I learned something today while reading a post at Diabasis with the wonderful name You Don’t Screw Enough, Part 2. Specifically, the post finally let me grok why we tend to put so much energy into the pursuit of a thing we call monogamy — a thing that in practice tends to look more like “as much monogamy for our partners as we can enforce, while we continue to screw whomever we can.” To explain this in my own head I’ve formerly relied upon a weaksauce theory having its roots in pop evolutionary biology, but this makes much more sense to me:
Having access to rare things is good for status, but ownership, the ability to exclude others, is even better. You get a lot more social mileage out of having Old Master in your study than just going to see one in a museum, owning beachfront property has far more cachet than just being able to go to the beach, and your securing admission to Princeton is made all the sweeter by knowing that for every applicant who got in, eleven are rejected.
Now if people are actually fairly promiscuous, then how socially awesome must you be if you can somehow monopolize the sexual attentions of a very attractive person? Impose a sacrifice of sexual opportunities on them? (Or at the very least, push their sexual alternatives into socially invisible spaces — the tryst with the gardener, the dalliance with the call girl.) At the extreme end of human societies we have potentates (marvelous word!) constructing harems with enforced monogamy for many, but even our humble middle classes have their own version of this, grabbing what little status they can by imposing monogamy on each other.