Death to the Roving Inseminator

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Andrew Smiler argues that the idea that guys are evolutionarily driven to just get laid describes a small percentage of men.

A great many people believe that evolution has shaped men to be promiscuous and that guys have a hard-wired desire to get laid. Embedded in this is the assumption that men want to be free to chase and seduce any woman—or women—they please and that they only participate in relationships in order to “get some.” Implicitly, this means that guys have little real interest in any children they sire, because the point is to have sex with lots of women, not raise lots of kids.

The full argument is that this evolutionary strategy helps men pass their genes on to the next generation. By having sex with scores or hundreds of women in a year, they are theoretically capable of producing a great many offspring, thus perpetuating their genetic line. In essence, guys screw around and spread their seed in order to increase the odds that they’ll pass their genes on to the next generation.

If there were ever a group a guys that had the potential to be Roving Inseminators, undergraduate men would seem to be the group.

When you add in the fact that a man can never be 100% sure that a child is his—it doesn’t come out of his body—this might be a good strategy. After all, he wants to invest his (limited) resources in his own child, not some other guy’s. And if he can get some other schmuck to care for his child, so much the better.

I like to call these guys Roving Inseminators. I’m told Joe Pleck, who spent 30 years studying fathers, coined the term.

As I understand the history, Roving Inseminators were part of the Sociobiological Theory of the 1980s and made the jump into mainstream culture around that time. Sociobiology was generally debunked, but this approach to male (and female) sexuality was revived by the Evolutionary Psychology movement in the 1990s. Within the EvoPsyc movement, this approach to reproduction and mating is part of “Sexual Strategies Theory” (SST) and its primary proponents are David M. Buss from the University of Texas (Austin) and David Schmitt from Bradley University.

But there are some serious holes in this theory, and the research results from some of Buss’ and Schmitt’s work doesn’t really support this image of male sexuality. For me, this explanation has always seemed much too simple for a complex social behavior like coupling that is so closely tied to childrearing. But hey, I could be wrong.

Let’s look at some of the evidence, shall we?

Most of the research is conducted with university students, in the US and elsewhere. Those surveys are anonymous—no names and no ID numbers—and they’re mostly completed by Introductory Psychology students in return for extra credit. Most academic researchers work, and therefore collect data, at either large state universities or medium to large private universities that tend to be well known.

One of the central questions SST researchers ask is “how many sexual partners would you like to have in the next 30 days?” Participants can write or type any number they like.

Saying men want more partners than women doesn’t really tell us anything about males in and of themselves; it only tells us about men using women as the reference point.

Remember, we’re talking about American undergrads taking Intro Psyc. Most of them are 18 or 19 years old, unmarried, live on campus, and have no close adult supervision. Their neighbors, next door, on the next floor, or in the next building, are unmarried 18 and 19 year old young women who also live on campus and have no real adult supervision. We all know that there are lots and lots of parties, even a “hookup culture,” and a general assumption that all young women take the Pill. If there were ever a group a guys that had the potential to be Roving Inseminators, this would seem to be the group.

In studies with American undergraduates, somewhere around 20-25% of the guys say they want two or more partners in the next 30 days. That’s not a whole lot of Roving or Inseminating. When SST researchers have asked about the next 48 hours or the next week, the percentage drops to about 5%. If evolution has shaped guys to be Roving Inseminators, why are these numbers so low? Shouldn’t we be seeing numbers above—perhaps even well above—50%?

For the record, the research consistently shows that more males than females want multiple partners, regardless of the timeframe. But saying men want more partners than women doesn’t really tell us anything about males in and of themselves; it only tells us about men using women as the reference point.

About a decade ago, Schmitt put together a truly extraordinary research project that involved over 100 academic researchers around the globe. In each of 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands, team members surveyed about 100 young men and 100 young women. All of those surveys were conducted in the local language(s); this was not an English-speakers only project. In every sense of the word, it’s a truly amazing study. (If nothing else, consider the logistics.)

Overall, they surveyed over 9,000 young men, mostly college students, and almost one-quarter of them said they wanted two or more partners in the next 30 days. In no region of the world and in no single country did more than half the men said they wanted multiple partners in the next month. Not one.

So what’s up? Why so few Roving Inseminators? Maybe the guys are lying. It’s entirely possible that young man after young man, in study after study, in the US and around the globe, is not being honest. Not only that, they’re all not being honest in the same way. That’s right. I’m suggesting guys are minimizing how much sex they want instead of exaggerating it.

The child with the best chances of surviving long enough to make you a grandparent is the one who is raised by his two biological parents.

Why would they do that? Because they—college guys—are ashamed of what they want sexually? Because they’re interpreting the question as “how many partners do you think you could really have” instead of “how many do you want,” a mistake that suggests major reading comprehension issues. Because they’re trying to look good? To researchers who want them to say they want multiple partners? On anonymous surveys. Huh?

