Who Win The Promiscuity Battle — Men or Women?

dating

This topic has received much attention over the years, and we all have our assumptions about it, but what does psychological research tell us about gender differences in promiscuity?

Clark and Hatfield (1989) reported the results of a number of experiments that were conducted in 1978 and 1982. The studies’ procedures were as follows:

Male and female confederates of average attractiveness approached potential partners with one of three requests: “Would you go out tonight?” “Will you come over to my apartment?” or “Would you go to bed with me?“.

In these studies, the great majority of men were willing to have a sexual liaison with women who approached them, but not a single woman agreed to have a sexual liaison with men who approached them. This is an interesting finding, but does it mean that men are more promiscuous than women? Is it really a gender difference?

Gender differences in sexual behaviour are some of the most strong and robust psychological gender differences that have been observed (Peplau, 2003; Eagly & Wood, 2013).

But a newer experimental study by Terri Conley (2011) challenges Clark and Hatfield’s early conclusions by offering new, alternative explanations of their research findings.

Here are some of Conley’s findings:

  • Male sexual proposers who approach women are uniformly seen as less desirable than female sexual proposers who approach men. For this reason, women may not accept offers from men, whereas men may be more willing to accept offers from women
  • The extent to which women and men believe that the proposer is sexually skilled predicts how likely they are to engage in casual sex. Women are a lot like men in this respect, because both women and men are more likely to accept a sexual offer, when the experience seems positive
  • The large gender differences, which were found in the original work by Clark and Hatfield, can be eliminated by asking participants to imagine proposals from attractive famous individuals

At last, Conley states:

“The large gender differences Clark and Hatfield observed in acceptance of the casual sex offer may have more to do with perceived personality characteristics of the female versus male proposers than with gender differences …” (p. 309).

What is your experience, and could it be explained by some of Conley’s findings? Thanks for supporting my blog.

Photo: Vann Piazza
  • In my younger days I was quite the promiscuous girl. I would often approach men at clubs and ask them to dance, and if we connected well enough I’d ask them back to my apartment. Many men had expressed to me that it was my boldness and confidence that made them so willing to acquiesce. I was not unattractive, but certainly there were more traditionally attractive women at these locations, so I was rarely approached. However, often those who did approach me would be sized up. I knew I could basically choose my partner, so I wasn’t necessarily willing to settle for whomever approached me first. I did turn a lot of men down.
    As I got older and more cautious I did most of my date shopping online. I noticed that men were definitely much more bold online than in person. They would pursue me with incessant sexual advances even after I told them in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t interested. I also found that even if men SAY they’re looking for a long-term relationship in their profile, if they believe they can score a quick hookup they’ll say just about anything. Many men say what they think a woman wants to hear (that they also are looking for stability, monogamy, etc), even if that’s not ultimately their goal. Not all men, of course. Some are certainly honest and forthright, but for the most part I ran into this problem of profiles not matching intent. Because my profile said I was not looking for a long-term relationship in any form, so many guys would think that would be an easy sell. Flash a pic of their abs, say something dirty, and they think they’re in.
    It’s funny how very different some people are online vs in person with regards to sexual encounters. How would any woman respond to a guy in person saying something dirty to them then showing off their abs? Probably not very kindly. Even for being the most promiscuous woman of all my peers, I’d probably be offended by such an offer. It’s not as if I don’t have standards, even for a one night stand. :p I think I’d rather the guy be more interested in me than himself.

    • Hi Typhany,
      Thanks for sharing your story with the rest of us. From what I hear you’re saying, you deem men to be more promiscuous. That would make completely sense in an evolutionary perspective. In this perspective, men are more occupied with passing on their genes, whereas women are more occupied with providing protection and comfort for the offspring. For example, men tend to prefer younger (fertile) partners, whereas women tend to prefer older ones (with possibly more material resources that can provide a kind of protection for the offspring). Sometimes, I think it is useful to see things through a theoretical lense like this, but it is also funny to see how much our innate biology influences our (sexual) behavior. After all, we are just monkeys with a greater brain capacity that enables us to rationalize our behaviors. I don’t know if this was the response you were looking for.
      Regards,
      Simon

