Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Network of Sluts

In the July 15, 2006, New York Times, Maureen Dowd has, perhaps unwittingly, written a classic of network analysis in What's Up, Slut? The number of prior sexual liaisons conveys some information in dating. Dowd describes how one man uses "the number": "I might date a slut, but I certainly wouldn't marry one."

At least for heterosexual men, the word slut apparently embodies a heuristic for judging the threshold at which a date is no longer the right marital stuff. So where does "the number" cross over from nubilely chaste to, well, slutty? Dowd offers several definitions:
  • Less than 20
  • The would-be male partner's number, minus one or two
  • "Enough to do what I'm doing."

That last one strikes me as the ideal response to this impertinent but seemingly unavoidable line of inquiry. Unsolicited (and probably unheeded) advice to single heterosexual male readers: your winning line is "I'm looking to add just one more."

In more formal terms, the dating game represents a form of network construction. Each player -- we can call him or her a "node" -- is looking to form a link. Unlike other networks such as the blogosphere, however, supernodes with many connections are not desirable. Quite the opposite. (So much for the old French pickup line, "Vous êtes une super-nana.")

To compound matters, this isn't exactly easily verifiable information. So each participant has the incentive to obscure the real number. Dowd taps into an old source of folk wisdom: the pressures on men and women in this aspect of dating, as with so much else, are assuredly asymmetrical.

I strain to think of another network where the number of links conveys such negative information, at least once it crosses a certain threshold. This one may be best left as an exercise for the reader.


Blogger jimbino said...

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7/15/2006 5:28 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

A correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous has this to say about the Maureen Dowd article on the term "slut" and on Jurisdynamics' post, A Network of Sluts:

"I remember one of the best responses to the evoluntionary biology canard that men are somehow 'naturally polygamous' while women are 'naturally monogamous.' I can’t remember who said it but one evolutionary biologist who was asked whether this behavior was genetic responded that 'one is not the number of sexual partners that we necessarily want for ourselves (male or female), it is the number that we want our spouse/partner to have. Enforcing it, however, is a matter of power.'"

Nicely put.

7/16/2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger mind your own said...

I strain to think of another network where the number of links conveys such negative information, at least once it crosses a certain threshold.

How about the number of drug dealers one knows? Mobsters? Enron execs? Honestly, even the number of lawyers one knows, especially if it's a high number, conveys negativity.

Though I suppose it depends on your audience...knowing many drug dealers may be impressive to another drug dealer, knowing a lot of mobsters impressive to a 12-year-old boy, and knowing many Enron execs impressive to Karl Rove.

7/17/2006 4:53 AM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

In response to Mind Your Own:

Mobsters, drug dealers, and corrupt corporate executives are negative, to be sure, and I can even see the case for treating the number of lawyers known as reflecting badly on a person. But the difference is that within each of these networks, knowing someone affirmatively advances the power and standing of each node. Drug dealers who know more dealers can garner more information about supplies and law enforcement. And so forth. It's not the strength of information that makes these networks bad. It's that the networks themselves deal in bad things.

What makes Maureen Dowd's "network of sluts" so strange, to me at least, is that the ultimate goal of the network (namely, romantic love) is socially positive, but the number and strength of links connecting each node to others in the network would be perceived by the network as a whole as conveying negative reputational information about individual nodes.

7/17/2006 3:47 PM  

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