Monogamy enforced by social norms is an easily observable phenomenon in many parts of the world–and its consequences are deadly.
In the now infamous New York Times profile of Jordan Peterson, he was quoted as saying that the cure for the incel phenomenon – men filled with rage at not being able to get laid – is ‘enforced monogamy’. The Internet picked up on it, and outrage ensued – with critics as well as Internet denizens taking issue with the fact that he seemed to be proposing a state or government sanctioned provision of women to incels to mitigate the danger they posed to society. Peterson, predictably, responded with a derisive explanation, repeating that what he meant was socially enforced monogamy
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) May 20, 2018
Furthermore, anyone motivated by the NY Times to assume that what I meant by "enforced monogamy" was anything other than social convention favoring stable pair bonding can think whatever they want, as they no doubt will anyway… https://t.co/jBSJl9RFDH
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) May 20, 2018
At the outset, let me emphasise that his responses have been accounted for. I am very well aware of his responses to those accusations, explaining that he meant for monogamy to be ‘socially enforced’ rather than legally, and that all he meant was that social forces should evolve towards placing a premium on monogamy. Bemusingly, the public’s anger seems focused on whether he advocated for the state or laws to be involved, and his response instead relied on his support for social and cultural conventions – as if that was the only horrifying aspect of his suggestion. His supporters, of various shades, have attempted to explain his suggestion and choice of words as merely advocating for the traditional family structure, and on ‘stable pair bonding’.
I do not challenge that response. If Peterson claims he referred to social forces in that statement, then that’s what he meant and valid criticism of his position must be based on what he said. Of much more interest is the preceding paragraph which is reported as, “violent attacks are what happens when men do not have partners, Mr. Peterson says, and society needs to work to make sure those men are married.” Since Peterson has neither refuted nor denied this statement in any of his numerous responses and clarifications on the piece, it seems this does describe his position. Given his subsequent responses and explanations, it is clear that his focus was rather on men being paired up to reduce their proclivity to violence. And that precisely is the problem – and more indicative of his pernicious and frightening misogyny than anything else.
For a moment though, let’s evaluate the utility of this suggestion. Monogamy, he says is the cure. This is curious, because last I looked, even in the societies championing the libertine sexual mores of the secular, liberal West, monogamy is still the norm, and polygamy isn’t quite the regular family arrangement. While the polyamorous lifestyle is becoming more accepted in some pockets, monogamy as the most obvious form of inter-sexual relationships is by and large the norm. So what needs to change in order for incels not to be, well, incels? Given Peterson’s other famously disapproving statements on liberal sexuality, one wonders whether it is to that which he refers – the culture of casual sex, non-committal relationships, one night stands, hook-ups, and other staples of what might be assumed to be the young sexually active adult’s diet.
“While the polyamorous lifestyle may be becoming more accepted in some pockets, monogamy as the most obvious form of inter-sexual relationships is by and large the norm.”
In line with the other pundits who have gravely observed that these men are the inevitable consequences of the sexual revolution, one wonders whether it is this sexual permissiveness that Peterson refers to as needing correction. While the sexual liberation of the 60s technically benefited both sexes, it was by and large a liberation of female sexuality. Men have been able to engage in promiscuity with a variety of sexual partners for as long as history has been recorded. It is women, for whom pregnancy was a consequence of sexual activity, who would bear the burden for sex outside of marriage or the prevailing social arrangement. The invention of the pill released women from that fear, and enabled them to engage in sexual activity with as much abandon as men, without necessarily having to fear the consequences. Is this the phenomenon that Peterson feels led to incels?
If so, that is extremely puzzling because such a position leaves his objects of concern, men, at a disadvantage. Let’s see why.
Hypothetically, in a society where the sexes are balanced, it is not always a mathematical certainty that everyone would be paired up. As every evolutionary biologist, evolutionary psychologist and anyone who has ever read an article on the evolutionary science of mating or simply prefers stereotypes form their personal experience will argue, women tend to, as it is colloquially said, ‘marry up’. That is, they, reportedly seek partners who are generally of higher socio-economic status – this being explicated, according to them, by the evolutionary logic of the female wanting a male who can prove his capacity to provide. In a society where the sexes are balanced then, there will always be some men who will not be considered desirable or worthy of marriage by any woman, and some women who may never get the mate they want. In a strictly conservative society therefore, these ‘low-status’ men, therefore, would technically have no other option. ‘Low-status’ men here being a short form of referring to men whom the majority of women find undesirable for a variety of reasons.
