There’re a lot of claims in this world. Naturally, we’ll agree with some of them, and disagree with others. And sometimes, the ones we disagree with really challenge how we perceive things. Today, I thought it’d be interesting to take one claim that challenges me in that way, and examine it with critical thinking skills. That claim involves how women form lasting relationships. See, misogynists claim that women with a lot of sexual experience can’t do what they call pair bonding. That means they can’t form lasting relationships with the men they claim to want. So let’s examine this claim. Let’s see where misogynists get this idea, and then let’s see how valid it is. Let’s think like skeptics and chase the truth to its natural conclusions, no matter what they might be. Join me for what may be a challenging episode of Roll to Disbelieve!
Welcome, everyone! It is Thursday, March 17, 2022, and this is Captain Cassidy of Roll to Disbelieve. I think we’re gonna have an interesting ride today, and I’m glad you’re here for it! Before we begin, let me offer my thanks to my supporters and patrons. Your support is absolutely invaluable to me, and my work couldn’t exist without it. Thank you so much! If you’re not a supporter yet but you’re interested in knowing the options, at the end of today’s writeup you’ll find a list of ways you can do that. Thanks for whatever you decide to do!
And now, let’s dive into examining this claim about pair bonding.
A quick note about critical thinking
I chose this topic today for a reason: I immediately disagree with it and find it distasteful in the extreme. Every time I’ve heard it, I’ve just chuckled sensibly and pitied the men who think that way. But I’ve never deep-dived into it to see just why it’s not true. I’ve just always assumed it was a ridiculous belief held by misogynists.
That means that it’s extra-important that I put on my critical-thinking helmet when finally engaging with it.
Studies have repeatedly shown that when we have an emotional feeling about a claim, we tend to react to it way differently than if it’s neutral for us. In particular, if the claim challenges our worldview or makes us feel criticized or less-than, we tend to reject it out of hand no matter how much evidence it has to support itself. It’s really hard for us to engage with an idea that makes us feel that way, and even harder for us to change our mind about it.
It could well be that this hypothesis misogynists have is true. At the time I’m writing this introduction, I’ve got no idea if it is or not. If it is, then I need to incorporate it into my worldview somehow and make peace with it. If it’s not, then I’ll emerge from today’s examination with a surer foundation for rejecting it.
Pair bonding: a brief overview
For some reason, misogynists are intensely interested in how women form and maintain relationships. They call this process pair bonding. A woman who can’t pair bond can’t form or maintain a relationship with the men she claims she wants.
Misogynists talk about pair bonding like they’re all expert bird scientists or something! Here’s what they say:
Having multiple partners irreversibly damages your ability to pair bond. (Source.)
Studies have shown that girls with 0-1 partners before marriage have the bottom divorce rates, around 5%. Women that have two partners (one sexual partner before marriage and her husband) have the 2nd highest divorce rate, 30%. (It is said that having just 2 partners creates a comparison dynamic that puts the husband and therefore the other man in competition, sexually, within the woman’s mind.) Women that have 3, 4-5 & 6-9 partners before marriage have divorce rates of 27%, 25% & 28% respectively. Women with 9+ partners before marriage have the very best divorce rate at 33%+. (Source.)
The truth is once a woman has been fucked by enough cocks, [. . .] her ability to pair-bond long term is diminished because of her emotional attachments to her carousel [read: younger, more promiscuous] years. (Source.)
[W]omen with higher partner counts have trouble pair-bonding. Why? Same reason you built tolerance to drugs over time: novel stimuli are stronger, repeated novelty ceases to be novel and your brain chemistry adapts. By sleeping with multiple men, women build a tolerance to the happy feeling of being with a particular man and the negative feelings of going without him. (Source.)
Don’t sabotage your ability to pair bond just so you can fit in with your blue pill friends. (Source. That one’s from a woman writing to other women.)
I could go on, but you get the idea. This idea is all but axiomatic and dogmatic in misogynistic communities. In these communities, almost all members take it as read that women with a lot of sex partners have trouble with pair bonding.
