Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sex with her ex revisited.

I wrote a short post a while ago that said this:
I keep thinking about those women who have sex with one of their best girlfriend's ex. Or, rather, I keep thinking about why this offends us so. I don' think we're wrong to think this. I especially don't think the woman who discovers that one of her friends had an affair with her ex is wrong to feel that way. That said, coming up with good reasons to justify the feeling of being offended is difficult.
Mikolaj gave an interesting response to that in the comments to that earlier post:
That's easy to explain based on the assumption that men are polygamous and women are hypergamous (we are talking about premarital sex, so this is post-Christian, so monogamy is no longer a frame of reference). Obviously, in any relationship, the man's polygamy and woman's hypergamy cannot be both fully realized, so this is a struggle that often leads to the dissolution of the relationship.

Case 1. He, being polygamous, dumped her for variety. The best girlfriend helps him obtain the variety, even if she is not the first women he sleeps with afterwards.

Case 2. She, being hypergamous, dumps him for a guy with a higher status. The girlfriend proves she was wrong assesing his and her relative status (best girlfriend is bound to have a similar status).
I think that is an interesting possibility and I read variations of this argument on a lot of men's sites. I don't think it works. There are a couple of factual issues to start with. The first is the assumption a woman's best girlfriend is bound to have a similar status. In my experience that is almost never the case. The second issue is the point I started with women having sex with their best friend's ex. I didn't ask about men who do this and I didn't for a reason.

All my life I've heard women complain that someone they thought was their best girlfriend moved in on their ex really fast. I was in two serious relationships before I got married and when I broke up with those women I found myself being "consoled" by some of their best girlfriends, in one case before the actual breakup. (I'd like to say that I turned down all these offers but I took up two.) I don't hear similar stories from men. And when I read websites aimed at women and I usually find an article about how doing such a thing is a horrible betrayal to a friend. You don't find similar warnings on sites aimed at men. I think that tells us something important: people only put up signs up saying "keep off the grass" when they know that people are already walking on the grass. It's telling that women feel the need to put up a sign about this particular stretch of grass and men don't.

I think Mikolaj is right that the explanation lies in evolutionary psychology but I think he is looking in the wrong place. First of all, pair bonding is not an artefact of Christianity. It's an evolutionary strategy. If a man and woman stay together, the chances of their children surviving go up. Another evolutionary strategy is promiscuity: a) when a man has sex with a lot of women he increases the number of children he has and therefore the odds that some of them will survive and b) when a woman has sex with a lot of men she increases the chance that she will get pregnant. With humans, pair bonding tends to win out because we are capable of forming complex social relationships that further increase the survival possibilities of all the children in a community. However, promiscuity never goes away: you always get free riders within the system. And, as much as this may wound our male vanity, women hold a lot of power here. The key biological fact that evolutionary psychologists point to is this: no matter how many men a woman has sex with, if she has a baby she knows it is her baby. Men don't have that assurance and are, as a consequence, vulnerable. Some females (and this is true for all species that pair bond) will attempt to have sex with a high status male who is not willing to commit to her and then try to fool a lower status male who is willing to commit that it is his baby by having sex with him as well. She can't actually be sure who will impregnate her but there are behaviour patterns that will promote that outcome (pity sex comes from somewhere). None of this need be conscious: she just does what she feels but her feelings are strongly influenced by evolutionary biology.

Now, you'll have noticed that I've substituted "pair bonding" for the terms "monogamy" and "polygamy". I did that for a very simple reason: harems have guards. The high status male is just as vulnerable as the low status male. A very high status man may accumulate a number of partners but those women can only pass on their genes if he can get them pregnant. In populations of wild sheep, you get cases where powerful males are able to accumulate huge harems but are unable to perform sexually at a level to get many of them pregnant. You can sometimes improve the survival opportunity of wild sheep populations by killing off alpha males. To bring it back to humans, even in a polygamous society, women will have a powerful incentive to cheat. In this case the high status man is the one who can actually impregnate her and the low status man can be the one who appears more "alpha" from outward appearances.

As Hobbes says, even a weak man can sneak up behind a strong man and hit him on the head with a club. Similarly, even a low status male can move in on a high status male's partner and it gets much easier for him to do so in a polygamous society. Look at actual polygamous societies and you'll notice that they are the most patriarchal societies on earth: think Saudi Arabia. Paradoxical as it might seem, it is only in a culture where monogamous marriage is the generally accepted ideal that sexual freedoms for women are possible.

