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Female Choice and Its Discontents

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Would morality be different if we had evolved from big cats instead of great apes?

Nature’s moral horrors are monstrous and plentiful. Lions exhibit a polygynous mating structure, in which males compete for territories containing groups of females and their hunting territory. A male lion usurping the territory of another will kill all the cubs sired by the previous male (in order to promote his own genetic line at the expense of others).

If we had evolved from lions instead of from Australopithecus, would we find infanticide by stepfathers to be completely morally acceptable? Perhaps more importantly, would it actually be morally acceptable? (This latter question is really a question about the existence of moral facts.)

Are some mating and survival strategies inherently more legitimate than others? Is parasitism less honorable than predation? Is predation less honorable than photosynthesis? Is K morally preferable to r? Does symbiosis have a privileged moral status?

Some of our moral feelings about the natural world are mere products of our biological history. If we see parasitism as worse than predation, it may be because we have been predators, but never parasites, and we see things from the point of view of a predator and a “host.” But we also reach for – and to a limited extent, I think, find – a more abstract moral sensibility that may be applied to the natural world and human history alike.

I suspect nearly all moral realists would agree with me that if we had evolved from lions, it would still be wrong to kill babies. Contra Wittgenstein, it is even possible that we would have come to realize that infanticide – along with, perhaps, other central aspects of our evolutionarily determined life – is wrong.

I will argue here that most of our evolutionarily important sexual behaviors are immoral and undesirable from the perspective of our most abstract, species-neutral, organism-centered perspective. Specifically, I will argue that socially imposed monogamy is immoral, despite the fact that it is a strategically viable solution to mating coordination problems and may encourage investment in socially optimal behaviors. I will argue that the social conditions necessary to enforce monogamy include reducing female economic self-sufficiency. I will argue for individual ownership of our own bodies (including a legal right to prostitution), but with the caveat that women are not morally entitled to exploit the structurally unmet sexual needs of men, either through prostitution or through economic marital support. And I will argue that while monogamy should be permissible (from individual body ownership), we are not ethically required to recognize the monogamous sexual contracts of others.

Female Choice and the Kenyan Baboons[1]

Baboon mating strategy is bimodal. Males compete for rank among themselves, and the alpha male mates with any females in estrus and prevents other males from mating with them. We can call “alpha male” one strategy. However, lower-ranking males frequently engage in years-long liaisons with a female, grooming and being groomed by her even when she is not in estrus, sleeping snuggled up with her, and even babysitting her children (who are often not his genetic children). What is the point of this “friend male” strategy? When in estrus, female baboons often sneak off out of the view of the alpha male (who may be otherwise engaged in combat) and mate with their “friend male” grooming partners, allowing the lower-ranking males mating opportunities they would not have had if not for the “friendship.”

Male baboons essentially have two choices: either compete with other males for dominance and the mating opportunities it brings, or compete/cooperate with a single female for a mating opportunity with her, unmediated by the usual dominance hierarchy. In the former situation, females do not have genuine choice as to whom they mate with; the alpha male determines this by force. The latter situation is driven almost entirely by female choice.

For much of human history, especially since the introduction of agriculture, sexual access to females has been largely controlled by competition between males, not by the individual females themselves. A female was a special kind of chattel to be sold by her parents to her husband.[2] Only very recently, and in certain enlightened parts of the world, has it been widely believed that an individual female owns herself, and is herself entitled to choose her sexual liaisons.

In baboons and humans, it often appears that female choice necessarily entails a move in the direction of monogamy. However, enforced monogamy is only a first – and very unsatisfactory – step toward true female choice, and toward individual sexual choice in general.

Monogamy as Schadenfreude

The essence of a monogamous relationship is limitation. It is a special kind of contract that is mostly characterized by promising to refrain from doing something (having extramarital sex). It is what in the law is characterized as an output contract – a contract wherein a seller promises to sell his entire output to a buyer, who in turn promises to buy the entire output. It is not, in practical terms, a requirements contract – a contract wherein a seller might promise to sell to a buyer all the goods the buyer requires. The promise entailed by monogamy is the promise not to have sex with anyone else. It is not a promise to meet the sexual needs of one’s partner (nor is this kind of promise desirable, much less enforceable – what’s less sexy than being obligated to fuck?).

