A Valentine's Day Proposition

Premature certainty about sex differences: a hard habit to kick

Posted Feb 13, 2012

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The Valentine suitor's kit—a bottle of champagne, a gift heart, expensive chocolates or jewels, and the thorny floral sex organ known as the rose celebrates through metaphor an essentialist (1) theory of female desire. In oversimplified form it is: Men by nature want lots of sex; women, by nature, want closeness (the heart) more, so that their offspring will have providers and protectors (expensive gifts). Women will sleep with men to get these things, (the voluptuous rose) but not just for fun (the thorns). The inclusion of the champagne in the traditional package, however, suggests that this scenario works best if both parties are too drunk to wonder how true essentialist theories are. 

Many scientists have bent over backwards to prove that women and men's desires are as different as their biology. PT's own Gad Saad, Ph.D. in his column called "Sex Differences in Accepting Solicitations for Casual Sex," cites a couple of mutually corroborative studies, one American and the other French, that contain, he maintains, "two worthy findings." In them, groups of white, Caucasian young people were instructed to invite members of the opposite sex to go to bed with them. The results of both studies were stark, reports Saad:  

As expected, women are much less predisposed to engage in casual sex with strangers. As a matter of fact, only a single woman accepted the offer for sex...

A single woman!  Golly gee. It sure does look like "casual sex" is from Mars and committed sex is from Venus, doesn't it? Saad is so eager to believe this that that he extrapolates from these two little studies a lesson of global import about the substrates of all human behavior everywhere:

...these findings are undoubtedly universally true precisely because they are rooted in evolutionary-based sexual dimorphisms as relating to human mating.

OK, where to begin? "Undoubtedly?" Ouch. When discussing human desire, and when assuming that only heterosexual sex is adaptive, this word is so rarely justified, one really ought to keep it in one's scabbard.

Evolution? We don't really know how the first 30,000 years of hunter gatherers behaved sexually, or if they even understood the nature of paternity. (If they didn't, mothers might have been better off with many baby-daddies—for genetic variety as well as better protection.) So when imagining what is "universally" hardwired in the past few millennia of patriilineal humanity, let's be a bit tentative.

And "casual sex"?  Although Saad illustrated his piece with a Friends with Benefits movie poster, it is misleading to apply either of the studies he cites to casual sex between friends. All that was tested was men's and women's willingness to accept a proposition from a total stranger.

Make that "a total stranger in a modern, Western, Christianized, post-industrial urban culture."  Because Anglo-Europeans who first visited Hawaii were so excited to find women eager to sleep with strangers that they gave them all syphilis. Does Saad believe that only the coy survived?

Imagine if none of the women tested in the cited experiments had ever been asked to think sex sinful, had not grown up under a double standard of male and female promiscuity and had no reason to fear being date-raped if they changed their minds mid-encounter. And imagine if the men could get pregnant. Social, economic and biological risk factors were so skewed against women's free expression of sexual impulses, one hardly needs to hark back to eons of natural selection to explain why acting on pure lust was more of a no-brainer for men than for women.  

Instead of testing a woman's willingness to say "yes" to the first beast she meets on the way to Grandma's, what if experimenters had asked whether a woman would be willing to go to bed with a stranger that she propositioned herself? If women are sufficiently empowered, will the "willingness" scores look different?

Possibly. A study by Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick found, unsusrprisingly, that "arbitrary social norms influence sex differences in romantic selectivity."(3)  In a speed dating situation when women did the asking, they became less "choosy," and much cockier. (4)

When "casual sex" involves hookups in general instead of a strange man proposing sex, women again appear significantly randier and less commitment-addicted, despite their reproductive agenda and current social strictures. A recent survey of over 2,000 single women ages 18 to 63 by SELF Magazine and PopSugar Network, found that 82 percent of women had agreed to at least one casual sexual encounter. (That's 1,640 vs. Saad's "only one.") Of those, 63 percent or over 1,000 reported feeling "great" or "fine" once the sweat had dried, and of the 37 percent who "felt uncomfortable afterward," it is impossible from the survey to gauge how much the lack of "commitment" or "bonding" or "husband material" was the spoiler, as distinct from disappointment with their partner's sexual performence or various kinds of theoretically avoidable social fallout, like concern that they weren't respected or respectable, etc.

