Saturday, September 27, 2008

Modern Romance

Last year, Time Magazine both declared the modern love story dead, and asked who killed it. The story even cited two teen-age girls, all of 17 years, who had turned to Audrey Hepburn movies of the 1950's for their romantic movie fixes. Among the complaints is the audience reluctance to believe in happy endings, or even romance, amidst a society pushing endless consumerized sex and alternatives. Romance was explicitly compared to middle-management recruiting.

But read carefully the complaints of young men, lacking status and prestige and that indefinable "something" that women desire, and there will be a different story. Over at Roissy in DC, a blog devoted to male "Pick Up Artist" tales and dating advice (largely for men), both male and female commenters will acknowledge that a growing number of perfectly fine young men miss out on the dating scene, particularly in their twenties, because they lack any understanding of how their female contemporaries choose partners, and end up sidelined, frustrated, and angry. All around, an unhealthy situation, particularly long-term.

This situation occurs because modern romance is broken. It's broken in films, television, books, and in the real life that influences the culture and in turn is influence by culture. But to understand WHY modern romance is broken, we must first understand how romance functioned in the past, and how different Western romance is and was from almost every other culture.

It's useful to go back, all the way back, to 1949 and Greeley, Colorado. To examine the insight of one of History's most dangerous but obscure men, Sayyid Qutb, on the dynamics of Western romance.

Qutb, born to relative obscurity and poverty in Egypt, traveled to the United States on a scholarship to study at among other places, Colorado State College of Education, in Greeley Colorado. The man who's books, including "Social Justice," and "Milestones" are considered the founding intellectual works of Al Qaeda, did not enjoy his time in the United States. A lifelong bachelor, who lamented he could not find a Muslim woman of "sufficient" purity to be his wife, he found the overt sexual freedom and openness of American women profoundly threatening.

Executed in 1966 by Egypt's Nasser government for his role in a jihadist plot, Qutb throughout his writings found the United States and the open, Western society a monumental threat to Islamic society. His writings have been cited by both Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahari, as justification for their jihadist campaigns. But it is his outsiders view of how American men and women conducted themselves that is most of interest to us now.

Qutb came from a tribal, polygamous, and rigid society. Marriages were not made out of love, by men and women freely assessing one another, and marrying out of their own free will. Rather, they were arranged affairs between families. Dowries, status of each family, the relative advantages and losses of each family, dominated those arrangements. Sexuality, and the open display of such, much less freedom of choice, profoundly threatened the ability of clan and tribe to perpetuate their closed system. It's to be expected that Qutb would not think much of Western society. But it's precisely because of that alien culture that his insights are useful.

At the time of his visit, in 1949, Greeley Colorado was a planned community. Situated in the plains North of Denver, the town outlawed alcohol and was populated mostly by conservative Baptists. The town was filled with temperate, prosperous, conservative, and family oriented people. But something in that town provoked profound hatred and contempt in Qutb. In his book, "The America I have Seen," he noted:

The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.

Jazz is his [note: the American male's] preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires ...

They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire...


Well, yes. Even staid, conservative Baptists get married. And in the West, that means generally, Assortive Mating.

Assortive Mating is the West's secret weapon. It depends on open female choice, a relatively flat playing field for men, and some social constraints on both sexes choices. Assortive mating, reduced to it's simple form, means like marries like, based on romantic love, not family and tribal profit. Since each partner chooses freely. Assortive mating also allows for considerable female freedom, something that has characterized the West versus Islam, for example, from the beginning. Bernard Lewis, in "The Muslim Discovery of Europe," recounts how the Sultan's ambassadors to the Court of Vienna, were horrified at the Emperor himself stopping the street to allow ladies to pass, even doffing his hat in courtesy.