  • Well, kinda yes and kinda no. You asked for shared experiences, so I figured I’d share, considering the fact that I am, and always have been, quite promiscuous. Not just for a woman, but for anybody. Even now I’m married but in an open relationship. Monogamy has never made sense to me.
    The interesting thing I find is that men will often say what they believe a woman wants to hear, that they’re looking for stability and monogamy, even if they’d be happy with something much more short-term and less serious, but if women say that’s what they’re looking for they mean it.
    I do feel very strongly that there’s an evolutionary component to modern dating practices and rituals, however, even if we are basically evolved apes with more sophisticated brains, we didn’t just evolve internally, but created complicated societies by which we measure and base many of our decision-making processes.
    In antiquity, women were deemed the more promiscuous gender. It was thought that their humours were imbalanced and that they essentially had no control over their actions with regards to sex because they basically needed it. The man was the one who was supposed to be in control and tell a woman “No”. Today in western culture it’s just the opposite, that men are deemed less in control of their sexual urges, that the woman is the deciding factor as to whether they’re going to have intercourse because women are in control and therefore can be choosy, whereas men will sleep with anyone, right? So with that cultural bias in place, we may be reverse extrapolating and saying, well women have to be more thoughtful about their partners because they need a mate to care for a potential child but men are only interested in spreading their seed far and wide. But if we were to cultivate an evolutionary psychologist in ancient Greece, how would he or she explain the societal behavior of very promiscuous women, relatively chaste men, and widely accepted homosexuality? Because we can’t ignore homosexual and bisexual people when discussing sexual attraction from an evolutionary perspective. We know that early cultures definitely engaged in homosexuality, so that has to be figured into the equation somewhere.
    So, right now we’re viewing our early ancestors through the lens of our current society and deducing that such behaviors were formed very early on, but I say we should only be looking to the near past. We could say to the 1950’s when women still rarely worked, or only worked until they found a husband at which point they became mommies and housewives. Or a bit further back, the Victorian era, when women couldn’t even own property and their best chance at a good life was marrying a man of means and high society. Because if we go back too much further, or examine other cultures, often the women work right alongside the men. They may or may not have gender based tasks, but they are still more equal, making the finding of a mate with wealth or power or etc moot, because the women take care of themselves, and each other.

    • Hi Typhany,
      Well, I think we both agree that social factors can inhibit as well as encourage our innate biology in one way or another. You mention the Victorian era and the ancient Greece, and it is easy to see how these two eras are in contrast with each other with respect to sexual behavior. But this does not mean, in my view, that people have been different. It just means that the social factors have either inhibited or encouraged certain kinds of behavior at certain times in history. Just like some people (monks) inhibit their (basic/innate) need for food during fasting, I would say that people can inhibit their sexual behavior as well, e.g. in the Victorian era. This does not mean that they don’t have the need though. You are very right that when women work right alongside men, they may not attribute the same value to men’s material resources as they can take care of themselves, so how can we explain this within a evolutionary theoretical framework? We would say that women’s sexual behavior as described by evolutionary theory has solved a adaptive problem in that it has helped women to produce healthy offspring. When the social situation changes so that women become more independent, they no longer have the same need for men’s material resources, i.e. they have solved this adaptive problem themselves. So it is the adaptive problem that motivates people’s behavior. For example, women know that they must take good care of their offspring (an innate disposition), and there are many means to this end. They also know that they must breed in order to pass on genes (an innate motivation), so in some situations they may need to be promiscuous if that is the mean to this end. The same is true for men. Generally, a behavior or a trait that occurs universally in all cultures are good indicants of evolutionary adaptations (e.g., promiscuity).
      Regards,
      Simon