The woman's power is not unlimited; the problem she faces is getting caught. She has to be sneaky about it. She may accept a non-exclusive relationship in order to get pregnant but she needs someone to support her and her child. That can be worked out in various ways: polygamy, government child support payments or by fooling some guy into thinking he's got an exclusive relationship. Remember that we see polygamy fairly often in human relationships but almost never polyandry.  Men will only accept non-exclusive relationships in the case of real or perceived scarcity. (By "perceived scarcity" I mean a man whose self-esteem is so low he doesn't think he could get sex any other way. Such men exist but everybody, including the men themselves, disdains them. The classic blues song "Back Door Man" may sound like bragging but actually it's the sort of pathetic pleading men do out of resentment at being at the bottom—there's a reason we find blues and rap songs on this theme.)

None of this actually answers my question but I think it points in the right direction. To flip the initial claim around, odd as it may seem, polygamy is likely only if we restrict polygamy to the strict meaning of one male with multiple female partners. What I mean by that is that women will accept to enter into a relationship whereby they share one man with more than one woman and a man will be willing to support more than one woman even though that increases their vulnerability in some ways. They won't prefer it but they'll do it. That isn't to say women will like it, they're just more likely to tolerate it. Men will hardly ever tolerate polyandry.

As a consequence, when a woman senses that her girlfriend's relationship is foundering, she is going to think about moving in. It's a tricky play and it won't actually happen in most cases but it's always a possibility. There are risks. The woman who actually does sleep with her best girlfriend's ex has to be sneaky about it. She will pay a serious social cost in that she will lose friends and social status if it gets out that she did this. That said, women are better at being sneaky about sex than men precisely because they have more to lose if they get caught. She isn't planning on telling anybody and she can be reasonably confident, given the circumstances, that he'll keep the secret too. (Remember that it's usually the woman who ends it so he is probably hoping to get back together even as he has sex with her best friend—that's a powerful incentive to keep a secret.) She's had lots of time to get to know this guy and she shares her best girlfriend's taste in lots of other things so probably men too. In addition, the guy's ex has probably been bad-mouthing him to her in ways she knows aren't fair and that might make it seem almost justified.

Men, meanwhile, are going to be pulled the opposite way. A recently single woman is going to suddenly feel less attractive to them because we are programmed by evolution to avoid situations where we might end up raising another man's child. It happens of course. I've known men who have pursued a series of relationships with women who are on the rebound. But only a man with very low self-esteem would pursue such an option.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for the long discussion! Let me reply to the first paragraph, before I read the rest, because obviously I was being unclear. In both case 1 and 2 that I mentioned, the "girlfriend" is the woman's girlfriend and she sleeps with the woman's ex. In particular, in case 1 where the girlfriend "helps" the man, I didn't intend to imply she is his friend at all. She "helps" unwittingly, not due to friendship with the man (and despite friendship with the woman, hence the outrage).

    Regarding the case 2b, when the girlfriend has lower status than the woman, I guess you will find the outrage much less pronounced, on the basis that "you now sleep with him and that's only fitting, because I discovered he is not worth much and your sleeping with him only proves that". Of course, at that, the girlfriend may be angry, but that's another story.

    1. I think you see drives such as hypergamy as determinative of behaviour whereas I would argue they are merely drives that influence behaviour.

      I have a drive for nutrition. It affects my behaviour in profound ways, not just when I am hungry but all the time. But it doesn't determine my actions or even come close to doing so. Most of the time there will be no evidence of it at all. It is only if we study these things at a very high level, if we consider the behaviours of populations rather than individuals, we will see that certain tendencies show up at a statistical level.

      Polygamy in men and hypergamy in women are like that. You can see it at a population level but not necessarily at an individual level. Hypergamy a drive that will influence a woman's actions and may sometimes determine it but most of the time it's a very poor explainer of why women act. If it were, you could manipulate women into having sex by a series of tricks 100 percent of the time. You can, of course, do that some of the time although I would hope the moral problems with doing so would be obvious, but most women will be completely unaffected by such efforts.

    2. Not All Women Are Like That, right. :)

      Unfortunately, when culture doesn't intervene, there is a vicious circle, because the drives shape the weak culture, which then reinforces the (use of the) drives.

      Fortunately, our culture still somehow promotes individualism, despite the efforts to label every person as a member of an oppressed group (or the oppressor) and assume goals and behaviour based on the group. So, there is still dislike of manipulation, whether via sexual drives or other. Also, women are expected to act randomly. In fact, both the culture and the drives reinforce this: the culture as an expression of freedom and the hypergamy as a way to weed out weak men. So, yes, visible exercise of free will by women is common, but there must be a direction and a purpose for this exercise to actually change the outcomes in the long run. And our culture no longer defines the purpose, so the sexual drives do. (I'm not talking about subcultures or counter-cultures. In fact I do hope there will emerge some that can challenge the mainstream, but so far I don't see any.)

