Ross Douthat’s new NY Times Opinion piece, Why Monogamy Matters, approaches the question of family structures with a very traditional style of conservative reasoning, which can be loosely demonstrated as follows:

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably an elephant because that’s what I want it to be.

Let me explain:

Douthat first cites a CDC report showing that “American teens and 20-somethings are waiting longer to have sex.”

This, he argues, is a “good thing” because of a distinction he makes between “different kinds of premarital sex,” one involving “monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day” and one that’s “casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.”  One guess as to which he favors.

He proceeds to cite a recent book by two sociologists titled Premarital Sex in America, which “finds a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression.”  It argues the correlation is stronger for woman, as “Female emotional well-being seems to be tightly bound to sexual stability” and “the happiest women were those with a current sexual partner and only one or two partners in their lifetime.”

Douthat argues that “The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.”  See, don’t get me wrong–I think people should respect themselves and their partners.  I also believe that teenagers are 40% less smart on average than your average-sized seedless watermelon.  All that said, (1) I think you have to ignore a lot of social context to come out swinging so hard for early-picked life-long monogamy, especially from research that appears from the account given to focus on merely one current trend among one age bracket, (2) I want to look into the research, because it sounds like the conclusion is a taller order than the premises, and (3) I think coming out all family-valuesy in the manner of the opinion piece is again not warranted.  Its premises involve the naturalization of our current social order, a favorite tactic of the Right. Here’s why I’m suspicious:

I can see how you would think, for example, that monogamy is natural for the human species.  I mean, if you ignore:

(1) the evidence that suggests our species’ polyamorous human history (from about 2 million years until agriculture, maybe 10,000 years ago);

(2) all the instances both historical and contemporary of polygamous and polygynous societies;

(3) the polyamorous kinship structures in our closest mammalian relatives, chimps and bonobos;

(4) the prevalance of (a) serial monogamy, (b) non-monogamous fantasies, (c) current polyamorous relationships, and (d) cheating within ‘monogamous’ relationships;

(5) the structures of our physical bodies, suggesting that our species won ‘natural selection’ through neither monogamy nor a ‘harem’ style of reproduction based on physical strength, but sexual selection under polyamourous prehistoric conditions; and

(6) the historical fact that monogamous family structures emerged with the onset of inegalitarian class societies [the exact explanation for that fact is controversial] and family structures reflect components of the class society they are in, with leftover components of prior class societies [e.g. [a couple quick facts] early families, formed during slavery, were centered around a man ‘owning’ his wife, who was transferred as a ‘gift’ from her father to her new husband to bridge the gap between two families or clans; also, note that with the onset of capitalist production and property relations, marriage became a contractual relation, and the expectation over time was of mutual monogamy, characterized by treating the other person as ‘yours’ of whom you could ‘expect pure fidelity’–i.e. your attitudes towards each other was of mutual private ownership. . . funny, huh?]

. . . If you ignore all those facts, you might have a very strong case that some people might be naturally monogamous.  If someone gives you a stronger opinion than that, you can bet that it’s either (1) good natured but their research is grounded in ‘common sense’ intellectual assumptions, which are unfortunately factually wrong, or (2) someone is really, really reeeaaalllly wanting to convince you a duck is an elephant.

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If you want more info on these facts, check out Sex At Dawn.  Or just post a comment.  OR both.  Your choice.