T'HE LOGIC behind the sexual revolution seemed compelling at the time: (1) Sex is fun; (2) Lots of sex will be lots of fun. But there must have been a flaw in the argument somewhere, because just about everyone seems to agree that sexual liberation has brought as much pain as joy, and that its present demise is not something to mourn.
Maybe the weak link was the underlying assumption that males and females aren't very different when it comes to sex, love, and romance. Obviously, this assumption was a vital one; it permitted men and women to hop in bed without worrying that their differing motivations and expectations might leave a messy aftermath. And, obviously, if the assumption was wrong, it's no mystery why the revolution fostered a lot of painful misunderstandings.
What's amazing, in retrospect, is that the assumption took hold so fast, because it violated stereotypes that had been thriving for much of the preceding two million years of human history. Women, the conventional wisdom had long held, prefer that sex be linked to love, or at least romance; what they're ultimately looking for is an emotional investment, a lasting commitment. Men, on the other hand, have long been thought of as little more than animals: they mainly want sex, and, though they occasionally get romantic in pursuing it, they ultimately accept commitment largely because society expects it of them; if left to their own devices, they'd do nothing but seduce and abandon. This is a caricature, of course, but it roughly captures the folk wisdom that had gone largely unchallenged until the 1960s.
Now, as the smoke clears, this folk wisdom seems to be reinsinuating itself in the Zeitgeist. Single men and women, struck by how often love affairs bring something other than what they were after, are muttering once again about how different the sexes are. Women are writing books that begin by assuming men are hard to hold on to and then give tips for holding on to them. Even feminists—who did as much as the sexual revolution itself to popularize the Idea of the inherent symmetry of the sexes—are conceding that men and women are deeply, if not innately, different when it comes to romance. Meanwhile, traditionalists are jumping on the bandwagon too. Of course men and women are different, they're saying; that's why you need things like long, abstinent courtships—to keep women from getting hurt. The moral pendulum, it's safe to say, is swinging to the right.
IF IT STARTS swinging back to the left anytime soon, Ethel Spector Person can rightly claim that she was in the vanguard of change. Person, who teaches psychiatry at Columbia University, has written a book called Dreams of love and Fateful Encounters: The Power of Romantic
passion. The book's niche is well-defined. It's a conscious departure from all the pragmatic prescriptions for finding and keeping a man, for making marriages last, for fashioning a "mature" love out of the differing expectations of the sexes. Person clears her throat early in the book and declares herself a champion, rather, of passionate love.
Indeed, a passionate champion of passionate love: "In love," she writes, "the lover concentrates all his desire on the single object of his passion. He desires her with his soul and with his body." And once he gets her: "The lovers savor the secret knowledge that is theirs. In their experience, never has there been such rapture, such transport, such transcendence and bliss. The flesh of a peach, the luminosity of early morning, the sound of distant churchbells—the pleasure the lover takes in all these small experiences is heightened by love, suffused with special meaning."
Sounds great. But you can't help wondering: How long does this particular phase of love last? A few days? A month? Until the third anniversary? Such questions draw a stern rebuke from Person. "Even if romantic love is often short-lived, how mistaken it is to think that its transience disqualifies it from significance. Such a point of view bespeaks a miserly and reductive way of thinking, as though love were a thing, to be acquired and retained if it is to be of value." To follow Person's prescription for finding meaning in the 1980s, you have to stop worrying so much about how long things will last. Instead, she seems to believe, you should follow your passion where it leads, and let the chips fall where they may.
It would be nice if things were this simple. But they're not, and the reason is that the suspicion now dawning on pretty much everyone is well-founded: men and women are fundamentally different in matters of sex, romance, and love. What's more, these differences appear to be inherent. Though there are various theories as to their origin, by far the most plausible is the Darwinian one. It holds that evolution inscribed the differing dispositions in the genes—and that passion will thus forever remain a very different thing for men than for women. And if men and women blindly pursue it, neither one is likely to wind up happy.
TO GRASP the Darwinian line on passion, it helps to grasp the Darwinian line on emotions generally: they’re something natural selection built into us as a way to control our behavior in the interests of survival and reproduction. For instance, fear and anger, presumably, exist because they’ve long been useful in protecting us; fear ensures vigilance against threats, and anger helps vanquish threats. Passion, similarly, exists because it leads to sexual intercourse, and thus to offspring.
