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The decline of males (1999)

de Lionel Tiger

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A study of male behavior assesses the factors and forces that have transformed the sexual and family mores of American society, arguing that the single most important cause lies in the spread of contraception and in women's power to decide to bear children.

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In Israel there have been cases of women who had intercourse with men for the purpose of getting pregnant and then had babies about which the particular partner was unaware and unprepared. Later the men were sued for child support on the basis of DNA testing. The situation has become so common, or at least prominent, that a group has been formed to protest it—the Fathers Against Their Will Association—and in July 1998 a bill was introduced into the Israeli Knesset to change the law that made DNA paternity an unequivocal basis for child support, whatever the conditions or agreements surrounding conception.

As we have seen, in 38 percent of American child support orders the fathers expected to supply the funds may have neither visitation nor custodial nghts. There certainly exists the possibility that some proportion of these fathers assumed or were led to assume that contraception was employed by their partner and that they were not planning to become pregnant. As governments become more stringent about capturing resources from non-residential parents, it is inevitable that some men will be obligated to supply funds for children whom they did not want to have or suspect are not theirs. Professor Ira Ellman of Arizona State University Law School described to me the case of County of San Lurs Obispo v. Nathaniel J .—57 Cal.Rptr.2d 843 (App. 1996)—in which a fifteen-year-old boy was seduced by a thirty-four-year-old woman, who was convicted of statutory rape for the event. After the woman gave birth to their daughter, the District Attorney’s office sued the boy and his family for reimbursement of the costs for Aid to Families with Dependent Children for which the mother applied. The Court upheld the claim against the boy. This is not to suggest this child and other children involved in involuntary or unexpected paternity do not need suitable support. However, as we will see, the issue of confidence about paternity is both volatile and fundamental. Current legal practice exacerbates the tension surrounding it.
If people do not explicitly define what they do and what preoccupies them, their religious and ritual observances do so for them. Christmas certainly does, with emotional grandeur and clarity. The enormous power of Christmas reveals the undercurrent of strength of the mammalian program.

Let’s set aside the religious feature of the celebration. That’s about a different genre of experience and conviction. Let’s restrict our focus to how Christmas reflects the human life cycle, not the larger issues of belief, divinity, and the meaning of experience. Along with everything else it is, Christmas is a story about mammalian bedrock, about the foundation event of human experience. Apart from its religious meaning, that is why it is perhaps the most successful holiday in the world. That is why it is one of the most reliably positive and is biased toward the lustrous possibility of human generosity, not the meanness of Charles Dickens’s Scrooge.

Consider it with the fresh innocence that can be so illuminating to people who live in a tribe and who take its rigmarole for granted. Pretend you came upon it after sailing a catamaran for a month in uncharted tides.

Christmas is in essence about the care of mothers and infants. Mary bears a child. She possesses no housing, no resources. There are evidently no available family members—no sisters, cousins, aunts, brothers—to call on for shelter and succor. She has to confront alone the central mammalian struggle for assistance at a crucial time. There is a physiological analogue of this. The epic difficulty of childbirth itself reflects a compromise between the size of the pelvis and the mother’s birth canal with the amount of developed brain tissue packed into the newborn’s skull. In the same way, the social trauma of birth reveals the capacity of a community to turn away from private matters to the needs of others.

Mary seeks room at the inn. There is none. She finds no relief from the emergency that she and her child face. Finally she turns to the stable, where she is welcomed. Symbolically and in practice, this is where mammalian life is maintained. What could be more revealing? Bear in mind the importance of shepherds and other caretakers of animals in the pastoral and agricultural life of that part of the world at that time.

They have been sheltered, at least. But mother and child need more. They require active care and resources. Here the miracle of the three wise men reveals a classic solution to the new mother’s problem, which is also the equivalent of modern-day welfare. They arrive with gifts. In colorful symbolic terms they represent the community’s general decision to respond to the basic mammalian challenge. Consider the elements of the story: the event of the birth; the plight of Mary and Jesus; the providence of the wise men and hence of the community at large.