In a society where women are sexually promiscuous, technically, these low-status men would have an option, because when women are generous in granting sexual access, even the ‘low-status’ men may get the opportunity to be with desirable women. In a society where women are more financially empowered to go with their newfound sexual liberation, the evolutionary logic of seeking a high-status partner could, it may be hypothesized, have a weaker effect, and therefore said ‘low-status’ men could still end up with a mate. What does not alleviate their condition in any way, is sexual conservatism with regard to women. So what does Peterson, or those echoing similar sentiments, hope will come of it?
“In a society where the sexes are balanced then, there will always be some men who will not be considered desirable or worthy of marriage by any woman, and some women who may never get the mate they want.”
Peterson acknowledges this – the Times piece reports him as saying “women will all only go for the most high-status men, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end”. So the problem, to be resolved is incentivising women to mate with ‘low-status’ men. What social situation would induce women to do so? In a sexually liberated society, where both men and women engage freely without thought to consequences, undoubtedly high status men may find themselves at an even greater advantage, as a higher number of women may be willing to be sexually involved, for a lesser cost than previously – the cost in a sexually conservative society being the promise of marriage and fidelity. These men would have even more choices than before, and a casual observation of sexually liberated societies will reflect that indeed, they do, and use it to their maximum advantage. Hypothetically therefore, women who no longer seek to extract marriage as the price for sexual liaisons, may well grant some men sexual access simply based on their overall social value, and would not seek more. This, Peterson and his cohorts feel, leaves low-status men out in the cold.
But what if the desirable men were to restrict their relationships? If the men most sought after were to bestow their affections only on one woman, other women intent on a partner would naturally have to set their sights lower and perhaps consent to be the mate of men lower on the socio-economic scale. If all women remained in need of a partner, and if men were to control their sexual activity to only one woman, this could presumably result in women being with men who sought them. The people with the most power to change this ‘trend’ apparently caused by the sexual liberation of the 60s, therefore, would be the men. Strangely, that doesn’t appear to be the clarion call at all
But here’s the rub – what if women were to choose being single over being paired with undesirable men? What if, even in a society with balanced sexes, with restricted sexual activity, and men bestowing attention on a limited number of women, some women didn’t seek partnership and marriage? Then no matter how much you valorise monogamy as opposed to polygamy, low-status men would lose out because some women may choose singledom over low-status men. So in what situation will these low-status men be chosen? Simple. If women are put in a situation where they have to pair up in some form, and even mating with the most undesirable man is a better option than remaining single. That, you see, is the real problem for men like Peterson. That women can choose to reject all the men available to them, and that society should accept it. His suggestion of socially enforced or incentivised ‘monogamy’ would be useless to incels as long as there are even some women out there who, let alone choosing a particular form of marriage, reject marriage itself.
So in what situation will these low-status men be chosen? Simple. If women are put in a situation where they have to pair up in some form, and even mating with the most undesirable man is a better option than remaining single.
It is this freedom that Peterson attacks, which he feels must be undone – the ability of women to say no to marriage, and socially compelled mating itself. His problem isn’t just with women choosing only high status men, since such men are an exhaustible number. But if women, unable to attain such men were to withdraw to choosing none – what happens to low-status men? His problem, therefore is with women being able to be single, and thus men having to be single. He makes that clear in his preceding position in the Times piece, that “society needs to work to make sure those men are married.” I am aware that Peterson has refuted that he suggests a scenario akin to the Handmaid’s Tale or ISIS. Why should he? Society has always found ways to prioritise male demand for sexual access and a mate without it.
Peterson has cited anthropological literature to substantiate his argument, insisting on the evidence that when men are in monogamous relationships, they’re less violent, less prone to conflict etc to persuade on the necessity to find men mates. I’ve got news for him. We know. For feminists, and really anyone who tries to understand why women were enslaved and oppressed the way they were (and are) this is hardly earth shaking. A superficial investigation into any patriarchal society will quickly lead one to this conclusion – that quite a few of the elaborate social structures devised in patriarchal societies were precisely in response to this need – that men without mates are a source of social upheaval and chaos. Male dominated and led societies, therefore, responded not with blatant laws backed by the state, but through ‘culturally inculcated’ customs, cloaked with the mysticism of religion and ancient wisdom, that compelled and exerted pressure with the use of such venerable concepts.
I am aware Peterson has refuted that he suggests a scenario akin to the Handmaid’s Tale or ISIS. Why should he? Society has always found ways to prioritise male proclivities without it.