Their hypothesis: The more sex partners a woman has, the greater her chances of wrecking her marriage.
Where this idea about pair bonding comes from
In asking where misogynists get this idea, I came up with only a couple of relevant sources.
The main source for this hypothesis is this 2016 study from the Institute for Family Studies. They call it “Counterintuitive Trends in the Link Between Premarital Sex and Marital Stability.” The main finding from it you see quoted can be seen in the “studies have shown” quote we just read. Basically, the paper’s writers found that the more sex partners women had before marriage, the more likely they generally were to divorce by the fifth year of marriage.
But if you’re reading the writeup and check out the study link, you have already noticed a few things wrong with the assumptions these misogynists make. If you’re only listening, then you’re in for a surprise in a minute, because we’ll get to those problems shortly. For now, I just want to introduce the study itself.
The other source I sometimes see cited is this 2013 paper, “Sowing wild oats: Valuable experience or a field full of weeds?” But I couldn’t download a full copy. The abstract indicates that for both men and women, here’s how it worked:
the number of sexual partners was associated with lower levels of sexual quality, communication, and relationship stability, providing support for the sexual restraint theory.
The 2013 paper is very infrequently cited, but I see the first one everywhere when I examine this claim. In particular, its graphs get passed around when possible.
Otherwise, misogynists get their information from anecdotes and each other: man-o-sphere writing, women’s own writing and dating profiles, and even music videos like Astrid S’s song “The First One.” In the song, the female singer complains about not being able to form lasting, healthy relationships because she’s completely hung up on her first love.
The source of the claims about pair bonding
Anecdotes are not evidence. We don’t care what a pop singer thinks about her one true love. Nor do we care what people on dating sites think. What we need is solid support for the claim, and that means we’ll need to focus on the two studies we found. The 2013 study is simply inaccessible, except for its abstract, so we’ll dive into the 2016 one.
It’s done by the Institute for Family Studies, or IFS. According to their own site, IFS exists to promote marriage because its people believe that strong marriages help the economy and are the best way to raise children. In their their “about us” page, I see some major red flags about their objectivity, namely in their “praise for IFS” section. There, we find Ross Douthat and an editor from the right-wing religious site First Things singing their praises. The third praise quote comes from someone who wrote a book called Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys.
So already, it’s really hard to trust their research. They look extremely biased and anti-feminist. Looking over their “our people” page, I also note that more than a few of them have close ties to Catholic, Mormon, and other Christian groups.
That doesn’t mean we should dismiss what they have to say out of hand, because that’d be an ad hominem mistake. But it does mean that as we examine their study, we must keep potential bias problems in mind. IFS has a vested interest in making purity culture, including virginity at marriage and marriage itself, look like the only rational lifestyle choice for any women who wish to maintain lifelong marriages.
And now, the pair bonding study itself
The 2016 study is called “Counterintuitive Trends in the Link Between Premarital Sex and Marital Stability.” It studied how many sex partners women report having before marriage, compared it to similar studies from decades past, and then checked out the link between number of sex partners and these married women’s chances of divorce within five years.
First, the study looked at how many partners women claimed to have before marriage.
And on the face of it, it’s quite interesting. In the 1970s, the study claims, 21% of women married their first sex partner. By the 2010s, only 5% did that. Also, in the 1970s, the majority of women, 64%, had zero to one partner before marriage. But that percentage dropped quickly. By the 1980s, 53% of women could say that they’d had zero to one partner before marriage. In the 1990s, 40%, then in the 2000s, 33%, and in the 2010s, 27%. Meanwhile, the number of women willing to admit to many partners rose decade by decade, from 2% claiming 10+ partners in the 70s to 18% doing so by the 2010s.
The picture this study paints is one of increasing numbers of partners and seriously decreasing numbers of women marrying their first or second partner. Still, most women claimed a very low number of partners overall.
