Men and women are hard-wired for short-term sex -- but must we obey our brains?
By Daniel DeNoon
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Men and women are programmed for promiscuity. But we differ in our desires.
Paradoxically, both men and women are also programmed to mate for life. Both can choose short-term or long-term sex strategies. What men want, however, differs from what women want.
The theory that men's and women's sexual desires are hard-wired isn't new. It's been controversial for decades. Now a central tenet of evolutionary psychology, the theory holds that our sexual behavior evolved over millennia and is encoded in our brains. We aren't doomed to act out these programs. But they do shape our desires.
According to evolutionary psychology, men and women each evolved their own strategies for seeking sex partners. If that's true, men's sexual desires should be the same for men everywhere. And the desires of men everywhere in the world should differ in the same ways from those of women. The same would hold true for women.
Now there's convincing new evidence that this is so.
It comes from the International Sexuality Description Project, led by David P. Schmitt, PhD, Bradley University, Peoria, Ill. The projects findings appear in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The title sums it up: "Universal Sex Differences in the Desire for Sexual Variety: Tests From 52 Nations, 6 Continents, and 13 Islands."
"Both men and women show signs of being programmed to be monogamous in a certain way and promiscuous in a certain way," Schmitt tells WebMD. "The main difference is in short-term mating strategies, or how men and women go about being promiscuous."
Good Sex Partners vs. Lots of Sex Partners
"We don't say men and women always opt for short-term strategies," Schmitt says. "What we are talking about is that when they go for infidelity or promiscuity, men focus on large numbers and women focus on quality."
What really irks Schmitt is that many people interpret this finding to mean that women are designed to be faithful but men are predestined to be promiscuous. That's not what the evidence shows. Instead, both women and men are fully equipped for one-night stands and lifelong relationships.
Schmitt and colleagues asked men and women all over the world about what they wanted from long-term and short-term sexual relationships.
"What we found is that when men opt for short-term mating, they pursue larger numbers of partners than women," Schmitt says. "When women go short-term mating, they don't go for large numbers. They are a little more discriminating. They look for physically attractive men who have masculine facial features. Women look for men who are symmetrical, who are high in social dominance. This doesn't mean all women will be short-term maters. But when they opt to do so, they show these desires."
Another big difference: Men are ready to say "yes" to sex much more quickly than women. They say they'd need to know a person only a relatively short time before consenting to sex. Women want to know their potential partners significantly longer before sex.
Yet another difference points to the origin of the dumb-blonde stereotype: The minds of men.
"Men's preference for intelligence in short-term mates drops off the scale," Schmitt says. "If you look at what men want in a short-term mating partner, a sexual partner as opposed to a marriage partner, they prefer below-average intelligence."
These different desires hold true regardless of whether women or men are married or single, heterosexual or homosexual. And they hold true across six continents.
Different Desires for Marriage Partners
Schmitt's findings also support basic differences between men and women in what they want in a marriage partner.
"These differences aren't as conspicuous as those for short-term desires, but they are still quite distinct," Schmitt says. "Long term, men prefer youth and physical attractiveness while women prefer men who are somewhat older, intelligent, and ambitious. Men prefer women who are intelligent, too, but not as much."
These differences really shouldn't surprise anybody, says Helen E. Fisher, PhD, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. Fisher is the author of First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World and Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, among other works.
"Why should they have desires in common? Men and women are very different creatures," Fisher tells WebMD.
Men, she says, already know that they need to appear fit and socially powerful to attract a mate. And women certainly know what attracts men.
"Men are looking for youth and beauty in the short term -- women really do know this," Fisher says. "They do try to look young and pretty. It is remarkable how the makeup and clothing industry constantly plays on this. Makeup makes the face clearer, the eyes bigger, the lips more baby-like red, the hair the sweet light color of youth. Clothing, too: The belts and things that show off the waist-to-hip ratio, the tight blue jeans and shirts that mold the figure. Both sexes always know these things."
The Limits of Lust
People built their hopes and dreams on relationships, not mating strategies. But there's nothing wrong with knowing what you want and going for it, says George Williams, PhD, an Atlanta-based marital and sex therapist.
"I help people become conscious of their own desires," Williams tells WebMD. "It is perfectly legitimate for people to be clear about what they do and do not want in a partner."
Williams agrees with Schmitt and Fisher that men and women have innate desires wired deep into the brain. But he stresses the importance of other brain wiring -- that which gives us reason.