The person contracting a monogamous relationship is gaining utility from his partner’s promise to reduce her own utility. It is, in essence, an agreement explicitly to benefit at the expense of one’s lover.

A more idealistic conception of love (and sex) is one in which one desires one’s lover to be happy and have as much pleasure as possible – a situation in which one derives utility directly from one’s partner’s utility. Non-monogamous paradigms (open relationships, polyamory, swinging) allow participants to be ultra-cooperators – to mutually agree to refrain from limiting each partner’s sexual opportunities.

Within nonsexual social relationships (e.g., friends), the idea of gaining utility by limiting the utility of the other is repugnant. The idea that one should shut oneself off to cooperation with all but one friend is ludicrous (and would make for a social nightmare). In the abstract, monogamy appears to be the morally worse option. So why is monogamy broadly considered the moral gold standard of sexual relationships?

It’s because our morality hasn’t yet caught up with technologies such as birth control, paternity testing, and female citizenship. It’s also because monogamy is a solution to a coordination problem. Monogamy really was the way to go when there wasn’t any birth control, a simple test wouldn’t reveal paternity, and females could not support themselves through their own efforts. From the perspective of a female under such conditions, monogamy was her best chance of having surviving offspring. And to a monogamous woman, a sexually receptive non-monogamous woman is a threat to her ability to extract resources from a male. Therefore, women – not just men – attempt to enforce chaste or monogamous behavior in other women.

In this way, in premodern societies, monogamy functions as a kind of sexual minimum wage for women – that is, it specifies that the only unit in which sex may be acquired is a whole woman for her life, and the only currency it may be acquired in exchange for is a promise of lifetime support and monogamy. This makes some amount of sense when babies are a likely result of sex, paternity is uncertain, and a woman cannot support herself. It makes a great deal less sense given that we now know where babies come from and can prevent them, we can test a baby’s DNA to determine its parentage (if that is, in fact, morally relevant), and women are as able to support themselves as men, if not more so. If all the justifications for socially imposed monogamy have disappeared, perhaps it is time for sexual monogamy to go the way of infanticide.

Given that consensual non-monogamy is an option – one that many people in our society choose – why would anyone choose monogamy? One possibility, which I think is true for many people, is that they have a special preference for monogamy, perhaps because they find sexual jealousy to be an insurmountable obstacle. Such people would freely choose monogamy even if it were not socially enforced. Another possibility, which I also think is true for many people, is that they genuinely want to have multiple lovers, but are prevented from doing so by barriers – such as lack of available partners (men), the fear of slut stigma (women), or the fear of other social sanction (both).

Economic Constraint of Female Sexual Liberty

Many heterosexual males find chastity in females to be aesthetically appealing. But females only have an incentive to be chaste when women’s ability to provide for themselves is constrained. The social conditions necessary to promote monogamy are incompatible with female economic self-sufficiency. And self-sufficiency is broadly socially desirable.

Again, the biological basis of monogamy is to promote paternity confidence and paternal investment. Because of DNA testing, legal father-child relationships and obligations, and female suffrage and economic equality, these objectives are no longer morally relevant.

In societies in which males do not heavily invest in their sexual partners or their children, females have more sexual liberty.[3] Conversely, in societies in which women are economically dependent on males and are structurally prevented from being economically self-sufficient, sexual chastity (for women) is strictly enforced. For this reason, we should be extremely suspicious of norms of sexual chastity.

Supporting a Wife

Sexual chastity, then, is a tool (whether wielded by society or individual women) to get men to invest in wife and child. Children are morally entitled to investment from their parents, at least where their parents voluntarily conceived and bore them. Children are unable to provide for themselves. However, it is far from clear that an adult woman is morally entitled to seek investment from a man.

Women experience sexual desire for men, but male sexual services to women are so oversupplied that their value is zero (or even negative, at times). Women are born with[4] a naturally occurring, enormously desirable “resource” largely unrelated to productive activity, or to any morally relevant characteristic. Men have no comparable resource.

Women are in the position of a hereditary landlord – born with a desirable resource that others desire and are willing to “pay” for (whether in currency or otherwise). But while I do feel that women should be properly considered the “owners” of their bodies, this does not entail that we should legitimize the equivalent of rent-seeking in women. Women are morally entitled to decide who they have sex with, and to have sex with anyone, for any reason – including, I think, for money or the promise of lifetime monogamy and economic support. But this does not mean we as a society should legitimize such transactions, either with state-sponsored marriage or through slut stigma.[5]

Restraining Women’s Sexual Freedom: Cui Bono?

