Philip Zimbardo and the ever-changing dynamics of sexual politics

A friend sent me a link to Philip Zimbardo’s talk, “The demise of guys?“, which recapitulates and shortens Hanna Rosen’s long Atlantic article, “The End of Men.” Based on the video and reading lots of material on similar subjects recently (like: Baumeister, Is There Anything Good About Men?, although I do not find all of it compelling), I replied to my (female) friend:

1) There is still a very strong preference for males in much of the developing world, including India and China.

2) Barring unpredictable improvements in reproductive technology that bring us closer to Brave New World, I do not see substantial numbers of women wanting to live without men. There are some, have always been some, and will always be some, but they’re in the minority and probably will be for a long time.

3) I wouldn’t be surprised if what’s actually happening is that we’re seeing an increasing bifurcation in male behavior, as we’re seeing in many aspects of society, where the winners win more and the losers lose more than they once did. I suspect you can see more guys getting a larger number of women—a la Strauss in The Game, guys in frats, and guys who want to play the field in major cities—but also more guys who substitute video games and porn for real women, or who are incarcerated, or otherwise unable to enter / compete in mating markets. This makes women unhappy because they have to compete for a smaller number of “eligible” guys, the word “eligible” being one women love to use without wanting to define it. Women on average aren’t punishing men as much as one might expect for playing the field—see, e.g., this Slate article. Notice how Baumeister is cited there too.

4) Guys are more likely to drop out of high school, but they’re also more likely to be in the top 1% of the income distribution. They’re overrepresented in software, engineering, novel writing, and lots of other high-octane fields. They’re also overrepresented in prisons, special ed classes, and so forth. If you concentrate on the far reaches of either end of the bell curve, you’ll find guys disproportionately represented. Feminists like to focus on the right side, Zimbardo is focusing on the left. Both might be right, and we’re just seeing or noticing more extreme variation than we used to.

5) I’m not convinced the conclusions drawn by Zimbardo follow from the research, although it’s hard to tell without citations.

6) If guys are playing 10,000 hours of video games before age 21, no wonder they’re not great at attracting women and women are on average less attracted to them. This may reinforce the dynamic in number 3, in which those guys who are “eligible” can more easily find available women.

7) Most women under the age of 30 will not answer phone calls any more and will only communicate with men via text. If I were on the market, I would find this profoundly annoying, but it’s true. Many women, at least in college, make themselves chiefly available for sex after drinking heavily at parties; this contributes to perceived problems noted by Zimbardo, instead of alleviating them. If women will mostly sleep with guys after drinking and at parties, that’s what guys will do, and guys who follow alternate strategies will not succeed as well. Despite this behavior, many women also say they want more than just a “hookup,” but their stated and revealed preferences diverge (in many instances, but not all). In other words, I’m not sure males are uniquely more anti-social, at least from my perspective. When stated and revealed preferences diverge, I tend to accept evidence of revealed preferences.

EDIT: At the gym, I was telling a friend about this post, and our conversation reminded me of a student who was a sorority girl. The student and I were talking and she mentioned how her sorority was holding an early morning event with a frat, but a lot of the girls didn’t want to go if there wasn’t going to be alcohol because they didn’t know how to talk to boys without it. Point is, atrophied social skills are not limited to one sex.

8) For more on number 7, see Bogle, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus; I read the interviews and thought, “A lot of these people, especially the women, must experience extreme cognitive dissonance.” But people on average do not appear to care much about consistency and hypocrisy, at least in themselves.

9) In “Marry Him!“, Lori Gottlieb argues that women are too picky about long-term partners and can drive themselves out of the reproductive market altogether by waiting too long. This conflicts somewhat with Zimbardo’s claims; maybe we’re all too picky and not picky enough at the same time? She’s also mostly addressing women in their 30s and 40s, while Zimbardo appears to be dealing with people in their teens and 20s.

10) If Zimbardo wrote an entire book the subject, I would read it, although very skeptically.

The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen — Robert Epstein

The Case Against Adolescence should be a better book than it is, much like Sex at Dawn. The central argument is that we create the contemporary adolescence experience (angst, nihilism, penchants for bad TV shows, temper storms) through social and legal restrictions on teenagers that deprive them of any real ability to be or act like adults. I’m inclined towards it, but the book would’ve been greatly helped by peer review.

