A very balanced report, I think--rarity for the mainstream media.
Desire and DNA: Is Promiscuity Innate?
New Study Sharpens Debate on Men, Sex and Gender Roles
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2003; Page A01
A fierce debate about whether jealousy, lust and sexual attraction are
hardwired in the brain or are the products of culture and upbringing
has recently been ignited by the growing influence of a school of
psychology that sees the hidden hand of evolution in everyday
Fresh sparks flew last month when a study of more than 16,000 people
from every inhabited continent found that men everywhere -- whether
single, married or gay -- want more sexual partners than women do.
"This study provides the largest and most comprehensive test yet
conducted on whether the sexes differ in the desire for sexual
variety," wrote lead researcher David P. Schmitt, an evolutionary
psychologist at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. "The results
are strong and conclusive -- the sexes differ, and these differences
appear to be universal."
The idea that male promiscuity is hardwired -- and therefore
"normal" -- drew swift and furious criticism. Scholars who
assert the primacy of culture in shaping human behavior charged
Schmitt with choosing his facts, making his conclusions less about
science than "wishful thinking."
The debate won't be settled soon, if ever. For the real arguments are
about social mores, gender roles and sexual politics. The real
question isn't about evolution, but society's view of appropriate
behavior for men and women.
Ohio State University psychologist Terri Fisher said she knows the new
study will be misused. Each year, when she teaches her college
students about the research into sexual variety, the young men smile
and nod and the young women look appalled.
"I bet a lot of males might leave class and talk to their
girlfriends and say, 'You know what I learned in class? It's natural I
don't want to commit to you and that I feel attracted to other women
-- it's because I am a man,' " Fisher said.
The basic idea of evolutionary psychology is that human behavior --
like human physical features -- is the product of evolution. Unlike
with bones and tissue, however, there is no fossil record of behavior,
so psychologists draw inferences from current behavior as to why
people developed certain ways of acting.
There is little controversy that evolution played some role in
sculpting behavior. Neuroscientists have studied emotions such as fear
and found that many species freeze when panicked, meaning that this is
probably an evolved behavior. But when evolutionary psychologists use
the same argument about complex behaviors such as sexual attraction,
the debate becomes heated.
For if men and women naturally have different desires for sexual
variety, this easily becomes a justification of male promiscuity.
Sociologists and social psychologists assert that differences in
sexual proclivity arise because of a double standard in male-dominated
societies, where female sexuality is tightly controlled: Thus, a man
with multiple partners is a "stud" while a woman with
multiple partners is a "slut."
Using genetics to bolster such beliefs, these critics say, gives
gender inequality the imprimatur of biology.
"Arguments about evolved dispositions have the implication of
defending the status quo," said Alice Eagly, a professor of
psychology at Northwestern University. "They have implications
for power and status."
Schmitt's study, which was published in the July issue of the Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, involved 16,288 volunteers from
50 countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as
Australia. Asked how many partners they desired over the next month,
men on average said 1.87, while women said 0.78. Men said that over
the next 10 years they wanted 5.95 partners, while women said they
More than a quarter of heterosexual men wanted more than one partner
in the next month, as did 29.1 percent of gay men and 30.1 percent of
bisexual men, the study said. Just 4.4 percent of heterosexual women,
5.5 percent of lesbians and 15.6 percent of bisexual women sought more
than one partner.
Men were also more willing to enter into sexual relationships with
partners they had known for short periods of time, said Schmitt in an
"It is the first systematic, massive, scientific study of these
sex differences," said David M. Buss, an evolutionary
psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin who wrote "The
Evolution of Desire." Calling the Schmitt paper definitive, Buss
said, "The evidence he presents is irrefutable."
Schmitt thinks the roots of the differences his study found lie in
ancient hunter-gatherer societies. Men who sought sexual variety had a
greater chance of passing on their genes -- and their promiscuous
proclivities. Women who kept their mates improved the chances of
raising children and were more likely to pass on their genes -- and
their monogamous proclivities.