Some men and some women benefit from restraining women’s sexual freedom. Men who have the resources to do so and wish to “purchase” a female for life have an incentive to restrict the sexual freedom of their “property.” Similarly, the subset of women who wish to attract such lifetime investment benefit from restricting the sexual freedom of other women.

But this is not to say that ALL women or ALL men benefit from restricting the sexual freedom of women. In fact, as I have argued, most people would benefit from lifting most of the societal sexual restrictions currently in place. Societal restrictions on sexual freedom function as a governmental taking: they prevent individuals from using their resources for their own pleasure, for the alleged benefit of the group (or at least those in positions of power in the group). Many writers, both male and female, confuse the issue by assuming group heterogeneity of preference. But “good for women as a group” does not justify an involuntary welfare transfer from individual women to the group, especially with a resource as intimately connected to the individual’s body as sex.

Are Married Folks Morally Off-Limits?

Long-term output contracts are rare, and are generally entered into at arm’s length. Lifetime output contracts executed under conditions of undue influence (inherent in almost any dyadic sexual relationship) are especially suspect compared to other contracts. And they are frequently entered into by young participants with poor access to information and a great deal of hormone intoxication.

The more a contract is obtained by shady means, the less we should feel inclined to enforce or abide by the contract. Contracts obtained by force or fraud are not enforceable at all, for instance. For these reasons, we are not always morally obligated to respect the lifetime sexuality output contracts of others. Doing so in fact assists with the undesirable rent-seeking behavior described above. It does not make sense to expend a huge amount of resources enforcing long-term contracts, when little is expended in making sure those contracts are voluntary and informed, and that other options exist.

Respecting property rights is as much a voluntary act as asserting property rights. We may be morally entitled to have some property rights enforced, but “property rights” in the private actions of agents that do not directly affect us are extremely questionable. When we respect property rights, we are actively giving support to the institutions and policies that created those property rights. I have argued that monogamy is broadly socially undesirable; respecting the lifetime sexuality output contracts of others when one party wishes to “breach” his or her contract promotes monogamy and the flawed social policy on which it rests.

How Will the Sexual Market Clear?

To review, women are born with a resource unrelated to productive effort. Men are born desiring this resource, but without any comparable resource. If material transfers to women from men in exchange for sex are morally undesirable (and I think they are), how will men’s sexual needs be met?

One thing to remember is that the sexual market is far from clearing in its natural state. This imposes a great deal of suffering on men.

As humans, we intuitively feel that sex should be a gift. Sex provided enthusiastically, out of an altruistic desire to please one’s partner and to be sexually pleased, is the ideal. As I have argued, this is incompatible with sex-for-resource-extraction (either in the form of marriage or of prostitution). How will the non-monetary market (gift economy) for sex ever clear when men’s sexual services are worth only a tiny fraction of the value of female sexual services?

One solution is already being tried by a growing group of men. Sexual seduction techniques are really a way of learning to provide better sexual services to women in a way that they desire – increasing the value, to women, of male sexual services and making a gift economy possible for at least a lucky subset of the population.

Another solution is only possible on an extremely macro level: increase the ratio of women to men (while maintaining female economic self-sufficiency). This was “tried” in a natural experiment involving the Kenyan baboons mentioned earlier. The most dominant and aggressive males, but not the females or less aggressive males, would raid a nearby open garbage pit. As a result, those dominant males all contracted tuberculosis from meat refuse and died, nearly doubling the female-to-male ratio.

The result was a surprising cultural change in the affected baboon population. Male-female grooming drastically increased – males were groomed by females more frequently, and less time passed between a new male arriving at the troupe and his first being groomed by a female. The stress experienced by low-ranking males plummeted, measured both by prevalence of anxiety behaviors and measurements of the stress-related hormone cortisol. Essentially, everybody chilled the fuck out.

So one solution to the problem of the male-female sexual market not clearing is just to have fewer males – especially males of the type who attempt to subvert female choice. A rare male is more valuable than an oversupplied male. The sexual market could clear as a gift economy under those circumstances.


