When it comes to assumption, we tend not to question them, by default. That’s why they’re assumptions. It’s literally in the definition. It’s entirely natural to make assumptions, especially when they have some sort of inherent logic to them. It’s just how we, as a species, make sense of a chaotic world that we’re trying to survive.
The problem is, as I’ve pointed out many times before, our caveman brains aren’t wired logic. They’re wired primarily to help us survive and reproduce. That’s why our brains are so prone to all sorts of logical fallacies. That’s also why it’s hard to let go of assumptions, even when empirical data a very different story.
This brings me to our assumptions about sexual promiscuity. I’m hope I have your attention now because I knew a bland article about logical fallacies, caveman logic, and false assumption wasn’t going to get anyone excited. Put it in a context that’s both sexy and relevant, especially to an aspiring erotica/romance writer, and there’s much more appeal.
Sexy or not, the issue of assumptions in our sex lives are a lot more relevant in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” These days, people are more likely to cling to their assumptions than ever before, even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. Hell, “South Park” even did an entire episode about this concept.
There are all sorts of complex psychological and social reasons for this, some of which I’ve covered before in other less sexy discussions. However, I’m not going to belabor those concepts. Most people know that humans can be exceedingly stubborn, even when faced with undeniable data that counters their assumptions.
That becomes a bigger problem, though, when you’re actually trying to make sense of something on an academic level. Our collective sexuality is one of those things that we try to study and understand, even if our efforts turn out to be disturbingly wrong. I like to think we’ve gotten better at it in the modern era, but sometimes fresh data reveals there’s still room for improvement.
This leads me to one of the most common assumptions about sexuality and the particulars of sexual promiscuity. You’ve probably heard it articulated at some point. It’s the basic structure surrounding male promiscuity versus female promiscuity. It goes like this:
- Men are promiscuous because sperm production is cheap and there’s an biological incentive to have sex with multiple females in order to sire multiple offspring
- Women are more selective about their sex partners because bearing children is risky and requires resources, which incentivizes securing men who will stick around to care for those children
There are all sorts of jokes and colloquialisms about this, men being dogs and women being angels. It’s also reflective of the most obvious double standards surrounding male and female sexuality and for most people, it makes sense.
A man can have sex with a thousand woman and, in theory, sire a thousand children. Ignoring the egregious child support payments this man would have to pay, it is consistent with the biological imperative to survive and reproduce.
Conversely, it makes just as much sense for a woman to secure a male partner who won’t just have children with her, but stay with her and invest in raising those children with her. This bears out in the many benefits ascribed to two-parent households.
However, if these assumptions were so logical and so biologically sound, then that would be reflected in the data we gather about our sexuality. Logic should be consistent with data, right? That’s the entire foundation of the scientific method, after all.
This is where the details get sketchy, but in a sexy sort of way. In an article from The Conversation, much of the biological data behind these assumptions about sexual promiscuity among men and women gets an added bit of scrutiny. In doing so, some revealing details emerge. Here is a brief excerpt that should raise a few eyebrows, among other body parts.
The common belief was that males and females were radically different. Moreover, attitudes about Victorian women influenced beliefs about nonhuman females. Males were considered to be active, combative, more variable, and more evolved and complex. Females were deemed to be passive, nurturing; less variable, with arrested development equivalent to that of a child. “True women” were expected to be pure, submissive to men, sexually restrained and uninterested in sex – and this representation was also seamlessly applied to female animals.
Although these ideas may now seem quaint, most scholars of the time embraced them as scientific truths. These stereotypes of men and women survived through the 20th century and influenced research on male-female sexual differences in animal behavior.
Unconscious biases and expectations can influence the questions scientists ask and also their interpretations of data. Behavioral biologist Marcy Lawton and colleagues describe a fascinating example. In 1992, eminent male scientists studying a species of bird wrote an excellent book on the species – but were mystified by the lack of aggression in males. They did report violent and frequent clashes among females, but dismissed their importance. These scientists expected males to be combative and females to be passive – when observations failed to meet their expectations, they were unable to envision alternative possibilities, or realize the potential significance of what they were seeing.
The same likely happened with regard to sexual behavior: Many scientists saw promiscuity in males and coyness in females because that is what they expected to see and what theory – and societal attitudes – told them they should see.
There’s much more to the article and I strongly recommend everyone take the time to read it, in full. It’s somewhat long because it references a lot of old research on animal behavior, as well as cultural attitudes towards sex and gender. However, the underlying theme is fairly clear.
The assumptions about coy, reserved females and aggressive, promiscuous males aren’t clearly reflected in the observed data. In fact, cultural attitudes going all the way back to the Victorian Era may have influenced our interpretation of the data, leading us to negate anything that countered those assumptions. That’s confirmation bias at its most basic.
This is similar to the message in the book, “Sex At Dawn,” which basically argues that our caveman ancestors had much better sex lives than we did. In that context, male and female promiscuity plays out in a very different way that also clashes with many of our assumptions.
In both “Sex At Dawn” and the article, the data seems to suggest that promiscuous females have higher rates of reproductive success. Biologically speaking, this makes sense because she’s getting a diverse sample of sperm and the higher quality material eventually finds a way to win out.
I’ll resist the urge to paint too crude a picture, although I will say that women pursuing a variety of men and attempting to weed out the best among them should not be too shocking. When you’re looking to find love and/or a baby daddy, you want quality and you can’t really be sure of that quality unless you find ways to test it. That’s not quite as dirty as it sounds, but it’s close.
With men, the data also clashes with the assumptions that men need only hump as many things with a pulse as possible. The article questions the idea that sperm is cheap and men’s contributions are purely resource-driven. The data actually suggests that men exercise a considerable degree of selection in choosing their partners. Just having a pulse and a vagina is not the only criteria.
As is now also well-documented, sperm production is limited and males can run out of sperm – what researchers term “sperm depletion.”
Consequently, we now know males may allocate more or less sperm to any given female, depending on her age, health or previous mated status. Such differential treatment among preferred and nonpreferred females is a form of male mate choice. In some species, males may even refuse to copulate with certain females. Indeed, male mate choice is now a particularly active field of study.
In essence, men are capable of being selective and downright loyal to their partners. Women are also just as capable of being sexually open, seeking out a variety of lovers in search of quality partners, both for social and reproductive success. In that sense, the promiscuous tendencies of both genders are a lot more level than any Victorian Era assumption would have us believe.
Add on top of this the documented health benefits of sexual promiscuity, as well as the sexual mores of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and it’s increasingly clear that our assumptions about the sexual promiscuity are not consistent with biology, logic, or reality in general.
In a sense, our society already reflects this. The growing prevalence of blended families shows that the Victorian ideals that later played out in 1950s sitcoms aren’t accurate reflections of human nature. I doubt that this data will shatter the various assumptions that many still have on sexual promiscuity, but as with most excuses, they can only clash with reality so much.