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Technology and Courtship
A recent piece in the Babylon Bee described a Tradwife as a newly invented product and considered the advantages and disadvantages of buying one:
Pro: She homeschools, so your kids are always around you
Con: She homeschools, so your kids are ALWAYS around you
It was an entertaining piece but ignored what many men would consider a significant negative — the unwillingness to accept the “try before you buy” approach to courtship. That got me thinking about the costs and benefits of alternative social rules on the subject and the effect of relevant technologies on their costs and benefits.
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1: Women do not want to end up pregnant without a man committed to help support them.
2. Men and women want to end up married to someone they will enjoy making love to and who will enjoy making love to them.
3: Men and women want to end up married to someone with whom they can have children.
4: Men and women enjoy the pleasure of sex.
Contraception: Has existed for thousands of years in forms such as Coitus Interruptus and non-vaginal intercourse, has become much easier and more reliable with technological improvements, beginning with cheap condoms in the 19th century.1
Paternity Testing: For almost all of human history and prehistory a central fact of reproduction was that maternity was a fact, paternity a conjecture. That has now changed. The development of blood testing in the 1920’s made it sometimes possible to prove that a man could not be the father of a particular child. Accurate paternity testing based on DNA, which made it possible to show that a man was the father of a particular child, became available in the 1980’s.2 It is no longer only a wise child who knows his father.
Strict Traditional: No intercourse before marriage.
Modified Traditional: No intercourse before engagement, a man who gets his fiancée pregnant is required to marry her.
Modern: No restrictions on premarital, more generally nonmarital, intercourse.
Advantages and Disadvantages
I start with a world with neither reliable contraception nor paternity testing.
The Strict Traditional rule provides the first of the desiderata. Mutual sexual attraction can to some degree be checked by experimentation short of intercourse during courtship, although it may be difficult to control the process well enough to avoid risking intercourse and pregnancy.3 The Strict Traditional rule provides no way in which a couple can know in advance of marriage whether they can produce children. It permits men and women to enjoy the pleasure of sex but only with a specific partner who they may or may not find desirable.
The Modified Traditional rule does better. It satisfies the first condition and the second condition, save in the situation where the couple only discover that they are not sexually compatible after the woman gets pregnant. Since a single act of unprotected intercourse randomly timed has about a 4% chance of conception, substantially lower if timed to avoid the woman’s fertile period, that situation, while possible, is not very likely. A couple seriously concerned about being able to produce children can choose to postpone marriage until the woman gets pregnant, abandon the engagement if they conclude that she can’t, satisfying the third condition.4 The fourth condition is better satisfied than with the Strict Traditional rule.
The Modern Rule fails the first condition, satisfies the others; as with the Modified Traditional rule a couple that is concerned about their ability to produce children can postpone marriage until the woman gets pregnant.
Suppose we now add contraception. The two traditional rules are unaffected. The Modern Rule now satisfies the first condition, how well depending on how reliable the contraception is.
Suppose that instead of contraception we add paternity testing. The Modern Rule now satisfies the first condition, provided that norms or legal rules compel a man who gets a woman pregnant to support her. But there is a risk that a woman will end up either marrying a man she will not be happy living with or receiving monetary support but none of the other forms of support provided by marriage.
The society we live in has paternity testing, although the requirement of child support is imperfectly enforceable. It has pretty reliable contraception, especially if backstopped by abortion. Those facts help explain why the Modern Rule is modern, is common in societies like ours. Nonetheless, many women continue to follow one or the other of the traditional rules; Tradwives still exist.5
What Have I Left Out?
Part of what I have left out is that contraception is not perfectly reliable, both because partners are not always careful to use it and because many individuals have moral objections to abortion. Part is that, while paternity testing is very reliable, enforcement of child support is not, and an ex-lover providing child support is an imperfect substitute for a husband. But the more interesting omissions have to do with the complicated relationship between sex and emotion.
She was a beautiful girl, gay and good, and with her maidenhead gave him all her worship (The Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart, p. 350)
That line, from an Arthurian fantasy, is the traditional version of one part of the story. The evolutionary biology version starts with the fact that a human child requires adult care for a long time. One way to keep the pair who produce a child together long enough to successfully rear it is a link between the act of sexual intercourse and emotional bonding. “Making love” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse but also a description of its emotional consequences. Arguably the bond between a couple who have only made love to each other will be stronger than the bond between a couple each of whom has had a dozen love affairs before this one. If so, that is an advantage to the traditional rules over the modern.
For men a fifth desideratum, omitted from my initial list, is to avoid spending their resources of time and money on another man’s child. They may take a woman’s choice not to sleep with men she is neither engaged nor married to as evidence of strong adherence to conventional sexual norms, a signal that she is unlikely to be unfaithful to her husband. That matters even in a world with paternity testing, given the large sunk costs in marriage — abandoning the wife who has born another man’s child is a costly solution to the problem.
Of course, willingness to abstain from sex priot to marriage or engagement may also signal a disinterest in sex, which reduces the risk of adultery but also the prospect of marital bliss.
The parallel desideratum from the woman’s side is a husband unlikely to either divert resources to a lover or abandon his wife. The willingness of a man to court a woman who isn’t willing to sleep with him instead of looking for one who is signals the strength of his preference for her, relevant to the chance of future adultery or abandonment.
All of which may explain why a significant number of women reject the modern rule in favor of one of the two alternatives.
On the Other Hand
My discussion so far assumes that the purpose of courtship, dating more generally, is to find a long-term, hopefully lifetime, partner for a sexually exclusive relationship one of whose purposes is producing and rearing children. My impression that that is the case for most women is partly based on conversations with young women in southern California more than twenty years ago — their attitude, pretty clearly, was that lifetime marriage was the ideal but one rarely achieved. It is partly based on the way the term “a keeper” is used in current discussions that take for granted both the modern rule and the traditional objective. A quick online search for data found lots of pieces arguing for or against marriage as the objective of dating but no good statistical data.
I’ll suggest, using findings from five studies, that the data can be used to support the case that just about everyone wants to get married—or the opposite case, that people just aren’t all that interested in marrying anymore. (Psychology Today)
Marriage is not, however, the objective for all men and women in all courtship/dating relationships. Some don’t want children. Some see the objective as sexual pleasure, mostly in short-term relationships, possibly intending to search for a long term partner at some future date. Some are seeking less common variants on the traditional such as polyamory or open marriage.
For most of those, the Modern Rule is obviously superior to either of the traditional rules. On the other hand, the existence of men who prefer sex without marriage is a reason for women who desire marriage to choose one of the traditional rules in order both to filter out men uninterested in marriage and to give a man who might marry a reason to do so.
Condoms existed earlier than that — both Casanova and Boswell mention using them — but were expensive. They became available to the general public with the invention of vulcanized rubber.
In the extreme case of traditional Muslims in modern Saudi Arabia control consists of essentially no interaction, with marital search the job of a man’s mother and sister, hence no way of checking mutual attraction.
Comparisons of date of wedding to date of birth of first child in several European cities in the late 19th century found that about a third of brides were pregnant.
“the chances of having only one lifetime sex partner (or, less often, marrying as a virgin) have held steady for married women at around 40%, and have actually inched up for the past couple of cohorts of married men.” (Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?)
The article provides support for the claim that women who have only slept with their husbands are more likely to report that they are “very happy” in their marriage, although the effect is not large. The source is the Institute for Family Studies. Its self-described mission is “to strengthen marriage and family life, and advance the well-being of children through research and public education.” Not an unbiased source but an interesting one. Readers are invited to offer alternative data sources in the comments.
For readers interested in old posts, I have now put up a web page with links to posts sorted by topic.