      • Right. If we were to see the same patterns emerge across cultures it would be a good indicator for an evolutionary adaptation, but we’re not seeing that, either across modern cultures or throughout time and other cultures that have existed before us. Sure, societal and cultural mores can definitely inhibit or drive behavior, but you can’t pick and choose which societies were the result of behavior being changed for the benefit of the societal norm, and which societies were allowing for totally free expression. The only societies that would tell us for certain which is which would be our earliest ancestors, and since we can’t see how they lived we can only hazard a guess, as well as look to our primate cousins for clues.
        Biochemically, the changes that occur when two people are in love at the beginning of their relationship, what many refer to as the honeymoon phase, only last long enough for conception to occur. Beyond that point, if a couple chooses to remain together a relationship takes quite a bit of work to keep it interesting and cogent. This does not point to humans pair bonding for life, so monogamy is almost certainly a societal construct. This being the case, a woman would be far less likely to be seeking out a partner who can or will provide for her and the child throughout the child’s lifetime, from an evolutionary standpoint. Most likely this is a conscious decision on her part, and one that has been ingrained through societal mores and economic necessity for many generations. Husband as provider of the family is a long-standing ideal of western cultures, and especially with regards to specific religious affiliations.
        If we’re going to talk about what society has inhibited with regards to sexuality, likely the influence of these religious faiths on societal mores and values has created an atmosphere that expects women to be more chaste, and less promiscuous than they probably would be otherwise. Many women still value the idea of withholding their sexuality, so to speak. It’s possible that during these experiments, when a woman has been approached by men with sexual invitations, many of them just said no because that’s what is expected of them. There is a terrible double standard in our society, men who are promiscuous are viewed as confident and outgoing, while women who are promiscuous are viewed as dirty and shameful. So societally, women will be looking for a relationship partner more often than they’ll be looking for sexual partners and for that they have to have standards. A nice car means he likely has a lucrative profession, so he can take care of himself. A musician at least is likely sensitive, or intelligent, he’s talented, he has a skill. These are things to look for in a possible relationship partner. But I don’t think that these things point to an evolutionary adaptation.
        Our nearest cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, tend to be quite promiscuous, and the females are more likely to mate with the stronger males because it may ensure that their infants survive and because often the male dominated society dictates that the males highest in the pecking order get first pick of the females. They will bully any male who tries to cut in line, and the victor, obviously the stronger male, makes most sense as a mating partner to the female anyway. Otherwise, the males have little to do with providing for the children, the females care for the children, everyone gathers food, (although sometimes the females even feed the toughest males), and the males protect the group. So if this is any indication at all of what early human social structures were like, I think the only thing we can glean from this is the answer to the oft asked question: why do women so often date bullies and jerks? Hehe
        There are definitely a lot of things that we can learn about human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, but we have to take into consideration the macro nature vs nurture. How much of this behavior is innate, and how much was developed to meet a societal need or value? So I think we have to be really careful to not paint our view of evolution with our own societal brush.

        • I must say I’m really impressed by your involvement in this topic. I agree with you that there is a double standard with regard to social norms. My only concern here is that it is more acceptable for men to be promiscuous than it is for women. I don’t think that monogamy is a social construct. I mean, many animals commit to monogamy.

          I just stumbled upon this discussion thread where some clever people discuss it: http://www.ted.com/conversations/5814/do_you_think_that_monogamy_is.html

          In this thread, Thomas Jones writes: “If we look at the “biology” side of it – in isolation – there is a pretty good argument we were “designed” to be, more or less, monogamous for about eighteen months to three years or so. That is how long the sight of our partner will act as a trigger for phenylethelamine and other neuromodulators that we interpret as “love. Eighteen months to three years is about how long it takes a human couple to reproduce and for the mother, and infant, to become reasonably independent.”

          Regards,
          Simon

  • Argh! I hit post comment by mistake.
    So anyway, I think some of what we’re seeing nowadays, women being more interested in men with nicer cars or men with musical talent, has a bit to do with societal factors (many women still in the dating pool had parents who grew up believing that their daughter should marry a doctor or somesuch), and some of it is now becoming women just wanting to know that a man can carry his weight. Most households need a dual income to raise children nowadays. Women do tend to be more forward thinking when it comes to choosing a mate because there IS potential for accidental or planned pregnancy and women usually get stuck with the kid. They have a very tangible reason for wanting someone who is responsible, or at least intelligent and sensitive (probably will find that in a musician) to be sure they’re not stuck raising a child alone.
    As far as standards for one night stands, from personal experience I can tell you that age and means were never deciding factors. Since I wasn’t looking for a relationship, those things didn’t matter vis a vis physical attraction.

  • Exactly. The “honeymoon” period of a relationship lasts exactly long enough to ensure conception and health of the infant. Beyond that point though, if two humans plan to stay monogamous (meaning having one partner for life) they reeally have to work at it. Some creatures do mate for life. Many birds do. Primates often do not. They’re social creatures and tend to be quite promiscuous. It’s higher level thinking that causes humans to insist on becoming possessive of their partner. They feel jealous, unwanted, afraid their partner might leave them for someone better, and many other cognitively based arguments that have very little to do with evolutionary adaptations, and everything to do with the ability to reason and come to a conclusion: this is “my” partner, I don’t want my partner to leave, if my partner can’t stray my partner will need me. Societies have built all manner of failsafes to be sure that partners stay together. If humans naturally pair bonded for life, would society ever had need to create marriage, religious edict concerning such and banning dissolution of same, laws to both unite a couple and prevent them from separating? People made these things to help manage their rationalized insecurities over relationships. And not all societies believe in “one man, one woman”. Again, across time as well as currently, societies have allowed for multiple wives, for men to stray from their partners at will, as stated in classical Greece, women got a free pass on straying. Polyamory is not something that people do just because they feel like it, if lifelong pair bonding was the natural order of human evolution, there would never be such a thing. When you see organisms that pair bond for life, that’s exactly what it means. If one of them dies prematurely the other never finds a new partner. But there are many creatures who have zero attachment period (such as cats, who mate then go their separate ways), or humans who have a short attachment period and then may move on to other partners. Their desire to remain together is entirely at will, and largely based on societal expectations, and since we’re seeing now more independent women in western culture, often the couple DO go their separate ways and the mother raises the child, with or without the father’s help. See what I’m saying?
    (And yeah, I’m a bit of a psych nerd. It was my former profession. :p I thought you read my blog or something? There’s some psych stuff on there, but nothing like this! Your page is awesome. 😀 Very valuable information. Everyone should read it. Don’t mind me if I comment or debate sometimes.)

