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Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction

Gender Gap: It’s All About Cheating

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.

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Discussion

9 thoughts on “Gender Gap: It’s All About Cheating

  1. It’s possible, however, that we can at least partly attribute women lying about sex to cultural pressure.

    None of the nonsense about women having low sex desire and such ever made sense. Various cultures, particularly western religions, wouldn’t be so frightened of female sexuality if it were so easily tamed — you don’t make such vigorous punitive laws about what doesn’t happen.

    Posted by Nicole | September 30, 2010, 5:26 pm
  2. Very solid point, Nicole. The question becomes whether it’s a chicken or an egg. Is culture formed as a reaction to female deception? It seems kind of odd to think of it the other way. If culture is not a manifestation of human nature, from whence does it come? I think we have to treat culture as the expression of human nature, and if it exaggerates some aspects of it, such as our preoccupation with a particular body type for one generation (Twiggy, Marilyn Monroe, Jessica Alba, etc…) shouldn’t we say that it’s just a train gone runaway for a little while, not some sort of grotesque twisting of “true human nature”?

    Posted by hambydammit | September 30, 2010, 7:58 pm
  3. Thanks for the link, Hamby. Very interesting post. I’ve always thought monogamy was a compromise – to make pair-bonding possible, which is the most successful method of raising offspring. I guess “cheating” is just that – reneging on one’s side of the bargain. It explains why women keep their # of partners a secret – so that they will be viewed as a suitable partner who can be trusted to keep their part of the deal.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | September 30, 2010, 11:53 pm
  4. I’ve always thought monogamy was a compromise – to make pair-bonding possible, which is the most successful method of raising offspring.

    Well, yes and no. Technically speaking, some form of extended family community childraising is the most successful method of raising offspring. This is what we see in lots of animal communities. In this setting, even if a parent dies, the young have a chance at survival, which isn’t so in strict pair-bond parenting. Humans do practice a form of extended family childraising, and in many societies, it’s been easily possible to raise children without a strong father figure.

    “Cheating” is a nice emotionally charged word, but it’s not really the best way to describe all EPCs, because many of them are not strictly cheating. It’s very likely that in humans (as in many mammals) females enter into casual sexual relationships as a way to evaluate potential mates. This isn’t cheating since there isn’t a pair bond.

    Certainly reputation matters, and a female who can persuade a male that she is faithful stands to get more parental support, but this alone cannot explain female secrecy. One of the most persuasive arguments is that casual sex is a way to lower the risk of infanticide. If a female secretly has sex with all of the most powerful males in her social group and then has a child, none of them will be likely to kill the offspring since they might be the father. But this strategy works far better when each of them thinks it highly likely that he is the father. Thus the secrecy.

    Of course, if she’s bonded to one male, she gets the best of both worlds. She gets parental support from the male who thinks he’s the father and is bonded, and she gets a cease-and-desist order on infanticide from all the males who think they’re the only other male she’s had sex with.

    Finally, we have to remember that evolution doesn’t care about morals in the way we do. If “cheating” is the best way to ensure the best offspring, etc, then cheating is the “right thing to do.” Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised at the myriad ways women have at their disposal to justify cheating, trading up, playing the field, and “experimenting.”

    Posted by hambydammit | October 1, 2010, 12:23 am
  5. “Is culture formed as a reaction to female deception? It seems kind of odd to think of it the other way. If culture is not a manifestation of human nature, from whence does it come?”

    Why not both? To my thinking, if culture were strictly based on biology, affected aspects would be widely reflected in almost all cultures. Instead, something can have a biological foundation and yet also be enhanced or diminished by social pressure. The social pressure on women to seem sexual pure while at the same time being hyper-sexual and available is intense and is the product of our current culture — it is not a norm that crosses all or even many cultures.

    Posted by Nicole | October 1, 2010, 9:46 am
  6. Well yes. It has to be both, since one either reinforces or discourages the other in various ways. I was thinking more from a ground floor perspective. That is, we couldn’t very well talk about culture influencing our biology if we didn’t have a culture, and culture had to come after biology. So biology is the “first cause” of culture, which then influences biology in turn.