If you accept this conception of passion—as nature's way of warming us up to sex—then the next step in understanding the meaning of passion is clear: figure out the meaning of sex. Specifically, the question is: How, according to the theory of evolution, are men and women likely to differ in their approaches toward sex? One way to answer this question is to play the role natural selection has played in human history: pretend you're in charge of programming the brains of human (and prehuman) beings with the rules of behavior that will guide them through life, and that the object of the game is to maximize each person's genetic legacy. To oversimplify a bit: you're supposed to make each person behave in such a way that he or she is likely to have lots of offspring—offspring, moreover, who themselves have lots of offspring.
Of course, there are differences between what you're doing when you play this game and what natural selection actually does. Natural selection doesn't consciously maximize the genetic legacy of organisms. It just blindly preserves the genetically based traits that lead to survival and reproduction; it favors, by definition, the genes most conducive to their own proliferation. Nonetheless, natural section works as if it were consciously designing organisms, so this game is a legitimate way to figure out what sorts of behavioral tendencies evolution is likely to have ingrained in people.
In trying to maximize everyone's genetic legacy, you'd quickly discover that this goal implies different behavioral rules for men and women. Why? Because men can reproduce hundreds of times a year, assuming they can persuade enough women to cooperate, whereas women can't reproduce more than once a year. For a woman, each child represents a huge investment of time, not to mention energy, and nature has allotted her no more than 20 or so investments in the course of her lifetime. So it's in the interests of her genes for her to be discriminating in matters of sex; assuming there are many men eager to mate with her (which, for reasons we'll come to, will typically be the case), she should size up her mate fairly carefully before letting him in on the investment. The big question is: Will union with this man produce offspring who are likely to survive and reproduce?
THE WOMAN needn't actually ask herself this question. Indeed, much of the evolution we're talking about took place well before our ancestors were smart enough to ask much of any- thing. But the theory of evolution predicts that this question should be implicit in the criteria by which a female selects a mate; that in turning passion on and off, her brain will generally act in the interests of her genes. For example, if life is a jungle, and brute strength is the main determinant of survival, a woman should favor a big, strong man, so that (among other reasons) the genes that made him big and strong will be passed on to her children. To the extent that survival calls for more than brute strength, she may look for other things too—brains, for example, assuming intelligence is in some part genetic (which it is). And, in addition to doing a trait-by-trait inventory, she can look for a man who's succeeded in amassing lots of resources and establishing a secure and formidable position within society; the implicit assumption is that whatever it takes to get by in the world, he must have it. (The study of non-human primate societies suggests that during much of our evolutionary history, social status has been correlated with access to critical resources.) Besides, even if his genetic endowment has nothing to do with his social status and wealth, he can still use these advantages to further the interests of his mate and children.
Assuming he sticks around. This is another factor that should figure heavily in the woman's evaluation: she would prefer a man, ideally, who will be around when the child is born. After all, she has to be around then, and it would be in the interests of her genes to have some help. So it might make sense, before committing herself to sex, to spend some time trying to discern the man's long-term prospects. Is he loyal? Is he faithful? Is he deeply attracted to her? You can never be sure about these things, but an educated guess would be worth making.
And what of the man's selection of a mate? What should he be looking for? It's tempting to answer: anything he can get his hands on. After all, he, unlike the woman, can theoretically have hundreds of children a year. If he can convince lots of different women to sleep with him—and, as we've seen, it probably will take some convincing—he's likely to have a substantial genetic legacy. In evolution, that's all that counts.
FORTUNATELY for civilization, the picture is more complex than this. Rampant, indiscriminate sexual conquest may not, for a variety of reasons, be the male's ideal mating strategy. For example, if the jungle is such a dangerous place that a child stands almost no chance of survival without two parents, then the logic of evolution could militate in favor of pair bonding (as zoologists refer to marriage). Obviously, at some point in our evolutionary history, some such factors endowed men with a capacity for emotional attachments of long duration.
