Hot Flash: The end of girl talk?

Darwinian anthropologist Helen Fisher talks about polygamy, loyalty and why a bubbly young chick like Monica Lewinsky would confide in a sour stepsister like Linda Tripp.

Topics: Charles Darwin,

I wake to a horrifying thought, as I contemplate the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, the big-sister confidante who betrayed her: Is this the end of girl talk? I think about the times I’ve chattered out of turn. Then I pick up the phone and call Dr. Helen Fisher, a Darwinian anthropologist — and a fellow girl — who has plenty to say about the origins of girl talk.

Fisher’s Manhattan apartment — in a quiet eastside building around the corner from Central Park — is meticulous yet cozy. In her bedroom hangs a small colorful painting by one of her former boyfriends of Fisher pulling off her blouse, naked from the waist down. Her body is neat, lean and feminine — rather like her apartment. Although she’s had many opportunities, Fisher has only been married once — for about six months — to a man she divorced “in order to continue the relationship,” she tells me. Fisher has been on the board of Planned Parenthood of New York City for over a decade because, she says, “if there is something I would lie down in front of a tank for, it’s the right of a woman to have children when she wants to.” Fisher chose not to, but she points out: “My twin sister has a child, so I passed on my genes.” A longing to perpetuate your own DNA lurks in almost every human heart, she assures me, and informs our most intimate decisions.

On the lecture circuit, her audiences include federal judges, fellow anthropologists and sex workers. Her latest book, “The Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce” (Norton, 1992), explores mating and divorce among humans and other animals. In 1982, Fisher published “The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior” (William Morrow). She is currently finishing a book about “how gender differences in the brain will play out in the next century.” She’s also studying “the brain physiology of infatuation” — what actually happens inside the brain when humans fall madly in love.

Americans “love love,” she tells me — and Fisher is mad about the subject, herself. She recently shared some of her thoughts on her favorite subject with Salon.

My first thought, when I saw Monica Lewinsky’s face on the front page of the New York Post was: “If you’re sleeping with a head of state in this day and age, you don’t tell anyone!”



Women talk. That’s human nature. Any woman having an affair with the president would talk — but usually, it’s who you talk to. If Bill Clinton had an extramarital affair, he should have picked a woman who had a lot to lose. Monica didn’t have a lot to lose — she’s young. And her mother has bragged about sleeping with an opera singer — they both seem to be a little questionable.

When men gossip, they talk about sports and business. Women talk about feelings and lovers because women are more interested in “connection.”

Why are men less likely to discuss sex?

It’s adaptive strategy. If a man tells a man whom he’s sleeping with, he may be in competition with that man tomorrow afternoon. It’s not adaptive for men to talk about their sexual connections because they may get cut off from them. But it’s often adaptive for a woman to talk about her sexual connections because, by gossiping, she’s building networks with other women.

We think we’re building something, but girl talk can be self-destructive, as Lewinksy may have discovered. Don’t you think Linda Tripp’s behavior was profoundly hostile?

Very hostile. That part of it troubles me more than any other — that Linda Tripp betrayed her friend and used all that information for her own purposes.

Are we in denial about the animosity that exists between females?

Yes. Primatologists have discovered what American women somehow have missed: Women are in direct competition with other women. This whole thing of getting together for women’s rights has clouded our eyes to the Darwinian nature of “survival of the fittest.” Women will compete with other women just as men will compete with other men, and they do it very cleverly.

You take one look at Lewinsky and Tripp and you have to wonder: Why did this young, bubbly chick confide in such a sour-looking stepsister? That’s a recipe for betrayal.

You’ve got to pick your friends, and it’s remarkable how many women don’t! It’s stunning. Even me — I said something to somebody recently that could be used against me! But we do this to connect.

Are women in other cultures more realistic about rivalry and less likely to talk freely with other women? Or does every culture have its trusting, chatty Monicas and scheming Lindas?

Every culture in the world. This scenario happened two million years ago in the grasslands of Africa, and it happened in ancient Greece and ancient China. Gossip evolved along with the evolution of language, and gossip is very useful. It is basically gossip which may pull down this president.

Do you think Clinton’s sex life should be of concern to us?

No, it’s really nobody’s business. I don’t even think it’s anybody’s business that he lied. Americans seem to assume that, if you have poor judgment in your sex life and you lie about it, you are also going to have poor judgment in your business or political life and lie about that. But there’s no evidence of this. There’s a great deal of evidence from around the world that men who have sticky sex lives can still conduct the business of running a country perfectly well. We have had about 14 presidents about whom there were allegations of either a mistress or an extra affair or even an illegitimate child. And these men still ran our country.

Do you find that you have to tone down some of your ideas in order to reach the public?