    The cultural obsession with virginity, while not ubiquitous, is quite common, even outside of western Christendom. The most obvious answer is that it is a reaction to female biology. I don’t know if you read my post from a week or so ago on this subject: Why Females are Picky… In the Vagina. Briefly, it outlines the argument that females are evolutionarily designed for competing sperm. They are polygamous. This makes sense in light of the strict moratoriums on sex before marriage. It’s a way for men to try to ensure parentage in the face of prevalent female attempts to better their own evolutionary chances by encouraging sperm competition.

    So this is a great example of what I mean. Culture didn’t invent our obsession with virginity. Biology created the situation and culture reacted to it. Sure, in some societies, women are punished severely for being deflowered too soon, but all we can really say about it is that it is an extreme reaction to a real biological drive. And when we’re talking about scales, it gets really difficult to draw lines without being accused of arbitrariness.

    So… rather than think of things as normal or abnormal, we can start thinking of them in terms of function. Normality hardly matters. It’s just a function of the evolutionary equation. With our big brains, we can determine whether it makes sense in our culture to continue to punish women for non-virginity. That would be what I’d consider a second-order behavior change — culture reacting to second-order thought by encouraging the suppression of the male biological urge.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 1, 2010, 5:23 pm
  7. Point taken; they are potentially cultural adaptations to biological function. However I think the biology of human sexuality is too poorly understood, as yet, to draw firm conclusions.

    I personally find more fascinating the cultural adaptations to the reality that many children are not biologically related to their legal fathers, in those same cultures which highly value female monogamy. (And usually ignore male non-monogamy.) Granted the test group is skewed in favor of those who have reason to doubt paternity, but with the availability of cheap home paternity test, ~30% are coming back negative.

    Historically, the pattern is that legal paternity overrides genetic paternity — and any child a woman bears is considered the child of the legal father.

    So we have this strange punish-but-ignore strategy. A wandering female, once safe in a legally binding relationship, is provided with a sexual/reproductive alibi if she can prevent herself from being actually caught. Whereas males who fathered children outside legal relationships (theirs or hers), are socially incentivized to abandon the mother and child.

    Male possession of sexual resources seems to outweigh the genetic imperative, in those cultures.

    Posted by Nicole | October 1, 2010, 7:39 pm
  8. However I think the biology of human sexuality is too poorly understood, as yet, to draw firm conclusions.

    Ten years ago, I’d have agreed with you wholeheartedly. Today, it’s safe to say that our knowledge has increased exponentially due primarily to the invention of the fMRI and the significant reduction of the cost of DNA sequencing.

    Depending on how you intend the word “firm” to be taken, I’d still say we can draw strongly supported conclusions. As conclusively as say, our theory of gravity? No. But very strong, nonetheless.

    DNA testing threatens to challenge our evolutionary drives severely. That 30% number isn’t unreasonable at all. In the landmark study in the late 80s (or early 90s, I can’t recall), the number was between 18 and 28% in nearly every culture sampled.

    Much of the female’s non-monogamy strategy is probably designed to deter male violence towards offspring, out of the possibility of parenthood. This makes sense in close-knit, insular tribes like the ones we spent 99% of our evolutionary history in. It will be interesting to see how scientific knowledge of actual paternity alters patterns of domestic violence.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 1, 2010, 8:21 pm
  9. Good discussion. I would suggest a good read on this topic is Sex at Dawn. It is ground breaking and takes the scientific discussion a step farther than The Myth of Monogamy. Two things to consider, Why is the male penis shaped so differently than other primates? Why is female estrus hidden? We all know the saying, “Follow the money” well, to answer these and other questions, “Follow the biology.” That’s what you would do to understand the mating habits of an insect or bird, it works just as well for humans but it requires discarding long cherished cultural notions.

    Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture.

    Posted by Darrel Ray | October 3, 2010, 3:59 pm

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