Epstein is not the first person to notice. In “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” Paul Graham says that “I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects.” This means that teenagers have no real challenges—high school is so fake a challenge that a lot of people find that it poisons education for them—and that they become “neurotic lapdogs:

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

“Coeval” is correct, but it would be more accurate to say that being a teenager was enabled by growing economic wealth more than anything else. Once young people didn’t have to start working immediately, they didn’t. This started happening on a somewhat wide scale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It accelerated after World War II. By now, laws practically prevent people from becoming an adult. The question of why and how this happened, however, remains open.

The Case Against Adolescence offers a dedication: “To Jordan and Jenelle, may you grow up in a world that judges you based on your abilities, not your age.” Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get such a world in the near future because bureaucratic requirements demand hard age cutoffs instead of real judgments. Should you drive when you’re “ready” to drive? How will the DMV decide? It can’t, so laws make 16 the magic age. Based on what I’ve seen at the University of Arizona, most students are “ready” to drink in the sense that they make the choice to do so on their own free will—despite the nominal legal drinking age of 21. But “ready to” can’t be readily gauged by a cop looking at a driver’s license, so we have to choose arbitrary cutoffs.

Many students appear to feel done with high school by the time they’re 16—but high school continues to 18, so, for the vast majority, they stay—not “based on [their] abilities,” but on their age. Without those bureaucratic requirements, judgment based on abilities might be more possible. In some realms, it is: this might be why the image of the teenage hacker has become part of pop culture. In computer programming, one can judge immediately whether the code works and does what its author says it should. There isn’t really such a thing as code that is “avant garde” or otherwise susceptible to influence and taste. In addition, computers are readily available, and posting work online lets one adopt personas that may be “older” than the driver’s license age. As such, working online may alleviate problems with age, sex, race, and other such issues. Online, no one automatically knows you’re a teenager. Offline, it’s obvious.

One reason why contemporary teenagers act the way they do might simply be the “role models” they have—who tend to be each other. As Epstein says, “Because teens in preindustrial countries spend most of their time with adults—both family members and co-workers—adults become their role models, not peers. What’s more, their primary task is not to break free of adults but rather to become productive members of their families and their communities as soon as they are able.” But the term “preindustrial countries” sounds wrong: countries didn’t really coalesce into more than city-states until after the industrial revolution. A lot of contemporary political problems arise from imposing European “countries” on territories with diverse tribal or clan identities. Furthermore, I’m not sure that hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies can be lumped together like this. And I don’t think most agrarians would think of others as “co-workers,” an idea that comes from modern offices.

That’s one example of the book’s sloppiness. The other is simpler: our economy increasingly rewards advanced education, which means that the economic productivity of people without it is going down. So we might have a very good reason for forcing teenagers to attend school for long periods of time, namely that most won’t be able to accomplish much without it. The keyword is “most:” there are obvious exceptions, and the kinds of people likely to be reading this blog are more likely to be the exceptions. Epstein observes that for most of human existence, people we now call teenagers were more like adults. He’s right. But there’s a problem with his argument.

Early on, he says, “For the first time in human history, we have artificially extended childhood well past puberty. Simply stated, we are not letting our young people grow up.” The reasons for this are complex, and Epstein suggests an evolutionary narrative for greater capability earlier in history than we might now assume: “our young ancestors must have been capable of providing for their offspring. . . and in most other respects functioning fully as adults” because, if they couldn’t, “their young could not have survived.” This is true, but most of human history also hasn’t occurred in industrial and post-industrial times. We’re living in a weird era by almost any standard, so the reason teenagers are treated like teenagers might be an economic argument.

They can’t produce much until they have a lot of education, and productive adults don’t usually have time to train them. As Graham says of schools, “In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.” Teens might have use for adults, but not a lot of adults have much use for teenagers. In my parents’ business, Seliger + Associates, employing me was probably a net drag until I was 17 or 18, and even then I was only productive because I’d been working for them for so long. Epstein underestimates what a “specialized industrial society” looks like. The larger point that young people are probably going to be more capable if we let them be is true. But the flip side of positive capability is the negative possibility of failure.