    • I follow your argumentation and find it interesting, especially the part with failsafes. I am no expert at this particular area, but I will probably read up on this topic. Your involvement has triggered by curiosity. What was you former profession exactly (I am just curious)? I am glad you my blog. I haven’t received so much feedback, so your feedback means a lot to me. Thanks. You are very welcome to comment. This blog was created for the same purpose. Yeah, I read your blog and I find it interesting and well written. Keep it up :-).

  • Breanna

    It may be due to the culture of the U.S., where I have lived all my life, but I feel very certain that a huge part of the reason women are not so likely to accept random offers of sexual gratification is due to a fear for their own safety.
    Again, I’m not sure how much this differs in other countries and cultures, but from my experience (and those of every woman I have spoken to concerning the subject) women are told from childhood to be constantly aware of your surroundings in order to prevent your becoming a victim of some “psycho”.
    We are taught the obvious things like “avoid walking alone late at night” as well as things like “always be sure to check under your car before you approach it, particularly when it’s dark out.” My interest in the subject has made this a common topic among my friends and I, and I have found they have all been taught the same thing. According to many articles posted online, this is no rare situation. Women are always told to be on the “lookout” for dangerous men. Conversely, none of the males I have spoken to about the same subject have experienced any of this mental training, apart from being told as children “don’t talk to strangers.” (Perhaps the responsibility being placed on women to avoid such situations is why, when a woman is a victim of some assault, it is not uncommon for people to blame her for the occurrence.)
    Anyway, my point is this-that with all of this mental conditioning teaching women to fear strangers, and ESPECIALLY strange men, it is no surprise that they would be unwilling to be alone with a random strange male. To be frank, most of the women propositioned probably first thought, “This guy is going to rape and kill me” whereas a man propositioned by a woman would probably be more concerned about whether or not this strange sexual partner would be any good in bed. And perhaps this makes logical sense, as we know, however rare serial killers are, that they are almost always male.
    I think in order for this experiment to truly reflect the promiscuity of men versus women, it would have to be done in a culture in which men and women feel equally safe around strangers. Honestly, I think any researcher would be hard pressed to find a place like this, so I don’t see effective research about this being done anytime soon.
    (Not to mention most cultures shame women for sexuality, yet praise men for it-which will inevitably make any research possibly more reflective of cultural norms than of a biological wish to mate.)
    Sorry I just wrote a book on your page!

    • Hi Breanna,
      Thank you for taking your time to reflect on this topic. I think you really sum everything up in your last paragraph. Yes, research (and behavior) is always reflective of cultural and social norms, which makes it difficult to say anything about biological gender differences. The study by Conley shows this so clearly.
      To make it short, we may say that nature and nurture work together in producing gender differences and similarities. Within psychological research, there has been a trend to look for biological gender differences, but many of these differences can be ruled out when we bring social factors into the equation. You give some briliant examples of this in your comment. Thank you for that. For your interest, Eagly & Wood (2013) discuss these issues in greater detail.
      Best wishes,
      Simon

      • Breanna

        I like what you said in your reply. You’re right, I feel that from what I’ve read anyway, there is an intense focus in a lot of literature on the “innate” nature of human beings, which really is quite impossible to study. I suppose unless someone were to survey all cultures and found universal commonalities, that is… as I believe they have done with several studies on emotions.

