Where Are You, Sexularity?

In recent centuries, humanity has got better at all sorts of things it has put its minds to. Farming, maths, war, extreme ironing, getting computers to play chess etc. But there is one endeavour that we don’t seem to be get much better at, despite a top notch obsession: romance. You might become more adept at flirtation or domestic happiness over the years, but it’s not clear that society as a whole is improving.

What do I mean by ‘better at romance’? Well, there are costs and benefits to romance. Having to buy sexy clothes, going on unpleasant dates, paying for pleasant dates, obsessing over another person’s every utterance for months, crying over break ups, blushing over refusals, and compromising over the layout of the living room are all costs. You can probably think of some benefits. I will say we are better at romance when we are more efficient at it, that is we get more benefits for the costs we incur. A romantically efficient person gets more affection and orgasms for the same input of searching and pining, just as an efficient farmer gets more grain and pigs for the same amount of land and dirt. The big question: are we getting more romantically efficient?

It’s fairly hard to judge the rate of improvement here. Romantic satisfaction is complicated to measure and measuring it too quantitatively is supposedly destructive to it. People tend to be private and deceitful about it. But suppose we were getting efficient at romance as fast as we are getting efficient at, say, animating movies. We would notice, even without detailed records, because the relationship we have now would have been completely unbelievable ten years ago (OK, for some near the start of our adult lives this is still true). Even if romance was improving as fast as say farming, everyone would be able to see a huge improvement since their grandparents’ time, when one had to get up at 5AM to start the foreplay.

Still, perhaps romance is improving more slowly than we can tell with such primitive observation methods. There are some reasons to think it is, and some to think it might be getting worse or at least moving very slowly. Let’s break romance down into a few different parts. First you have to find someone to do it with. Then you have to convince them that they have also found someone. Then you have to actually do whatever it is you wanted to do with them, and both enjoy it, or get whatever else it was you wanted out of it.

The initial searching part may have been aided in recent years by internet matching services. This includes both dedicated dating sites and obscure corners of the blogosphere where specific breeds of weirdo can meet their matches, combined with search engines. I suspect this has been very good for unusual people. In the old days you could go a lifetime without even realising other deaf nudist architects existed. Now you can google for them in seconds. That’s something your ancestors would be impressed by, or would be if your ancestors were the kinds of people who couldn’t find a partner, which they were not.

Along with better ways to find people, the internet means there are just a lot more people available to look through. This is also a result of cheaper transport and bigger cities. If you are rational, having more people to pick from should help. But a smorgasbord can tempt one to taste everything, even when you find something good quickly (which you probably will if you are a normal person looking for another normal person). If people raise their standards in the face of so many options, or feel the need to look a lot further, or become indecisive and noncommittal, the extra options may not be helping them at the moment.

Convincing one’s chosen person to reciprocate is something that people put a lot of thought into. They learn ‘game’ and get makeovers and become interested in football. Arguably the rest of human behaviour also falls into this category. So individuals become more impressive in many ways. Unfortunately this is a zero sum game as far as attracting the person goes, assuming monogamy. There is some benefit to men for instance from all women looking more attractive as a result of their competition. But it’s doubtful whether this benefit is worth all the effort the women put into the fight. The same goes for other characteristics, though some may have large enough offsetting positives to other people to make the competitions worthwhile, though still not very romantically efficient. For instance some ways that people have found to show off their intelligence are quite useful.

Because this is all about signaling, innovations that make it easier for say a stupid person to seem smarter mean that the smarter people have to work harder to look even smarter again. So the overall outcome of one person becoming better at seducing their beloved in the short term can be a loss of efficiency for everyone in the long term. A few hundred years ago perhaps you could demonstrate that you were well connected by occasionally having good gossip about a local elite. Now people specialise in collecting this gossip and spreading it to everyone with a few moments to read it. This both defeats that particular purpose of having the gossip for everybody, and means that you have go to more effort to show that you really do have such connections, such as being seen in public with elite person.

OK, once we finish choosing and convincing and get to the part about enjoying one another, the competition is over. Surely any advancements in promoting marital felicity and having wild sex could be shared and improved upon by all? Well I for one have no idea what the cutting edge discoveries are, which points to a problem here. People just don’t honestly share such information that much, which, as we learned in the hunter gatherer era, does not rapid innovation make. There are of course self help books on these topics, and pharmaceutical innovations, and academic research into what effect squirting chemicals in your face has on your love life for instance. I expect these help a bit, but missing out on the learning through doing of billions of people is quite a loss.