Epstein does anticipate part of Graham’s argument:

[. . .] in most industrialized countries today teens are almost completely isolated from adults; they’re immersed in ‘teen culture,’ required or urged to attend school until their late teens or early twenties, largely prohibited from or discouraged from working, and largely restricted, when they do work, to demeaning, poorly paid jobs.

But he doesn’t elaborate on why this might be. Delaying adulthood can have a lot of reasons, and he sometimes confuses correlation with causation: just because men and women marry later than they used to, as Epstein argues on page 30, doesn’t mean that they’re delaying adulthood: it means they might want fun, they might not need marriage for economic purposes, and they don’t need marriage for sex. Disconnecting sex from marriage probably explains as much of this as anything else does.

He does notice institutionalized hypocrisy, which is useful. For example, “Whether we like the idea or not, young people who commit serious crimes are indeed emulating adults—adult behavior, adult emotions, adult ideas. They see adults on the streets, on TV, in movies, and in newspapers and magazines doing heinous things every day. What’s more, when a young person commits a crime, he or she is demonstrating control over his or her own life.” A sixteen year old who commits murder can be tried as an adult; a sixteen year old who has sex still has to be protected like a child, even if it’s the same sixteen year old. A twenty year old sends a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend, but a seventeen year old emulating the twenty year old’s behavior can’t.

I think a lot of this has to do with parent desires: they don’t want kids having sex because the economic consequences of pregnancy are severe and because parents are often left to clean up the financial and emotional messes in a way they don’t have to with, say, 21 year olds. Part of this is because of social expectations, but part may still be because of economics, which is the great missing piece of The Case Against Adolescence. Robin Hanson notes the labor component of the child / adolescent argument. I think he’s missing one major component of his argument: parents on average probably don’t want their offspring to leave school because they associate school with higher eventual earnings and economic success that will translate to social / reproductive success. So I don’t think it’s just other laborers who don’t want kids in the workforce—it’s also probably parents as a whole.

You can find more about judicial and sexual hypocrisy in in Judith Levine’s book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, which should probably be better known than it is. As she says:

This book, at bottom, is about fear. America’s fears about child sexuality are both peculiarly contemporary […] and forged deep in history. Harmful to Minors recounts how that fear got its claws into America in the late twentieth century and how, abetted by a sentimental, sometimes cynical, politics of child protectionism, it now dominates the way we think and act about children’s sexuality.

We’re probably afraid of sexuality because we’re afraid of the costs of pregnancy and because of the United States’ religious heritage. Those “fears about child sexuality” are unlikely to go away in part because there is some level of rationality in them: we’re unhappy when people reproduce and can’t afford their offspring. So we call people who mostly aren’t economically viable “children,” even when they’re physiologically and psychologically not. It’s dumb, but it’s what we do.

Furthermore, we don’t really know why adolescence, if it didn’t really exist until the twentieth century, didn’t. Epstein cites a 2003 New Yorker article by Joan Acocella called “Little People: When did we start treating children like children?“, which notes, “If, as is said, adolescence wasn’t discovered until the twentieth century, that may be because earlier teen-agers didn’t have time for one, or, if they did, it wasn’t witnessed by their parents.” Notice the tentativeness of this sentence: “as is said,” “that may be,” “or.” We don’t know. We might never entirely know. Contemporary adolescence might, like being overweight and having a 60″ TV, be a condition of modernity, and earlier peoples might have developed it too if they’d been rich enough.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to posit some solutions. Problem is, I don’t have any, or any that are practical. Eliminating middle school and having “high school” go from seventh to tenth grades might one, followed by something more like community college or a real university, would be a good place to start, along with letting people enter contracts at sixteen instead of eighteen. The probability of this happening is so low that I feel dumb for even mentioning it. Not all problems have solutions, but being aware of the problem might be a very small part of the start.

The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more

In “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age,” Charlotte Allen describes the relatively widespread hookup culture:

Welcome to the New Paleolithic, where tens of thousands of years of human mating practices have swirled into oblivion like shampoo down the shower drain and Cro-Magnons once again drag women by the hair into their caves—and the women love every minute of it. Louts who might as well be clad in bearskins and wielding spears trample over every nicety developed over millennia to mark out a ritual of courtship as a prelude to sex: Not just marriage (that went years ago with the sexual revolution and the mass-marketing of the birth-control pill) or formal dating (the hookup culture finished that)—but amorous preliminaries and other civilities once regarded as elementary, at least among the college-educated classes.