On the other hand, having settled down, a man might nonetheless gain, in genetic terms, by doing a little discreet philandering; so long as the illegitimate child's chances of surviving are greater than zero, and the cheating doesn't lower the chances of the legitimate offspring's surviving and reproducing, it can't hurt, in evolutionary terms. In contrast, indiscriminate philandering on a woman's part doesn't make evolutionary sense; assuming her mate is fertile, it probably won't increase the number of her offspring. To be sure, there are circumstances under which cheating does make genetic sense for the female, but they're relatively narrow.
You can play this game forever, delving into ever more detailed evolutionary scenarios, trying to discern even the finest-grained differences that natural selection might build into the sexes. But for our purposes, this broadbrush view will do; the theory of natural selection predicts that, to the extent that romantic and sexual behavior are genetically governed, women will seek a man who is big and strong, fairly smart, of high social standing (perhaps wealthy), and yet, notwithstanding all these things, good— loyal and faithful and full of everlasting love for her. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be much less discriminating about whom they sleep with, and less eager to keep their mates around for years and years. To be sure, it may make genetic sense for a male to settle down with one woman, and if so he can be expected to scrutinize her first, seeking much the same physical, mental, and moral fitness that she will want in him. (Her fidelity, in particular, is a matter of keen interest to him, evolution doesn't tolerate males who spend their time raising other men's kids.) But he shouldn't be so single-minded in his pursuit of lasting love, nor necessarily so faithful once he's found it. In short: men should be much more able than women to separate sex from love. Does any of this sound familiar?
IT SHOULD. Because the evidence is strong that the men and women described above—the men and women you'd expect to see if the rules of romance were written in the genes by natural selection—are, broadly speaking, the men and women who populate the world today. The evidence consists not just of casual observations and time-honored stereotypes (although every-thing from male locker-room humor to male midlife crises does, indeed, seem to support the Darwinian view), but of behavior patterns found throughout the world.
It seems that in every culture, sex is implicitly or explicitly considered something women "give" to ever-eager men. In every modern culture, the market for raw pornography—spiritless flesh—is essentially male, while the market for romance novels—in which sex always comes with a real human being attached, and is typically intertwined with love— is essentially female. In every culture, prostitution is almost exclusively a service for males. And look at the behavior of homosexuals, who don't have to compromise their sexual ideals with those of the opposite sex: gay males are decidedly more promiscuous, and more drawn to impersonal sex, than gay females.
1 could go on, but it's easier to direct any doubters to buy a copy of The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Oxford University Press) by Donald Symons. That is, if you can find one. Though the book made a splash when published in 1979 (as the first phase of the sociobiology controversy was climaxing) and continues to be influential in some academic circles, it hasn't become what it deserves to be: required reading for anyone who wants to understand human sexuality and, by implication, human romance and even love. Indeed, the mere publication of a book like Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters attests to the fact that the world hasn't yet gotten Symons's (and, really, Darwin's) message: the origins of the basic contours of the human mating game are no longer a mystery. No one playing strictly by the rules of science can reasonably subscribe to any explanation other than the Darwinian one.
AT THIS POINT in the discussion, someone usually points out that nobody's proved that the observed differences between men and women in romantic and sexual matters is substantially genetic in its basis. All that's been proved is that people behave as if their behavior were under strong genetic influence. How do we know this isn't just a coincidence? We don't. (Although a growing body of physiological evidence suggests it isn't—beginning with the fact that male brains, heavily influenced by the genetically controlled release of testosterone, develop differently from female brains.) But that's true of science generally: theories are never really proved; they're just found either to account for or to fail to account for the evidence. And the simplest theory that accounts for the evidence wins. In physics and sociology alike, there aren't right theories and wrong theories. There are just good theories and bad theories.
In this case, the evolutionary theory seems to be the best. It starts out with only a few simple, unassailable assumptions (e.g., for millions of years, males and females have differed in the circumstances under which they can reproduce) and with them accounts quite precisely for the complex behaviors in question. In fact, the evolutionary explanation isn't just the best scientific explanation going. It's just about the only explanation that's truly scientific. Most of the others are either hopelessly fuzzy and beyond the reach of empirical falsification (like Freudian explanations) or they beg the question. For example, you often hear that the differences between the sexes are culturally ingrained. And, no doubt, they are, to some extent; the fruits of genetic evolution are typically mirrored in, and thereafter reinforced by, cultural evolution. But how did these differences come to be part of every culture in the first place, if the genes didn't bias the entire species toward them?
