Men and women face the same problem: How to balance the desire for a close, intimate attachment with the desire for variety. Committing to that one very decent, sexy, interesting, well-matched person represents a foreclosure on all other possible sexual relationships.
A superficial analysis of male-female relations in cultures across the globe might suggest that women seek monogamy, whereas men put up with it. As this analysis goes, the man commits to one – often demanding – woman, while secretly lusting for that hard-bodied neighbor with the fake breasts or pretty colleague with bedroom eyes. Their wives scold them for checking out round derrieres at church or for being a tad bit too friendly with an attractive house guest.
Lining up with that superficial analysis are the findings from studies of heterosexual men and women who were asked how many sexual partners they have had and how many would be their ideal. Not surprisingly, men have reported higher numbers, reporting 2 to 4 times as many actual partners as women (1). In one survey (by Norman Brown) of Americans in their mid-40s, the number of partners reported by men versus women was 31.9 to 8.6. A survey of 52 nations asking men and women to report the number of ideal partners over the next 30 years revealed a ratio of 13 to 2.5 (2).
Yet assuming that heterosexual men are having sex with women (and not with cross-dressing men, for example), the ratio of actual partners for men versus women has to be wrong. For each new heterosexual partner a man has, a woman has one too; thus, heterosexual men and women end up with the same number of partners. It is worth noting that both young men and women typically aspire to settle down with one partner. Moreover, recent estimates of cheating in a marriage suggest that husbands and wives stray at equal rates (3).
These findings hint at what I propose is a big fat lie that men and women have long embraced about fundamental differences in male versus female sexuality. The lie starts when single men and women who are attracted to each other meet. They both very much want to have sex. Yet the presumption is that the woman is selective and wants commitment to go along with that. That is precisely what women will say -- and will think, too. David Buss explains this difference as a product of evolution (4). Because women can have few offspring, whereas men can have many, women evolved psychologically to be pickier about their sex partners and to try to keep them around to help raise their kids.
A difficulty with that explanation is that it does not offer any observable or testable way of predicting how individual women will behave. A mechanism that might allow us to predict their actions, however, is fear of being labeled a "slut" or "whore". The greater desire on the woman’s part for commitment from a man might not be because of any inherent psychological differences between men and women. It could be because of the sexual double-standard whereupon consensual sex damages the reputation of the woman, but not the man (1). Labeling a woman a “slut” or a “whore” puts her as risk for losing valuable, health protective social relationships. Although not a testable idea, an alternative to Buss's argument is that women evolved to keep other women around to help raise their kids. It would be no small thing for a woman to lose her network of support.
The sexual double-standard puts the man in the position of trying to seem more interested in a relationship than he really is to get a woman to have sex. The double-standard requires that the woman show how chaste and selective she is – she must avoid the label “slut” or “whore”. If she does yield to his pursuit of sex, she must convey that it is only because he is very attractive to her, and uniquely so.
After having sex, time reveals the true motivations of both parties. Her disappointment, on the one hand, results from discovering that he is not so inclined for a relationship. He is the a--hole; everyone agrees on that. His disappointment, on the other hand, comes only if he sticks around long enough to see that she can be just as passionate over a different man. He is not so unique to her after all. Note that the English language has no female counterpart to “cuckold”. That term is reserved exclusively for the duped man whose wife has banged another guy.
Once in a while, a man tries the “honest approach”. With a wave of his hand toward an imaginary bed, he says something like, “C’mon, neither of us has gotten laid in a while, let’s have sex.” To his dismay, this welcoming gesture backfires. Trying this approach on even the most seductive, sexually permissive woman in his social circle yields a firestorm of contempt from her. He has failed to consider the broader social context and accompanying rejection she would likely face if she were to accept such a cavalier offer.
If he wants to have sex AND be honest about his intentions, he might try saying, “Look I have a burning desire to be with you physically. As with you, it might or might not lead to anything. But I most definitely would not view you differently – only a pig would – if you agree. Of course, I wouldn’t tell anyone. And I will try my hardest to please you physically.”
Phew! I’m guessing that most women readers would agree that is HOTT.
1. Laumann, E., Ganon, J., Michael, R., & Michael, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2. Schmitt, D. P. et al. (2003). Universal sex differences in the desire for sexual variety. Tests from 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 85-104.
3. Mark , K. P., Janssen, E., & Robin R. Milhaus, R. R. (2011) Inﬁdelity in Heterosexual Couples: Demographic, Interpersonal, and Personality-Related Predictors of Extradyadic Sex. Arch Sex Behav DOI 10.1007/s10508-011-9771-z
4. Buss, D. (1995). Psychological sex differences: Origins through sexual selection. American Psychologist, 50, 164-168.