A study by Terri D. Conley et. al.published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also arrives at different conclusions from the two Saad cites. When Conley's team offered  women safe and attractive men instead of mere "strangers," men they had reason to believe would be good lovers, the two sexes tested much closer in their predisposition to enjoy each other.

Dr. Saad mentions that he'll "probably" get around to citing Conley's research at a later date. I'm curious to see how he addresses it. In the meantime, he is confident in declaring of women's presumably hardwired libidinal caution...

No process of cultural learning or other forms of socialization could reverse these ubiquitous mating effects.

Reverse them? Probably not. But Conley insists that existing research doesn't support accepted wisdom about how rigid "sexual dimorphism" is. "Popular perceptions within psychology and among the greater public," she writes, "are that gender differences in sexuality are immutable and largely unaffected by the proximal social environment.

We suggest that these conclusions are premature; in fact, gender differences can often be directly linked to forces within our current social world. ...psychologists are bringing such social influences to light and can make gender differences empirically diminish or disappear.(5)

What has been most adaptive for our species is our brains' plasticity: our range of alternative presets, our ability to adapt to change. So it is in our "nature" to have a variety of natures to draw from. If biology is destiny, it is a destiny shaped by our times and which we can re-shaped under favorable conditions, if not totally and at will, then an awful lot when it pays. There may well be traits and tendencies men and women can't tweak, but when it comes to sexuality we can't be as certain as Dr. Saad wants to be about what those are. All we know now is that women on the prowl this Valentine's Day might have more fun as the choosers than as the chosen, no matter what stereotypes trinket marketers are pushing, and that we all need to be careful about which Ph.D.s we drink champagne with.



(1)    Essentialism is the polite way of saying about a sub-group,  "In the dark, they're all alike; and if they're not, they should be."

A few of the more convincing examples include:

The Selfish Gene theory focuses on the economy of reproductive cells: egg bearers have fewer genes to throw around than sperm spewers, so their genes self-perpetuate best if egg bearers only risk fertilization with partners who not only have great genes but are also inclined to defend and co-nurture offspring. Eggolators are choosy; sperminators are playahs.

The Evolutionary Biologists' (& sex is a drug) theory, roughly:women, their offspring's sole food supply, who produced more oxytoxin, aka "the cuddle hormone," bonded better with their young and so had healthier children, whereas men primed to run on hormones like adrenalin and testosterone were better at mammoth-hunting and could boost their offspring's health scores with meat. The hormonal disparity encouraged by this highly adaptive division of labor incidentally causes a baseline difference in the sexual preferences of both sexes that persists inexorably today. See for example Sexual liberation: Whose sexuality is liberated, men's or women's? Blog Entry by Nigel Barber, Ph.D. - Posted on Apr 14, 2009

One line of Feminist Psychology postulated that Men form their male identities by detaching from their mothers whereas women don't have to, and so are less likely to compartmentalize anything, especially sex and love.

(2)    See, for example, Backlash in the bedroom: Stigma mediates gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers. Manuscript submitted for publication. T.D Conley -Eagly, A. H., & Wood, et. al.2011

(3) "...the tendency for men to be less selective than women at events where men rotated disappeared at events where women rotated. These effects were mediated by increased self-confidence among rotators relative to sitters." Write Finkel and Eastwick.

(4)    "Choosiness," is evolutionists' and selfish-gene theorists' code for "innate female sexual role." It is based on the behavior of eggs aswim in sperm cells and drab brown female peacocks, but not, curiously, on the behavior of female primates nearer us developmentally, chimps and bonobos, whose chief reproductive strategy seems to be "sluttiness."

(5)  Women, Men, and the Bedroom: Methodological and Conceptual Insights That Narrow, Reframe, and Eliminate Gender Differences in Sexuality by Terri D. Conley, Amy C. Moors, Jes L. Matsick, Ali Ziegler, and Brandon A. Valentine, University of Michigan.

About the Author

Lynn Phillips

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine.

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