Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Are Men "Naturally" Promiscuous?

Research suggests that – get this – men have a stronger sex drive than women. Good thing we have all those scientists doing research to prove stuff like this! Pretty much common sense you say? It turns out there’s more complexity than meets the eye. Men and women enjoy sex with steady romantic partners about equally. However, when asked about having sex with attractive acquaintances or strangers, most women aren’t all that interested. What about men? You guessed it. Men are just as enthusiastic about having sex with a stranger as they are with a romantic partner; and whereas women tend to report being “in love” with their first sexual partner and with sexual partners in general, men like sex with just about anybody they are attracted to. What’s love got to do with it? Nothing if you’re Tina Turner or the typical male.

It’s hardly surprising then that men express more positive attitudes towards premarital sex, sex with multiple partners, casual sex, and sex of just about any kind, even masturbation. Even when women do have sex, they don’t like to admit it. Women tend to under-report the number of sexual partners they’ve had; men, you guessed it again, tend to over-report. In general then, women have much more stringent criteria for who they will and won’t have sex with. Underlying all this is perhaps the most basic sex difference of all; women can have babies; men can’t. How does this lead to many of the attitudes described above? Because the “cost” of a pregnancy is much higher for a woman.

In addition to having to endure childbirth, women are simply limited in the number of offspring they can produce in their lifetime. The maximum number of babies born to a woman is 69, with 67 surviving infancy. The mother was a Mrs. Vassilyev. This number would seem to be pretty close to the maximum potential. If each birth was a single birth, that’s the equivalent of 52 straight years of being pregnant. In fairness, all of Mrs Vassilyev’s children were born in a series multiple births over a 40 year period (1725-1765). So let’s set the maximum potential for females at 70 children just so we have a nice, round number.

What’s the maximum potential for males? According to multiple sources, the top male in our derby, one Moulay Ishmael the Bloody, the last Sharifan Emperor of Morocco, produced 888 babies, from a harem of over 1000 women. But even this number seems well below a man’s maximum potential. Since a male orgasm only takes a couple of minutes, it represents a minimal amount of work relative to the woman’s nine months gestation. Okay, we have to allow the man some recovery time, but even with recovery time taken into account, a man could produce far more than 888 babies in a lifetime.

Does this basic biological difference make men more promiscuous? Does the potential to produce many offspring still linger in the male psyche as a tendency toward promiscuity? The idea has certainly been around a long time. One academic volume reports the following anecdote. “One day the President and Mrs. Coolidge were visiting a government farm. Soon after their arrival they were taken on separate tours. When Mrs. Coolidge passed the chicken pens, she paused to ask the man in charge if the rooster copulates more than once each day. ‘Dozens of times’ was the reply. ‘Please tell that to the President,’ Mrs. Coolidge requested. When the President passed the pens and was told about the rooster, he asked ‘Same hen every time?’ ‘Oh no, Mr. President, a different one each time.’ The president nodded slowly, then said, ‘Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge’.

Biological research backs this little parable up. Take married men and show them pictures of their wives in various outfits and ask them to imagine having sex. Then take a sperm count. Now give those same men a copy of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and ask them to imagine having sex with each of the women. You got it…the sperm count is much higher in the latter situation. So nature seems to prepare men for opportunities to impregnate any willing female strangers that happen to wander by. According to this argument, men are more promiscuous than women because it’s in their evolutionary interests. Promiscuous men leave more offspring.

However, there are counterarguments to this explanation – and pretty good ones too. First, while men have the potential to father many offspring, most father very few. Put another way, there are far more Homer Simpsons in the world than Moulay Ishmaels, and without the institution of marriage, the Homer Simpsons simply do not reproduce. In this sense, religious institutions have, among other things, evened out the distribution of reproductive success among men. In support of this interpretation, among married adults, the reproduction percentages by gender are almost even; 85% of married women and 84% of married men are biological parents. However, among unmarried adults, 61% of women, but only 36% of men are the biological parents of at least one child. So getting married is a smart thing to do if you want to ensure becoming a biological father. If this is the case, why would men be so promiscuous? Wouldn’t a happily married man with no impulse to stray have a better chance of being a dad?

Another problem is that the link between sex and reproduction is tenuous at best. Birth control and general knowledge allow humans to enjoy sex without pregnancy. The real question is how long it takes for religion and science to offset the effects of millennia of evolution. Churches, and their monogamous ways, have been around for less than two thousand years, and birth control has been widely available for less than a hundred – mere blips on the evolutionary clock. So perhaps the stronger male sex drive, and the corresponding tendency toward promiscuity, is a remnant of men’s evolutionary past when the competition to be the alpha male still mattered. Today it simply costs multi-millionaire athletes a lot of money in divorce settlements.

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