In Defense of Promiscuity

Among not only religious conservatives who had their views bestowed upon them by the unconscious process of cultural evolution, but also secular analysts who built their worldview from the ground up through independent thinking, it’s common to lament the modern destruction of what we could call civilization-era sexual controls. Simply put: In the ancestral environment a small minority of men mated with the great majority of the women, and most of the men were left out in the cold to live a harsh life of involuntary celibacy. However, within civilization this natural fact about the human species has been traditionally turned in its head, and a one-man-for-one-woman norm has been established: the marriage institution. Biologically polygynous, yet culturally monogamous, the human species marched forward through the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution. But it doesn’t end there. What most people don’t realize is that this civilization-era system is starting to fall apart, and people are once again entering a more primitive form of sexual organization where men separate into the haves and the have-nots. Pornography, anime, prostitution, and other such devices might be useful for pacifying these have-nots and making sure to prevent too many of them from following in Elliot Rodger’s footsteps. But this sudden unleashing of primal nature within the modern urban landscape isn’t without grave dangers for societal structure.

While most people simply take for granted the mundane facts about the world that they were born into, those who have thought more deeply about the nature of reality might have wondered why, like so many other species, humans are divided into male and female. An obvious empirical observation, this fact has perhaps a more interesting biological underpinning than one might originally imagine. Sexual selection is a meta-adaptation designed to greatly speed up the process of biological evolution and thus biological adaptation to the environment. The basic principles are the following: Have one type, called male, where there’s significant genetic variation, and thus where the males that are born vary wildly in terms of the various parameters related to survival; and have another, called female, where there’s much less genetic volatility. Next, make the males comparatively sexually non-selective (since they’re able to impregnate one female after another with no issues), and make the females comparatively sexually selective (since they can only have one male’s child at a time, and it’s a serious burden which lasts several months). With men attempting to spread their seed far and wide, and women looking only for the best seed at any given time, the result is that only the best men of each generation reproduce while most of the women do. This speeds up the process of biological evolution, since with genetic volatility comes both excellent innovation and also disastrous mutation; the genetically conservative females select only those males whose risky genetic mutations yielded such innovation, and all the failures are swiftly and mercilessly thrown out of the gene pool.

However, as I mentioned in the first paragraph this biologically evolved system of sexual organization was traditionally routed around within civilization and replaced with a culturally evolved system of one-man-for-one-woman. Although men naturally want to spread their seed far and wide, and women naturally flock only to the highest-status men, a wide range of oppressive norms were put into place which stamped out these biological urges and forced men and women to forgo their primal desires for civilized behavior. For example, since women are wired to pursue only the men who feel a lot higher status than them and ignore the remaining portion, one of the traditional norms of civilization was to systematically push all the men up in status and all the women down, by denying women access to education, among various other techniques. While in the state of nature a minority of men get all the women, artificially shifting the status of the whole pool of males up and the whole pool of females down made the civilization-era one-man-for-one-women system more sustainable. As a product of biological evolution, the female mind expects to mate with men who feel significantly higher in status than her, and if status between males and females is an even playing field than that would leave most of the men out in the cold. For monogamy to be sustainable on a sociological level, the low-status women need to feel like the low-status men that they’re mating with are actually high-status in comparison to them. Or, in other words, men who are less than especially high status among men must nevertheless be especially high status among the women who are in their sexual league.

But again, these oppressive norms have started to fall away in the modern world, and as a result the system of one-man-for-one-woman has started to break down. With women being educated on an unprecedented scale, along with various other factors such as women’s newfound economic independence, the loss of control over female choice by the parents, massive cities which afford anonymity for people who want to hook up without social consequences, the dismantling of religion, and so forth, modern freedom has brought with it an unleashing of our deepest of primal urges. Divorce rates are going through the roof, young women are seeking excitement at the expense of learning how to vet a man for marriage, hook-up culture is booming, and so on. One can only wonder where this may lead us. Is this the crazed party being thrown on the eve of the death of this great civilization? As I’ve explained elsewhere, the one-man-for-one-woman system was at the core of how men were incentivized to contribute to Western society; when all that matters is who’s the hottest from a primal perspective there ceases to be room for civilized life. Civilization is tearing at the seams, as various norms that took biologically evolved human nature and channeled it into a sociologically evolved system of sexual organization is breaking down.

