One of my favorite relationship bloggers, Susan Walsh, has been speculating on the causes and effects of what is called the “hookup culture” for quite some time. In a nutshell, the debate hinges on the expectations of the socio-sexual marketplace versus the emotional and evolutionary sexual drives of women who are apparently engaging in numerous short term sexual encounters. Are women engaging in more sex with more partners because of the expectations of a post-feminist sex-over-positive culture in which women are seen as sex-negative prudes if they don’t? Or are they doing so because it’s perceived as the only way to attract the attention of A-List alpha males?
New research by Terri Fisher suggests that we’ve had a few things wrong on both sides of the issue — how we’re asking the questions and how we’re interpreting the answers. It’s long been assumed that women under-report their number of sexual partners, the strength of their sex drive, and other aspects of their sexuality, primarily to conform to the cultural sexual identity expected of them — sugar and spice and everything nice. It’s been similarly assumed that men would over-report the same data, in an effort to live up to the cultural norm of the “real men” getting all the play.
At least in this initial study, it turns out that we’ve been wrong. Terri and her assistants divided men and women into three groups: The first group answered a questionnaire in an anonymous setting. The second group had a researcher present and the risk of their answers being read. The third group answered while attached to what they believed was a highly sensitive polygraph machine.
The results? When women believed they were anonymous, they reported an average of 2 partners. When they thought they had to be honest, they reported 4.4. Men’s answers remained much steadier regardless of the experimental conditions, with the average being between 3 and 4.
In another recent study, it’s been demonstrated that women’s subconscious emotional reactions to erotic imagery are comparable to men’s. It’s been long thought that women were less affected by such imagery, but in light of this new research, it appears that the more likely explanation is that women are better at keeping their feelings to themselves. In a nutshell, these studies suggest that women lie significantly about their sexuality, but men tend to tell essentially the truth.
What does all of this say about the current socio-sexual environment? It’s difficult to say. David P. Barash, PH.D., and Judith Eve Lipton, M.D. have thoroughly debunked the concept of female monogamy throughout the bird and mammal kingdom — the two groups which are most analogous to humans in terms of socio-sexual dynamics. (If you haven’t read The Myth of Monogamy, it’s a must read.) But this isn’t necessarily news to people who keep up with life science. We’ve known for quite some time that humans aren’t designed for monogamy, and that something between serial monogamy and mild polygamy have been the norm for as long as we’ve been human.
The thing is, we’ve tended to approach the study of human sexuality with our Monogamy Glasses on, even though we know better. That is, we’ve always thought of humans as wanting monogamy, both on a conscious and unconscious level. It turns out, a much better evolutionary explanation of female sexuality hinges on the concept that females want the best they can get, and secrecy is crucial to getting it.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the study of animal sexuality has been female secrecy. Until DNA testing became cheap enough for ordinary research, we thought there were a lot of monogamous animals out there. Especially birds. Researchers had logged thousands of hours of direct observation of numerous varieties of birds and had not seen one instance of cheating. Same goes for a lot of mammals, including the oft-cited gibbon, used as a paragon of monogamy in textbooks for years.
But then, DNA testing ruined all of that. It turns out that EPCs (extra-pair copulations) are the norm, not the exception, and that goes for most species. There are lots of factors that govern who plays the field and who doesn’t, but in the end, we can distill them all into one general maxim: those who can engage in and benefit from EPCs do, and the rest would like to, but can’t. This applies equally to females and males. What it’s taken us many years to figure out is that in general, the only way females can benefit from EPCs is when potential fathers don’t know about it, or can be manipulated into staying because they feel they can’t do any better. So they hide their EPCs extremely well.
By the way, I’m still talking about animals. Yes, it probably applies to humans too, but all of this research has been conducted on birds and mammals. We’re still mostly too afraid to do large scale DNA testing on humans, but incomplete evidence suggests the same patterns.
What does all this have to do with hookup culture? I’m not sure. There’s a feeling in the pit of my stomach that things really haven’t changed as much as we might like to think. It might be that facebook and twitter and cell phone cameras have let us see our behavior more clearly, and that there’s always been significantly more “hooking up” than any of us would like to believe. Sure, the venues and mechanisms for hooking up might have changed significantly. But maybe humans are just like the other animals who were thought to practice monogamy. Maybe we’ve been very, very, very good at hiding it — even from ourselves — and technology has given away our dirty little secret.
Maybe we can’t blame the “culture” for “pressuring” women into casual sex. Maybe human females, like those birds whose infidelity eluded scientists for decades, have simply been following their genetic programming and keeping their casual encounters on the Down-Very-Damn-Low, and we’re just now having to face our true sexual nature in all its bloggerific glory. Maybe — just maybe — the uproar isn’t so much over the casual sex, but the cultural and individual admission that it’s the norm.