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Unlucky in love

Has the market economy changed the way we love? Anna Cristina Pertierra looks at three new books dealing with the difficult intersection of love, sex and gender

Anna Cristina Pertierra 9 October 2012 2233 words

WE LIKE to see love as the purest of feelings, an antidote to the cold calculations of work life, government or finance. In a society where the market rules, personal emotions – of which love must be the most intense – are often portrayed as among the few things that lie beyond economic incentives. People who confuse love and money are derided for being gold-diggers or worse, and when sex is mixed up with the market – in pornography, prostitution or sexualised advertising – it causes great consternation.

What are we to make, then, of sociologist Eva Illouz’s new book, Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation, which tells us that the suffering caused by love as we know it is actually the product of modern capitalism? When life is painful in the modern, secular world, we are taught to look inwards to overcome our problems. Rather than turning to God, or to traditions, we turn to psychologists, financial planners, personal trainers and others who can help us to help ourselves. “Throughout the twentieth century,” writes Illouz, “the idea that romantic misery is self-made was uncannily successful, perhaps because psychology simultaneously offered the consoling promise that it could be undone.” Entire industries of self-help are underpinned by the premise that we must look within ourselves to understand and overcome the flaws that cause us to find love painful.

Like any sociologist worth her salt, Illouz pushes readers to consider how our experience of love might largely be created by the kind of society we live in. Tracing a sort of history of emotions through archives and literature since the Regency era, she argues that in earlier times people’s feelings about love and sentiment were quite different from those we take as self-evident. Although we think of love as entirely spontaneous and natural, the way we speak of love, and the problems that love creates for us, are more a historical formation than a natural occurrence.

Take, for example, this set of clichés: a woman who is sexually active and carefree in her twenties gets to her thirties and starts looking for a serious relationship, suddenly aware of her closing window of fertility. But all she can find is men who claim to be looking for love, and who think of themselves as good guys, but refuse to settle down. Some people might think it has ever been this way, but history and the social sciences suggest that these styles of behaviour are a recent invention. In the wake of a generation of new sexual freedoms, men no longer see women’s sexuality as something that is scarce, and this decreases women’s value in a market of love and sex. There are always more and younger women around the corner, which in itself makes women both more desirable in the abstract and less desirable in the concrete: “The modern situation in which men and women meet each other is one in which sexual choice is highly abundant for both sides; but while women’s reproductive role will make them end the search early, men have no clear cultural or economic incentive to end the search early.”

The detached modern man of this stereotype is probably not deliberately being caddish, says Illouz. He simply tries, in avoiding attachment, to find value in a process of looking for love within which he happens to control the field. Recent decades have brought all sorts of social changes that affect how and when we seek love. Women wait longer to have children, men no longer feel the pressure to marry young, women and men start careers quite late in life – these are not so much natural or biological phenomena as social and political shifts. Modern capitalism changes how we love as much as it changes how we work.

IF OUR experience of love is shaped by, or even created by, capitalism, then a modern emblem of capitalist love must be the world of online dating. This is the subject of Jean-Claude Kaufmann’s Love Online, a sociological meditation on the practices and problems of looking for love and sex via dating sites that form a “hypermarket of desire.” Women and men can browse apparently endless profiles without risk. They can chat online to potential dates and are free to be direct, romantic, sexual or daring without any great consequence. But, as Kaufmann shows, when people come to set up face-to-face dates, they seem overwhelmed by uncertainty. Love and sex are a complicated combination, and deciphering how much of each anybody is looking for is one of the many hazards of online dating. People can turn out to be different from what they promised. Sometimes they don’t turn up at all. Even when a meeting works well, the rules for progressing from an initial coffee or drink can be fraught with miscommunication and unknown intentions. Kaufmann takes us through the problems that both men and women face in navigating the murky waters of cyberdating, although women often seem to have more to lose emotionally in this an uneven market.

While internet dating is a recent phenomenon, Kaufmann locates it within a brief history of the modern courtship rituals through which a culture of dating emerged in twentieth-century United States and Western Europe. Dance halls established spaces where young people could meet more freely and choose their partners. In the twenty-first century, this process of choosing a partner sped up and spread out with the arrival of the internet. “The whole of society has become a huge dance hall where anyone (boy or girl) can ask anyone else (boy or girl) to dance,” writes Kaufmann. “As in the past, the ritual is reassuring because it is so well-oiled and gives the impression that the rules of the game are clear. But what we make of a date is not predetermined and can vary a great deal, more so than ever now that sex is part of the equation and may even be the most important thing about it.”

For Kaufmann, although love online increasingly looks like a hypermarket, it doesn’t really offer all the ease and convenience promised. We remain only too trapped by our own passions and humiliations when we try to build relationships with the real people on the other side of an internet exchange. Internet daters must learn the courting rituals of our age: first sending some messages, perhaps a photo, then having an initial drink, followed by “real” dates. But they are disappointed to find that the new rules of dating solve few of the problems that engulf someone looking for love. As Kaufmann puts it, “the rules relate to the formalities and the setting. They tell us nothing about the content of the game. On the contrary, the issue of sex/love is now more confused than ever. Sex has not become just another leisure activity.” Now that sex has become so commonplace, it is love that Kaufmann sees as truly radical. Love is what people struggle to realise: “We were deluding ourselves when we believed, as we often did in the 1960s and 1970s, that it is sexuality and not feeling that has a revolutionary import.”