But just as important, Assortive Mating, based on mostly free and open choice, allows men, nearly all men, to form families based on love, and thus become heavily invested in them. It accounts for the relative advantage of the West over Islam, starting around 1000 AD, in mobilizing resources (even over a smaller population). The yeoman will fight harder, longer, to defend his family from a threat than his Muslim counterpart, lacking one in a polygamous society. The extraordinary flowering of technological advance, most of it done by ordinary, obscure men like Johannes Gutenberg, in post 1300 Europe, cannot be understood without including the extension of family formation in a monogamous, Assortive Mating society.

Westerners mate under a few, but critical rules. Yes, there is sex involved. Even or especially, a man like Qutb knew that from the start. Sexual attraction is the start, but not the finish, of Western Romance. But note the environment that Qutb criticizes: Church dances. Under the Western System, men and women are mostly free to choose their own partners. But institutions, such as local Church, or benevolent society, or group/block civic organization dances, fairs, exist to mediate that choice. Guide the choices, control them, and ensure optimal outcomes. Men cannot flit from woman to woman, because they will rapidly get a bad reputation, and face social censure and rejection by women themselves. Women cannot choose, and then choose again, either, because they also face social censure, in an open environment where the choice is made.

Critically, the mediating institutions allow "test drives" without sexual commitment. One can dance with many partners, committing nothing, and assessing each one's relative sexual desirability, sociability, charisma, personality, and more, without risk or censure. Everything occurs out in the open.

These are the simple rules: Mediating institutions for "safe" exploration of potential partners without risk or commitment, free choice by both parties, no promiscuity without social censure, and open choice seen by everyone. These rules form the bedrock of Western romance. They serve to form life-long partnerships based on love, and for the most part have worked for about a thousand years.

Yes there can be alcohol involved, to overcome social inhibitions, shyness, and particularly, fear of rejection by the pursuing men. There is almost always dancing and music, to allow the sexes to mingle, harmlessly, while still expressing sexual interest out in the open. Even or especially in temperance-driven Greeley, this was a big part of socializing. No wonder Qutb was horrified — a more direct threat to his tribal way of life could not be imagined! If everyone was free to choose, the whole thing would fall apart, including or especially his beloved Islam.

Notice the key requirement for the choice to be out in the open, seen by everyone, and the penalties for promiscuous behavior by both sexes. Both require a fairly stable, intimate group setting where anonymous behavior is difficult. Yes, it is possible for a few very discreet individuals to carry on affairs and promiscuous behaviors, and the penalties fall heavier on women than on men (an unfairness decried by feminists). However, for the most part this system has not only served the West well, but formed the foundation of the nuclear family by insuring free and fair choices for the most part for men and women alike. Without a few men dominating the mating opportunities.

Now, we see things very different. Today's society is filled with books, television shows (VH1's "The Pick Up Artist") and seminars (costing thousands of dollars) designed to teach men how to compete with those naturally gifted at picking up women and develop "game." Romance has turned into big business, according to the Washington Post. A "wingman" to help men practice "pick up lines" on strangers can cost $50 an hour, and more than 120,000 marriages a year come from online dating matches. The article cites frayed social ties and increased isolation, matched by hyper-connectivity on the Internet.

Whereas before, men and women performed their mating assessments in full view of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, each happy to add to information about the other's intended choice and suitability (or lack of) regarding that choice, today's romantic life is radically different.

The Pill was widely available to married women in 1965, in "Griswold v. Connecticut" (which accounts for the strange demographic drop in fertility seen in my post Why Is It Always 1968 Part 1), and later all women in in 1972 in "Eisenstadt v. Baird." The Pill plus the condom, providing cheap, effective, and reliable contraception, helped radically alter how men and women engaged in romance.

Along with greatly enhanced personal mobility, with young men and women flocking to urban centers, that offer highly anonymous, consequence free, sexual entanglements, the nature of choice changed radically. No longer were constraints of what one's neighbors, friends, parents, fellow church goers, younger siblings, and the like would think of behavior and choices relevant. Instead, there was an endless consumerist choice available, and always something better along the horizon. If a relationship did not work out, there was always another one waiting to come along.

