The Dominant Theory Of Human Pairing Is Wrong

Those who discuss things on blogs and across social media have been discussing a recent report, highlighted in The Washington Post, that the share of Americans reporting "no sex" within the past 12 months is at an all-time high, meaning that Americans are having less sex than they ever have, for as long as people have been answering this questionnaire. The report further states that this decline is driven mainly by young people, twenty- and thirty-somethings, and the implication there is that this is a generational shift away from sex.

This report corroborates prior evidence of the so-called "sex recession," reported in The Atlantic by Kate Julian.

Over time, the media has been influenced by an old social media theory first pitched by the "PUA/Red Pill" community, an early precursor to the "alt-right." (Here I am talking about the real alt-right, not the spooky neo-nazi media caricature. The two are different concepts, although there is some overlap.) That old social media theory on the sexes itself traces its lineage back to such old internet tropes as "Ladder Theory," and other such high-school nonsense.

The theory is not difficult to describe or understand, hence its prevalence and appeal. It goes like this: Women are primarily "hypergamous," meaning that their objective is to seek out and marry the highest-status male possible; men, meanwhile, are evolutionarily programmed to spread their seed as far and as wide as possible. Thus, under the framework of a traditional conservative culture, men will attempt high-status activities such as career advancement and athletic prowess in order to attract the most beautiful women, who will then respond to men by offering them lots of sex in exchange for monogamous exclusivity. If the men get the sex they want, maintain their high status, and treat women the right way, the marriage will be happy and last a lifetime; otherwise, the relationship fails and the parties play again, up until the point where a woman can no longer attract a higher-status male and a man can no longer achieve any higher status than he possesses. Solve for equilibrium seven billion times.

On the surface, this theory is appealing. It seems to have all the moving parts we need for a complete description of human mating activity: sexual bargains, an explanation of how "that guy" ended up with "that girl," an implicit set of instructions for maintaining a happy marriage (men bring home the bacon while women put out), and a shiny evolutionary biology fa├žade.

Armed with this theory of pair-matching, the internet commentariat has sprung forth with their various opinions on why there is a sex recession, and why it is being driven by young people. Young men don't graduate from college, and they stay home and play video games all day; thus, women aren't attracted to them. Young women are either having sex with higher-status older males or not having sex at all. Young men find the game costly and the odds of winning highly unfavorable, so why not stay home and play Call of Duty instead? Only high-status college graduate men who are physically attractive are capable of offering a woman anything at all; ergo, they're the only ones having sex; and they're having all the sex of their generation. Everyone else is an "incel."

It doesn't take a lot of effort to explode this theory. All one really needs to do is travel the world a bit. There are places where men tend not to have college degrees and where financial security is a pipe-dream; people still have sex in those places. The fact that men have "nothing to offer" (at least, according to this alt-right theory) has not stopped very many of them from getting what they want from women. The PUA crowd will have you believe that, despite their lack of money and social status, they have really great "game" with women, but this is preposterous. No one can make up in personality what they lack in social status.

…at least, not unless the whole theory is bogus and what really attracts people to each other in the first place is, you know, PERSONALITY.

Besides that, surveys consistently show that people outside of the United States enjoy higher rates of sexual satisfaction than people here do. We're not just doing it less often, we're worse at it. Why?

One reason might be what I've just discussed above. When you wrap your romantic relationship up in a theory of species survival, and use that fact to play mind-games with your partner for the sake of maintaining an evolutionary bargain, you're not likely to be very satisfied. If you think about it, this puts the entire relationship up to external validation. The woman thinks "I'll put out, because society says he is high status," and the man thinks, "If I dominate her then people will continue to see me as high status."

You see where this goes, right? It's narcissism again, folks, and no matter how many articles you've read about society's increasing levels of narcissism, no sane person manages a relationship in this way. Only narcissists do that, and they are still quite rare in our society. No theory of narcissistic relationship management can account for a sociological trend.