KAUFMANN and Illouz want readers to understand the very specific and recent changes that have made men and women what they are today. Readers looking for an explanation grounded in evolutionary theory can turn to The War of the Sexes by Paul Seabright. Although he is an economist by training, Seabright’s work draws from evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to explore what he sees as the riddles of modern sexual inequality. Describing the process of natural selection as like moving through a long tunnel, he suggests that “during the passage through that evolutionary tunnel, men who could acquire economic resources were able to coerce or bribe their way into sexual reproduction and left more descendants than those who could not. Those conditions have changed beyond recognition today, but if we are to make economic inequality between men and women a thing of the past, we need to understand the psychological marks that the tunnel has left on us.”

Far from arguing that women are “naturally” less capable of succeeding in the modern economy, Seabright says that the data shows that any sex differences in ability pale in comparison to real-world differences between male and female economic success. Instead, he suggests that a more important difference between women and men (as well as the males and females of other species) is in how they collaborate and compete: how they network.

In modern capitalism, we are supposed to prize efficiency above all else. But biology shows us that what is important – even more important than efficiency – is success, which is achieved through collaboration as much as through competition. Evolutionary theory says we seek success in sexual selection: women seek to make the best choice of partner for a considerable investment in fertilising their eggs, while men must work hard to ensure that their plentiful sperm can have a chance of reaching any eggs at all. Seabright says that this battle of sexual selection has effects in most other arenas of life as well, and he is particularly interested in the arena of paid employment. He argues that modern workplace research provides many examples of where what should be efficient fails to happen. Women, whose labour should be very valuable, continue to be underrepresented at the top end of business. While men fill out the top bracket beyond their due, they also dominate the most marginalised sectors of society, including the homeless and the imprisoned.

Such inefficient differences, for Seabright, are partly explained by the fact that our prehistorical wiring tends to make men and women work within certain kinds of networks in ways they are overlooked in the modern era. Women tend to create strong ties through relationships in which they invest a lot, while men tend to create weak ties across a wider field. While strong ties are important for maintaining a family (you need people to help you in a very committed way when you have mouths to feed), a wider range of weak ties can be much more useful in seeking jobs across a dispersed employment market. To complicate this idea, both women and men tend to prefer working with members of their own sex, which not surprisingly leads women to be shut out of the boys’ clubs that continue to dominate elite groups. We need to understand such differences, says Seabright, if we want to help both women and men reach their full potential economically, creating an economy that is both better and fairer.

The War of the Sexes begins with a wide-ranging discussion of prehistory and evolutionary biology before jumping, quite suddenly, to contemporary differences between male and female economic power. The gap would have been nicely overcome by readings of anthropology and history as careful as those Seabright presents from evolutionary biology and psychology. But this economist does not make the claim so hated by those of us at the more “cultural” end of the social sciences, that all of our social behaviour can only be explained by market mechanisms or by biology. He deeply disapproves of people, from the left or the right, who argue against scientific findings on a political or moral basis, and clearly believes that the answers to explosive debates about sexual difference and gendered abilities can best be found using the superior weapon of science. But he also takes obvious pleasure in revealing findings from biological research that confound conservative views of sexual behaviour, arguing, for example, that “the view that natural selection has made men promiscuous and women monogamous is factually incorrect.”

These are three quite different books: Kaufmann looks at practices of love and romance, Illouz prefers to unpack the structures underneath such practices, and Seabright tends to be more interested in sex differences than in sexuality. But all three concentrate on the difficult intersection of love, sex and gender. They all argue that love, sex and gender are inherently problematic in the contemporary age. All three see that the distance between men and women creates pain and suffering, and perhaps more importantly that such misunderstandings have wide-ranging social consequences well beyond individual psyches – consequences for what we earn, when we work, and how and when we raise our children. Presumably, these consequences also deeply affect people who do not live within the heterocentric models of love and sex that are the focus of all three books (a limitation they acknowledge to varying degrees).

Whether the problem is caused by the evolutionary need to care for children much longer than most other animals or the historical formation of women as emotional and men as detached, all three books aim to unpack the truths and the myths that seem to have left women with the short end of the dating stick, not to mention the working stick. Eva Illouz tries to console the reader by writing, “If there is a non-academic ambition to this book, it is to ‘ease the aching’ of love through an understanding of its social underpinnings.” It is not our own fault love hurts, Illouz tells us; it is inherent to our modern condition.

Understanding exactly why love is guaranteed to be miserable is certainly illuminating. But it hardly makes for cheerful reading for a thirty-something reviewer in the early twenty-first century. •

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