She sees such a culture as a result and driver of devaluing marriage, feminism, and biology, citing as evidence Tucker Max, evolutionary psychology, Roissy in DC (who is despicable yet hilarious), women complaining publicly about their husbands, very long-term educations (medical residencies and PhDs now routinely stretch into the early 30s), and delayed marriage. This is mostly a bad thing in Allen’s eyes. Maybe it is mostly a bad thing, but even if it is, I don’t think the hook-up culture being described is likely to stop for basically economic reasons: the equilibrium for it appears to lean toward hooking up for most people and technology is lowering the “cost” of casual sex.

The second one is probably the most interesting, and the first can mostly be understood by reading Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Kathleen Bogle’s Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. The basic problem both describe is that situations in which women outnumber men tend to lead to hooking up, while situations in which the opposite occurs tend to lead to the opposite. But I wonder how much of this is due to technological development driving social change, rather than vice-versa. “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” shows that parental and institutional attitudes towards premarital sex have softened over time, and “Contraception has reduced the chance of unwanted pregnancies from premarital sex, and this in turn has changed social attitudes.”

The parental attitudes issue can be seen in Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss’ 2008 journal article, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). The short version: parents work harder to control and limit their daughters’ sexuality than their sons’, perhaps for evolutionary reasons. They don’t say whether this effect has declined over time, but based on the research in “From shame to game,” I would guess that the answer is yes. Still, if the evolutionary incentive of parents is toward controlling and limiting their daughters’ sexuality, this would help explain why the stigma against extensive sexuality still exists, especially among younger women. And parents might want to limit sexuality because they have to deal with potential costs, like pregnancy, but don’t experience the obvious pleasures. Younger men, on the other hand, don’t get pregnant, and their perceived sexual value doesn’t seem to decline with the number of partners—hence why the double-standard persists, even though, as Allen points out, it is weakening. And technology is probably hastening that, which leads to laments like Allen’s.

One other technologically related issue is there too: porn, and the near-zero cost of its dissemination (cell phones, and “sexting,” can now make anyone a pornographer in under a minute, including those under 18). I remember reading about a study-in-progress in which the lead researcher said,

“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.

Although I doubt porn has the power that some of its detractors imply, it is also hard to believe that pornography’s sheer ubiquity hasn’t had some effect on how women and men treat sexuality—and, presumably, the effect is lowering the stigma of sex by showing that, regardless of what authority figures say, plenty of people are doing it.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes about “… the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore nothing is permitted.” The quote is hilariously out of context but nonetheless gets closer to expressing something essential about modern sexual politics (and it seems like Europe got there first, as it often does socially): sex changes “things,” that nebulous word, but it in its consensual form it isn’t fundamentally harmful. Everything is pardoned in advance, except maybe pleasure for its own sake, and everything is permitted, contra Kundera. Sex is becoming less harmful all the time. Consequently and perhaps not surprisingly, people are having a lot more of it, since it’s probably still as fun as it used to be (although we all know that there’s nothing like forbidden fruit to spark an appetite: consequently the pleasure of novels that take as their impetus a love that exists even though it can’t or shouldn’t). Who can blame the Manhattan woman who’s had on average “20 sex partners during her lifetime,” according to Allen? I’m reminded of Tony Judt describing early 60s Britain in “Girls! Girls! Girls!:”

Even if you got a date, it was like courting your grandmother. Girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips, and petticoats. Older boys assured me that these were mere erotic impedimenta, easily circumnavigated. I found them terrifying. And I was not alone, as any number of films and novels from that era can illustrate. Back then we all lived on Chesil Beach.

Now very few of us, unless we have unusual religious convictions without the usual hypocrisy those convictions entail (think of Margaret Talbot’s article “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” in which she asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?“), live on Chesil Beach. Instead, we live in Roissy’s carnival, in a world of options, and the real question is whether we understand that world and our own choices in it. The bigger problem than the sex other people might be having is the gap between our behavior and our understanding of our behavior, which, at least to this observer, seems as wide as ever.

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