Indeed, increasing numbers of women are now moving to a point where marriage is no longer a goal. The Guardian reports that growing numbers of financially independent young women prefer single motherhood. "I Wanted a Child more than a Man." Indeed, in the Telegraph UK story, half of women surveyed would consider having a baby with a friend if they did not find a partner at a certain age.

As Roissy has pointed out, urban living, with the anonymous curtain over choices and behavior, is bad for long-term relationships. It tips the balance among both men and women for short term selection, based on raw sexual appeal, and this balance is unhealthy.

Reading Roissy and other blogs, young men who do not have the height, physique, social dominance, power and status, to win in the bar scene mostly end up alone. Substituting with pornography and video games. Socially isolated and removed from women. When, in their mid thirties or so, women age out of the "Alpha Male" selection at bars and other pickup places, their experiences with these men are not happy. The men lack social skills desired, along with status, prestige, and power that the earlier partners of the women in question possessed. Moreover, each date knows that they are not exactly each other's first choice but more like last choice. With angry isolation on the one hand and quite likely, a large number of partners on the other hand. Many of the men exhibit "angry" behaviors, and this is borne out on comments in various forums where young men complain that they followed society's "rules" akin to that of Greeley, in 1949, and achieved nothing.

This is why there is no happily ever after in Hollywood's romance movies, and even television shows such as "Gilmore Girls" have downbeat endings where 40 something women always choose the ever-present bad-boy over the small-town good guy. In the present bar-driven, urban hook-up culture, there is no happy ending for most people. It's why no one believes in Happy Ever After, and why the few movies that do present such an ending tend to be ... directed at men. Such as "Knocked Up" or "Wedding Crashers."

The cultural and social implications of this shift in romance is profound. A few, naturally gifted young men will dominate the urban bar hook-up scene. Relationships are short-lived and disposable. More and more women will choose single motherhood (the latest US Census report had 41% of births in 2006 to single mothers). Young men will grow up without fathers, and fall into either "nice guy" behaviors that prevent them from having any relationships, or more likely, become as bad-boy as they can to compete for women in the urban, anonymous choice driven market. Young women without fathers will compete even more fiercely for the few "desirable" men who exhibit the baddest of bad boy behaviors. And very rapidly, the middle class behaviors we take for granted will become extinct.

In 1965, it was possible to listen to Black radio, and hear earnest, heartfelt songs of romantic yearning and love, by young Black men, about young Black women. Artists such as Marvin Gaye expressed sentiments that any Medieval troubador singing about his beloved, or the most romantic of Tin Pan Alley songwriters, would have recognized immediately. Today, Rap music compares young Black women to pieces of meat. In the 1950's, writer Theodore Dalrymple noted that it was common for even the poorest places in London to leave their doors unlocked. Now, the descendants of those people, mostly White, exhibit the most thug-like behavior, imprisoning the older inhabitants in their own homes. All this in a space of about forty years.

Middle class behavior is dependent on socializing the next generations into middle class norms. It does not just "happen" by magic, or become a blooming flower amongst urban centers. If that were the case Lagos, Nigeria, or Mexico City would be awash with middle class masses. Most important among the factors that create new generations of middle class people is the nature of romantic choice. A society of mostly single, unattached, men playing video games or viewing porn, while a few "game" many women into bed, and mostly single mothers, will not create a middle class society. Never in history has such a group done so, on the contrary it creates a brutal, all-against-all society familiar to any who have visited England's Council Estates or Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects.

Many commentators have blamed the ongoing Western social collapse on various factors. Socialism, the Welfare state, media degeneracy, feminism, the "Long March" of Gramscian followers through various institutions. Far more likely, is the radical shift in romantic choices, brought about by the Pill, the Condom, rising female wealth, and urban anonymity.

Which is why Modern Romance ... is dead.