Ms. Julian's article offers a much better starting point. In it, she highlights how the prevalence of pornography combines with young people's ever-diminishing social skills to produce a perfect storm of stay-at-home autoerotic behavior. Of course, Julian isn't the first to observe young people's waning social skills. That's been a common refrain since the digital age became a thing. Going further back, it seems to be a common refrain from old codgers for generations, dating back centuries, when older folks would complain that younger folks don't know how to exist in civil society.

Two years ago, The Atlantic published a different article, this one apocalyptically entitled "Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?" While the article is a bit hyperbolic in places, in many points, it gets right to the heart of important social trends. One that sticks out to me is this:
In the early 1970s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth. The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yates’s camera with the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones. 
Fifteen years later, during my own teenage years as a member of Generation X, smoking had lost some of its romance, but independence was definitely still in. My friends and I plotted to get our driver’s license as soon as we could, making DMV appointments for the day we turned 16 and using our newfound freedom to escape the confines of our suburban neighborhood. Asked by our parents, “When will you be home?,” we replied, “When do I have to be?” 
But the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009. 
But it's not all poignant prose. The article also presents a set of hard-to-ignore data, cold hard facts, that show that younger people are becoming less socially engaged. And when I say "socially engaged" I mean IRL socially engaged, not just plugged into a social media rectangle. The article shows that today's teenagers spend less time meeting their friends, delay getting their driver's license to later ages, date less, have less sex, are more likely to feel lonely, and are less likely to get adequate sleep.

The author, Jean Twenge, argues that this is all caused by the smart phone. But this is a bit like arguing that Twinkies cause obesity. No, too many Twinkies causes obesity, while the right amount of Twinkies causes fun. And so it is with smart phones; they're a blessing in the right amount and a curse in the wrong amount. The problem isn't that the technology sets us up to consume the wrong amounts of its use.

No, the problem is that young people today prefer living life on their smart phones to living life in the flesh. This is perfectly clear when we consider sex itself, for it is arguably the apex of living life in the flesh. Anyone who prefers porn displayed on a rectangle to being in the same bed with another tantalizing human being has more than a mere smart phone problem. Such a person has a life problem.

I see something similar with music. People spend most of their time listening to music on tiny ear buds or tablet speakers. Or even monaural Bluetooth speakers! When they go to live concerts, they spend much of their time recording the performance on their phones and posting the videos on social media so that other people can consume that music on their earbuds, tablets, and monaural speakers.

That is, when people are at home, they prefer a greatly diminished sonic experience to what I had when I grew up: a massive analog stereo system with speakers higher than my waist, blasting impeccably recorded, mixed, and mastered music. When I got to a symphony, I feel the air move as dozens of expertly trained professional performers gather in one place and play the greatest music ever written. It literally hits me in the chest as I hear it. It is a tactile experience as much as it is an aural one. The same is true for any great live music performance, if you but take the time to set aside your digital life and appreciate the moment for what it is. It's stunning!

If young people still did such a thing, they would discover the thrill of going out into the night, to a bar or a club, hunting for a romantic interest. It's the same sort of visceral experience; the thrill of the chase, the uncertainty of it all, the sounds of the city, the excitement of being out among your fellow human beings, in search of a strong enough social connection. It's not something that can be had through an app or an on-screen experience. It's not something that you can do in your bedroom. It's not something that you can do alone. But it's a way to engage with life.

Through this engagement, we find others, we draw them near to us, and they become partners. You meet many different kinds of people living different kinds of lives. You discover commonalities with those people, despite their different lives. You interact with the world as it is, as a messy conglomeration of all types of human beings, rather than it appears on social media, as a neatly curated "feed."

It's an experience unto itself, and the power of new experiences is that they shape us into new human beings. We discover things we never would have otherwise realized that we like. We discover people that we never would have otherwise realized that we like. It creates the impetus to become the kind of person who maintains similar experiences with similar things and similar people. And, inevitably, we find partners who want to share those experiences with us.


  1. If you haven't seen it, you may like the related The Machine Stops by Oliver Sacks: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/the-machine-stops

    1. Mitch, that was great. Thanks so much for sharing!