    3. The strongest example of hypergamy I ever saw involved a member of the British royal family. He was visiting Kingston, Ontario and a afternoon tea party was organized for him and selected group of students from the university were invited, all of whom were several years older than the prince. During the tea, the prince made it known to a number of women who particularly fawned on him that he might take them to his room afterwards. Most of the women thought him a disgusting creep but three entered into the competition enthusiastically, one dumped her boyfriend on the spot.

      Here's the thing though: there was nothing really on offer. There was no chance of a date, no chance of being photographed by the tabloids, and nothing even vaguely resembling a shot at marriage.

      I've seen similar sorts of behaviour in rock music groupies, including one woman who told me she gave oral sex to a security guard and a roadie just to get backstage with Pete Townsend only to be ignored by him.

      I'm also on record as saying that most women, like most men, will do reckless and even degrading things to get sex at some point in their lives—some only once, some for a few years. What strikes me about such behaviour is that is its compulsive character. This is the way drug addicts and stalkers behave and, like those behaviours, it is largely a function of poor risk-assessment skills and poor impulse control. The vast majority of women rapidly figure out that a combination some sort of relationship and fantasizing will give her more security and much better sex tan pursuing whatever appears to offer status at any given moment (and that is a very fluid notion). Most people quickly figure out that sex is an irrational force in their lives and so it makes sense to keep it within fixed boundaries just as a breeding bull is kept fenced in.

    4. A sad story about that prince. I wouldn't be surprised if the three women were near the fertile period of their cycle. The others may also be (at this time of their life) more rational that the three or have more to lose or less of a chance to be picked up. Anyway, some research confirms changed behaviour in human females during the estrus. If that was the case, the primal instincts were not so misguided after all. On average, these women have a high chance of being single mothers, with or without marriage and divorce as the prelude, or even of being childless. Now, would you rather have child support from the average disappointing guy and state or from a prince and royal family?

      That being said, the hypergamous strategy and the unconscious impulses it produces are, on average and in the long run, successful only _in the wild_ where they evolved. Our civilization, under the influence of hypergamy (and to a lesser extent, of polygamy and lots of other primal drives) is getting there, but most people would die if we reached the "wild" phase, so we are not there yet. Hence the impulses and the strategy itself may be missing its goals quite a lot, just as you describe.

      Perhaps the crucial thing that differentiates our civilization from natural conditions is the much, much later average age of motherhood and even of any regular sexual activity. (At the same time, the fertility period and surely the biological clock of women has not changed that much, which builds a lot of pressure for them, despite them having much less testosterone and so sexual drive.) That means the sexual impulses build up, are not released in marriages and are experienced out of the context of motherhood and fatherhood, so there is very little growing up and contact with objective reality involved. Add to that the culture that so heavily advocates living "true to her feelings" and that explains a lot.

    5. After mulling over your response a day or so I have two thoughts:

      1) I also would not be surprised if the women were near the fertile period but only in the sense that I would not be surprised to find that someone involved in a car crash had been drinking. Alcohol is a factor in some accidents but most accidents are caused by bad judgment. Fluctuation in sex drive does influence behaviour but most bad sex decisions are just that: bad decisions.

      2) There is no outside nature. Civilization exists because it has proven to be viable and relatively restricted mating has a lot to do with that.

    6. Thank you very much. I respect your thoughtfulness and your pace.

      Re 1, agreed. In the spectrum from very primal, old brain functions to most advanced and recently developed, I guess estrus affects the older functions the most. And in homo sapiens the old brain areas are only used for making split-second decisions. A decision whether to sleep with someone is made using the middle areas, the ones which are related to feelings, attitude, behavioural patterns and, in the case of a conscious decision process, also using the areas associated with introspection and will. So, you are right, estrus could not be the key.

      However, my point was, actually all three brain areas could have been in agreement in this hypergamous decision of the three women (even though a conscious decision process is unlikely, especially one so pessimistic as the one I outlined). Which shows how biology, through culture, affects the whole of a person. So I don't agree that "it is largely a function of poor risk-assessment skills and poor impulse control". I think our current social conditions, laws, pressures and myths actually create a situation where intelligent, competent and psychologically sound persons make evil decisions, because the decisions are rational from their perspective, they agree with their deeply held beliefs, are intuitive and align with their impulses. That doesn't mean the persons are not responsible for their decisions, morally and materially, but the responsibility, the guilt is more from their voluntary participation in the warped and feral culture and their own detrimental contributions to it and spreading it, rather than from the decisions themselves.