It may have also have become harder to enjoy what you’ve got due to the increased ease of switching to something else. The larger choice of partners I mentioned earlier also means there are more people to suspect might be better than your current partner. Some claim pornography has a similar effect. Despite this, pornography is probably a major force for romantic efficiency. At least if you extend ‘romance’ to relationships with online videos, it may be the one area romantic efficiency really has jumped ahead lately. Thank you internet.

Romance matters to us all. Efficiency is even more important. Romantic efficiency should be a key issue, but on many fronts our progress is hampered, and improvements seem sparse. There is no pacifist movement for stemming the waste from romantic conflict nor any transparency movement for stopping the secrecy that slows romantic innovation. I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I hope that in the coming century we can all follow where the oddballs and pornography enthusiasts have led and enjoy soaring advancement of romantic efficiency.

Katja Grace is a philosophy student who blogs at http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com.

32 Responses

  1. David Levine says:

    What a thought-provoking piece. A few more considerations.

    In identifying a potential relationship partner: Offsetting the helpful Internet, there is probably less of use match-makers.

    In signalling: Some negative-sum signals like battling someone in the next village have probably declined, which has reduced the social cost of romance (even as use of other costly signals has increased).

    In permitting relationships: Decline in laws and norms against mixed-race couples has improved the productivity of romance.

    Lower costs of exiting relationships lowers investments, as you point out. The flip side is that increased gender equality in employment and in property law, a shift in laws and norms against wife abuse, and easier divorce all reduce bad relationships.

    A few questions your essay provoked:

    Is there evidence the Internet has improved sexual satisfaction within the relationship as skills improve (as opposed to with the video screen)? Or harmed sexual satisfaction as reality pales against the video screen?

    Is there evidence that decades of discussion about how schools have to teach cooperation has improved communciation and problem solving within relationships?

    What would it take to improve people’s ability to know themselves and know what would make a good relationship for them? Job counselors have batteries of tests and give reams of advice on a good career for someone with a given set of interests. What is the romantic counterpart? How would we know the quality of the resulting advice?

  2. Christine says:

    Recently a brain scan test has been developed that can determine if a person is a psychopath or not (only psychopaths register with a certain pattern of brain waves). If we can just keep such individuals out of the gene pool, our romantic efficiency will go wayyyy up. Not to mention the human race will vastly improve.

    • Anonymous says:

      Where did you get from “brain scan” to “gene pool” to “romantic efficiency”?

    • gwern says:

      > If we can just keep such individuals out of the gene pool, our romantic efficiency will go wayyyy up.

      Psychopaths are usually reported at percentages really small, like 1%. How does excluding 1% of bad apples give us massive boosts? (It’s not even clear that psychopaths are 100% bad, either, romantically; ‘power is an aphrodisiac’, right?)

  3. JPDF says:

    Being able to marry someone of the dame sex as you, rather than being forced to marry someone of the opposite sex, where they kind of know but don’t want to think about it and you have to make do with wanks in public toilets. That’s an improvement, and one that seems to be happening globally at a pretty staggering pace.

  4. A Blinkworth says:

    Convincing one’s beloved to reciprocate is an exersize in both determination and subtlety, and not to be scorned, for it is not unusual to realise an uncommon peace in someone’s company, while they, for all sorts of hormonal and societal reasons, as well as timing, do not realise their ideals are too specific. Romance is about being recognised ,valued and adored rather than being merely using one another for sex, so the concept of convincing them, rather than practising olympic quality sexual gymnastics is indeed romantic.

    For unusual people it is very good there are interest groups and search engines in the unbiosphere, and for normal people, such as LEB the dedicated dating sites are probably both convenient and good. The smarter you are the harder it is to find someone to talk to who also smells romantic, and it is definitely not normal to be very smart.

    I rather liked the allusion to getting “up at 5AM to start the foreplay.” As long as we still get down to things at that hour,as our ancestors knew, waking up to be loved, early morning sex, with enough time to really enjoy it ,has a different romantic quality to any other moment in the day.

  5. Robert says:

    This article seems to conflate romance with monogamy, which is an old-fashioned judgment to begin with.

