Horny men, desperate women, and hookup culture: How evolutionary psychology and Margaret Wente get most things wrong

Margaret Wente is doing her part to contribute to the desperately needed cannon of writing that encourages women to live in fear of growing old, man-free. These kinds of pieces have been coming out on a regular basis for some time now. Notably, Susan Faludi addressed ye old ‘man shortage’ scare in her 1991 book, Backlash. Let’s keep that ball rolling, though, eh?

“The men are disappearing! Find one! FIND ONNNNE!” is a patriarchal favorite because it ensures women remain insecure and in competition with one another and allows men to grow old minus the sad, lonely, spinster trope attached to their bachelorhood.

In her recent piece at The Globe and Mail, ‘Why won’t guys grow up? Sexual economics“, Wente laments the apparently disappeared and “old-fashioned custom known as dating”, now replaced with ‘hookup culture’.

Hookup culture became part of popular lexicon recently due, in part, to Hanna Rosin’s discussion of the phenomenon in her book, The End of Men. While Rosin argues that hookup culture empowers women, comparing it to a new sexual liberation wherein young, Western, middle class, heterosexual college girls can now LIKE MAGIC have promiscuous sex without shame, Wente sees something else. That is, a “scarcity of men.” EEK.

Wente sees a dangerous, dangerous world wherein men don’t need to ‘buy the cow because they can get the milk for free’ (apologies and double-yucks for that phrase) and, instead, are free to have tons of uncommitted sex — which is bad for women because then there is no incentive for these young men to marry them (because of the whole free milk thing, remember?)…

Wente argues that this happens, in part, because men like sex more than women do. She says everyone knows but ignores this universal truth and then cites a “famous psychology experiment in which female research assistants were sent out across campus to approach attractive males and ask if they wanted to have sex that night.” Unsurprisingly, most (75%) of the males asked said ‘yes’ to the sex, whereas when the experiment was reversed, and women were asked, they all said ‘no’.

So there are a couple of things missing from this conversation. Namely, there is no universal anything. Not all men desire sex more than all women. Secondly, it is far, FAR, safer for a man to go home with a strange woman he meets at the bar than it is for a woman to. Being in a position of power is likely to increase one’s ability (and the ability of one’s genitals) to roam freely throughout this world. A man simply doesn’t face the same repercussions a woman might  were she to take a strange man home from the bar, both in terms of physical safety as well as social repercussions (feeling ashamed, being labelled a slut, etc.).

In fact, many studies that set about to prove that men are ‘naturally’ more into sex than women or aren’t biologically wired for monogamy are often, like the one mentioned above, based on shoddy research. Several of these stereotypes, popular with evolutionary psychology types, were debunked last year in a paper by Terri Conley, called Women, Men and the Bedroom.

When she looked into the commonly accepted idea that men want to have sex with as many women as possible, whereas women naturally want less, what she found was unreliable data due to researchers ignoring social factors.

Because men are socialized to believe they are sex-crazed (so that would be — all together now! — a SOCIAL, rather than biological factor), when questioned by researchers, men will often lie about their ‘number’. Ergo, one study, done in 2003 found “… that if you trick research participants into believing that they are hooked up to a lie-detector test, men report the same number of sexual partners as women.

Whoops!

In the end, the majority of men (and women) said they wanted only one sexual partner at any given time. Not a harem. One.

Conley also looked into the 1989 study referenced by Wente and found that it’s more likely that the women who were being propositioned by random men, rather than simply not being into sex, assumed that the sex being offered wasn’t going to be any good. She writes: “Women accepted fewer casual-sex offers from men than vice versa because male proposers were perceived to have relatively poorer sexual capabilities.”

From personal experience I can tell you that the vast majority of one-night stands are boringsville when compared with sexual encounters with someone you feel comfortable with, trust, and who is familiar with best practices re: getting you off. I’m not saying one-night stands are necessarily ‘bad’, but orgasm-wise, they seem to be less promising than long-term relationships.

Conley actually found research to back this up via a study done in 2009 which showed that “women reached orgasm only about a third as much as men during first-time hookups… But in committed relationships, women has orgasms 79 percent as often as men.”

The thing about women and orgasms, it would seem, is that when we are with partners who actually care about our sexual pleasure, we have many, many more orgasms than we might have with some douche we take home from the bar. Based on my own scientific research, having taken home several to many douches from bars as well as having spent several to many years in long-term relationships, I can vouch for this NOW SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN FACT.

So even if it were true that men want sex more than women do because of their man-wiring, studies like the one cited by Wente fail to prove that.

