Monday, November 19, 2012

Are Women Different?

Obviously they are, in a variety of ways, but I am thinking of one—behavior associated with sex and courtship. The traditional pattern, in our society and many others, was for men to make advances and women to accept or reject them. The normal assumption was that most men were happy, given the opportunity, to go to bed with almost any reasonably attractive woman,  most women much more selective. Over my lifetime that has changed. Substantial numbers of women, in at least some social circles, seem to have shifted to something more like the male pattern. Which raises an obvious pair of questions. Why did the difference exist and why did it, to at least some degree, disappear?

One obvious explanation is prudential. Women get pregnant, men don't. Hence in a world without reliable contraception, a woman faced a much larger risk from sex than a man and adjusted her behavior accordingly, largely restricting sex to partners who could be expected to help her rear any offspring that resulted. A second possible explanation is social. Both men and women valued long term relationships, men preferred to marry women who had not had sex with other men, and women thus found it prudent to maintain at least the appearance of virginity until they had obtained the necessary commitment from a partner. In both versions, the incentive for  the traditional behavior pattern would be amplified by a feedback effect. Promiscuous sex was imprudent, hence openly promiscuous sex signalled a lack of sense and/or self control, making a woman who acted that way less attractive as wife, employee, or in most other roles.

A third possible explanation is biological. The scarce biological input to reproduction is neither egg nor sperm but womb space, and it belongs to women. That put them in a position to be much pickier about their partners than men needed, or had any reason, to be. To put it differently, casual sex was a reproductive win for a male—it cost him nothing and might produce offspring. For a female, limited to producing one child every year or two, it made sense to select the father of that child for the best combination of high quality genes and willingness to help support offspring that she could find. The result was to hardwire different patterns of behavior into males and females.

The first explanation is the one that most readily explains what changed. As reliable contraception became available, the incentive for women to refrain from casual sex disappeared. Women, like men, enjoy sex, so women shifted their behavior to be more like that of men. Over time social expectations adjusted; there was no longer a reputational cost to behavior that was no longer imprudent. 

That argument works to some extent, but less clearly, for the second explanation. One implication of the increasing availability of contraception was that women who did not want children and did like sex would be willing to sleep with men without long term guarantees, and their competition would weaken the bargaining position of women following the traditional strategy and so weaken the attraction of that strategy.

The third alternative provides no explanation for the change, since human evolution is too slow to produce significant change over so short a period. But it might be consistent with the change, if we assume that something else explains it—most notably ideological and/or social pressure in the other direction, towards women throwing off the constraints of traditional sex roles. 

One rather weak piece of evidence for that reading is my impression that the new behavior pattern has not proved entirely satisfactory. At least, I have read a number of articles by women who had followed it and were now unhappy at the results. I have not come across any similar articles by men lamenting the downsides of male promiscuity, although they might exist.


Mark Atwood said...

Take the Red Pill

jdgalt said...

In the last 40 years, the law has so drastically changed everybody's expectations of the other sex (women now have all the rights and no responsibility for their actions) that dating has gone from something men want to do more than women to something men should shy away from.

Eventually, if the market is allowed to act (and by that I mainly mean legalize prostitution, to give some needed competition to women with inflated notions of their own market values), the situation will balance.

In the meantime, 40% of US births are out-of-wedlock, most of them to idle women doing it as a means to get the dole, plus child support unjustly extorted from some guy they tricked by saying "I'm on the pill." These kids have no future.

So the family is dead, the Marching Morons are here to destroy civilization, and the President is their Chosen One. Be afraid.

August said...

One of the things I was thinking about last night is how women going to work and subsequently paying other people to take care of their children, make dinner, etc- all of this brings a variety of activities outside of the home and into the easily taxable arena. Feminism has been an extremely effective tool for expanding the number of transactions that it is possible to tax. It is, therefore, extremely easy to see this as a passel of lies dreamed up by some political hacks. Fertile young women, meanwhile, feel the power they hold over men while they are young and attractive. They also notice that settling down with one man and starting a family means giving up some of that power and taking on some personal risk. Many put off the commitment, believe the lies, and end up not being particularly happy when their fertile years come to a close. Whether they want children or not, their power fades when their fertility does.

RKN said...

I question the premise: women are becoming more like men with regard to sex and courtship.

I'm no pro on this but if you ask me the average woman's attitudes and wants have remained essentially unchanged with easily available contraception.

Men are visual and tactile, and evidently less capable of restraint. Hetero- women like sex, sure, but they will delay satisfaction; beyond attractive the man must first be kind, confident, employed, caring and funny. Good breath is a plus.

Explanation #3 is out. Extrapolating animal behaviors of sex and courtship to explain the same in humans is fraught with errors. Over a year ago I blogged about a one such error here. The gist of it is that no animal selects (or deselects) mates on the basis of their genotype, because no animal, including human, has the facility for detecting good (or bad) genes. What they can detect is phenotype, but for a number of reasons this is frequently a bad proxy for good (or bad) genes, where the goal, conscious or not, is reproductive success.

jimbino said...

A modern guy cannot only not afford to have casual sex with a woman nowadays, for fear of child-support liability, he can't even afford to take her children camping, for fear of prosecution as a sex-offender.

