Mate selection as social exchange

Mate Selection as Social Exchange

Recently, I was intrigued by a column in The Palo Alto Daily News (Feb. 26, 2010) by Malcolm Fleschner on the topic of “Should women settle?”  “Settle” as in “settle for what they can get in a mate” as opposed to “waiting for Mr. Right.”  The writer’s conclusion is that probably most women are willing to settle for a guy who’s good enough, if not the man of their dreams. After all, so many feminine romantic ideals hark back to Prince Charming stories that quickly fizzle in the cold light of real life.  And so many women, so popular wisdom goes, really do want to settle in another sense–into home and family-building–for which someone less than Prince Charming will surely do.

As a sociologist, this discussion took me back to college days where we debated Social Exchange Theory.  This theory offers a simple, if somewhat coldblooded explanation, of all social interactions–even a simple greeting to a stranger–as “exchanges.”  An even exchange, where my greeting of you is as robust as yours is of me, is more acceptable than one in which one party is giving more than he/she gets.

In this framework, mate selection would work as follows.  A man would assess what he has to offer in attracting a potential mate–such as, physical looks, height, strength, wealth, earning power, social class ranking.

Similarly, the female would assess her own value in similar terms.  Each will use this self-assessment to determine the pool of mates each could realistically hope to be able to attract and get.  Of course, males and females may value different things in the opposite sex–a man may be more impressed by a woman’s physical attributes; she may be more impressed with the male’s job and earning power.

So, this theory predicts that pretty well everyone “settles” in the long run–men and women alike–whether they intend to do so or whether they even realize they are doing so.

Sociologist Margaret R. Davis’s new novel, The Miranda Affair (published by Sand Hill Review Press, 2017) is a light-hearted yet serious depiction of the political shenanigans that take place as women and men in a large corporation struggle to climb the corporate ladder.

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Margaret R. Davis’s debut novel, Straight Down the Middle (Kelso Books, 2009) is set in San Francisco in the mid-1980’s at a time when the gay revolution was at its height.  It is a humorous, romantic, sometimes spicy story about a lesbian woman’s quest to have a baby.

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When Baby Makes Four

We have all heard of the “baby makes four” situation that occurs when an infertile male/female couple pay an outsider to help produce a child for them.  This can be a beautiful solution to the problem of infertility but not when the surrogate parent has a change of heart after the child is born.  Accounts of heart-wrenching custody battles regularly appear in the media.  More often than not, the surrogate is a woman who has carried a child for the infertile couple. As a woman myself, I can appreciate how difficult it must be to give up a child one has borne, no matter what business arrangement is involved. 

My novel, Straight Down the Middle, presents a slight variation of the “baby makes four” scenario.  In the story, a lesbian mother Diane is impregnated by a male acquaintance. After the baby is born, she finds herself caught in the middle between her love for her partner and what she increasingly chooses to see as her duty toward her child.  Societal pressures working in favor of the latter include family disapproval of her non-conventional lifestyle; the societal truism that “a boy needs a father,” and, perhaps most persuasive of all, the biological father’s desire to keep in contact with his son (i.e. “how can I deprive my child of his father’s love?”).  Diane is, in fact, pushed in the direction of “straight” long before her heart follows her mind.

The real-life events on which this novel were based occurred in the 1980s, when Diane’s situation was relatively rare.  But today infertility clinics often actively promote biological parenthood for gay men and lesbians and the numbers of such family units has increased considerably.   From random newspaper accounts and anecdotal evidence I have received, it would seem that that my protagonist’s experience of being torn between two worlds by their child is not uncommon either.

 Please leave me a comment.  Let’s get a discussion going.