The legacy to us of this is an unexpected celebration of great generosity and conviviality. This is the character of the secular element of the holiday. People give gifts both to family members and others. They provide the highest level of hospitality during the whole year. The events of the Nativity stimulate an unusual episode of life’s reaffirmation at its most elemental and profound. Birth and generosity unite at a glad and assertive party. Forty percent of all alcohol sales, the principal social drug, surround the Christmas and New Year fetes.

But what of Joseph?

Here the brilliance of effective religious symbolism is at its most thrilling. Mary is a virgin. Therefore, Joseph is not the father. Therefore, at a fundamental level, he is not responsible for caring for the child and its mother. Therefore, he is not a “deadbeat dad.” He is not specifically required to pay child support. He is not biologically responsible for the birth. No, the community is responsible. It accepts the responsibility with gifts, lights, and an extended hand. The human power of the religious celebration is untrammeled by paternal delinquency. The link between the birth and the community is pure and clear.

The peripheral role of that long-ago Joseph prefigures in troubling clarity the emerging plight of an ever-increasing group of contemporary men. He suddenly becomes an important ancestor, if not a genetic one, for an unexpected reason.

We don’t know why some celebrations remain meaningful and others flow and ebb and finally become at best routine. Certainly they are subject to local conditions and ongoing invention—as was Christmas itself, especially in the United States. But as a holiday Christmas reaches deep into areas of the foundation of human emotionality.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the contraceptive pill on human arrangements. The most striking display of this is the baffling historical fact that after the pill became available in the mid-1960s, the pressure for liberal abortion intensified worldwide. This is remarkably, even profoundly, counterintuitive. It is also an implacable historical reality. Only after women could control their reproduction excellently did they need more and more safe abortions. The likely reason is crude but simple: If men were not certain the pregnancy was theirs because they couldn’t know, then they abandoned the relationship and the unexpected pregnancy. It appears that women (and presumably their parents, friends, and some of their partners) then exerted political pressure to change the laws to make safe abortions available to them. And this pressure succeeded even in improbable countries such as Italy and Spain.

It is enough to say here that the widespread pattern of marriage during pregnancy broke down when Cupid was no longer confident concerning the recipient of his arrow. Or if he was, he did not know what to do when the target ignored the threat. The result is millions of men in the picture but not in the neighborhood, that is, not committed to fatherhood.

The body itself is elaborately implicated. The pill is effective because it mimics pregnancy. Chemically, the user is like a pregnant woman. In the economy of nature, it is very plausible that pregnant females are less attractive to men and less attracted by them than ones who are fertile. How this could happen I will explain later, but an incontestably probable result of such contraception seems to be that the sexual dynamic between male and female is affected if not significantly buffered. The biological outcome of sexual relations has been preempted through chemistry. It has even been brilliantly suggested that one reason for the possible decline in male sperm counts in industrial countries is that the pregnant status of large numbers of otherwise attractive and sexually vivacious women depresses sperm production. After all, different social states of female partners affect male sperm production. For example, men having sex with tall women produce more spermatozoa than they do with shorter partners. How? Does this help explain why the women who model clothes successfully are unusually tall? And men produce more sperm with women from whom they have been apart for a while. Why? And wouldn’t the existence of a large group of women prepared for sexual encounters but chemically pregnant have an effect on men’s efficacy and élan?
Women on contraceptive medication do not respond to other women the way non-contracepted women do. This is very suggestive. The pill affects how women relate to other women in a visceral way. It follows that it also affects how they relate to men. The German researcher Claus Wedekind suggested this in a 1995 report of differences in responses to men of women on and off the pill. Women ranked the desirability of an anonymous array of smells taken from male clothing. Remarkably, they preferred the scents of men socially regarded as desirable potential mates. If remarkable, this is also understandable. These desirable potential mates had It, the Buzz, appeal. However, women using oral contraceptives reversed their preferences and chose inappropriate partners. In a sense there was no point for them to select promising progenitors because they were already [chemically] pregnant. The subtle system of selection had shut down. New rules prevailed.