ETHEL PERSON has done a great job of demonstrating the power of the evolutionary explanation and the poverty of alternative approaches. This would be a more impressive feat if it had been intentional. Instead, she meant to do something quite different: demonstrate that the differences between the sexes can be found largely in the circumstances of early life—specifically, in the spooky Freudian forces that supposedly surround us from day one. That's why her book is so valuable: even though she had no intention of vindicating the theory of natural selection, her clinical observations mesh with it remarkably. So close is the match, in fact, that her strained attempts to explain these observations in Freudian terms give the book an unintended poignance.
Person insists at the outset that love "does not discriminate between the sexes." Granted, "men and women may be more interested in love at different times in the life cycle or may be more vulnerable to different distortions of love." But, "the power of love does not by nature affect one sex more than the other." In her chapter on the differences between the sexes, she goes into detail about some of these "distortions." She writes, "Women are more at ease with the mutuality implicit in love, as well as the surrender, while men tend to interpret mutuality as dependency and defend against it by separating sex from love." Indeed, the typical man "stands ready to demand sexual and amorous fidelity while disavowing it himself.... He fantasizes about omni-available women and dreams of sex with two women at a time. Often be seeks simultaneous love relationships with two women..."
So far so good; this is indeed the sad truth. But then Person shifts into her explanatory mode, which means, for her, getting Freudian. "Women's preoccupation with pair-bonding and the fear of its disruption can perhaps best be understood in the context of specific features of the female Oedipal constellation. The fact that the girl relinquishes her first object—her mother—in favor of her father has several important ramifications.” And so on. As for the tendency of men to “divorce romantic longing from sexual longing,” the problem is that they’re afraid to love: "The male's fear of the female (and his anger at her) stems from different developmental levels: fear of the pre-Oedipal mother of infancy who abandons/engulfs; of the phallic-narcissistic mother who confirms/denigrates masculinity; of the Oedipal mother who cannot be fulfilled, who rejects and falsely seduces, and who prefers the father."
IT SEEMS obvious—to me, at least—that the evolutionary explanation is much simpler than Person's explanation, less dependent on vague concepts of dubious validity. But that doesn't necessarily spell doom for the Freudian approach, because evolutionary and Freudian theories aren't, strictly speaking, in competition; they're in principle compatible. After all, even if we accept the idea that the genes give the two sexes different behavioral predispositions, the question remains as to how the predisposing gets done. In broad terms, the answer is known: genes build the brain, which governs behavior. But we don't know exactly what sorts of cerebral mechanisms incline, say, men toward separating sex from love. It may be that one of these mechanisms is the fear of intimacy Person alludes to. And it's not inconceivable that Freudian explanations of this fear capture some of the underlying cerebral dynamics. I wouldn't bet on it, but it's possible. Anyway, more fundamental Freudian concepts—id, ego, and superego, and the general emphasis on the unconscious—stand a decent chance of eventual congruence with the theory of natural selection.
One reason you don't hear much about the possibility of a synthesis of Darwinian and Freudian thought is that so few Freudians have a sophisticated understanding of Darwinism. (This tradition dates back to Freud himself; though he fancied himself a state-of-the-art scientist, and tried to keep his ideas informed by the theory of evolution, some of his most recently discovered writings demonstrate substantial ignorance as to what Darwin was talking about.) Another reason is that behavioral biologists, though often impressed with Freud's insights into the human predicament (notably as rendered in Civilization and Its Discontents), are by now so fed up with modern-day Freudian obfuscation that most of them would rather bury Freud than rescue him. So a reconciliation of Darwin and Freud—even assuming one is possible, which isn't yet clear—is unlikely to happen anytime soon. If one never comes, and it turns out to be a battle to the death, my money's on Darwin.