      Re 2, I think we have a misunderstanding somewhere there. I don't need 'outside' nature for my argument. Let's change that to 'biology'. A for our civilization, it is in decline. One of the causes of the cultural disaster (see e.g., the percentage of half-orphans, of betrayed spouses, of youngsters not growing up and experiencing despair) is that our civilization changed the way it restricts mating. Two hundred years ago and more, it was a restriction to the confines of insoluble marriage. Nowadays, it's restricted to mandatory, but infrequent and/or short relationships up to female middle twenties or thirties and explicitly non-permanent marriage later on, if ever. _This_ is not viable.

  3. Regarding to why we don't hear much outrage about men sleeping with exes of their male best friends, there are two possible reasons:

    a. they do this rarely
    b. it's not outrageous to the man
    and there are two sub-cases here:
    b1. he dumps her
    b2. she dumps him

    I have no idea about reason a. However reason b seems very likely to me. The only case when I would expect outrage is 2b, especially when the best friend has higher status, which basically implies she hypergamously left the man for his best friend, who presumably didn't do enough to discourage her and who refrains from demonstrating his innocence by not sleeping with her.

    However, in contemporary culture, whatever servers a woman's hypergamy is by definition good, so this would be framed as her making a wise choice, not as the best friend poaching, and the dumped man would be the only one vilified (she left him so he must have been no good, all his fault).

  4. Very interesting points about polygamous "marriages" and the implications. I agree with most of what you say. However, I stand by my claim that monogamy (pair bonding for life without promiscuity either before or after the bond is formed) is counterproductive in the wild (even though advantageous in the context of a civilization), so it must be cultural. In our case, it's Christian (Judaism has divorces, which changes the marriage power dynamic slightly in the direction of the men's polygamous strategy).

    Since I started clarifying my terms, "hypergamy" is close to "(potentially) serial monogamy" and "polygamy" is not a marriage to many persons, but a lack of exclusive commitment --- financial, sexual, any --- to any sexual partner. In particular, a man living out his polygamous inclinations may support children of one and only one of his partners, just as a monogamous husband would, but he is not committed to it and that drives the dynamic of the relationships.

    It may be more accurate to talk about hypergamous and polygamous inclinations or hypergamous and polygamous power-wielding strategies for obtaining one's goals using relationships as tools. That's because we are more interested in behaviour than in social institutions. In the wild, without civilization restricting sexual behaviour, the latter are the product of the former. (Which is why our civilization is in such a mess.)

    In particular, "hypergamy" is not equal to "promiscuity". In fact, the current common practice of women's early years spend on one night stands with alphas is not an optimal hypergamy, but a crisis mode hypergamy, where the serial "monogamy" exclusive relationships are pathologically short; just one night or a bit longer. Hypergamous paradise is absolutely the opposite: it's a woman having a series of short relationships with alphas of increasing status, who don't dump her, but she trades them up, and finally a very long term relationship with the apex alpha, rearing his children, where he is all the time under pressure to perform, because she is still very much in demand and ready to jump ship.

    Instinctive promiscuity by women in order to obtain genetic variety of her offspring may exist, but I bet it's much weaker than the hypergamous instinct. So as long as apex alpha in exclusive relationship is fertile and his children are strong, that would be too much risk. And if the children are not strong, he's just proving he is not an alpha genetically, so then hypergamy kicks in again, trying to find a better partner, even one that won't commit, in the worst case, but in the best case, a (temporarily) exclusive relationship again.

    In the ideal case for a women (in the wild), she is not promiscuous. In the worst case, that's all that's left for her. In the ideal case for a man, he is promiscuous and others support his children. In the worst case, biologically, he commits exclusively, in the extreme he even agrees to support children of other men that went before him, in order to have a slight chance of having his own (sort of historical polyandry). That's animal level, but that's why civilization, culture, the power balance in the family, needs to restrict natural sexuality. Of both sexes.

  5. Hah, OK, you give a very good reason for "a. men rarely sleep with exes of their best friend men". As for why women are quite likely to do it, yeah, it's plausible. Women instinctively prefer deeper, more emotionally engaged relationships, because they have a higher chance of getting exclusive. When they already know a lot about the men and when there are already emotional ties (e.g., they knew each other before, now they would have the common secret) that relationship can more easily get deeper, more complicated, more engaging. Agreed.