I think the wave of the future will consist in women voluntarily submitting to sterilization, carrying a certificate of it, and ready to present it to potential mates and employers. Indeed, a young woman, married or single, will improve her salary by presenting evidence of her sterilization.

No sensible man I know will sleep with a woman who has not been sterilized, regardless of what she promises about birth-control, abortion, etc. Likewise, no sensible employer will consider an application for work from a woman with a potential to breed, or who has bred.

What I await is a fail-safe contraceptive for men; sure, I know guys who got themselves fixed in order to enjoy sex without consequences. That's rational behavior. It's also rational behavior to maintain that you're not fixed, just as women claimed they were "on the pill" when shopping for a sugar daddy.

AMW said...

I agree with RKN that on the whole female sexuality is still very distinct from male sexuality. However, I think this difference can be convincingly explained by evolutionary mechanisms.

By the way, a number of comments so far seem to be straying off into bitter tirades. Have women really treated you guys so badly?

Anonymous said...

Rachel Maddow makes me giggle like a schoolgirl. I want to be her when I grow up.


Kid said...

Theorizing on anecdotal evidence here.

Most women I come in contact with seem to show slightly hypergamous mating patterns. They're interested in men slightly more attractive than themselves while men are interested in women about as attractive as themselves.

But the key difference may be purely in the male behavior. Men act less confident around others of higher social status, and since confidence is sexy, they act less attractive when they're with a woman of higher social status than themselves.

Roger said...

Both males and females seem to value fidelity when they settle down for family making. Doesn't prudence/restraint/selectiveness before marriage signal to potential mates that one would more likely be a faithful partner?

jure said...

But if man in the past had more sex partners than women- with whom they had sex with? Number of man and women is the same, so if man had a lot sex partners, that also counts for women, since you cannot have sex without them. So more sex partners for man means also more for women. Or i made a mistake in reasoning?

Tal said...

I think the biggest reason for the (slight) change is mostly cultural. A lot of young women buy into the feminist notions of women being able to behave like men and be happy (because gender differences are allegedly only cultural). Young left wing girls often view female promiscuity as enlightened.

Rebecca Friedman said...


Theoretically, the men could be sleeping with each other... but in the specific context of this discussion, I find that unlikely. [No procreation.] The other options are a few women sleeping with a great many men, while most sleep with none, or alternately both men and women having sex before marriage, but women trying to hide it ("at least the appearance of virginity") and men probably providing most of the pressure towards it; this would lead to men on average having less casual sex than they wanted, women more. Which pattern we had (or whether it was both) I don't know! I can see traces of both in cultural stereotypes and old songs and such, but one never knows how true those are.

White Rabbit said...

"I have not come across any similar articles by men lamenting the downsides of male promiscuity, although they might exist."

No, but there are thousands lamenting the fate of men who lack seduction skills in the modern hookup/dating market.

Try typing 'female hypergamy' into a search engine and you'll see why. But be aware that any content you choose to read comes with a Political Advisory Warning.

The gist of it is that you have an increasingly large pool of women hooking up with a considerably smaller pool of 'bad boy' players whose values and behaviour are diametrically opposed to 'what women want' (or to be more precise, what they say they want).

That means men are being increasingly selected and rewarded for their seduction skills rather than their abilities as providers and willingness to commit.

The distribution curve of success with women is increasingly skewed towards players and against 'good guys' compared to that in a traditional marriage/long term relationship market.

As a result more and more men who have mediocre seduction skills and/or place a high value on commitment are being excluded from the dating market.

However apparently you won't understand what they're talking about until you take the Red Pill.

David Friedman said...

"But if man in the past had more sex partners than women"

I don't think I was arguing that they did, but only that they wanted to.

Assuming heterosexual mating, it's possible for most men to be promiscuous and most women not, but that requires that the promiscuous women engage in a lot more sex than the promiscuous men--which is physically possible, of course.

White Rabbit: What's the source for data to support your interpretation of how things are changing?

White Rabbit said...

Here are links to two sociology papers that explain sexual economics, by Baumeister and Vohs.

Sexual Economics, Culture, Men, and Modern Sexual Trends 2012. Link

Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions 2004. Link

Also link to a page showing simplified diagrams of what allegedly happens to men's chances before and after the sexual revolution.

The papers' authors claim that this is a different approach to either evolutionary theory or feminism. Unfortunately I'm not aware of specific data to support the idea that bad boys are doing ever better relative to nice guys as the sexual marketplace becomes easier to enter. However the papers give you a better sense of whether such claims might be credible.

Kid mentioned competition in terms of men having less confiedence in the presence of other men of higher status. So one possible account is that although women are more available for sex, for less confident men the barriers put up by direct competition with players are even greater so players effectively colonise all the hookup/dating environments

I still remain sceptical about the claims regarding female hypergamy in the dating market, because they appear to be based on oversimplistic and biased evolutionary assumptions. And I don't know enough about the subject to say whether the authors above are credible. However I raised this because these issues appear to have become a core article of faith in the men's rights movement, and on the large number of PUA sites serving up seduction advice for insecure men. And they do seem to reflect a lot of mens' anecdotal experience.