    • Faze says:

      There’s nothing intrinsically reactionary about monogamy or progressive about promiscuity or multiple partners. It’s all about your preference as an individual, which in turn depends on your biological makeup.

      There is no “one size fits all” for couples relationships or sexuality. Some people will be most comfortable in a monogamous relationship, and they should be able to enjoy that without feeling that they’re stodgy and no fun. Some people can actually handle and are able to enjoy the promiscuous lifestyle we see on TV and in movies. It can be done, but you have to be genetically wired for it.

      Some people just aren’t that into sex, and may go through their lives with very little or very few partners. This is fine, because that’s the way nature made them. It would be a disaster for someone like that to feel that he or she needed to be out there having tons of sex or many partners in order to be “fulfilled” and not appear to him or herself as repressed.

      We should accept all levels of partnership and sexuality as legitimate just as we all now accept most sexual preferences as equally legitimate.

      We shouldn’t put down monogamy any more than we should condemn promiscuity. Everybody’s built a little differently.

      • Robert says:

        Faze, I agree with every word of your comment. That’s why it bugged me that the original article seems to assume monogamy to be an essential attribute of romance.

    • Where are they conflated? I sometimes use monogamy related examples, but examples are just that, not general models of everything.

      • Robert says:

        My question for you is, where in the article are they NOT conflated? The entire article is worded in a way that seems to assume monogamy. Here are some excerpts where this is most apparent:

        “But a smorgasbord can tempt one to taste everything, even when you find something good quickly (which you probably will if you are a normal person looking for another normal person). If people raise their standards in the face of so many options, or feel the need to look a lot further, or become indecisive and noncommittal, the extra options may not be helping them at the moment. … Unfortunately this is a zero sum game as far as attracting the person goes, assuming monogamy. … Surely any advancements in promoting marital felicity and having wild sex could be shared and improved upon by all? … The larger choice of partners I mentioned earlier also means there are more people to suspect might be better than your current partner.”

        The only example I saw of any sort of non-monogamous romance is where you say “if you extend ‘romance’ to relationships with online videos”, which seems a facetious example at best.

        • In the first case I’m assuming some commitment to the people you are with, rather than that the number of them is one. Polygamous people can’t be with arbitrarily many people at once at no cost, so of course they can also search for too long before settling for any given one of their partners.

          In the second I did say I was talking about monogamy. In non monogamous cases it shouldn’t be that much better than zero sum, so it doesn’t seem to bear special attention.

          I don’t see how the other bits you mention assume monogamy.

  6. Anona says:

    The 1st poster is onto something. Just look at the stats on women who are dating that make $75,000+ a year. 90% of the time they will refuse to consider a mate with lower income status or social standing Vs men who if they are able to make a living dont consider such things. Also consider China with it huge surplus of males.
    Our pop culture is so sex obsessed it has once again failed to clearly examine sexuality. Also, the way the West has rejected other sexual politics as human rights violations highlights again how we are unable to even consider sex without prejudice-the repition that accepting other cultures sexual politics is being a moral relativist should suggest that even if we have technology it all likely help us to just enhance our imbalances instead of improving things.
    I continually see with H+ the arguments that technology will make life better but most of the time find a lack of convincing examples.
    Also, most of those dating websites, outside the big cities or places with large populations of young people, are fake and used to gather data or by local papers to sell advertisements.
    Whe it comes to sexuality most of us have our head in the sand.

  7. LEB says:

    “This includes both dedicated dating sites and obscure corners of the blogosphere where specific breeds of weirdo can meet their matches, combined with search engines. I suspect this has been very good for unusual people.”

    As a perfectly normal (if introverted) individual who met their perfectly normal (if career-oriented) spouse, I have to say that the continued stereotype of only “weirdos” belonging to dating sites is incredibly outdated. Online dating sites are now the second most common way to meet a spouse — the first being through family, friends, or mutual acquaintances. Depending on which source you go by, about 1 out of 5 couples who met and married within the past decade originally met online. You really think that 20% of people are oddballs, freaks, and weirdos?

  8. Xianhang Zhang says:

    Do you think people have gotten better at parenting as we progress? This is one of the other areas of major human endeavor and despite people sharing plenty on best practices, I don’t see any appreciable increase in efficiency.

