Somebody call Pfizer…I think we’re going to need a pill for this.

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.

cheating - because guys are 1328191661

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.

cheating - napkin

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?

Cheating - RulesofCheatingYes, 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.

cheating - kangaroo images

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?

Cheating - Tiger-Woods-Condom

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.


cheating - If-you-succeed-in-cheating

5 responses to “Somebody call Pfizer…I think we’re going to need a pill for this.

  1. I congratulate you for finishing it – I had to make myself finish it because I got halfway through it, found their theories interesting, but got rather tired of the many references to other primates – I was beginning to feel like I was taking a class in primatology.

    Then I took it all with a huge grain of salt because men and women cheat – that’s nothing new under the sun – and almost everyone is trying to figure out why we cheat… and no one has nailed this one down definitively and once and for all. It might be easy to go back and look at what humans did… but that doesn’t mean one can predict what humans will do next in this area of our existence.

    If nothing else, “Sex at Dawn” is kinda interesting to read if you want to get another take on monogamy versus non-monogamy.

    • You make some great points! And you have a very reasonable take on a very controversial issue :) personally I found the primatology stuff interesting, since it’s the type of “evidence” that a lot of EvoBio theorists are missing …
      Either way, you’re right. What we might have done or how we might have acted as a species doesn’t say much about what we will (or maybe even more importantly *should*) do.

  2. Very nice writeup, you did a very nice job of keeping this from becoming a book.

    I think you are correct that women do indeed have a higher sex drive and desire for greater sexual variety than has been accepted in the past. While in the past sites like “Ashley Madison” were sausage festivals as the male members so greatly outnumbered the female members things are changing as the numbers are 1:1 for the under 35 years of age group.

    I’m however still thinking that the sexual escapades of women are more related to a genetic scavenger hunt than having the big O. Most men would be quite happy to have multiple partners in as short of period as possible, the more the merrier. While there are significant numbers of women who do enjoy the company of multiple men, it’s rare for these to be random men or men who know each other.

    In addition female promiscuity seems to be directly linked to ovulation. The odds of a woman cheating, failing to use contraceptives, and having multiple partners peaks during ovulation. Granted none of these are conscious factors in the choices that women make, anymore than men are specifically thinking about impregnating their flings. However if it was only having about a “good time” then the sexual activity should be constant versus having peaks and valleys.

    Of equal interest is how humans viewed the act of sex before it was associated with procreation. Some studies of more primitive societies like the Yanomami, where an individual father is not recognized or the process whereby a child is created is not understood, it is common and acceptable for women to copulate with numerous men. One western researcher who married into a tribe found this practice especially hard to accept as his demands for monogamy were met with, “It’s just a vagina,” by both his spouse and the other men she would seek out.


    • Hi Sam :)

      Replying to your comment in reverse (from end to begin):

      – Yanomami? Not familiar with the tribe, but that sounds like the plot from Mutiny on the Bounty…

      – I’ve read some of the studies on so-called sexcapades during ovulation, and wasn’t particularly impressed. Some data shows a slight increase in infidelity etc, usually eeking in at significant at the .05 level if they run the numbers right. Flawed methodologies aside, most females I’ve talked to about the topic have the same response: the mid-month freakiness is *quite* conscious. Without getting too Graphic, periods and all their glory are not really sexy or good 1 night material (- 1 week of the month), PMS can be just as bad (- another week), and the post-period surge is usually more like … “It’s been a week (or maybe more), the period is finally done, and… game on.”

      – Women in the modern age seem very keen on getting attention, and sometimes the “hot” guy who won the genetic lottery is the best at doling it out. Chicken and egg maybe, but I don’t think women seek out “genetics” alone or even primarily … In fact, the data I’ve seen indicates that women are most likely to have a hook-up with a guy they would pick for long-term pairing (compared to guys, who do indeed go for physical features above all else).

      Whoo! Tired of iPhone typing. Thanks for your comment — convo TBC!

  3. The Yanomami, depending on who is studying them seem to have different behaviors. I would heartily recommend reading Darkness in El Dorado, while hopefully some parts have been exaggerated it does show how results often fit the agenda.

    At the risk of repeating the same bias as indicated above I do think the science is pretty clear that ovulation does impact female sexual activity. While it could be a behavioral pattern the patterns seem to widespread and would suggest something more biological is at work. The following study might be of interest.

    Now a researcher just studying cheating women could conclude that cheating women are more likely to have an affair while ovulating ignoring the fact that all women are more likely to have sex while ovulating.

    The numbers from Ashley Madison (the affair site) would however suggest that female infidelity is perhaps tied to reproduction. The sexes are now 1:1 under 35 years of age, however the numbers of women fall dramatically as age increases. At 65 years of age there are 14 men for every woman. Perhaps the older generation of women didn’t have as much sex as the younger generation of women today and thus don’t find sex as appealing. On the other hand the fertility of women after 35 drops like a rock and few are still cycling at 45, men on the other hand…

    I cannot find the study at the moment but it was the standard facial symmetry, cheating, and ovulation research- but it added a twist, it asked women about the state of their relationship- how satisfying was it. The perceived quality of the relationship turned out to be just as relevant as facial symmetry. The only group of women that had frequent thoughts of cheating were those paired with less symmetrical partners who also happened to be in lower quality relationships. So in short if you cannot be attractive be nice.

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