The XX Factor

Do Men Always Want to Sleep Around?

College boys don’t necessarily want all of the sex all of the time.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

One of the perennial problems for evolutionary psychology’s insistence that men and women must be opposites in how they approach sex and relationships is what I like to call the “looking outside your door” dilemma. It’s fun to speculate that all men are promiscuous and all women are monogamous, but it’s hard to maintain that belief in the face of the boring old real world evidence that most men who fall in love and make commitments are not actually doing so under duress. A devoted evolutionary psychologist will likely try to get around this problem by restricting his research to 18-22 year-olds in college—an environment that’s highly conducive to screwing around—and then claim his findings can be extrapolated to all humans throughout time and space.

But even this strategy, it turns out, collides with the actual data. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon interviews Andrew P. Smiler, author of the new book Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, about his research-backed findings, which show that even at these young ages, men tend to gravitate more frequently to dating and falling in love than they do to trying to have sex with women they never want to see again.

Smiler’s ideas have some serious drawbacks. He seems to buy into the evo psych notion that wanting casual sex and wanting love are mutually exclusive desires, for instance. (In the real world, most people are a garbled mess of competing desires that they’re forced to choose between, a reality that never seems to make it into these academic discussions.) But his basic premise is sound: If most young men are naturally inclined to want to avoid relationships and instead sleep around, then why do they report the opposite in both desires and behaviors?

If you look at the public health research tracking things like unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, that research typically shows about 15 percent of guys have three or more partners in any given 12-month span. If you follow those guys over time the number of guys who have three or more partners a year for as long as three years, that drops to about 5 percent.

What these kinds of numbers suggest should be obvious to anyone who has dated: People tend to try on a number of different partners over a period of time, until they meet one who they fall for and want to stick with. Since getting all the commitment-free sex you want is clearly an option now, men could do that forever if they really wanted to. Turns out, that’s not what they do because that’s not what they want. Men and women: Not that different! Weird.