If you’ve noticed me saying partners and you’re wondering what the term even means to this study, good. We’re getting to that. I didn’t notice them ever defining what “partner” means. Do women consider a one-night stand as a partner? Or are they thinking only of partners as longer-term liaisons?
Chances of divorce in the IFS study
With that info in hand, the study then goes on to examine the potential correlations between the number of sex partners and the chance of divorce before 5 years of marriage.
IFS discovered that women who married their very first partner had the lowest chances of divorce, while women who had two partners before marriage, meaning they’d married their third partner, had the highest. The chances of divorce actually dropped with higher numbers of partners after that.
Interestingly, in the 1980s women who claimed to have had 10+ partners had almost as low of a chance of divorcing, 17%-ish, as women who married their first partner, about 11%. In the 1990s, those 10+ partner women had about a 21% chance of divorcing by 5 years, but if they claimed only 2 previous partners it only rose to 25%. In the 2000s, women marrying their first partners had about a 5% chance of divorce, 30% if they’d had two previous partners, and then their chances of divorce lowered till they hit the 10+ count again. Even then, it only rose to about 35%.
So the biggest risk of divorce seems to happen to women who had 2 previous partners. Women who had more partners actually had less risk of divorce overall.
The sudden religious angle
For some reason, IFS then tries to find a correlation between number of partners and women’s claimed church attendance rates.
The study found that the more partners women admitted having had before marriage, the less likely they were to claim to be regular churchgoers. Church attendance rates plummet in all decades with number of partners.
IFS goes on to talk about women with more than one babydaddy, citing a couple of other studies claiming that women in that situation have way higher risks of divorce. It’s interesting that IFS tries to make the case that regular churchgoers have lower divorce rates, since that flies in the face of all the data I’ve seen on this topic.
Overall, it looks like IFS is trying to sell the idea that attending church will ensure that women have fewer partners, fewer babydaddies, and much lower chances of divorce. In the past, we’ve examined quite a few similar suggestions, like Mark Regnerus, who flat-out claimed that religion could fix marriage. For years now, we’ve known that right-wing religion itself is the biggest risk there could possibly be to what Christians like to call “traditional marriage.” The more dominated a state is by evangelicals, the worse its divorce rate tends to be.
Moreover, church attendance itself was already tanking before the pandemic. And it’s not a really good measure of someone’s religious convictions anyway, which IFS itself admits in its own study–along with admitting that they don’t know if their virgins and near-virgins were regular church attendees before marriage, or if they became so after marriage. IFS simply couldn’t go further than claiming its religious blahblah is nothing more than “suggestive,” not “definitive.”
What IFS didn’t talk about at all
Along those lines, it’s very interesting to me that IFS didn’t talk at all about the overall lower percentage of American women marrying at all. Over the past 100 years or so, fewer and fewer Americans are getting married.
But in recent decades, the divorce rate overall has declined precipitously.
So it might well be that the people who are choosing to marry are being better about picking partners, regardless of the overall rise in the number of partners women have compared to previous decades.
So: my evaluation of the pair bonding study
Overall, I don’t think this study does what misogynists really want it to do. They want to use it to make assumptions about women’s long-range chances of success in marriage according to the number of partners they’ve had in their past. But it doesn’t really do that. Nor can I agree with IFS that it’s “reasonable to assume” what they did about premarital sex. As they wrote:
For all three decades, the women with the second lowest five-year divorce rates are those who had only one partner prior to marriage. It’s reasonable to assume that these partners reflected women’s eventual husbands. Even so, premarital sex with one partner substantially increases the odds of divorce.
Since they didn’t define what a partner is, didn’t ask about premarital sex itself, and didn’t have their study correlate premarital sex with divorce in the first place, that seems like a reach to me.
They make another reach along the same lines by claiming that more partners equals more of what they call “baggage.” The study doesn’t define baggage or ask women any questions about it, so that too seems unreasonable to assert.
