Last night, I finished reading Sex at Dawn, a controversial book by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá on The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. For the first half of the book, I was fascinated by their unique arguments on why women may be the “naturally more promiscuous” sex. Alas, it wouldn’t fit in the evolutionary bio aisle if the authors didn’t also embrace the male need for sexual variety, and sure enough, Ryan and Jetha do their part. In describing a series of interviews, the authors talk about how men get “depressed” without sexual novelty, how a decline in sex drive is akin to daily torture, and that if men can’t cheat, they will basically end up hating themselves, their wives, and humanity and… blah etcetera blah.
Honestly, it’s a tired and (I suspect) soon to be irrelevant argument. The numbers are pouring in, and surveys show that men and women both desire sexual variety, and they both cheat more than we even want to know. Why? Aside from sheer moral bankruptcy (judgmental frown), it’s usually because both genders get sexually bored after years with the same person. Rather than a biological difference between men and women, the past reports of M/F differences were probably a product of the social and cultural atmosphere. As it becomes less dangerous (socially and otherwise) for women to act on certain urges, they begin racking up sexual partners and trying their hand at things like infidelity, in the US and in other developed countries. In fact, the cross-cultural, longitudinal data are pretty clear (I’ll have to hunt down the link again, but it’s interesting to see the shift): when society stops passing out Scarlet letters, and when women can be self-supporting financially, they are just as sexually active as men. Ta da.
To be clear, I’m not supporting sexual promiscuity or infidelity for either gender, just pointing out that many of the male vs. female “biological” differences quickly fade when social roles change. Interesting, IMO.
Anyway. Back to cheating cheaters and their cheat-filled ways.
Instead of disparate desires or willingness to stray, I suspect the biggest difference in the way that modern infidelity goes down is that women do it consciously. Meaning, odds are they DECIDE they’re interested in extracurricular sex long before it happens. For the most part, if sex for sex’s sake is what a woman wants, there isn’t much standing in her way. This doesn’t change after marriage, and for many women, the option can be as simple as keeping your eyes open. But… Still. A widely acknowledged reality is that when women want to liven it up in the bedroom with someone else, it’s not usually just sex that they’re after. Why? Probably because sex they can have. Women in general spend a lot of time actively declining sexual advances, so the challenge is finding an emotionally attractive prospect that’s not just a quick lay. And, everyone likes a challenge.
Infidelity for men, however, might occur less often because they’re going out and seeking it — perhaps out of moral fortitude, laziness, or fear of getting caught. Unfortunately, it DOES seem more likely to occur when sex falls in their laps. Sure, some men tee up the opportunity more consciously than others (Spring Break in Cabo? Don’t worry, honey, it’s just a golf trip with the guys!), but that kind of sleaziness is usually obvious and limited to certain kinds of men. More generally, infidelity seems to happen for men when they least expect it — a business trip, a beer with the guys, that random night when the hot pizza delivery girl shows up and offers him a slice. On some level, women know this — hence why they often hate on single gals who don’t have husbands of their own to lose. We recognize that all some gal might have to do is offer it up, and combined with a moment of male weakness, could turn our lives, marriages, and entire world upside down.
When it comes to infidelity, though, it’s weird to me that the genders get pissed at one another for exactly what they’re most prone to themselves: Men take sexual infidelity more seriously, while women take emotional infidelity as the grandest blow. But, if a man is going to cheat, it’s usually for sexual reasons. He should understand a WOMAN’s sexual infidelity and be more forgiving… right? Nope. According to surveys, men can’t stand the thought of their sigO getting down and dirty with another guy.
Alternatively, you’d think that a woman who thrives on emotional bonds shouldn’t get mad when her husband adopts a “work wife” (that he’s not actually sleeping with) – right? Again, nope. Instead, women get suuuuper pissed at the thought that their man is opening up to someone else. Why is it unforgivable for a man to seek the same emotional solace that women are so dependent on? Why do hyper-sexual men loathe the thought of their wife having a one-nighter?
Yes, there are the obvious and overused reproduction-based arguments: men want ensured paternity, women want ensured resources.
But… Recent data and digging deeper into real-world scenarios don’t always line up with the cookie-cutter gender lines. Take the sexual variety argument re: men. Hearing the tales of long-term couples, you’d actually think WOMEN get sexually bored just as quickly — if not more quickly — than men. Personally, I’ve noticed lots of female friends getting tired of the 3 times a day romp routine long before their boyfriends/husbands do … and it’s not because they have a lower sex drive. Manly men think that women are pulling a bait and switch, but really, it might be just a loss of interest in hammering it out with the same person.
Also contrary to the standard narrative, men find it pretty upsetting when their significant other gets emotionally distant. Given that sometimes this coincides with a slide in physical intimacy, men tend to take emotional rejection quite hard — when a sigO shows a lack of personal support (stops all the “You’re the greatest, smartest, bestest man I’ve ever met!” Type stuff), men seek THAT elsewhere, perhaps more so than sexual gratification.
I’m confused by the need to constantly create a bio-based pigeonhole for men and women. Per the usual, it’s easy to compare sexual impulses to obesity issues, perhaps because obesity gives visible form to our physical predispositions: people are seemingly engineered to store fat and calories, in theory because we evolved in a time when food was scare. Country to country, though, comparing somewhere like the US to France, we see how culture and socialization clearly play into our physical predispositions. And, despite the raging obesity epidemic in the US, a large proportion of people are able to remain perfectly fit.
I think what all these theories miss is one very important aspect of being human: We are bizarrely, highly, ridiculously adaptable. We change our behavior hour to hour, day-to-day, week to week, and when the circumstances demand it. Our environment often plays far more into our behavior than any ‘hard-wired’ trait, and basic instincts can be quelled during 9-5 days typing away in Excel, or re-ignited in a crisis or demanding situation. Why, in light of this information, do we bother wasting so much time on arguments about what is or is not “evolutionarily” inherited…?
Okay, another line of questioning that often bugs me:
If sexual behavior was simply restricted by feasibility and this whole theory of resource exchange, why do we see so many men acting contrary to what theory would predict? People are quick to point out Clinton, Tiger, Petraeus as men in power who loved to stray, but what about the all the ones who don’t? We had a few skeezy US presidents, but what about all the ones who haven’t been busted for cheating on their wives? If access was all that restricted the male sexual urge, what about Gates, Zuckerberg, or any other number of billionaire moguls who have decided to go the monogamy route?
In all the talk of evolution and adaptive traits, more and more evidence suggests that we can’t discount one of the most valuable adaptations of our social nature: emotions. Emotions, while universal in their existence, are often elicited or ignored, depending on social/cultural upbringing. Either way, it seems their ability to bind us and guide our reactions/decisions/etc must have contributed to making humans the dominant species…
Maybe we shouldn’t be consumed with wondering why emotions are so ‘illogical,’ and focus on why they were natural and necessary to begin with.