You don’t have to take my word for it – take a gander at the societies, that are most repressive. In such societies, this is still a reality, where social norms and cultural pressures make it worse to be an unmarried woman than to be dead. A variety of social structures effectuate this, the most effective being arranged marriage coupled with crippling social death for the unmarried or single woman. In such societies, where, as Peterson pleads, ‘societies work to make sure men are married’, women die, get raped, and live their lives without hope when their worth as human beings is always tied to their worth as wives. I would know. I’m from one.
“In such societies, where, as Peterson contends, ‘societies work to make sure men are married’, women die, get raped, and live their lives without hope when their worth as human beings is always tied to their worth as wives. I would know. I’m from one.”
Arising from this realisation that many men without mates, are, apparently, loose cannonballs, a society structured to facilitate male needs formulates the evergreen cultural notion, repeatedly enforced in patriarchal societies, that men calm down and become responsible when married. This is no myth, and most of you reading this would have heard this at some time. A momen’t reflection into what could have given rise to such a notion will lead you to this same conclusion. I’ve personally witnessed this rhetoric dozens of times. “Get him married, and he will settle down” is a common wisdom of elders in such societies, who place a premium, as Peterson recommends, on getting men married. Needless to say, women married to such men suffer endless abuse, marital rape, and, all too often, death. These statements aren’t accidental. They are part of a carefully cultivated cultural belief that men become adults when bedded, and so they have to be provided with wives. This manifests in disturbing ways.
When it is socially and culturally ‘inculcated’ to frown upon women for being single, several other consequences follow. Modern criticism of sex inequality feeds the perception that it is a view of women as chattel which facilitates forced marriage/arranged marriage. This is wrong – it is not because they were viewed as chattel that they’re treated as such – it was the graduatl reduction of women as mere wives and mothers that cemented their status as chattel. When society makes it so that the woman’s worth is determined by her marital state, she becomes a bargaining chip, a promissory note. Society’s imperative to get the women married off therefore, is a godsend for ‘low-status’ men, since the woman is viewed as more of a burden the longer her unmarried state extends, and the family and friends of undesirable men can leverage the fear on the woman’s side to procure a marriage.
Another chilling consequence of a society where social norms ‘works to make sure that men are married’, is the plight of the unmarried woman. Not only is she ostracised and looked down upon – the mere existence of the adult, unmarried female is deemed to attract the violent attentions of men, who would, naturally, target the single woman. Without a ‘man’ in the house therefore, society’s prevailing belief is that the single woman will be left vulnerable to predatory men, particularly in poorer societies – hence even the presence of an alcoholic man, useless though he may be against an actual attacker is believed to send the requisite social messages to protect the woman. This fear also means that women stay with abusive men, and parents procure a marriage that can give their daughter a cloak of respectability and safety, if not life.
Years ago, a woman told me that she had arranged a marriage for her daughter, then just out of school. I recall being outraged, asking her why, since she’d reported that her daughter did well in school. I recognised the groom-to-be a man who had already been in trouble with the police, dropped out from school, and had since taken up alcohol. She just shrugged, saying that at least her daughter wouldn’t be attacked. When a society works as Peterson suggests, to make sure that men are married, the life of a female is only worth the marital mark she bears, and a bright-eyed, intelligent 17-year-old would sooner be married off to an alcoholic young man shaping up to be a troublemaker than be single. Three years later, she had two kids, calloused hands from hard labour, and a resigned smile about her husband.
“When a society works as Peterson suggests, to make sure that men are married, the life of a female is only worth the marital mark she bears, and a bright-eyed, intelligent 17-year-old would sooner be married off to an alcoholic young man shaping up to be a troublemaker than be single.”
As I read the piece on Peterson and his suggestion of ‘enforced monogamy’, I remembered the faces of the countless women I’ve known in my life, particularly from the lower economic strata, who live his suggested reality every day – hard-working, smart, resilient, women. For many such women, their husbands were drunkards, alcoholics who abused their wives, failed to provide for their children, and flaunted their infidelity. These women, who toiled day and night in hard labour to keep a roof over their heads for their children, inevitably had to go home to these men and would return with stories of abuse, of their husbands using their earnings on alcohol or causing a disaster that the women would have to pay for. I questioned how they ended up married to these men, who should have been social rejects.
By socially endangering the unmarried female, though, even the most degenerate male earned a wife. As poor young girls, the priority had been to get them married to someone, anyone who would have them. When social structures decree that being single for men is acceptable, but not for women – this is the outcome. Anyone will do – and the younger the girls are married off, the better. For anyone wondering how child marriage comes into existence, it is like this.
“When social structures decree that being single for men is acceptable, but not for women – this is the outcome. Anyone will do – and the younger the girls are married off, the better. For anyone wondering how child marriage comes into existence, it is like this.”
