to give them a logical diagram of sorts, too. First, I tell them: “Actually, if you reeeeeally think about it, it makes more sense for women to have way more sex than men.”

Of course, next, someone will ask me why—so think about it this way.

If we accept that the ultimate end of most sex is procreation and to spread seed (on which most people agree), then men have it easier than women. Once a man blows his load, he’s done. A woman can receive a man’s sperm, but since a woman only ovulates for 2 days out of an average of 28, she may or may not be pregnant—in essence, her biological “burden” for the goal of procreation is not yet alleviated.

So, next, I say, let’s take 25 men and 25 women — and let’s have them all fuck often and with whoever they want. Women will “drop out” of the fucking once they are pregnant and relatively out of danger of miscarriage (in other words, job done for the next 9 months). Soon, we will have 25 men and 20 women; soon after, 25 men and 15 women; soon after that, you get the idea. Eventually we will be down to 25 men, who cannot tell who has fathered which children (not that it matters), and 1 woman—because of the procreation burden, that woman should be promiscuous as all hell: in order to get pregnant, she should have sex with all 25 men as often as she wants in order to get pregnant.

Thus, under this logical model, it should be expected that women should  want to have, and have, more sex than men. Oddly enough, when I explain it this way, most people (women and men) scratch their heads and say, “Actually… that makes a lot of sense.”

Haha! How’s that for logic?

Very well stated, Christine, and you’re right—it makes a lot of sense. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa provides an hypothesis why there are so few societies which practice polygyny (the practice of one woman marrying multiple men), but his hypothesis does not account for Christine’s reasoning above, and, besides, that a practice has been common in the past does not mean that it should be, or even that it is evolutionarily beneficial (indeed, a part of evolution is the fact that non-beneficial traits eventually die out). Additionally, with all of our recent technological innovations, women are much more self-sufficient, so they do not need to depend as much on a single man for material security. So, actually, there is good reason for women to be even sluttier than men. Thus, Savage’s argument that men are inherently programmed to be sluttier than women doesn’t make much biological sense.

This first point closely informs the second, which is that more intelligent men (but not women) tend to be more monogamous. Interestingly, this argument also comes from Kanazawa, and is published in Psychology Today. It is based on a study which showed that smarter men were more loyal to their partners, but smarter women were not. This would make sense, because general intelligence and monogamy in men are evolutionary innovations, while general intelligence and polygamy in women are also evolutionary innovations. (Women no longer need as much security from one man.) More intelligent men are more monogamous because general intelligence and male monogamy are both adaptive and innovative, and intelligent men are less fixated on preserving the norms of their ancestors. This is not true for more intelligent women, because monogamy is not innovative for women. Now, some people will argue that the men may have simply been smart enough to cover their tracks after cheating. But this doesn’t make sense, because if people covered their tracks after cheating due to being smarter, how do we explain the smarter women? The smarter women did not profess to be more monogamous, whereas the smarter men did, so we can’t say that people cover their tracks after cheating because they are smarter. Thus, it must be that the smarter men were more monogamous simply because they valued loyalty more than their peers. So, no, Dan Savage’s assumption that men are inherently supposed to be sluttier than women isn’t necessarily true.

This preconception about the privilege of male promiscuity is especially obnoxious coming from a gay man like Savage. Savage acknowledges Colbert’s (admittedly facetious) assumption that men in general, whether gay or straight, are inherently slutty. Well, if gay men don’t want to breed with women, they have no reason to act like walking insemination machines, hence they have no reason to join up with straight men in the whole “let’s fuck as many chicks as possible” meme. Gay men don’t want to spread their seed everywhere, because they don’t want to breed with women. So, it doesn’t make sense for a gay man to defend the assumption that men in general should be as slutty as possible. It’s like the vegetarian preaching that human beings were made to eat meat.

This third point blends in nicely with the fourth one, which is that gay men should not be defending old-fashioned male sex roles (neither should straight men). Gay people are inherently heteronormative in that they have sex with members of the same sex, so they should be the first to defy appeals to normativity (although, ultimately, everybody should). For Savage to defend an effeminate schoolyard bully victim on one hand, then defend male sexual machismo on the other, is contradictory and hypocritical. By defending the “girlish” bully victim, he is challenging stereotypes about manhood, yet by promoting the notion of male sexual prowess, he is supporting such stereotypes. You can’t tell a little gay boy “Don’t worry; it’ll get better, and it’s okay to be effeminate” and then tell him “Butch up and spread your seed, because that is manly”. As a gay man, you shouldn’t be embalming assumptions about manhood, because you embody the exact opposite—you have sex with men. That isn’t “manly” in the traditional sense, so why are you defending traditional manliness? And straight men shouldn’t be doing this either, because no man has a good reason to treat women like his private incubator, his and only his, closed off from other, “inferior” genes (whatever those are supposed to be—who’s to judge? Hitler?).

So far we’ve argued that women are just as slutty as men. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that men are in fact more promiscuous than women. Why does Savage so strongly aver that women should understand men’s need for many partners, but not that men should understand women’s need for one partner? He seems so adamant that women should acknowledge the contention that men are sluts, yet he totally ignores the contention that women want something different. That’s just plain sexist. It isn’t fair to attend to men’s interests, but not to women’s, because both of them have equally passionate needs. And yet all of this is assuming that men are intrinsically sluttier than women. Are they? Above we have established that that assumption is highly questionable.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all just a cluster of fallacies, innit, m8? Savage’s argument that women should accept men for “what they are” consists of an appeal to tradition, an appeal to nature, and an “is therefore ought” fallacy. First, that men have been sluttier than women does not mean that they should be, because tradition is not necessarily good; second, that male promiscuity might be natural does not mean that it is right, because natural does not equal right, and unnatural does not equal wrong (manmade things like aeroplanes aren’t wrong); and, third, that men might really be sluttier than women does not mean that they should be, because a thing is not right just because it is real. Murder is real, but that doesn’t make it right. So Savage’s argument that straight women should accept male promiscuity is invalid since it relies on all of these fallacies.

In summary, Dan Savage’s suggestion that men are more promiscuous than women is misguided. First, for every man who has sex, there has to be a woman; second, more intelligent men (but not women) tend to be more loyal; third, gay men have no business talking about spreading seed, since they don’t want to; fourth, it’s hypocritical and contradictory for gay men to defend effeminate behaviour and then defend macho sex roles; fifth, even if men were sluttier than women, it’s unfair to place men’s interests above those of women; and, sixth, it’s all just a bundle of fallacies, as stated above. So, as you see, there’s really no good reason to believe that men should experience more lust than women. And it doesn’t matter whether men have more testosterone than women, because testosterone is just a hormone, and we can do whatever we want with it to meet our present-day exigencies. We treat postmenopausal women for hormonal deficiencies, so why not do the same for over-muscled thugs or under-sexed nuns? Ultimately, what we need to do is start thinking critically about sex roles and living in the modern age. After all, our huge brains, with all of their many ruminations, are also a product of nature, hence nature made us to think these things.