        • Breanna, it’s very difficult to untangle the threads of what could possibly be “innate” behavior, and what could be learned. Even amongst individuals it’s difficult, but to do it on a scale that may reflect a cross section of society, let alone humanity as a whole would be beyond difficult, to say the least.
          The problem is that some people may have a predisposition for certain traits or illnesses, but even amongst twin studies, where identical twins have the exact DNA, sometimes the genes for those traits or that illness are triggered in one twin, but not in the other.
          Evolutionary psychology doesn’t explain why people do what they do now. People do what they do RIGHT NOW because of the choices that they make, because of what they were taught and how they were raised. What evolutionary psycho does is give us an understanding as to what motivates people now, why they think the way they do, and why they may have certain impulses to do things (regardless of whether they act on them.
          For example, a very attractive man approaches a woman at a bar. They start talking, hit it off, then he asks if she’d like to go someplace more private. She reeally wants to but she knows nothing about the guy, she’s nervous, no one knows where she is, if she disappeared they wouldn’t know for days, it’s Friday night so she’s not due to be anywhere til Monday morning. She decides to go ahead and be safe, she asks the man if they can exchange numbers instead.
          So, her impulse was so go someplace private with the guy. She wanted to do it, she was attracted to him and thought it’d be fun. Logic and reason won out though. After soo many years of being taught that strange men were dangerous she decided to err on the side or caution.
          Multicultural studies can certainly be useful, and like you said, we’ve learned a lot about universal responses with emotion, particularly with facial expressions. Evolutionary psycho can definitely give us a better understanding of our roots, but I don’t believe that what we learn or theorize from it should be taken as an excuse or mitigating factor in current human behavior because we’re all thinking, reasoning, (mostly) logical creatures. There’s good evidence to support that rape was a product of evolution, and we can even see the behavior in our primate cousins, chimpanzees. However, humans are able to decide whether such an action is acceptable.
          One thing I find interesting about these gender/promiscuity studies is that no one ever points out how often humans, other primates, (particularly those nearest us, chimps and bononos), and even other mammals engage in intercourse for fun. They’re operating under the assumption that these people are all looking for a life partner, perhaps they’re just looking for a short term scenario, and maybe guys like the younger chicks because they’re hung up on looks and women like the successful guys because they’re looking for maturity and a sugar daddy. Hebe Who knows whet their actual motivation is? :p

          • Heh. I wrote this late last night, for some reason my tablet kept autocorrecting psych to psycho?! How embarrassing. But, multitude of typos aside, I think you understood what I was getting at. :p
            Simon, with regards to your question from many moons ago, my former profession was mental health counselor, but I did get a degree in psych, both majored AND minored in it, and it continues to fascinate me. Unfortunately I’m no longer able to work due to health issues, but I still study psych when I have the energy and time (that is to say, when I’m not studying various treatment methods and research on my various illnesses). I’m saddened at the moment that I haven’t had much opportunity to look into the new DSM, although I did notice that they took out a lot of the NOS diagnoses, which I find odd. It would’ve made my job exceedingly difficult if I still happened to be working. Heh
            When I was a student, I actually focused on gender studies, human sexuality and evolutionary psych. I believe we have much to learn from our ancient ancestors, and from our current primate cousins. However, I feel there’s too much emphasis on using evolution to explain current BEHAVIOR, when really evolution is most likely to teach us about drives, desires, and impulses, but we’re basically now domesticated. Socialized, logical and with cognitive thought processes that will alter the behavior that comes from the impulses and emotions that we have, even if every human being doesn’t understand the struggle between animal instinct and higher thought process that occurs within them every day. But, by understanding the root of those impulses, we can develop better treatment methods, better ways to help people understand their inner struggles and let their higher thought process decide the path that their behavior takes. 🙂

          • Breanna

            I really loved your comment. It inspired a lot of thought on my end. There is one question, I must say, that I often catch myself getting hung up on-the question of what it means for something to be innate. It could just be a question of semantics, but I often find that people use innate and “natural” interchangeably. As you seem to be educated on the matter, is that true as far as evolutionary psychology goes?

            I think about this quite often, as our culture has a preoccupation I think with the concept of “natural” things (and I’ve found that people often label those things considered “natural” as “good”.) Anyhow, I’m not sure how well I’m going to be able to articulate this, but here goes: at what point does something cease being natural? Didn’t our brains evolve to have a frontal cortex, so doesn’t that imply then that whatever thought processes occur in that part of the brain are, in fact, natural? So, for example, you spoke about the evolutionary benefit of rape, implying that for some individuals such an urge would be “natural”. I’m familiar with this argument and the argument itself is not what I take issue with. It’s moreso that it’s often spoken about as “BUT our cognitive abilities allow us to override that urge.” I feel statements like this imply that cognitive abilities are somehow unnatural. As if, for example, humans evolved to rape, so that we should work on the basis that humans have a “natural” urge to rape. However, humans did not stop evolving when (or if) such an urge developed-as the brain continued to develop. I’m not explaining myself well so I hope you’re still able to follow. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find people often label man-made things (and in this case more advanced cognitive ability experienced by primates) as unnatural. But isn’t any human brain activity (or even structures built by humans) natural? And a result of evolution? It seems as if people want to speak of human beings as “unnatural” creatures once we created agrarian societies.