Men are more promiscuous than women, but that doesn’t mean we should buy the cultural fallacy that men are programmed to cheat. The vast majority of men are happily, naturally monogamous.
The last few years brought several headline stories about the cheating behavior of guys like John Edwards, (former) South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, and Tiger Woods. The public—or at least the pundits’—reaction included outrage but little surprise. After all, here in the U.S., we expect guys to cheat on their partners. Research on male sexual behavior confirms what we know—that men are more likely than women to have an extramarital affair.
The research also tells us that men:
- want more sexual partners than women,
- have more lifetime partners than women,
- are more willing than women to have sex with a complete stranger, and
- have their first sexual experiences at a younger age than women.
These results all jibe with our expectations—cultural assumptions illustrated by TV characters like Charlie Harper on Two and a Half Men, Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, and a host of other TV men—Sam Malone, Hawkeye Pierce, the Fonz. All these men have been the stars of their popular shows. With models like this, many of us have come to believe that men are inherently, or naturally, promiscuous.
But let’s look at that more closely. What the research tells us is that guys are more likely than women to have or want an affair or to agree to a hookup. But the research also tells us that the majority of guys don’t actually do these things. In the largest study of its kind, involving about 100 male and 100 female undergraduates from 62 countries, islands, or otherwise distinct regions, approximately 25 percent of men and 6 percent of women said they wanted two or more sexual partners in the next 30 days. These percentages are consistent with other studies like this, and they confirm that men report a greater desire for promiscuity and they do it the world over. But look at the number of men again: 25 percent. That means that 75 percent—an overwhelming majority—said they wanted no more than one partner in the next month. That is, most guys want monogamy, at least in the short term.
These survey results are only about the number of sexual partners men say that want, not the actual number of partners guys have. When you look at the number of partners men say they’ve had, the percentage of men with a lot of partners gets even smaller, somewhere in the range of 5 to 15 percent. Even in studies of college students who go to party destinations like Daytona Beach for spring break, only a minority of the guys manage to get laid. And remember, the girls are there to party too. As researchers, we have some evidence that guys exaggerate their sexual experience when they complete surveys, so the reality is probably somewhat less than the numbers reported here.
What guys tell us they do want is relationships, even though it doesn’t fit the stereotype. It doesn’t matter if we’re surveying or interviewing high-school students, undergraduates, or adults—the vast majority tell us they want to be in a relationship. And they’re serious about it: in the U.S., approximately 80 percent of high-school seniors tell us they’ve had at least one serious dating relationship. As adults, about 90 percent of guys will get married at least once in their lifetime, even though our stereotype of marriage tells these guys that they’ll rarely have sex—or fun—again after the honeymoon. While many of those relationships won’t last for 40 years, about half will. And most guys are only interested in being with one person at a time, whether that’s in the context of a marital relationship or outside of it.
Consider John Edwards, and even Mark Sanford: they weren’t sleeping with just any woman they could find, they had relationships that extended across years. These are mistresses, not hookups, and they’re longer term relationships. Having a mistress doesn’t really fit our conception of promiscuity, nor should it; a guy with a mistress chooses his partner carefully and typically has an emotional connection with her. It’s not monogamy, but it is a longer term relationship.
If you read history, or at least watch the TV shows about ancient civilizations, you’ll notice that when they talk about families, they almost always talk about monogamous couples. That’s not fiction or convenience. Most of the adults who have ever lived on earth have been involved in monogamous relationships. Sure, polygamy has been legal in many places and in many times, but the guys who practice polygamy are almost always the political and cultural leaders. Why? They’re the only guys who can attract and afford multiple wives. (Could you?)
Across all this time, generation after generation, most guys have been in long-term dyadic couples. Whether we think about that as men’s choice, women’s choice, or the result of cultural (or demographic) factors, it’s exactly the kind of ongoing environmental pressure that Darwin said shapes evolution. For Darwin, it was finches adapting to the food sources available; for humans, it’s about adapting to the way we’ve usually arranged our societies.
When researchers talk about long-term, emotionally connected relationships, they often rely on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. When Bowlby first talked about it, he drew on evidence that in most animal species, parents—male and female—care for their young. Males and females may not engage in all the same parenting activities and they may spend different amounts of time in direct care, but both sexes actively care for their children. And it’s true for humans as well. More recent research using machines like PET scanners and MRIs has shown that humans have a neurological “circuit” for this kind of attachment. This circuit seems to be relevant for our connection to our children and our connection to a long-term partner. It’s also important to note that we also have a circuit for lust, but that lust can be for a long-term partner or a new person.
There’s also an evolutionary advantage to caring for your young instead of just sleeping around. Not surprisingly, kids with two parents tend to do better than kids with one parent, for pretty much any definition of “better” you care to use, including survival rates. And if the goal is not only to pass on your genes to the next generation, but to have those genes passed on to the generation after that, making sure your child survives long enough to reproduce is the true evolutionary “win.”
Given the current and historical evidence about men’s preferences for only one partner at a time and the presence of an evolved neurological circuit that seems to facilitate it, the benefits to children who are raised by two parents, and the evolutionary logic of taking care of your children until they’re old enough to pass their genes to the next generation, it seems likely that we’ve evolved to have only one partner for several years at a time. Admittedly, I can’t really “prove” what’s happened over an evolutionary timeframe, but I’m not sure what else could explain this collection of findings.
Andrew Smiler, Ph.D., is a visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His sexuality research focuses on normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. He is the author of the forthcoming Challenging Casanova.
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