In 1998, McClintock made another extraordinary discovery, now with colleagues at the University of Chicago. She found that women release a bouquet of pheromones during the monthly cycle that are sufficiently tangible to other women encountering them to cause the shortening or lengthening of their own cycles—in over two-thirds of women by anywhere from one to fourteen days. Why women should respond to the sexual cycles of other women is intriguing in its own right, but in reproduction how women respond to men is clearly more central than how women respond to women. This is a rich clue, both logical and biological, to what else may be going on below the level of conscious choice and verbal articulation. Sexual reproduction is the heart of the relationship between men and women when these relationships are in their most intense stage, and even when they are merely flirtatious. The ready availability of pheromonal attraction is presumably one reason for a million human rules and customs that exist to prevent, restrict, socialize, or influence sexual choices.

Even the absence of sexual congress can produce sharp effects. Imagine a social system in which 50 percent of all women between eighteen and forty-five are obliged to be celibate. In communities that must remain celibate there are usually significantly rewarding arrangements associated with it, such as religious vows (which for Catholic women means symbolic marriage to Christ and the wearing of a gold band), special clothing, lifetime employment and housing, even lustrous promises about the afterlife. How would non-celibate men respond in an ordinary community in which 50 percent of potential partners were nuns? Or non-celibate women to a male population half of priests or committed male homosexuals? There would surely be a conscious adjustment to a challenging situation. After all, the very nature of sexual selection depends on a group of available candidates within which choices must occur.

What if the group of candidates is sharply reduced in number? Didn’t the pill also produce an adjustment? Since 1960 women in industrial countries have been able to control their fertility on their own terms without anyone else knowing. Control was exercised firmly, privately, within their bodies, either with chemicals or largely hidden devices such as the IUD. There was no letter on a woman’s forehead, scarlet or otherwise. Her secrecy could also be a weapon against men. Ignorance may fuel bliss, but it also produces vulnerability.

Before that time, contraception was obvious. Men would have to assume their partners were fertile if they did not use a diaphragm, which is relatively obvious. Condoms, the most widely used contraceptives, also advertised a man’s unwillingness to father a child. Before the pill there was no ambiguity. Pregnancy was always a risk in the absence of an obvious initiative to the contrary. After the pill, the situation was overturned. Men assumed women were contracepted unless they were told otherwise. If they were not contracepted, that was women's choice, and so were any consequences. Nothing less changed than all the central mechanisms of sexual selection, which produced the sexual system that prompted people to engage in it all.
One major result of newly heightened paternity uncertainty seems clear: Men are less willing than ever in history to marry single women who become pregnant. One reason is that social values have changed sharply, and the shotgun is rarely celebrated or tolerated as the tool of choice of matrimony. And men may believe, or convince themselves, that the child may not be theirs. Rather suddenly there are newly available genetic tests for paternity that are quick and easy, though costly—in the $500 to $800 range. These tests will have serious impact once their existence is broadly known. The embarrassment and trepidation their results may bring are compensated for by male self-interest. Numerous studies suggest that 10 percent of married men’s children are genetically not their own. Who wants to know? The real question is, who doesn’t want to know? Will science reintroduce a new kind of male control of female sexuality, the way the double standard was designed to do?

This uncertainty of paternity has been a crucial if unexpected reason for an unprecedented dual convulsion. The first was that relatively liberal laws were passed about abortion. Abortion, along with contraception, permitted women to have sex without babies. The second was an explosion of single-mother births throughout the industrial world, whereby women had babies without husbands. Even prominent women who might have in the past found single motherhood a professional liability now were celebrated for their innovative behavior. It is difficult to imagine more important changes in human life than these.
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