    I think dealing with other humans is just hard and more information doesn’t make it easier.

    • LEB says:

      Considering that there are no longer illiterate children enslaved in workhouses because their parents could not afford to care for them and thus abandoned them… yes, I’d say that parenting practices have gotten MUCH better. Of course, that’s due to birth control and a vast improvement in women’s rights and laws and morals regarding child welfare.

    • Peter says:

      I would say no. Most mammals make very good parent with tiny brains. If anything human intelligence results in dysfunctional parenting. Timed feedings of babies, separate sleeping of babies and many erroneous belief systems has deadened much innate parenting instinct we share with mammals.

  9. Interesting questions posed.

    “…Then you have to convince them that they have also found someone. Then you have to actually do whatever it is you wanted to do with them, and both enjoy it, or get whatever else it was you wanted out of it…”

    What about the degree of romance at the start? There’s too much chance share, even if you search only among a selection of supposed to be appropriate future partners online.

    To me, the “real love” is love at first sight or first impression or date, when there is a “perfect match”. Seduction and convincing someone who lacks interest and is not “appropriate”, and practicing deception techniques to win over him or her is a bad romance. This is flirting and playing, not love, and flirting and playing seem more fun when done with many girls and guys in parallel, not just one.

    If succeed, she’d be your conquest or even your partner, but she can’t really become your match, if she intrinsically was not.

    I’d argue whether sex and orgasm (measuring the success) are romance per se, unless cockroaches or rabbits are also romantic. Besides, mere seduction to get this lower type of romance with minimal cost is a field mastered and optimized by “pick-up artists”.

  10. Joshua Fox says:

    Some would say that today’s relationships, based on mutual choice, with dating, premarital sex, cohabitation, marriage by mutual consent, divorce, relative equality between men and women etc., have produced better relationships than traditional arranged marriages, near-impossible divorces or at the choice of men only, gender inequality etc.

    This would be an example of improvement in romantic efficiency.

    Whether it is true bears study.

    • LEB says:

      There is some evidence supporting the belief that progress in terms of gender equality and self-determination over reproduction and marital choices actually HAS resulted in happier unions. The two groups of people who have the lowest divorce rates are actually on opposite ends of the spectrum: Those who practice very traditional marriage where the husband has all of the authority and is the provider where the wife primarily raising children, and those who have highly egalitarian marriages where work, home, and childcare duties are fairly equally shared.

      Marriage as it was designed, with the man being in control and the wife obeying, DOES work… kind of like how monarchies and military dictatorships work. When power is completely claimed by one entity, things are simple. However, such gross imbalances of power don’t make very many people happy, so the completely OPPOSITE also works, where the couple believes in equality and that responsibilities within a marriage should be shared. In other words, kind of like how democracies work.

      Of course, it’s harder to make democracy work than a monarchy or theocracy or a military dictatorship, which is why so many couples fail at it. They try (or are influenced or even forced) to shoot for something in the middle of traditional and egalitarian marriage, and the two are so different that it just doesn’t work. Someone ends up being unhappy and not having their needs fulfilled, and the communication/cooperation/compromising skills to fix the problem are sorely lacking. We as a society are still adjusting to the massive paradigm shift between traditional and modern marriage, but already divorce rates of today are down from 50% (in the 70s and 80s) to 40%… so somehow, in some way, some people are starting to get it right.

      • Peter says:

        Democracy is only temporary as the Greeks knew but we in our age have not yet learnt. We can see democracy forms failing and decaying as we speak The corner stone of democracy is the concept of the balance of powers bu the different arms of government on the basis that this will impede a grab for dictatorial power by one arm restrained by the other arms.

        Without a system of balance of different arms of power it requires steps A, B and C to seize absolute power. With balance of powers it requires steps A, B, C …..through to Z to seize absolute power. It takes longer but it will happen. The worrying developments since 9-11 has sealed the fate of democracy. It’s doomed.

  11. Nathan says:

    I agree with you in that people do not share the information they’ve gathered from their sexual experience, and also that that is a hindrance. However, this is a rather simple cultural barrier, much more prevalent in the West than in other places (that whole Christian shame-of-the-body thing). If we were more honest and forthcoming, and less “weirded out” or embarrassed to talk to our children about sex, then I could see society moving past the exceedingly lame Cosmo covers promising the 6 sex secrets you know he’ll love to actively and healthily discussing sex and trading romance or sexual information, not in a compromising or gossiping way, but in a mutually beneficiary way.