This is but one tale among thousands, the stifling reality for girls born in a society that prioritises male pairing. There is little hope, or promise for them as anything in life – they are meant to be wives, and that’s all they can be. This is vitally necessary you see, in a society that ensures men get mates. No other social configuration would ensure that with such certainty. Things like arranged marriage, forced marriage, even child marriage – the roots of these practices and evils can always be traced back to the imperative to ensure as many men as possible had someone to bed and care for them. A more crude formulation of Peterson’s own argument would postulate that without women to satiate them and keep them calm, men turn into rampaging monsters, ripping up social fabric.
What else happens when a ‘society works to provide men with wives’, as Peterson plaintively demands? In pockets of the southern part of the Indian sub-continent, there exists a social practice, that a female is customarily, that is by default, betrothed to her uncle, her mother’s brother, or the uncle’s son. Before she is born, the girl child is betrothed, and her uncle or cousin, deemed her partner by custom, can demand that she marry him. Promises given cannot be easily broken, and attempts to do so may well result in a bloodbath or the kidnapping, forced marriage and rape of the girl. After all, we know well by now how some men react to being rejected.
Interestingly, the right is normally only exercised by the male. If he finds someone more suitable to marry, the girl can as well. It is when he cannot, when for any reason a man is left without a wife, that he resorts to this old custom, put in place to ensure that no matter his character, no matter his degeneracy, he will always be provided with a female to service his needs and receive his sexual attentions. Irrespective of whether he is a prisoner or a thug, and the girl is young and bright, the social custom can be called upon to ensure that such men are married.
Peterson’s ideas aren’t new, and hardly unique. They’ve been recycled in every torturous patriarchal society that has reduced women and their humanity to being wives, has traded them like chattel, and has invented elaborate social and cultural beliefs to justify it. By endangering single women, and shaming unmarried women, society effectively ensures that somehow the women will consent to being paired off – and so men are provided with wives.
You may be tempted to dismiss the above scenario as the reality of backward cultures, ruled by repressive or backward religions. Many men and women in the global North would contend that this is only a danger to ‘uncivilised’ societies. They will claim, loudly, that Peterson and the droves that worship the ground he walks on only want a slightly more conservative society, where sexual norms are more restrictive. This is little more than a delusion, the insistent denial of some who would never want parallels drawn between the East and West. They, however, have to answer a simple question – what can be expected to unfold when society makes it a social priority that men should be paired up? The truth is that such a society was a reality even there not so long ago in the past – and it is hardly impossible to spin back into this. Considering male inclination for a partner as a societal priority inevitably degrades women. This should not be a line of thought that is entertained for even a second.
As I read the cruel flippancy of an angry Canadian professor casually suggesting enforced monogamy as a cure to the ‘problem’ of low-status men finding themselves without partners, I couldn’t help but think of the millions of little girls still living in such oppressive conditions, or of their dead and mutilated bodies because they were married off to men who could not otherwise earn the affection of women. I was reminded of the resigned shrugs of parents, of the lifeless eyes of these women who were well aware of what was in store for them. Because as, in his dream scenario, when social norms decree the unmarried status to be a fate worse than death, a woman can only hope to survive when she is paired with a man, his value notwithstanding. As droves of disaffected young white men flock to this philosopher, I find his inhumanity towards the plight of women to be mind-numbing. Even more frightening is that few recognise his insane suggestion for the society it portends.
“As I read the cruel flippancy of an angry Canadian professor casually suggesting enforced monogamy as a cure to the ‘problem’ of low-status men finding themselves without partners, I couldn’t help but think of the millions of little girls still living in such conditions, or of their dead and mutilated bodies because they were married off to men who could not otherwise earn the affection of women.”
The ability of women to say no, to live without being paired up was the single greatest step made in women’s rights all over the world. It saves their lives everyday. There is only one scenario in which all men in a sexually balanced society get mates – when this capacity is ripped away from women. So when Peterson advocates that society must work to make sure these men are married, understand that this is the only social configuration which allows for that. In that scenario, women die gruesome deaths, young women endure the sexual overtures of men they’d never choose, and girls are born and bred with the sole purpose of being married off. Ensconced in his Canadian comfort, Peterson is casually suggesting a social reality that has condemned girls to be little more than future wives, and an audience is lapping it up. That is profoundly chilling.
Note: ‘Male’ here is used as a generic descriptor of interests pertaining to men in the abstract. It does not mean all men, all males or all humans born with male genitalia. Statements of Prof. Jordan B. Peterson are quoted as they appeared in media sources, and no edits made. His responses and explanations have also been taken into account. Nothing has been taken out of context.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.