Many evolutionary psychologists say these divergent sexual strategies
also explain two corollary findings of modern studies. One says men
seem more disturbed by sexual infidelity and women seem more disturbed
by emotional infidelity. The other says heterosexual men seek women
who are young and beautiful because these are viewed as signs of
fertility, while heterosexual women seek men who are rich because that
helps in raising children.
Schmitt and Buss said that the findings help account for the fact that
men are more interested in pornography, more likely to flirt with
strangers and more likely to stray as spouses.
But social psychologists and even some evolutionary psychologists
aren't convinced. They say Schmitt's study is impressive, but his
findings are far from universal. And they challenge every one of
Schmitt's and Buss's assumptions and conclusions.
Because of society's double standard, Fisher said, women are hesitant
to report their true sexual desires. In one study, she asked men and
women to report whether they masturbated, watched soft-core
pornography or hard-core pornography. Each "yes" got a
point. She found, on average, that men scored 2.32 and women 0.89.
But she also found that women's scores changed depending on how
confident they were of remaining anonymous. In the study, both men and
women had been told to hand their questionnaires to a researcher. But
when women were told to deposit their answers in a locked box
supervised by a researcher, their average score jumped to 1.53. And
when the women took the test alone in a locked room and then deposited
their answers in a locked box -- ensuring privacy and anonymity --
their score shot up further, to 2.04. The men's answers did not change
significantly, indicating they were less concerned about their
opinions being discovered.
In Schmitt's international study, students answering the survey sat
together in classrooms, filled out the questionnaires and deposited
them in a locked box. Some were asked to mail in their responses.
Fisher, who works at OSU's Mansfield campus, also found that when
anonymity was guaranteed, women reported having sex for the first time
at a younger age. Men guaranteed anonymity raised the age when they
first had sex.
"No parent in any culture ever tells a daughter, 'By all means,
go have sex,' " said Pamela Regan, an evolutionary psychologist
at California State University in Los Angeles who disagrees with
Schmitt and Buss. By contrast, she said, "many expect their sons
to 'be men,' which implies sexual experience."
Eagly and Regan argue that men's and women's sexual choices and
desires grow more similar in societies with greater gender equality --
a contention supported by Schmitt's own data.
Regan added that other evolutionary theories are just as plausible as
the male promiscuity argument: Men in hunter-gatherer societies who
stuck with a single mate and helped raise children might have been
more genetically successful -- because passing on genes means not just
having children but ensuring they survive long enough to reproduce in
Other research has contradicted the finding that heterosexual men
mainly seek young, beautiful women, while heterosexual women are most
drawn to rich men. Last month, Stephen T. Emlen, an evolutionary
biologist at Cornell University, reported in a study that people
basically want partners with qualities they attribute to themselves.
Contrary to stereotypes about wealthy Mr. Rights and beautiful Ms.
Wonderfuls, he said, attractive people tend to value attractiveness,
wealthy people value mates with money, and ambitious types and
family-oriented souls tend to gravitate to others like themselves.
The desire for similar mates, Emlen found, was five to six times more
powerful than the desire for beautiful or wealthy partners. Emlen's
study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
And David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in
Boston, took aim at the other corollary of the evolutionary
psychologists' theory: that men fear sexual infidelity while women
fear emotional infidelity. Under test conditions designed to elicit
gut responses, both men and women reported that sexual infidelity
would bother them more, said DeSteno, whose work was published last
year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
If there's one thing almost everyone agrees on, it is that genes do
not decide what people ultimately do.
Indeed, the interests of individuals often conflict with the interests
of their genes -- and the strongest evidence for this is that in most
industrialized societies, birth rates are falling. People are choosing
not to have children, or to adopt, or to enter into gay relationships
-- all antithetical to the idea of passing on genes.
"I have heard people say, 'I can't help it, I am a man -- I
have to spill my seed,' " said Regan. "That's using science
to justify your bad behavior.