More to the point, IFS concedes that their study didn’t do what they wanted it to do. They wrote:
Having two partners may lead to uncertainty, but having a few more apparently leads to greater clarity about the right man to marry. The odds of divorce are lowest with zero or one premarital partners, but otherwise sowing one’s oats seems compatible with having a lasting marriage.
So there’s that. Ultimately, the study comes out with one data point: that women who marry their first partner have way lower divorce rates. That seems well-supported. But this IFS study doesn’t actually give misogynists the support they want anywhere else. It doesn’t even really discuss pair bonding itself.
The other problem: pair bonding itself as a concept
All this time, we’ve been focusing on this IFS study about marriage, divorce, and previous partner count.
None of that is actually pair bonding.
In fact, we don’t know what misogynists mean by pair bonding. I’m not sure even they know what they mean by it.
Heck, it’s not even really a thing for birds. We’ve found that birds that mate for life cheat on their mates sometimes, as do other pair bonded animals, like dik-diks, which are adorable little deer-things from Africa.
So if pair bonding means sexual monogamy and utter devotion to one mate for life, even animals that practice social monogamy don’t stick to the script. In reality, the academic world recognizes a bunch of different kinds of pair bonding — and notes that it’s very rare to find in non-human primates.
Humans do tend to pair off if they can and to maintain long-term bonding. We also have a good idea of the brain chemistry involved in it. But marriage is no guarantee that it’s happened or even will happen. It can also happen well outside of marriage.
Oops, even one of the misogynists gets it
And even one of the posters in a misogynistic subreddit seems to get the inherent problems with misogynistic ideas about pair bonding in humans. In 2017, redditor Proto_Sigma pointed out that the principles of their subreddit precluded and contradicted the whole idea of pair bonding. He wrote:
However, the principles of AWALT [All Women Are Like That, meaning all women cheat on their romantic partners if they think they’ll benefit from it somehow] seem to contradict the idea that women would evolve to pair bond with one male.
Women are NOT designed to be strictly monogamous, and it seems contradictory that any mechanism would penalize them for not being so.
The nature of hypergamy [always seeking the objectively best partner possible] dictates that women will always pursue the highest value male that they perceive to be attainable, and that potentially means somewhat frequent abandonment of their sexual partner if their value decreases or a more promising target appears. [. . .]
Why does natural human behavior damage the female ability to pair bonding, and if we did not evolve from a sexually monogamous species why did such a fragile pair bonding mechanism evolve in the first place?
Those are all excellent questions, and his fellow redditors were generally not in any kind of headspace to answer them.
On that note, I found an interesting question from another person in a subreddit devoted to debating about misogynistic talking points. He asked why misogynists weren’t worried at all about men’s ability to pair bond after having multiple female sex partners? I don’t think I’ve ever found anyone in the men’s spaces asking this question. It just doesn’t seem to come up at all. Indeed, misogynists often brag about fucking many women, often concurrently, but they never seem to worry about their own ability to maintain a long-term relationship.
The importance of knowing why we believe what we believe
I’m glad we did this today. I’d heard this claim many times before, and it annoyed me. Because look, I can look at my very own relationships and see that I’ve managed to pair bond perfectly well even after having a lot of previous partners. Nor do I think I’m any kind of weird exception or anything. I’ve seen plenty of long-term relationships between people who’d had many partners before marriage. I know of several very long-term relationships that are, in effect, open — meaning both partners enjoy extramarital bedroom fun. But that’s anecdata itself, isn’t it? Maybe I just know a lot of people who don’t follow the norm in relationships.
And so I really wanted to check this idea out and explore it.
I was perfectly willing to accept the truth if it turned out that women couldn’t pair bond after having many partners, meaning that why yes I am actually quite a weirdo as are all my friends.
But as it turns out, I don’t need to change my beliefs. Misogynists are just wrong as usual. Gosh, somehow we always end up here, don’t we.
And this has been Captain Cassidy for Roll to Disbelieve! Thank you for listening, and please check out the end of the writeup for ways you can support my work. Have a wonderful night!