10 comments:

K. said...

Hey Whiskey,

Great blog entry. I've thought about this quite a bit. It's assort_at_ive mating, by the way. The Qutb quote is fascinating. Here's an edited version of the comment I posted at Joanne Jacobs's blog (I believe you also participated in the discussion):

"Personally, I think the problem is the failure of assortative mating as a dating paradigm. At some point, there was a shift (at least outwardly) from the idea of marrying the person who has the most qualities you want to marrying someone who is outwardly like you. There are two problems with this. The first one is that qualities that make men attractive to women do not make women attractive to men. For example, I am highly educated and work as an academic which is a high status occupation. Believe it or not, girls find this attractive. However, whether a girl has an advanced degree is of much less interest to me than if she’s well-read and witty (often academic women are not). The other problem is that there may not be a lot of women like a lot of men. There are a lot of guys who work in tech. A girl who is attractive and who can relate to techy guys will be snapped up immediately. There are a lot of girls who work in low-level management like HR or in fields like marketing. They might be as unable to relate to guys as the computer geeks are to relate to girls. But HR girls and tech guys might even be a good match for each other, but they are not going to be in immediate contact with each other. Instead the guys might stay at home and play video games and the girls might dish with their galpals and gay boyfriends and spend an occasional night on the town.

There are probably only a few places where assortative mating works really well for upper-middle class types. One is in big cities. The other is in elite private universities.

Some small fraction of men have managed to crack the code of seduction and do manage to sleep around and don’t feel a pressing need to marry. But anecdotally, I think this is a very small number, and it may only have happened because so many men are out of the dating market. This could be the white middle class version of the ghetto Don Juan. I think the hook-up culture is misrepresented. How often do you hear guys brag about how wonderful the girl he managed to hook up with is? Hooking up is often what you do with people who for some reason or another don’t pass your tests for dating."

I've thought about this quite a bit since that post and don't know if I have any more insight into why it is that girls are the more selective ones in this situation. Here are some thoughts:
1. if girls are only dating guys who appear to earn more than them, it's quite easy for a girl to rule out a lot of guys based on pretty flawed information. Stereotypes follow. Let's say a girl who works in HR or low-level marketing makes $35,000 a year. Anecdotally, girls seem to take more money from daddy later into life. Let's say dad pays some of rent and gives them a car. And they have a roommate so they can afford to live in a nice part of town. They can also afford fashionable clothes. A computer programmer making $65,000/yr with a car payment, living by himself, and building savings is not going to have an appreciably higher standard of living. If he hasn't had a girl around for years, his apartment is definitely not going to impress her.

2. There's probably a concept that I call "romantic capital" that is playing a role in the failure of assortative mating. I dated a girl a couple of years ago who paid a lot of attention to her appearance. As in make-up, dyed hair, etc. She spent a lot of time with her friends giving each other make-overs. I was actually terrified of what she'd look like au naturel. I've also known girls who were not attractive but not for any natural reason like bone structure. I got the sense that they simply had no attractive friends to trade beauty tips. Or catty girlfriends to make them feel bad for not running on the treadmill every couple of days or to go to get sexy haircuts with. This seems to be a good parallel to guys knowing about game. Some guys are naturals. Some guys have friends who give them pointers. The dregs do not only not have any girls in their life, they don't even have any guy friends who are good with girls. So perhaps beauty hints for girls and game hints for guys for a type of romantic capital that is not well-distributed.

3. Obviously, a guy who is good at the game can monopolize a lot of women. But that also means that no one girl is meeting their needs so they play the field. I think I side with the douchebag/PUA bloggers here and attribute this to two things: 1) the obesity epidemic limiting the pool of attractive women; 2) the supplicating behavior of guys who will go after girls who have nothing interesting to say and therefore never have to develop interests.

