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Would Most Men Really Sleep With Almost Anyone?

What evolutionary psychology tells us about mating standards.

Key points

  • Men are often seen as having lower standards for sexual partners.
  • This perception is due to sex differences in evolved mating psychology.
  • Men and women are just as picky about their long-term mates, but men are less picky over their short-term ones.
  • Knowledge of the different mating styles can be useful for those who are single.
ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

“Men are pigs who will sleep with just about anything that moves.”

It’s a sentiment that I’ve heard many times before. Sometimes with tongue in cheek, a look of disgust, or a tear in the eye. It’s clearly an overgeneralization and exaggeration, but is there a kernel of truth to this folk psychology? Today on Darwin Does Dating: When do people lower their mate standards?

Correcting the record

First of all, let’s set the record straight: I don’t think men are pigs and will sleep with anything. We know that there's a full spectrum of pickiness in men, from the highly discriminating to the very relaxed. And this range can be found in women too. Look hard enough, and you’ll find men so picky that they never lose their virginity and women who appear to have no standards at all.

The point is that there’s a lot of noise and variation. Psychological researchers know this all too well. Psychological research is about finding a faint signal among the noise. Any neat black-and-white claims about sex differences, including claims that all members of one sex act the same way, should be met with skepticism.

That being said, there are patterns to be found among the noise. Patterns that are clear enough to draw some conclusions about the typical mating behavior of each sex but not enough to predict the behavior of individuals with a high degree of accuracy. Patterns that people might detect and use to help them make more accurate but still fallible judgments.

Lowering standards

One of these patterns is that, in the pursuit of sex, men more than women are willing to “lower their standards.” But there is one important piece of the puzzle often overlooked when discussing this. It's all about mating context.

People can pursue sex and nothing more (short-term mating), or they can pursue sex with someone they want to commit to (long-term mating). These are two different reproductive strategies, distinct approaches to mating that come with their own mating psychology.

Long-term pickiness

Humans, by and large, are pair-bonded mammals. From citizens of megacities to small bands of hunter-gatherers, they tend to seek a partner to fall in love with and share their life with almost as a "default setting." And this has been the case for hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of years. This is not to say that this is what everyone does or that it is what people “should” do, just that it tends to be what humans typically do.

Because of this "default setting," humans are by and large really picky about their long-term mates. That’s both sexes, to be clear. We’re not like peafowl, where the peacock spends all his efforts trying to convince picky peahens to mate with him. If humans were like this, then first dates would look very different. We might find men dressed up in their finest while women wore their most comfortable pajamas.

No, both sexes are quite picky and with good reason. Investing in a relationship (and its resulting children) is a huge commitment. Over the course of our evolutionary history, our ancestors who were picky about who they invested their time and effort in survived and thrived over their less discerning peers, peers who found themselves stuck with someone unwilling to reciprocate with profound implications for their own survival and reproduction.

We have inherited the mental machinery of our choosy ancestors, and like them, we want to make sure that we’re committing to the best possible person and that they’re just as devoted to us as we are them.

Only for now

Long-term mating, while a popular choice, isn't the only way humans reproduce. We’re capable of short-term, casual mating as well. According to sexual strategies theory, under certain circumstances, this type of mating may have provided its own reproductive benefits to our ancestors.

For women, short-term mating might have served to capture the attention of a particularly desirable man—a gateway to a long-term relationship. It may have also allowed them to benefit from accessing the resources and protection of multiple men rather than just one.

For men, short-term mating served as a way of having sex without commitment, plain and simple. A no-strings-attached liaison might allow men to pass on more of their genes to future generations without the parental responsibility that usually accompanies this.

The costs of short-term mating

But short-term strategies would have come with costs—risks to sexual health and reputation, to name just two. These costs would have affected the sexes differently, often due to differences in reproductive biology. Only women risked being left to raise a child alone, for example.

Overall, the cost-benefit analysis reveals a great asymmetry between the sexes. For men, a short-term strategy held the potential for a great reproductive pay-off with little risk. In contrast, for women, heavy costs were weighed against fairly modest and context-dependent benefits.

Thus, women evolved to use short-term mating cautiously, maintaining a high level of pickiness as they did so. Men, in contrast, capitalized on the high-benefit, low-risk nature of short-term mating by lowering their standards to make it easier to find willing short-term mates.

As descendants of these players in the historic mating market, modern men tend to be more open to a range of attractiveness in casual sex than women. The sexes tend to have different standards for partners, but this is mainly restricted to the domain of casual sex.

The bottom line

Men who appear to have low standards are likely doing it in the context of short-term mating and at times and locations that lend themselves to casual sex.

Can we use this lens of long- and short-term mating to help us? I think so. If you’re looking for a stable long-term relationship, it may be worth thinking about what you can do to ensure you come into contact with those seeking long-term rather than short-term relationships.

You may find someone using a short-term mating strategy anywhere, but it's more likely to happen in nightclubs than libraries and in large groups of people with weak social ties (e.g., universities) than smaller, close-knit groups where everyone knows each other’s business.

It might also be worth considering what strategy you are following. Many people claim to desire a committed relationship but hold the preferences and desires of someone interested in short-term mating.

If you’d like to know more about the evolutionary psychology behind “Lowering partner standards,” here’s an entry I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science a few years ago.

Facebook image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

References

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: an evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological review, 100(2), 204.

Thomas, A. G. (2018). Lowering partner standards in a short‐term mating context. Encyclopedia of evolutionary psychological science, 1-3.

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