The bottom line is that when the civilization-era sexual controls are lifted, and people are consequently liberated from the enforced monogamy of the past and freed to pursue promiscuous sexual adventures, the one-man-for-one-woman system starts to fall apart and the top men begin to monopolize the majority of the women. The modern destruction of ‘civilized’ norms upholding monogamy, and the unleashing the ‘degenerate’ primal desires looking for indulgence in promiscuous behavior, could be seen as a major problem. But is there no room for promiscuous behavior within a civilized society? Does promiscuity always mean hedonistic indulgence, both for the individual and for society at large?

While most highly conservative individuals think that the liberals are insufferable idiots, disgusting degenerates, or misguided young people, and while most highly liberal people think that the conservatives are backward bigots, old-fashioned racists, or oppressors who enjoy leveling hatred toward minorities, a well-known psychologist named Jordan Peterson argues that it’s actually by design that society produces both conservatives and liberals, and that these two sides fight it out on all sorts of issues. He explains that whether you’re conservative or liberal isn’t just a matter of rational thought, but rather stems very strongly from your temperament. People who are low in openness and high in conscientiousness tend to identify as conservative or espouse conservative views, and those who are the opposite (high in openness and low in conscientiousness) tend to be found on the liberal side. As a human swept away by emotion (as most of us are most of the time), feeling conservative results in a psychological state where liberals feel like idiots, and feeling liberal results in a psychological state where conservatives feel like assholes. But sociologically speaking, these two camps are both necessary: Conservatives are tasked with taking established understandings and efficiently ironing them out into orderly systems, and liberals are tasked with shaking up the current paradigm and venturing into the chaotic unknown to discover new ways of being. Peterson sums up a lot of this by saying that the optimal state for a society is a balance between order (the conservatives) and chaos (the liberals), where you have enough order for proper functioning but enough chaos to avoid stagnation.

Peterson calls himself “temperamentally liberal”, and seems to be aware that his views are largely conservative. This means that he’s an exception. While most people espouse views that are consistent with their temperament, some people don’t follow this pattern. Or more precisely, Peterson does follow the pattern on a deep level. The modern West has been so thoroughly taken over by progressive views, that being a traditionalist actually requires breaking from the lockstep of the masses. We live in peculiar times, when one must be a radical to recommend following tradition. Peterson’s openness is what let him break from the liberal zeitgeist and fight for conservative values. Also, beyond this mechanism I should also say that Peterson’s way of thinking allows him to step outside the social system to some degree, engaging in meta analysis on how society works. He can put his own feelings on pause for a moment, and see the bigger picture about how society operates. Whether you’re conservative or liberal, you should know that it’s by design that both sides exist, and that they both have their place in the promotion of a properly functioning society.

But wait, there’s actually a certain area where Peterson doesn’t seem willing to put his own feelings on pause, and where he fights for his side of the culture war without possessing meta-awareness of the significance of his position. Like a conservative or a liberal who thinks the other side is just wrong, there’s an analogous area where he thinks that the other side is just wrong. True to his culturally Christian roots, Peterson considers promiscuity to be hedonistic on an individual level and dangerous on a societal level, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the push-and-pull between people fighting for monogamous norms and those fighting for the right for promiscuous expression (free love) might actually be analogous to the push-and-pull between those fighting for conservative values and those who want a more liberal society.