The other possibility is that the guys are being truthful. This makes a lot of sense. SST has always relied on the fact that kids are raised by a male-female couple. A male who raises a child that is the result of his wife’s illicit affair has been cuckolded. While SST is clear that such men exist and that they are not Roving Inseminators, it has never really explained who they are.

Other branches of Evolutionary Psychology have documented that child abuse, child neglect, and infanticide are 1) uncommon and 2) more likely when we’re talking about a man and his stepchild (vs. his biological child). So even though Mr. Roving Inseminator may have more kids than average, there’s a good chance some of them will die before they pass their genes on to the next generation. From an evolutionary perspective, that’s either a very small win or a loss. Sure, Mr. Inseminator’s genes were passed on to the next generation, but they didn’t go any farther than that.

In other words, the child with the best chances of surviving long enough to make you a grandparent is the one who is raised by his two biological parents. Paging Mr. Inseminator: your child needs you to be a parent.

The reality of Darwinian theory and human evolution is that the environment is incredibly important. Darwin said that environments select genes; the genes that get passed on are the ones most likely to succeed in a given environment.

Archeology, anthropology, and history tell us that humans have pretty much always lived in groups. Call them tribes, clans, cities, or nations, our species lives in groups. Even our understanding of prehistoric and proto-humans is that they lived with other people.

The most common form of coupling in human history has been one male and one female.

Those fields also tell us that the most common form of coupling in human history has been one male and one female. Polygamy, and to a lesser extent polyandry, have often been legal, but even where they’re legal, only a minority of folks practice them. After all, you have to be very rich and powerful to house and feed that many mouths.

The implication of this is that human beings have lived in family units for thousands upon thousands of generations. That’s documented in our oldest continuous histories, from the Chinese and the Jews, both of which are approaching 6,000 years. If a generation is 20 years, that’s upwards of 30,000 generations in recorded history, and who knows how many before those recordings started?

From an evolutionary perspective, that’s plenty of time for an environment to shape our biology. In fact, not only has that environment shaped us, it’s the environment we’ve always lived in. And that environment is one ongoing spouse at a time for the vast majority of humanity. Under these environmental conditions, evolution would select for the genes that create those dyadic couples and parents who are involved in raising their children. In other words, dads who care for their children are an evolutionary norm.

One clarification here: there’s nothing that says most guys will stay monogamous for decades on end. It tells us most guys are interested in raising their kids and are not particularly interested in having multiple partners in anything that might resemble the short term.

But evolution isn’t a one trick pony. It doesn’t proceed in a straight line where one gene gets tweaked and everything else gets held constant. That’s how we do science, but it’s not how nature works. Evolution allows multiple variations and lets them all go for it. The more complex the behavior, the more genetic variation there probably is.

Dads who care for their children are an evolutionary norm.

That certainly seems to be the story on male sexuality. Most guys aren’t particularly interested in being Roving Inseminators, although a minority clearly are. It’s why only about one-quarter of college guys say that want two or more partners in the next month, and why even fewer guys actually live that out. It’s why a lot of hooking up happens with known and ongoing partners, like “friends with benefits” and “sex with an ex.” It’s why “booty call” partners persist for weeks, months, or even years instead of finding a new person every time.

And that’s the point here. I don’t really think we should kill the Roving Inseminators—or their female partners—but I do believe that we need to get beyond the notion that this stereotype describes all guys. To their credit, Buss and Schmitt’s SST allows guys to adopt different strategies–short term and long term—even if their research focuses heavily on the short term. If we really want to understand male sexuality and if we really want to do better for our children, then we need to understand that guys understand and practice sexuality in a variety of ways.

 

-photo by MattysFlicks/flickr

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About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.

Comments

  1. “It’s why only about one-quarter of college guys say that want two or more partners in the next month, and why even fewer guys actually live that out. It’s why a lot of hooking up happens with known and ongoing partners, like “friends with benefits” and “sex with an ex.” It’s why “booty call” partners persist for weeks, months, or even years instead of finding a new person every time.”

    Yes, this just proves my point. Most women are screwing a few lucky men. The majority of men cannot enjoy the kind of sex life that these Roving Inseminators do. Even if most men would like multiple partners next month it is simply not possible as most women only find a FEW men (your Roving Inseminators) sexually attractive.

    This has very little to do with evolution. This is a uniquely American thingy where the women have a very very narrow view of sexual attraction in men.

    • feeling lonely, Jules?

      • @ sam,

        No. Are you?

        I am one of the lucky guys that women seem to like. I am in a great relationship with a terrific girlfriend.

        Cheers!

    • It is everything to do with evolution.

      Most females whether a human or a finch want a few select men. Women want top males instead of just any males.

      A female bird may want a male bird to build a very nice nest with plenty of shiny objects. The male bird simply has an itch he wants to scratch.

      Biologically, it’s fine if one male has 4 or 5 ‘girlfriends.’ It’s not necessarily for every man to mate to sustain the population.