1. Sources for this section include Barbara Smuts’ book Sex and Friendship in Baboons and the article A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission by Robert M. Sapolsky and Lisa J. Share (2004). You may also enjoy this Radiolab episode about the change in baboon culture.

2. Except, of course, in societies that utilize a dowry system, which tend to be societies that enforce monogamy, thereby driving up the value of high-quality males. Women generally do not choose their own mating partners in dowry societies; they are still very much property. As Elizabeth Cashdan puts it (in “Women’s Mating Strategies,” Evolutionary Anthropology 5:134-143, 1996),

…cross-cultural analysis shows that the co-occurrence of stratification with socially-imposed monogamy is the best predictor of dowry, although it is also found in the upper strata of some extremely stratified polygynous societies. We might wish to add to the criteria of stratification and socially imposed monogamy the additional one of degree of female dependence on male investment. Competition for investing mates should be most intense where the payoffs to such investment are highest, hence greater economic independence of women might be expected to discourage the prevalence of dowry payments, even in monogamous, stratified societies. [Emphasis mine.]

3. See, e.g., Gaulin, S.J.C., and Schlegel, A., “Paternal confidence and paternal investment: A cross-cultural test of a sociobiological hypothesis. Ethol Sociobiol 1:301-309 (1980), and Hartung, J., “Matrilineal inheritance: New theory and analysis.” Behav Brain Sci 8:661-668. Cited in Cashdan (1996), Note 2 (supra).

4. Okay, not “born with,” but you know what I mean.

5. This is why I find it surprising that the “men’s rights” camp can so frequently be found attempting to re-impose slut stigma. Slut stigma is directly opposed to female choice; most men, especially men into “game,” benefit directly from enhanced female choice (one-on-one competition and body ownership).

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Written by Sister Y

April 1, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Inflicting Harm and Inflicting Pleasure on Strangers

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On ecstasy, peanuts, and how we take care of strangers.


A 2008 report from the United Kingdom’s Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that ecstasy (at least, MDMA) is not nearly as dangerous as was previously thought, either in deadliness or in long-term health consequences. The Council even recommended changing the classification of MDMA from its present status as Class A (heroin, crack, and amphetamines prepared for injection are Class A) to the less-dangerous Class B (which includes marijuana and Ritalin). (The recommendation was, of course, rejected.)

A February 2009 editorial in the New Scientist took the logic a step further:

Imagine you are seated at a table with two bowls in front of you. One contains peanuts, the other tablets of the illegal recreational drug MDMA (ecstasy). A stranger joins you, and you have to decide whether to give them a peanut or a pill. Which is safest?

You should give them ecstasy, of course. A much larger percentage of people suffer a fatal acute reaction to peanuts than to MDMA.[1]

The implication is that, when acting upon a stranger, we should minimize his risk of death.[2]

The lovely and talented Caledonian has a slightly different take: we should focus on the relative likelihood of harm, he says, rather than the relative likelihood of death.

Both of these goals – acting to minimize the risk of death to a stranger, and acting to minimize his risk of harm – are laudable and widely shared. But there’s a glaring aspect of the utilitarian calculus that almost no one seriously considers in making the decision to administer a peanut or some ecstasy. This is the differential positive utility to be gained by the stranger in each case. A peanut is marginally sustaining, but unless it’s been boiled with star anise and Sichuan peppercorns, it’s not particularly enjoyable. Ecstasy, on the other hand, is fucking awesome. Why doesn’t anybody consider the relative benefit to the stranger along with the relative harm?[3]

While many of us would certainly consider the pleasure of ecstasy in deciding whether to eat the pill or the peanut ourselves, it’s proper and coherent not to consider the pleasurable effects of a potentially harmful action when it will be inflicted upon a non-consenting stranger whose values we do not know. This illustrates Seana Shiffrin’s principal that, while it’s morally acceptable to harm a stranger without his consent in order to prevent worse harm (e.g., to administer ecstasy in order to avoid administering a peanut or to break someone’s arm in order to pull him from a burning car), it’s not morally acceptable to harm a stranger without his consent in order to provide a pure benefit. But the ecstasy example supports a stronger inference: when evaluating actions that will harm a non-consenting stranger, his potential pleasure doesn’t count. When we’re acting toward someone whose values we do not know, we should not think in terms of maximizing his utility, but in terms of minimizing our harm to him.