Before I substantiate the previous italicized statement, let me mention that Peterson also argues that a parameter called disgust sensitivity influences political orientation. People with high disgust sensitivity tend to be more conservative, and those with low disgust sensitivity tend to be more liberal. He often points out Nazi Germany as an example of the excesses of conservatism, and mentions that Hitler frequently used metaphorical language related to disgust sensitivity to refer to the people considered undesirable by society: For example, in Mein Kampf, he argued that Jewish “activity in the press, art, literature, and the theater” was a negative influence on society, and proclaimed that “this was pestilence, spiritual pestilence, worse than the Black Death of olden times”. Disgust sensitivity is essentially the parameter that determines how strong your reaction will be to things that could be perceived as disgusting, ranging from being unmoved to being deeply disgusted; and it seems to be the case that this parameter has a lot to do with whether you turn out to be conservative or liberal.

With all of that said, see below for an edited version of a post that I originally wrote for r/JordanPeterson, where I argued that the push-and-pull between people like Peterson who argue against promiscuity and others who freely engage in it may be analogous to that between conservative and liberals, with disgust sensitivity, openness, and conscientiousness being important parameters:

As Peterson says, high disgust sensitivity is correlated with conservative values. Might the parameter of disgust sensitivity also explain why conservative values tend to include a disdain for promiscuity and casual sex?

We can see why high disgust-sensitivity would orient an individual more toward a more monogamous frame of mind and a less promiscuous one. When you’re in a monogamous arrangement, you satisfy your sexual desires within a context where you may escalate toward physical proximity, touching, and then the exchange of fluids slowly and carefully, making sure at each step of the way that you still feel like this is the right thing to do; and then once you enter a sexual relationship with your partner and you feel comfortable, you don’t have to worry about this kind of thing again anytime soon.

On the other hand, when you’re promiscuous you’re constantly jumping straight into new encounters with relatively unvetted individuals. To someone possessing a high disgust-sensitivity, it would seem pretty disgusting to be promiscuous. Casual sex is seen as ‘dirty’ for a reason; contrary to the sex-positive idea that the perception of the sexual interaction as ‘dirty’ is a social construction, in reality it’s rooted in biology. Sexual contact has always been a major infection risk, and for a body that feels like infection is close the raising of disgust sensitivity is an effective way to incentivize careful behavior, including the avoidance of the elevated risk of infection coming from promiscuous behavior. Monogamy is simply far safer from an infection standpoint, and therefore depending on the health of an individual’s immune function and other such factors one will feel higher or lower disgust sensitivity, resulting in a tendency toward more thoroughgoing monogamy or toward a looser mindset of promiscuous desire.

Put differently, widespread promiscuity increases the infection risk within a tribe, and consistently practiced monogamy lowers it. When people intuit that there’s a high risk of infection, whether due to environmental factors or suppressed immunity, their disgust sensitivity increases and the hurdle they have to get over in order to feel comfortable having sex with a new partner goes up. If there’s an especially high level of tribe-wide infection potential, the disgust sensitivity of the various members of the tribe would begin to go up, and over time the result would be an especially monogamous tribe. And when there’s an especially low level of infection risk, all else equal the ‘tribal culture’ would become more promiscuous.

So my question is: Do you agree that perhaps the reason conservative values contain a disdain for promiscuity and casual sex is because high disgust sensitivity predicts conservative values, and biologically speaking also leads to a disgust reaction at the idea of a promiscuous life or culture?

If so, consider the following: Peterson often mentions that liberals and conservative ‘need each other’, in the sense that society is built upon a foundation of those two forces competing with each other. ‘Liberals start companies and conservatives run them’, as he’s said (paraphrased from memory). Liberals are open and innovative, but reckless and wanderlust; conservatives are focused and disciplined, but closed-minded and stagnant. Runaway liberalism leads to toxic chaos, while runaway conservatism leads to suffocating order; a balance between the two forces is a balance between chaos and order, and is where society can truly proper.

Why, then, does Peterson seem to have such a closed mind about promiscuity and casual sex? He understands that both liberal and conservative tendencies are needed in society, and furthermore that advocating for one side while painting the other as nothing but trouble is a matter of being trapped in one’s own perspective. So why doesn’t he realize that the push-and-pull of promiscuous arrangements with monogamous norms may operate as an analogous balance in society?