      Men will pull out biology as proof they can’t be monogamous. However, when the flip side arises-the fact that an in demand male has a high enough sex drive to handle several women AND that women actually want him sexually, it’s time to toss out biology. Females like top males to produce better offspring. Males just like females.

      I do agree that most men simply do not have the opportunity to be roving inseminators. IMO most men would be roving if the opportunity arose.

      • @Alice,

        “Most females whether a human or a finch want a few select men.”

        Wow!!! Finally a woman who admits it!

        ” Females like top males to produce better offspring.”

        Just what is a top male? Do you mean physically? Because some of the men I see women having sex with are more like idiots. Seriously.

        So, are you saying women do not mind being part of a harem for ‘top’ males? Or concubines to such males?

        If your theory is correct, then how is it that most women marry lesser males? There simply are not enough ‘top’ males to go around.

  2. Andrew Smiler says:

    Hi Jules,

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement. The stats on people with 3 or more sexual partners in a year indicates that it’s a pretty small # of men & an even smaller # of women who are having lots of sex. I suspect that it’s really a small group of men & women who are having a lot of sex with each other, and they occasionally “allow” strangers into their midst.

  3. Does it matter, really? If anything our brain is highly adaptable to our environment, which is the society we are in. When observing people, most peoples sexuality is a good mirror of their personality. For example it’s not like people cheat just because they can’t sexually hold back, often its egoism, insecurity, the need for reinforcement, loneliness, how to handle conflicts etc. traits you would also find in other than sexual aspects of the persons personality.
    I really believe way more in how the persons values really are (not what he or she is telling other, but how she and he really acts in certain situations). Also for humans reinforcement is a major key for the actions chosen, and we do live in a society where male sexuality is hugely positively reinforced (and womens still not so).

  4. Andrew, thanks for an interesting and engaging article. As someone who has been working in the field of men’s health and gender-specific medicine for more than 40 years, I think these issues are important to explore and discuss. I do feel that an evolutionary understanding of men, women, children, sex, love, and intimacy gives us a unique an important insight into who we are and how we behave, particularly when we are involved with dating, mating, and having children.

    You say, “I like to call these guys Roving Inseminators. I’m told Joe Pleck, who spent 30 years studying fathers, coined the term.” I don’t believe your attribution is accurate. I believe that Harvard-trained evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers used the term “roving inseminators” more than 30 years ago. He was referring to males in general, not specifically to humans.

    In most cases, it is the female who invests more in offspring and thus becomes the limited resource, something for which the sex that invests less, usually, the male—must compete to have.

    Since sex can lead to a major commitment on the part of the female, she has to be a “wily chooser,” trying to make sure she gives herself to a male who has good genes, resources to support her and her child, and a willingness to commit his resources to her.

    Because of the male-female differences in parental investment, competition becomes predominantly a male activity and choice becomes a female prerogative.

    You mention the study that Buss and Schmitt conducted with 10,000 people from 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands. You say, “Overall, they surveyed over 9,000 young men, mostly college students,” As I understand the study they surveyed 10,000 people of all ages, not just young male college students.

    I recommend people take a look at the book, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating by David M. Buss to get a more complete picture of the study. It was a huge study with lots of interesting information and conclusion.

    An evolutionary perspective does not suggest that all men are “roving inseminators,” only that our evolutionary history creates a tendency in males to be interested in opportunities to have sex with a number of different partners. As evolutionary researchers David Barash, PhD and his wife Judith Lipton, M.D. say, “we don’t have to act on the evolutionary whisperings within, but we have to listen to them.”

  5. FlyingKal says:

    Hi there.

    I’m not really sure I’m following your logic on this one.
    Neither about the advantages of a biological connection to a nurturing father, nor about the conclusions you are drawing from the capus surveys.

  6. The inaccurate stereotype that all men are short-term maters and all women are long-term maters is exactly what Sexual Strategies Theory was meant to dispel. Buss and I focused (more than most others previously) on the importance of women’s short-term mating strategies, and on men’s long-term desires.

    And yet, Sexual Strategies Theory is still inaccurately portrayed over and over as all men are short-term maters. Sexual Strategies Theory does not expect all men to be short-term maters. After all, it is likely only those men with high mate value (based on women’s evolved short-term desires) are likely to be successful as short-term strategists (see also Strategic Pluralism Theory of Gangestad and Simpson).

    Critically, as noted in my research cited in the article (Schmitt et al., 2003), it is only among those men and women who pursue a short-term sexual strategy, that it is expected that men (due to their short-term mating psychology) will seek much larger numbers of partners than women (who have a different short-term mating psychology). Is that really so hard to understand?

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  1. […] and challenge our ideas of what it means to be a boy or man. As Dr. Andrew Irwin-Smiler wrote, the myth of the “roving inseminator” must die. Men and boys deserve to give consent and to have it […]

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