Eric Anderson’s book The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating has been causing something of a stir recently. In it the British-based sociologist uses a study of 120 American male college students to pitch the adultery rate amongst men at around 78%. Based on this and a blend of arguments from the frontlines of sociology and evolutionary psychology, Anderson goes onto suggest that monogamy is simply not a natural state for men and that the artificial construction of the monogamous relationship will usually only ever end in cheating. This is not to do with love, Anderson argues, but simply the physical need for new and exciting sex once relationships get to their cocoa-before-bed and “have you taken the rubbish out?” stage. As Anderson states at the beginning of his book “essentially I will show that monogamy seems to work for a short period but that eventually our biology rejects it.” (p.16).
My question here is not so much the book at hand, which although based on what I would imagine is a pretty unrepresentative sample of manhood, if my embarrassingly vast experience of American frat boy films is anything to go by, does has some interesting points; in particular Anderson’s questioning of the dominance of monogamy as the only acceptable form of loving relationship, something which he frames as a cultural hegemony. Rather, what I’m concerned with is the deterministic evolutionary approach he partly takes, epitomised in the quote above, and what it represents more broadly. Such approaches are increasingly embedded in cultural studies, even ostensibly sociological ones like this. Essentialist approaches to sex, sexuality and gender, in which men and women are depicted as being “programmed” in one way or another, remain not only persuasive but in fact seem to hold increasing currency in popular culture. While Anderson’s work acknowledges that similar patterns of cheating may exist in women for example, his inference appears to be that it is for men specifically that monogamy is an unnatural state; indeed many other self-help and popular psychology books go even further, arguing that the “natural” divide between men and women should be encouraged. John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus (1992) is perhaps the most well known example of this, in which Gray hit the big time with his argument that the inherent differences between men and women need to be nurtured rather than ignored.
All of which feels, at times, worryingly regressive in regards to how we think about sex and gender. Often it seems that there is a paradox to books of this type where a carefully constructed image of progressive therapeutics masks startlingly conservative values in which men and women are ordered to look upon each other as diametric opposites. So why so popular? Well, a big part of the continued success of these books rests upon their apparent basis in scientific reasoning. More than ever self-help books luxuriate in the language of science. Again, Gray serves as a good example here. After many years of trading off the success of his Mars/Venus theory with an impressively huge range of books bearing similar titles, his latest book to having him laughing all the way to the bank, Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice (2010),concentrates on the role of hormones (primarily testosterone and oxytocin) in the relationships between men and women. Fair enough you may think, after all hormones are of major interest to scientists in understanding our bodily and mental health. But from the presented scientific research, Gray gallops cheerfully away towards an impressively overstated hypothesis, hinted at here and intelligently commented upon here , that women can only lower their levels of stress-causing testosterone by retreating from the workplace (where that hormones levels are raised) back to a nurturing environment (read: the home) where they will be happily returned to their natural oxytocin levels (the “good” hormone for women). To what extent the scientific basis of this book is robust I wouldn’t want to comment, not being a scientist myself, but the overstated assumptions it produces are not.
Of course the use of science to justify set gender roles is nothing new. In the seminal Making Sex (1990) historian Thomas Laqueur lays out his theory of the one-sex and two-sex models, arguing that before the 1700s men and women, anatomically speaking, were essentially seen as the same; the female genitalia generally regarded as a direct inversion of the male genitalia. Around the end of the eighteenth century however, Laqueur argues that male and female bodes began to be reconstructed as wholly different from one another. Genitalia was reconceptualised away from the idea of inversion, while other anatomical parts, for example skeletons, were also pinpointed for their differences between the male and female versions. Upon these sexual differences notions of gender were implicitly built. While Laqueur’s thesis may be overly simplistic in drawing such a stark divide between these eras of “one-sex” and “two-sex”, he does rightly draw attention to the increasing interlocking between science and gender during the nineteenth century in which notions of what a woman’s role was became evermore interlinked with her body. That women’s alleged biological limitations and mysterious reproductive systems governed their role in society remained a pervasive – if contested – “truth”, the effects of which remain scattered within present day culture.
With the increasing potential of scientific research to elaborate on the ways hormones and genes make us what we are, it’s predictable that this approach has carried over into psychology and the therapies and self-help books that are its offshoots. Not that this is always a bad thing. Amazing things comes from our expanding knowledge of how our bodies work, not least in understanding how pathologies develop, and few would wish to be without it. But the extension of scientific ‘truth’ into the governance of gender roles always requires careful unpacking. Biological understandings of sex never easily translate into gender, and nor should they. With the rise and rise of evolutionary psychology and increasing discussion about the neuro-turn in humanities, now more than ever a good old-fashioned dose of social constructionism might be just the ticket in keeping a healthy check on the way we think about the connections between biology and society.