The Earthling

Mandy and Billy

During last week’s Temptation Island finale, when Kaya, upon being reunited with Valerie, professed his undying love, and a grateful Valerie dissolved in his arms, many Americans were no doubt deeply moved. Certainly I felt a little weepy. After all, that very morning I had posted a piece on Slate asserting that Kaya had come to the island ready to dump Valerie. In fact, the very premise of my column was that this show attracts couples that are on shaky ground to begin with. Now all the couples not only had  survived intact, but, as if to mock me, were turning into veritable cuddle bunnies.   

In retrospect, part of my problem was that I had been duped by the show’s manipulative editing, which exaggerated island strains on the relationships in order to create a surprise ending. Another part of my problem was that I had written a stupid column. All told, I’m so bitter about the experience that I hesitate to write more about this wretched show, which promised us illicit sex and wrenching estrangement and gave us sunset smooching and tender reunions. (What is this—Fox or the Disney Channel?) But last week I promised to analyze the strange relationship of Billy and Mandy, and to do otherwise would violate my sacred bond with Slate readers, a bond that I will not let Temptation Island tear asunder.

Billy and Mandy are the sex-reversed couple. She plays the field—getting at least superficially physical with a series of tempters—while Billy is more monogamous, dating the same temptress day after day and anguishing over the lust she incites, fearful of betraying his cherished Mandy. Well, I asked last week, doesn’t this violate core doctrines of evolutionary psychology? 

And there’s more. Billy seems somehow attracted by Mandy’s randiness, as if promiscuity—or at least the ever-present threat of it—made the heart grow fonder. According to various evolutionary psychologists, extreme promiscuity in a woman makes her a less appealing love object in the eyes of men. What gives?

First of all, we have to distinguish between evolutionary psychology and caricatures of it.

Myth No. 1: Female promiscuity violates core doctrines of evolutionary psychology. If you want evidence that female promiscuity has long been a feature of our species, just take a gander at male testicles. In comparing primate species, zoologists have found that the more promiscuous the females, the weightier the male testes—the more sperm males must muster in their bid to beat any recently deposited rival sperm to the egg.  And where do human testes’ weights (corrected for body size) fall on this spectrum? While we don’t rank up there with chimpanzees, whose females are virtual sex machines, we rank above the fairly monogamous gibbons, and for that matter above the polygamous gorillas, whose females live in such well-guarded harems that extramarital copulation is rare.

Now, it is true that women are in some ways more discerning in their promiscuity than men. They are less reliably aroused by the mere sight of flesh. They are more  likely to pair lust with affection—both in the sense of feeling affection and in the sense of wanting to see signs of affection in the man before giving him their lust. Even Mandy was smitten, not just aroused, by the guys she frolicked with. Johnny, whose nipple she licked, was “so deep.” And before letting John (not to be confused with Johnny) do whatever he did the night of their dream date, she extracted signs of commitment, demanding assurance that there was no woman he’d rather lie in a hammock with than her.

Myth No. 2: Evolutionary psychology holds that female promiscuity is a turnoff for men. True, consistent promiscuity may turn off feelings of love. After all, during evolution, men who spent precious time and energy helping to rear the children of highly promiscuous mates wouldn’t have gotten many genes into the next generation. But a mate’s recent sexual infidelity may actually be a sexual turn-on for men. In Darwinian terms, after all, the more likely a woman is to have had recent sex, the more sense it makes to get your own sperm in there to fight the enemy! Researchers have found that men generate more sperm when their mates are out of their sight than during a comparable period of abstinence in the presence of their mates.

In this light, Billy’s bond to Mandy may be more sexual than romantic. Or, at least, interlaced with his affection may be addiction to a sheerly sexual thrill that is heightened by her wanderlust. Of course, you might still expect the affection to wane if Mandy started consummating lots of her flirtations. But, going into the show, she didn’t seem to have done that; drunkenly necking with a former boyfriend at a party was apparently the biggest offense Billy was aware of.

Not that evolutionary psychology would rise or fall on the question of whether one man stayed in love with a truly promiscuous woman. I repeat last week’s disclaimer: Like all psychologists, evolutionary psychologists aspire to predict behavior, at best, in an aggregate, statistical sense (and they find doing even that tricky in a modern social environment, so different from the context of our evolution). Individual people are very complicated and very different from one another. Billy, for example, had a strange boyhood habit: When riding in a car, he would stick some valuable object out the window and see how loosely he could hold it without losing it. On television, he remarked that this was a good metaphor for bringing Mandy to Temptation Island. Actually, I think it’s a good metaphor for his entire attraction to Mandy. 

Myth No. 3:Evolutionary psychology holds that men don’t fall deeply in love. Actually evolutionary psychology emphasizes that our species—unlike, say, chimpanzees—features ” high male parental investment,” which tends to involve falling in love not just with offspring, but, earlier, with their mother. There’s nothing unusual about Billy pining for Mandy. By the same token, there’s nothing strange about Billy sticking with one temptress on Temptation Island rather than playing the field. If we take him at his word that he had a strong personal, not just sexual, attraction to her, then it’s natural that he enter courtship mode. (For that matter, if he just wants—consciously or unconsciously—to con her into having sex, it’s still natural to enter courtship mode.)

And is there anything odd about Billy simultaneously courting Vanessa and pining for Mandy? Less so than there would be for a woman, since men are by nature more polygamous.

In sum, Mandy and Billy are operating within the normal parameters of human behavior, even if they’re out toward the margins of the bell curve. If I had to do some armchair theorizing about why they’re on the margins—notwithstanding the fact that last week’s armchair theorizing was refuted within hours of its debut, thus becoming a source of shame and humiliation that will stay with me for the rest of my life—it would be something like the following:

Mandy, for starters, is behaviorally at the guyish end of the spectrum of female variation. (Would somebody check her testosterone level?) In addition, she is by my reading insecure, using flirtation to elicit signs of Billy’s affection. So far she’s done a good job of treading the fine line of strategic flirting: between making your man feel insecure about you (and thus not take you for granted) and making him gravely doubt your fidelity (and thus dump you). 

Still, it’s a dicey game, and a poignant one. What she wants is affection, but the possessiveness she incites in Billy may be more sexual than romantic. And it may wind up sabotaging Billy’s romantic feelings, precisely because of the tendency of men to see highly promiscuous women as enticing sex objects but not, ultimately, as love objects. In some couples this becomes a vicious circle: The woman’s insecurity leads to tactical flirting, which leads to short-term male sexual possessiveness but long-term male romantic alienation; and both the short-term and long-term effects bring more flirting—the former by rewarding it and the latter by deepening the woman’s insecurity.

On the other hand, sometimes a little flirting can be a real relationship booster. Andy, I suspect, entered the Temptation Island situation taking Shannon for granted. Then came her cozy date with dreamy tempter Tom, paired with Andy’s serotonin-lowering experience with temptress Megan (who had fallen for pumped-up male model Kaya). Andy, chastened, asked Shannon to marry him 10 minutes after the cameras stopped rolling.

But enough about Andy. What about randy Mandy? Is she starting to push things too far, moving from flirtation to consummation? In the final episode she (somewhat ambiguously) confessed to having had “an intimate moment” with someone. So, why was Billy still standing by her side? Maybe because men often forgive isolated incidents of infidelity. Or maybe because the cameras were still on. In any event, Billy has since moved to Los Angeles (to pursue a career in entertainment), while Mandy is still in Atlanta. They say they’re maintaining a “passionate” long-distance relationship. I suspect they’ll both be better off if it fails.