I almost got into trouble when I appeared on CNN’s “Talk Back Live.” They asked: What is all this discussion doing to our children? There were three of us — [former Nixon advisor] John Dean, myself and a history academic. So I jumped in and said, “Well, in many traditional societies, children grow up knowing everything about the community. They start knowing about sex and even seeing sex as soon as they’re conscious.” I got that far and the academic leapt down my throat. He basically said that children should not be seeing this kind of “seamy” sex. What I didn’t have time to say was: If you want children to have moral values, then you’ve got to show them the bad parts as well as the good so that they can build their moral understanding of what is good and what is bad. You can’t pull them out of a glass box at age 21 and expect them to make intelligent moral decisions about sex — or about anything else — if you don’t let them ride through the times. In the New York school system, when a few teachers come in and talk only about anatomy — it’s called an organ recital.

A surprising number of baby boomers in this country were deprived of a real education when it comes to sex. How about you?

My first memory of sex in my family involves walking on the beach in Cape Cod on a beautiful sunny day in late October with my twin sister, my mother and my father. I must have been 5 or 6. My father came over to my twin sister and me, gave us his watch and said, “You go up the beach, take this tennis ball and have fun. And don’t come back — don’t look back — until the minute hand …”

How long did they take?

I don’t remember! But I do remember shuffling up the beach, very sad to be ostracized, waiting for the time to go by and then coming back. Mother and dad were very different: Dad was smoking his pipe, and mother was acting kittenish! I remember that moment distinctly — something had gone on that was good, that made my life easier in this family. Mother had turned into a very sweet person and it turned into being a very nice day at the beach.

All through my childhood, sex was something that was natural and that one should learn to do well so that you had a good life. I was never sneaking in to look at my parents’ sex books — their sex books were right there. The only thing I inherited from my father was 20 books on sex. He was a wonderful man.

America is the collective child that hasn’t been taught about the closed door. We’re experts on sexual morality yet we’re ignorant about sexual etiquette. Why?

Americans are very religious about sex — compared to other Western people and to Asian people. Asian societies do not connect sex with sin. They connect it with social responsibility. In Japan and China, there are many sexual taboos — what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do. But you’re not supposed to do it because it will be offensive to your family, not because it will be offensive to God.

Is this fuss really about whether Clinton’s sexual behavior offends God?

Actually, this fuss is about people thinking he has lied, about lying. Unlike most people in the world, Americans have this belief in rugged honesty at all costs: If you aren’t honest, you’re not good. Whereas many peoples in Latin America, for example, and throughout much of Asia, will graciously say dishonest things in order to be polite. I would say that, in most tribal societies, where community is absolutely essential, most people are willing to tell white lies to smooth over difficult social situations.

In much of the world, in fact, greasing social relations is far more important than what would be regarded as brutal honesty. Americans will tell you the truth even when it’s insulting. It may be the frontier mentality that we come from. Throughout Asia and Europe, people have been trying to get along with each other for thousands of years.

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Many people have been comparing American attitudes toward extramarital sex with French or Italian attitudes. Can we look at this in larger terms?

In 84 percent of worldwide cultures, men are permitted to have more than one wife. And if they are rich, they can take as many wives as they can afford. The Kung Bushmen of Southern Africa are polygynous, and if a man is rich or charismatic enough, and he can get more than one wife, everybody admires him for it. When I lived with the Navajo in New Mexico, there were some men who had two or three wives, or even four wives. In every polygynous culture, the first wife is generally the primary or most powerful wife. She gets more resources, she gets the most status, and then there are secondary, tertiary or minor wives.

So these households don’t breed sexual anarchy.

Oh, it’s totally organized. Sex is organized in every culture in the world. Every culture has rules about who you can sleep with and who you cannot sleep with. I think that was the first thing that mankind invented — rules for who you sleep with.

Many Americans like to castigate their own culture for being puritanical. How do we rate, in world terms?

Among the Ulithi, in Polynesia, there is one day every year on which you can pick any partner you want — and go and picnic and make love. They have a day off from their normal sex practices. We don’t have that. But every culture has sexual taboos. There are a great many societies that won’t even discuss homosexuality. And traditional societies often have taboos about menstruation. One group of people in Amazonia, the Mehinaku, regard a menstruating woman as profoundly polluting. She could kill you if she’s menstruating, so the moment she starts, she can’t touch any of the food or the utensils. She has to leave the community and sit in a menstrual hut for a few days.

We routinely see TV commercials that talk about menstruation in great detail.

Yes, and we often make love when we’re menstruating. Even if we don’t, it’s not “poisonous,” it’s not polluting. Many societies have taboos against intercourse before they go on an important trip or during certain festivals. The rest of the world has all kinds of incest taboos. In many cultures, you can’t go out with somebody from a particular clan or with someone who has a particular genetic or cultural relationship to you. Mainstream Americans have an incest taboo but it’s nowhere near as rigid as the Navajo incest taboo: You cannot go out with someone from your own clan.