4. Even guys who are successful with girls can be pretty hard-up at times. A lot of mediocre girls think they deserve an alpha male because they have dated an alpha male. Because he was hard-up, he slept with them, then jerked them around, and ditched them for someone more desirable.

Keep up the good work, Whiskey. I'd like to hear your thoughts on romantic capital.

Anonymous said...

In past you had to feel confortable in mating rituals of the time, like dances. Without dancing skills or if you feel unconfortable in those situations, your mating prospects were not very big I think.

Nowdays dating rituals are just different. Instead of dancing parties, you have bars and clubs where you have to feel comfortable. Instead of dancing skills, you have to have some PUA-skills.

It should noted however that both dancing and PUA-skills are not very relevant being a good husband and breadwinner. However these skills are necessary if you want to have a family to be breadwinner for.

Anonymous said...

Great Post!

Whiskey said...

Thanks K. You will see very soon my thoughts on Dating Capital.

Usually Lurking said...

Hey Whiskey, I have a lot of thoughts on this, but, for now, I will drop only one thought.

You reference the "quasi-reality" that Hollywood spews pretty often, so I thought that this one tidbit might help:

I was a big fan of Will and Grace. With the exception of its first and last seasons, no show ever did a better job at making fun of the Liberal Elitist Yuppie than they did.

Bu one thing that most may not have noticed unless they were looking was that they had every Heterosexual relationship fail and the only relationship that worked and produced a happy family was a gay one.

Quickly:
- All of Graces (heterosexual or otherwise) relationships were either dysfunctional or involved infidelity.
- Graces parents had a dysfunctional relationship that produced two dysfunctional kids.
- Wills parents were the absolutely classic distant WASP family where the mother drank too much and the father ultimately cheated on her.
- Jacks parents were not his parents (well, at least not his Dad). His mother wasn't even sure who knocked him up.
- Their best friends (husband and wife) who live in New Jersey (the morons) hate each other. The wife, after getting pregnant again says that she wants to "stab him in the balls".
- Karen wants to cheat on her husband and her husband does cheat on her.
- Graces husband cheats on her.

The only couple in the whole show to remain faithful and raise a happy family were the two gay men that were their friends and poker buddies.

I bring all this up because the show was obviously interested in politics (this would come out in a heavy handed way in it s last season) and this was just a subtle way for this popular show to demonstrate what it thought of "normal" relationships.

Usually Lurking said...

woops, that should read:

"His mother wasn't even sure who knocked HER up."

Oh, and one last thing, the only characters in the whole show who seemed genuinely interested in having a long term stable relationship were all gay men (i.e. Will and the two aforementioned married friends)

Nine-of-Diamonds said...

Usually Lurking - did you see "American Beauty"? If so, I'm sure you recall how the only stable family was that of Lester's homosexual neighbors. Lester's faily life was a disaster, and the Marine Colonel next door, a stereotypical repressed homophobe, ruled his household with an iron fist. Not sure why so many directors obsessively portray the bizarre as normal, vice versa. If I didn't know any better I'd suspect they're consciously undermining traditional moral values.

Usually Lurking said...

Nine-of-Diamonds,
Right, but that was obvious and overt. Whereas Will and Grace had these relationships prove to be dysfunctional or failures over many seasons.

random passerby said...

Based on what you wrote, it sounds like "modern romance" was never anything more than an illusion. It didn't die because it never existed to begin with. People are just showing their true natures now that they can anonymously choose from an essentially infinite number of mates. That said, the old system you describe does not sound appealing to me, and I say that as someone who has virtually no chance of ever having a relationship. Choosing from a miniscule pool of people while everyone is watching you like it was 1984? Fuck that.


Instead, there was an endless consumerist choice available, and always something better along the horizon. If a relationship did not work out, there was always another one waiting to come along.

This is because people are desperate to have a relationship. Desperate people cut corners and make compromises, so they end up with a person who is interchangeable with thousands or millions of others. That's the reason why everyone keeps saying "there's plenty of fish in the sea."

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