  12. Ed says:

    I would say that the advent of the internet has significantly increased romantic efficiency. It has done so for me. Although the casanova of the past could indeed head to the library or bookstore in search of research material, he has nothing on the wealth of data that the internet has facilitated. Never before could you easily access not only writings on tantra, dating advice, and relationship stories, now they include the opinions and anecdotes of many other seekers of the romantic arts. Once one sets down the path of romantic self-improvement, why stop at “pickup lines” when you can learn about tantra, multiple orgasms or the tricky balancing act of polygamy?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Web 2.0 tech put males at huge disadvantage in war of sexes, excluding up to 25% males from sexual life entirely, if AskMen.com polls are to be believed, and AskMen isn’t even MRA site. I guess “sexularity” will exclude 99%. That sucks.

    • Mark Plus says:

      From Is There Anything Good About Men?

      The first big, basic difference has to do with what I consider to be the most underappreciated fact about gender. Consider this question: What percent of our ancestors were women?

      It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. True, about half the people who ever lived were women, but that’s not the question. We’re asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a father, but some of those parents had multiple children.

      Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.

      I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.

      In other words, middle aged male virgins, or sexually rejected guys like George Sodini, represent the mainstream male experience, not some aberrational fringe.

      • LEB says:

        The wasn’t a dearth of middle-aged virgins who never reproduced… what the relative lack of successful passing on of male genes was the result of was the fact that young males tend to get themselves killed off in stupid ways.

        As a species that has naturally practiced both serial monogamy and group polygamy, there were two forces at work: 1) Social groups where only older, more powerful males had breeding rights and younger males were chased off or killed, 2) “Bachelor” groups of younger males who were forced out of their tribes by the older males, and, lacking any females to breed with, took up their time with starting wars, because that’s what hormone-driven unattached young males tend to do. The proof is right in front of us… whether you’re observing natural behavior of chimpanzees, or you’re watching a news program about how Al Qaeda or the Taliban or whoever else just blew up something else.

        In other words, males restrict the breeding rights of other males, and nature allows it to happen because males are more expendable than females. Men like to talk at length about how monogamy is “unnatural,” but frankly, it’s the practice of monogamy that helps keep our society more stable and more men alive. It also increases the likelihood of breeding success for males, because women tend to want one single faithful man rather than be with a man who she has to share with many other women. In other words, monogamy is the best thing that ever happened to male genetics.

      • Peter says:

        The slight dimorphism of humans must play a part. Men are slightly larger than women and since dimorphism in animals is associated with polygamy as exampled by elephant seals to an extreme degree then the slightly dimorphic human species will only ever be imperfectly monogamous. This is at odds with a perfect god who supposedly created a dimorphic species and commanded them to be monogamous. Gibbons on the other hand are perfectly monogamous and no one preaches to them. Ultimately humans are animals for good and bad things that stem from that. Dimorphism will evolve in animal species when there is competition for one gender for the other.

        Sometimes however in humans the degree of polygamy has been way out of proportion with the dimorphism as for example with Solomon of the bible with 1,000 wives and concubines or the emperors of China. Here technology has enabled a few men to amass a dominating portion of power to exert extraordinary exclusive mating rights as though virtually increasing their physical size with objects. Rulers have behaved like bull elephant seals.

        The coming of monogamy in ancient societies may have been the world’s first successful socialist revolution where most of the males missing out on mating rights imposed their will on the few. The monogamy thus won has necessarily been imperfect for the reasons above.

        The most powerful today do not dominate mating in the way of ancient rulers but it is interesting that every so often the rich complain about poor people having too many children. A bit of the old “let grab them all for ourselves” instinct coming out perhaps.

        It remains to be seen if the sexual socialism of the past will be repeated with economic socialism in the future with more success than the failed socialist experiments of the 20th century especially if the present super concentration of wealth leads to very severe problems. The outcome would be imperfect because at the end of the day humans are animals. Our societies are not social constructions but emergent from biological realities.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s always VR sex though.

  1. September 5, 2011

    […] Leave a Comment Posted by aspinningtop on 2011/09/05 via h+ Where Are You, Sexularity? By: Katja Grace Published: September 2, […]

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