A good example of how an evolutionary perspective could inform a psychoanalytic perspective is the well-documented tendency of men to dichotomize womankind—whether through the infamous Madonna-Whore complex or some more subtle version of the idea that there are "two kinds of women." From a Darwinian stance, it's easy to come up with provocative speculation on the roots of this syndrome. It may, for example, have something to do with the two kinds of sex that can make genetic sense for a male: the long-term commitment kind, and the sneaking around on the side kind. Or it may be a mechanism that facilitates dumping women suspected of infidelity, some- what as our remarkable capacity to dichotomize people as either allies or enemies facilitates guiltless killing during war.
These are tentative ideas, and they may well be wrong. But they're more plausible than Person's baroque, Freudian explanation, which is completely untethered to our understanding of the process that created human beings: "Just as the girl may register problems with the Oedipal father and not just the Oedipal mother, so, too, does the boy's erotic development show the traces of tensions with both." You know what this can lead to: "The female genitals and the female herself... will become a secondary source of castration anxiety and the mother, along with the father, will be seen as a potential castrater. And so it is that the Dark Lady is born in the imagination."
ONE COMMON reaction to the evolutionary line on romance is that it may be true but it's not helpful; it will only serve to depress us alland will probably shore up the status quo. Men will see in Darwinism the long-awaited proof that they're born to philander. Women will remain forever the second sex.
There are several points to make in response. First, this complaint better not come from any Freudians, who make their living on the assumption that the truth will set you free. Second, the theory of evolution isn't all that broad in its implication of differences between the sexes, so taking it seriously needn't return us to a world where women do dishes and change diapers while men smoke cigars. When it comes to observed differences in career drive, career choice, intellect (the analytical/aesthetic or math/verbal split), and other areas, the picture gets much cloudier. Only in the realm of romance does Darwin speak unequivocally: the basic difference in reproductive roles, which has existed since long before we were human, implies clear-cut behavioral differences that are borne out empirically. Third, even within the realm of romance, it's likely that understanding the evolutionary roots of human nature can actually help things. Or, to turn the proposition around: not understanding them can hurt. Witness Person's book. It embodies exactly the kind of dreamy idealism that not only failed to lead us to Nirvana in the '60s, but probably left us worse off than before.
"'Good' love," she writes, "is love that ultimately promotes the lover's sense of self-worth and liberates him from the strictures of self. Whether that love lasts the millennium is not the over-riding consideration." Someone old- fashioned might ask Person: What is love for, then, if not to give coherence to your entire life? Anyone who's had even a passing encounter with a shrink could guess her answer: love is a tool for personal transformation. It's "one of life's pre-eminent crucibles for change"; it's "not only a major route to self-transcendence, butto self-realization and self-transformation as well." In short, psychotherapy isn't here to help you love; love is here in the service of psychotherapy.
Seeing romance in this light leads nat- urally to awareness of the virtue of adul- tery, during which "the passionate yearning stage of love, which is usually relatively brief, can be sustained for an uncharacteristically long time." (True. And passion between spouses can be sustained, too, so long as they only see each other for an hour a week in a Holi- day Inn.) Person concedes that adultery has its down side. Still, "it cannot be de- nied that some of the most transforming and positive love affairs are in fact adulterous."
Among the problems with looking at love as an adjunct to psychotherapy is that, after all the transformations and liberations, all the self-transcendence and self-realization, there's work to be done. Specifically, children need to be brought into the world and, when possible, turned into stable, happy, and productive adults—goals that call for keeping their development as free as possible from such traumas as divorce, parental infidelity, and general narcissistic neglect. If this were the only problem with the world implied by Person's injunction to pursue romance fervently—if rampant divorce and perennial singleness took a toll only on collective social responsibilities—we could engage in a good long debate about whether adults should have to sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good of posterity. But let's face it: Person's world doesn't bring personal happiness anyway.
Just ask some of the people who have been living in it for the past two decades—all the women, for example, who are entering their 40s alone and childless, or with children and no husband. Or ask all the men that age who also are divorced or never married. You won't find them especially fulfilled either. Of course, the childless men, unlike the childless women, aren't watching their prospects for parenthood rapidly approach zero, and their chances of future romance aren't shrinking at all; one of the more stubborn differences between the sexes is that men remain marketable longer than women do, (This is exactly what you'd expect from evolution, since men stay fertile longer) Still, men and women alike are in some measure victims of the Person prescription. They've pursued their passions, and it hasn't left them with a deep and lasting bond to another human being.