"Human beings' sexual behavior has an awful lot to do with our ability to think and imagine," Williams says. "There are some primitive brain structures that operate, but our sex behavior is not seasonally driven or hormone driven -- we don't mate only in the spring, or only when the female is in heat. We can use reason in our sex lives."
Just because men and women are programmed for promiscuity doesn't make it impossible -- or unnatural -- to have faithful, monogamous, long-term relationships.
"I tell people to honor their values," Williams says. "If you honor fidelity as important to you and your relationship, it is a matter of your own integrity to honor that.
"And, as the Catholics say, there is the issue of avoiding proximate occasions of sin. Or as my college roomie used to say, 'God will throw a sexy woman in your path every six months.' So don't fan any coals that come your way. Don't fan the fire."
Sex Cheating Defined
Adultery doesn't just happen. One member of a relationship has to switch strategies. Why?
"People abandon their long-term sex strategy in favor of a short-term strategy because of lust," Williams says. "But affairs are very complex entities. They are always problematic and usually dangerous. When people tell me they are having an affair, they think the most dangerous part is getting caught. I think the most dangerous thing is to fall in love."
The least dangerous kind of an affair, he says, is the kind of one-night stands that happen at a convention or a conference where people part and never meet again. The most dangerous are secret, longstanding affairs that go on for years with fantasies and hopes and dreams of building a relationship.
What makes it an affair? Williams thinks his answer will surprise most men -- and few women.
"I think an affair occurs when two people are in a committed relationship, and one or both has a relationship with another that has secret content and sexual tension and they hide all of it from their partner," he says.
"A common misconception among men is, 'I am not having an affair because I have not slept with the other woman.' But they dream, they fantasize, they wish they were with the other person -- that is what I call fanning the coals."
That "other" Williams speaks of may be a friend, or a co-worker -- or a pornographic image.
"Here's a common thing I am seeing today. Women will catch men engaging in something pornographic on the Internet," Williams says. "While men view this as innocent sexual arousal, women view it as a major violation of the marriage. It is a secret sexual encounter they are excluded from that contains arousal and ejaculation. This takes energy from the relationship. I encourage people to keep the focus of their sexuality on their partners."
Using Sex Programming In Your Marriage
Fortunately, men's and women's hard-wired sexual desires can be harnessed to help, not harm, their marriages. Unfortunately, Fisher says, few people take advantage of this.
"It is really remarkable how we absolutely know you have to do a good job every day at work to keep your job. We know we have to eat well and exercise regularly to keep healthy. But when it comes to marriage, for some reason we cling to that concept of 'til death do us part," she says. "It is quite detrimental. Because even in relationships in which people are deeply committed, one has to work to keep one's marriage together."
Where does one begin? Fisher points to the brain. Whenever people do something new -- or meet a new potential sex partner -- the brain secretes a chemical messenger called dopamine. High dopamine levels are associated with sexual arousal.
"I say to people if you want to keep your long-term relationship exciting, do novel things together," Fisher says. "It does drive up dopamine. It really can help your sex drive."
What kind of new things? Use your imagination.
"Oh, try new things in the bedroom, of course," Fisher laughs. "But it's not just that. People always go to the same places for dinner. Go somewhere new for dinner, for vacation. Wear something new to bed. Pick up a new sport together; learn to ski. Go to new kinds of theatre and to movies. This is why people go on vacations. It creates excitement. It is a way of tricking the brain into states of arousal and sexuality that can keep a marriage well groomed."
As light-hearted as it sounds, this advice isn't simply a means for fun. Your marriage may depend on it.
"If people spent as much time talking about what to do in bed on Saturday morning as they do on where to go on Saturday night, they would elevate the level of their relationships," Fisher says. "You can't treat a person as an old shoe. These days it is easy to divorce. It is easy to be an adulterer. Women are far more independent these days, and there is no disgrace in divorce. Relationships are fragile. Your marriage needs a certain amount of regular massage to keep it in health."
Originally published Aug. 12, 2003.
Medically updated July 15, 2004.
SOURCES: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 2003. David P. Schmitt, PhD, founding director, International Sexuality Description Project, and associate professor, Bradley University, Peoria, Ill. Helen E. Fisher, PhD, Center for Human Evolutionary Studies and Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. George Williams, PhD, marital and sex therapist, Atlanta.
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