The distinction between acting toward a non-consenting stranger whose values we do not know, and acting toward ourselves (or toward someone whose values we know), is one that is ignored by S. D. Baum in his article “Better to exist: a reply to Benatar” (J. Med. Ethics 2008;34;875-876). Baum’s “reply” (to David Benatar’s position that it is always better not to bring people into existence) is, in relevant part, as follows:

The benefits/harms asymmetry is commonly manifested (including in Benatar’s writing) in the claim that no amount of benefit, however large, can make up for any amount of harm, however small. This claim comes from an intuition that while we have a duty to reduce harm, we have no duty to increase benefit. The corresponding ethical framework is often called “negative utilitarianism”. Negative utilitarianism resembles maximin in its resolute focus on the worst off—as long as some of those worst off are in a state of harm, instead of just in a state of low benefit. Like maximin, negative utilitarianism can recommend that no one be brought into existence—and that all existing people be euthanised. I find negative utilitarianism decidedly unreasonable: our willingness to accept some harm in order to enjoy the benefits of another day seems praiseworthy, not mistaken. I thus urge the rejection of this manifestation of the benefits/harms asymmetry. [Emphasis mine; citations omitted.]

Our own willingness to accept suffering in the interest of pleasure (or any other value) is no reason to think that it is right to inflict that same suffering on a non-consenting stranger. Negative utilitarianism may not be the proper course to take in our own lives, but thought experiments like mine suggest that negative utilitarianism is the proper course to take toward the lives of others who do not consent to our interference. [4]

Many people think it’s morally acceptable to have babies, despite the fact that the babies will certainly suffer a great deal during their lifetimes and may suffer an exceptional amount (that is, bringing someone into existence does him some harm). Pronatalists generally want to point out the good things in life – the pleasant effects of puppies and sunsets – and to balance them against life’s harms. But bringing a child into the world necessarily entails harming a stranger (for one doesn’t know the values of one’s child prior to procreation). It is no different from dosing a stranger with ecstasy for no reason, except that the harms of life massively exceed the harms of ecstasy, and the pleasure of life, for many, is much less. Considering the non-consenting stranger’s pleasure in the ecstasy/peanut case is unthinkable; procreation advocates need to explain why considering his pleasure in coming into existence is just fine.

The peanut/ecstasy example functions as a thought experiment that may be closer to real life than Shiffrin’s ingenious example in which a wealthy person drops gold bars from an airplane, thereby benefiting some of the people below but also occasionally breaking their arms.

The only case in which it is widely accepted to inflict unconsented harm in order to provide a pure benefit is when acting toward one’s children. This is an aspect of viewing one’s children as property rather than persons. (Proprietariness is also the best explanation for why parents sometimes kill their natural children – and why men sometimes kill their wives or wife-equivalents – when they decide to commit suicide.)


1. Actually, the New Scientist is oversimplifying; there are two risks of death in each case. The first kind of risk is the risk that the stranger S has particular characteristics which will make any peanut, or any MDMA, lethal for him. The second kind of risk is that a particular ecstasy tablet or peanut will be lethal for any given stranger (e.g., the tablet purporting to be E is really, say, buprenophine, or the peanut is somehow infected with lethal levels of salmonella). The latter type of risk probably isn’t that significant, though. UK studies don’t seem to be finding lethal chemicals in street ecstasy. In Australia, the most common “fake ecstasy” is methamphetamine, which is not particularly lethal. As for peanuts, the CDC reports that the death rate from nontyphoidal Salmonella like the S. typhimurium that recently caused peanut recalls is about 00.78%.

2. I have to point out that the Mounties claim that “peanut” is a street name for ecstasy. I’ve never heard this in my life, but I don’t go clubbing in Canada much.

3. We might also consider our own willingness to endure, on the one hand, a stranger’s slight peanut breath, and on the other, a stranger clinging to our leg like a baby macaque for three hours, but that is a separate calculus.

4. Baum also assumes, contrary to Benatar’s express position, that death is not a harm to already-existing people. In fact, Benatar’s claims do not rest on any simplistic pleasure/pain conception of value; Benatar argues that death is a harm, even a painless death. It is, in fact, one of the great harms of life – every born person will suffer the harm of death.

Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2009 at 7:42 am