How large is a Navajo clan? Is this like saying you can’t go out with your cousin?

Well, a clan is a related group of people — but it’s almost like saying, on any New York City block, that you can go out with anybody who lives on the opposite side of the street but with nobody who lives on the same side. It’s a lot of people.

Everyone has been making fun of Clinton for apparently believing that oral sex is not adultery.

Around the world, adultery is defined entirely differently in different places. The Lozi in West Africa believe that giving a beer to a woman and carrying the beer into the woods is adultery.

Is Clinton’s predicament somehow a sign of things to come — or not — for other important men? Is the party basically over for the American alpha male?

Americans are out gunning for men. With the growing economic power of women in the course of this century, we are seeing a real turn toward curtailing male sexuality — and expressing female sexuality. Adultery in the Western tradition was defined as the woman having extra partners. It’s generally men who have been permitted to have extra lovers. With women’s growing economic power, the same rules are applying to both sexes.

It seems that the alpha male is also being asked to settle for the sex life of a middle management male. Can we really democratize sexual behavior?

There is a chemical relationship between rank and sexuality. Testosterone: If you inject a male bird or monkey — or even a fish — with testosterone, he will scramble and rise up the dominance hierarchy. The male drive to get to the top is associated with testosterone, and men have 10 times more than women. A high level of testosterone is associated with three things: rank, risk taking and a high sex drive. Generally the males at the top of a dominance hierarchy have more sexual opportunities than those in the middle or at the bottom — and they take those opportunities. Women around the world and females in other species are interested in these males. Clinton has probably maintained high levels of testosterone all his life. But levels of testosterone go up when you win — and here’s a man who has been on a winning streak. So, when you ask a man of high rank who has very high levels of testosterone — and he has girls constantly throwing themselves at him — not to satisfy his high sex drive, you are asking him to rise above his human nature. And, from a Darwinian perspective, we are asking him to settle for less.

Hillary Clinton has some important attributes, such as loyalty and shrewdness, that many powerful men seek in a mistress. And Bill — if he had an affair with Monica — seems to have very poor judgment.

In some societies, you would want a third or fourth wife who is docile and young, who won’t compete with the first wife. So you wouldn’t want a clever woman who is political.

So in some societies, Monica Lewinsky would have been an ideal romantic partner for Clinton?

Absolutely. In a different society, he could have moved Monica in, and she could have slowly become the second wife — and the first wife would not lose her power and status. The second wife wouldn’t have the power and status but she would have the resources of the man and the sexual focus of the man. In a polygynous society, a father would be pleased if his daughter attracted the attention of the most powerful male — but in this society, he might be displeased, because “she’s wasting her time.” So, in a different society, Monica would be a very good choice.

And in ours?

Not a good choice — someone like Camilla Parker-Bowles would be a better deal because she’s got political savvy. She’s not going to blab to people she doesn’t know. She’s not going to have that exuberant air when she’s around him. She has a sophistication that this girl doesn’t have.

Oral sex has been getting a bad rap during this scandal. But a man who restricts extramarital sex to oral sex may have reason to feel “less” adulterous because he can’t father a child that way.

No question about it. That is a different kind of relationship. It protects the woman and protects his existing family. She can’t get pregnant and bear a child that demands resources that would go to the child of his first wife.

In “Anatomy of Love,” you divide love into three varieties: lust, infatuation and attachment. Are they really so distinct?

Lust — or the drive for sexual gratification — is associated with lots of testosterone in the brain. Infatuation or passionate love — that elation, that euphoria — is associated with dopamine and norepinephrine, which are natural stimulants. It certainly appears like an infatuation on Monica’s part: the glistening eyes; the gleaming, smiling face; the compulsive need to talk about it — a person who will wait three hours on the street for him to come by — this is a brain that is overcome by dopamine. Attachment — or that sense of calm and security that you feel with a long-term partner — is associated with different chemicals, basically oxytocin and vasopressin. I would guess that Bill and Hillary feel deeply attached. It’s been a long team effort. It may still be a sexual relationship, but it is certainly a strong unit that pulls together in times of stress.

So, from Bill’s point of view, sex with Hillary would be a cocktail of “testosterone plus oxtysocin” and sex with Monica would be “testosterone plus dopamine”?

Any mixture is possible. Bill may experience the sex drive with his wife along with attachment. If he had an affair with Monica, it may have been infatuation plus sex. And with Paula Jones, it may well have been a momentary sex urge, if it was something at all. During the course of human evolution, these three emotions — lust, infatuation, attachment — have become somewhat unlinked from one another, and our brain is built to love more than one person at one time. The human animal is not well built for modern American life. Particularly, the brain is not well-suited for living in a glass bowl, as the president does, with everyone watching — not when we have so many things coming together at the same time.

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