And it’s not just about disgust sensitivity, but also openness and conscientiousness. Closed conscientious people are likely to be conservative, and open unconscientious individuals are likely to be liberal; and this matches up perfectly well with monogamy vs. promiscuity. A highly satisfying long-term monogamous arrangement, especially one that leads to a rewarding family life, brings out the best in a person when it comes to buckling down and leveraging structure, discipline, and focus to succeed in one’s mission. But such arrangements are also classically considered potentially suffocating; those individuals who ‘can’t commit’ are often just those who have a high level of openness and find themselves addicted to exploration. Thus monogamy goes well with the conservative mindset of high conscientiousness and low openness. And on the other hand, a promiscuous life makes it harder to achieve structure and discipline, but it also makes it easier to break down structures which are needlessly constraining. And thus promiscuity goes well with the liberal mindset of low conscientiousness and high openness.

The conclusion is that perhaps we need both kinds of people to strike a balance between order and chaos. High disgust-sensitivity, low openness, and high conscientiousness results in a monogamous life where one pursues an already-determined path with discipline and concentration, while low disgust-sensitivity, high openness, and low conscientiousness is more likely to lead a person into a promiscuous life where one wanders through the realm of imaginative possibility, sacrificing disciplined focus for unconstrained exploration. And of course all of these parameters can to some degree vary independently of one another, and there will exceptions; but it seems like this overall model has a lot of explanatory power, and demonstrates that there may be something deep going on with the classic push-and-pull between the strictness of monogamy and the looseness of promiscuity.

And to elaborate on the points I made in the final two paragraphs of the above, see the following edited sequence of messages I sent to someone:

To have the genius an innovator, one must have extreme openness (in the technical Big Five sense), but to have the discipline of a high achiever one must have a set path, a specialization, in short an already-chosen orientation and objective in life. It seems like the pickup life provides the former, while the married life gives the latter. Thus perhaps the answer is to go hardcore with the pickup lifestyle while doing intensely open, boundary-destroying intellectual searches, and then get married (and probably have children) once one’s searches bring sufficient clarity as to what one’s specialization, objective, or orientation should be. One also wouldn’t know what kind of woman would be the best support until one determines what one’s orientation/specialization should be.

The pickup lifestyle is for exploration, while the married lifestyle is optimal for disciplined pursuit of what’s already been determined to be valuable. Most men default into marriage unthinkingly because they allow society to decide for them what should be valued. They make the rational judgment that marriage will give them structure, under the perhaps irrational context of thinking they want to pursue X (with X being something unquestioned that they had bestowed upon them by societal memes and norms).

A whole life of exploration could be interesting, but it wouldn’t amount to much real achievement. I think my goal now is to spend the next 10-15 years doing intense exploration, and then by that time have a woman to have children with who would be excellent as feminine support for my then-mostly-set-in-stone mission in life.

Much of what’s advanced as criticism for promiscuity in general is actually just reasonable concern for what would happen to society if promiscuity became extremely common. Yes, it would be disastrous for society if monogamous norms were all but obliterated and promiscuity became the default, but that doesn’t mean that promiscuity itself is harmful. It would also be disastrous if a society became overwhelmingly liberal or overwhelmingly conservative; a balance must be struck between the efficient order of conservatism and the innovative chaos of liberalism. What we’re witnessing in the West at this time in history is runaway openness, resulting in an imbalance between order and chaos: a flood of liberalism with little conservatism to hold back the tide, and too much destruction of monogamous norms with too much resulting promiscuity. There’s nothing wrong with a class of people who thrive on breaking down boundaries, engaging in radical exploration of their options, and questioning all that lies in front of them. But when the sociological system spawns too many such people, society devolves into uncontrollable chaos, and the refined culture handed down to us is turned to sludge as tradition is destroyed haphazardly without any serious thought about what to replace the lost wisdom with.