AND WHY NOT? Because passion is different for men and women. If evolution has indeed made men less selective about sex partners, and less inclined to latch on to them permanently, then you'd expect male passion to come and go more easily than female passion; you'd expect that, as Symons has observed, men fall into and out of passionate love more easily than women. Further, you'd expect men often to fall out of it after a few weeks, or months, or maybe years, of sex—after, to put it crudely (and metaphorically), their genes have gotten what they wanted. As nature would have it, this is just when women are probably not especially inclined to fall out of love. It wouldn't make much evolutionary sense, as we've seen, for a woman to dump a man casually once she's let him invest in her offspring. This fundamental asymmetry suggests that, so long as men and women float around pursuing passionate love, and nothing else, they'll have trouble coming to lasting terms with each other.
None of this is to say, by the way, that women never dump a mate and never view sex as a conquest, or that infidelity at middle-age isn't ever a temptation, or a reality, for women. Human behavior is immensely complex, and highly sensitive to the environment—which may be quite different, bear in mind, from the environment in which evolution took place. Nonetheless, the theory of natural selection implies strong differences of behavioral disposition; it says that women should, in a general, statistical sense, be less prone to certain behaviors than men. And the evidence indicates that this is the case.
IT ISN'T immediately clear, in light of all these seemingly depressing truths, where hope lies. The traditions that have been crumbling—like taking wedding vows with a straight face, and whispering very bad things about people who break them—seem to have embodied great wisdom about the nature of men and women. Marriage is an institution that was cleverly designed to reconcile the differing interests of the sexes—and to reconcile these interests, moreover, with the larger social goals of raising children and keeping life fairly civilized.
Sure, there are plenty of legitimate gripes about marriage, including the rigid division of labor it long implied, and the state of abject dependence that women were once relegated to. But these things aren't inherent in monogamous marriage, as many couples have recently demonstrated. Marriage has other short-comings too, and always will. But what can you expect? As we've seen, it doesn't have much to work with in the way of raw materials.
Whether marriage can make a real comeback—resist the erosion of infidelity in an age of easy contraception and waning religious faith—remains to be seen. And one critical question is whether, once men know the ugly Darwinian truth about themselves, things won't get even worse. There's no doubt that scores of husbands will be delighted to hear that their philandering is "genetically programmed." They'll jump to embrace the mistaken inference that there's nothing they can do about it.
But most such men are already convinced that they're different from women, and have been justifying infidelity with exactly this rationale all along. To men capable of reflection and self-control, the evolutionary view only underscores the absurdity and futility of their passing fancies and midlife crises: it's all just a trick their genes use to get them in the sack. And the ultimate consequences of succumbing are—given that men and women are just plain different—unlikely to be pleasant for anyone involved.
MAYBE THE BEST hope, in the end, is that men will learn how to use their genes rather than being used by them; that they'll learn to seize one of the deeper passing fancies fairly early in life and work hard at making it something other than passing. There's testimony from many generations of men that this can be done. And there's testimony, from some of them, at least, that it's worth the trouble; that a coherent life, shared with another person (and several little people), is, in the final analysis, far preferable to endless aimlessness punctuated by spasms of "transcendence and self-transformation," as Person might put it. One of the most miraculous things about evolution is that it has built into both sexes the capacity not just for passion or romance but for lasting love. One sex may have to work harder for it than the other, but millions of satisfied customers agree that it's attainable. They've learned the law of the modern jungle: real fulfillment—spiritual fulfillment, if you like—comes only after you understand that narrow self-interest is a dim guiding light. That's the difference between beasts and men.
For men who would rather not face the futility of the eternal quest for young flesh, Ethel Person's book will serve as a great blindfold. She writes; "It is in the search for something else, something new and Other, that we come to find renewed meaning and hope in life." Love, she says, is "a wonderfully elegant and efficient means of tying up many of the unresolved issues and loose ends of our lives and devising new and more vital syntheses. Love always gives us one more chance." That it does. But what Person doesn't understand—and can't, as a woman, be expected to understand—is that men, if left to the dictates of the more ancient parts of their brains, will
always want one more chance. And each time they tie up some loose ends, others will come unraveled.
This article originally appeared in the July 11, 1988 issue of the magazine.