Woman and Superwoman
By Alec Rawls © 1996/1998. (1225 words) Originally published in The Thinker, 5/31/96.

Dear Mr. Knowitall: Who is the most important artist for our times? The answer, Cindy Lu Who, is George Bernard Shaw. I realized this when I stopped by a dance club recently and was stunned by what I saw. The girls weren't dancing with the boys! They were out on the floor dancing with each other while the boys stood around looking like they wanted to die. Was this really possible: such a dire circumstance, completely beyond the ken of Mr. Knowitall?

A thousand focussing rings instantly started probing for tumblers to drop and, sure enough, the answer was there. The only girls dancing with boys were the one's dancing with boyfriends, which I could tell by the grotesquely suggestive ways they danced together. So, dancing was being treated as a monogamous behavior instead of a search behavior! And where would that come from unless, click, it was a consequence of the educational establishment's ubiquitous urgings to young people to treat monogamy as a core virtue, to protect them against sexually transmitted disease.

It used to be that sexual monogamy and dating behavior resided in separate spheres, divided by the institution of marriage. Norms of single behavior were built around the object of finding a life partner. Marriage was for commitment to that person. If a woman was single her social status was "available". Dating didn't change that. Having a steady boyfriend didn't change that. Even being engaged didn't necessarily change that. My own mom was informally engaged when she was set up on a blind date with my dad. Until a woman was married, all elements of society recognized her options to be open and rejected any man's claim to have her to himself.

When the evolution towards premarital sex became a revolution, the spheres of monogamous behavior and search behavior got thrown together, resulting in a spectrum of pre-marital sex from sexual promiscuity to sexual monogamy. The resulting increase in sexually transmitted disease has driven both public ideals and private behavior strongly towards pre-marital sexual monogamy.

Conservative religious groups have objected to the use of public health arguments to promote sexual monogamy outside of marriage, but their objections have been dismissed as the anti-sex rantings of the religious right. What those who go preaching monogamy to children have overlooked is the consequences for search. Have we actually taught our children that being a good girl means picking one boyfriend and not recieving or returning the attentions of others? Are we teaching our boys that they should curb their instincts to search -- that they should treat their own and other people's adolescent liasons as untouchable commitments? What a disaster, to most strenuously impose upon our children norms of single life that are tailored to the imperatives of sex rather than search.

All is not lost. For wisdom, we need only reach back eighty years, to peer through the thousand year old eyes of Bernard Shaw.

In his great play Man and Superman, Shaw made the crucial distinction between what we now call "biological determinism" and "biological potential." Intelligence evolved, Shaw opined, because, like having an eye, having a mind's eye enhances an organism's ability to survive and propagate. But this mind's eye can see purposes beyond the purposes that guided its evolution. Thus the basic conflict is laid. Biological determinism (man) will sacrifice all to propagate self, while biological potential (superman) will sacrifice self to what is larger than self.

To represent this conflict, Shaw used a device that women have reason to object to. He depicted woman as biological determinism incarnate. "Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation" warned Shaw's budding superman. "She sacrifices herself to it. Do you think she would hesitate to sacrifice you?" To the play's wary hero, protective of his own purposes, a woman loves a man the way a tiger loves food. (Of course he ends up a happy meal. The women in Shaw's plays are always more than a match for the men.)

There is a sequel to Man and Superman that needs to be written -- Woman and Superwoman . It would also start with the crucial distinction between biological determinism and biological potential, but it would look at both of these elements in both sexes.

As to potential, we are the same. Men and women both have the same open ended faculties of intelligence for discovering what there is to value in the world, and we have the same world of things to discover the value of. In particular, love draws heavily on our biological potential. It is not just a programmed feeling but fully engages our minds eye, riding all that intelligence can see about what is possible in the world, if only we could share it, with this one who fires us to dream of sharing.

But where our same open ended faculties lead us to the same ideal of loving togetherness, our different biological determination bends us away from this ideal in opposite directions. Men are biologically driven to philander, and impregnate multiple mates, while at the same time controlling women and keeping them from other men. Women are biologically driven to seek commitment from who they are with, so as to have the advantage of help in raising their children.

The liabilities of the male bent are well understood and roundly decried, but the female bent is just as much a divergence from the ideal. Commitment to whoever one happens to be with can be just as much of an obstacle to ending up with a person it makes sense to be with as a drive to philander is.

Our present idealization of pre-marital sexual monogamy brings out the worst of both the male and female biological bents. Instead of tempering the girl's instinct to commit to whoever breaks down her resistance, the idealization of sexual monogamy only exacerbates it, while the male drive to protect his conquests from other interested males is no longer kept in check but is sanctioned.

I know so many women who at thirty are still declining to meet men out of loyalty to boyfriends that I want to start a bumper sticker crusade: "Don't let a boyfriend keep you from finding your husband" and "No babies with boyfriends." If you women think the male drive to keep looking is bad, think of how we feel when you are so quick to stop looking. How can you stop looking before you have found your husband? Wake up woman!

The idealization of pre-marital sexual monogamy is the victory of determinism over potential, woman over superwoman, lust over love. We need to affirm a higher standard. We need to break the hold that pre-marital monogamy, in the form of the female drive to commitment and the male drive to control, have over search.

First that means men: if you are interested in a woman, the only thing that matters is what she thinks, not what any boyfriend might think. This is the one remaining legitimate feminist issue. A woman has an absolute right and responsibility to decide for herself what attentions she wants to respond to and any boyfriend who takes belligerant exception should be carted straight to jail.

Second, Mr. Knowitall asserts that good girls are loyal to the love they are looking for, and that marriage is their true virginity. Don't you ever forget it.

(Alec Rawls is still pursuing his MR. degree.)


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Date Last Modified: 8/27/99
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