Wente is right that, in the past, women had to withhold sex in order to gain a certain kind of power (that wasn’t really power at all,  it was just the only way a woman could function in society), gained by marrying. Because women weren’t allowed to have things like jobs and bank accounts and property, their only option, in the past, was to marry a man. And yes, for the most part, it was expected that women wait until after the ceremony to ‘reward’ men with sex.

Aside from the fact that it’s probably a good thing for female sexuality not to be treated as some kind of prize or as a thing men are meant to try to ‘get’ from women and that I doubt that all this waiting till after the wedding day to have sex is the best way for women to have pleasurable sexual experiences, by assuming heterosexual marriage is an innately ‘good’ thing that everyone wants, Wente places undeserved value on women’s withholding of sex:

In my parents’ generation, the only way for a 22-year-old guy to have a lot of sex was to get married. Today, plenty of 22-year-olds can get all the sex they want for the cost of a pack of condoms.

Now *gasp* men have no incentive to marry. Second wave feminism and the sexual revolution, according to Wente, gave women “something they really wanted (access to careers and money)” and gave men “something they really wanted (more sex).”

Not only have women been tricked into thinking that it’s ok to ‘give the milk away for free’ (I’m sorry, I really promise to never use that phrase again after this post) BUT we also, stupidly, think it’s ok to wait to marry! Sorry oldies! Bad news. Wente points out that we’re all delusional and won’t have the same choices, man-wise, at 35 or 40 that we had at 25.

So. Here are some stupid things:

1) Why are we assuming all women want to marry?

2) The only reason it might matter if we wait until 35 or 40 to settle down with a man (if we are so inclined to settle down with a man) is that it might be slightly more difficult to get pregnant and (you may want to sit down for this one) pregnancy isn’t the end all be all for all women.

Generalizations about what all women should or do want aside, here’s the thing about marriage: it guarantees you nothing. It doesn’t guarantee security, happiness, or someone to wipe your ass when you’re old. Also, FACT: about half of marriages end in divorce and those who marry young are more likely to divorce than those who marry later in life.

The fact that the younger folks marry the more likely they are to divorce makes a lot of sense even if there weren’t research behind those stats. If I married my first love, who I met when I was 21, I would either have been divorced oh, about five or ten years ago, or I would be married to someone who I had absolutely nothing in common with aside from both being really big fans of 2001 hip hop hits such as Area Codes and Izzo, which are both really good songs, but alas, not enough to sustain a life-long commitment.

So all this fear mongering around the idea that if we let men have too much sex they won’t marry us sad-sack ladies strikes me as a huge, misguided, waste of time.

Hookup culture isn’t necessarily ‘good’ for women, as JA Martino discussed in a post back in September, but neither is marriage necessarily ‘good’ for women. Marriage happens to be a place where women end up doing all sorts of free labour in the home, raising babies and doing an unequal amount of housework, and is also a place where domestic abuse happens. If women are marrying later in life (or not marrying at all), maybe that’s actually a good thing.

If we put aside the assumption that marriage is either a ‘good’ thing or something we necessarily want in life (which we most certainly should do), then what is the big fear? That women will end up alone? Which happens anyway? When half of us get divorced in our 40s?

Meh. Find something else to worry about, Wente. The less women are inclined to build their lives around finding a man to marry them, the better. The less women feel they have to depend on a man for their happiness, the less likely we are to end up trapped in unequal or abusive relationships. The less pressure women feel to find a man to marry them before it’s ‘too late’, the less likely they are to settle for someone who may well be a douchebag. And the longer we wait to settle down into monogamy for the long-haul (if we indeed choose to), the more likely it is that we will choose someone we are actually compatible with.

 

 

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current, is a freelance writer and journalist. She completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog. Follow her @meghanemurphy

  • http://whataradicalnotion.blogspot.com j.a. martino

    Ha, also, men are happier in marriage than single men and married women. Surprise! Marriage benefits men! So no more talk of men needing the enticement of sex to get married.

    Because I spent about four seconds looking, I haven’t managed to find the article I read that covers this phenomenon pretty in depth (might be a Barbara Ehrenreich book, now that I think about it), but I’ll get back to you. Here’s a start though: http://healthland.time.com/2010/11/19/who-needs-marriage-men-apparently/

    • Meghan Murphy

      I have read things that say this also, J.A.! Marriage has long been more beneficial for men than it is for women, so WHY on earth should women fear not marrying? Stupid culture.

      • Grackle

        And yet we continue to have the ooold trope of the sneaky, scheming woman who tricks some poor fella into marrying her, as if men are so charmingly stupid and browbeaten that they can’t help but avoid a lifelong commitment to women they don’t even like.

    • Andrew Pari

      This is one of those ideas that is true in research, but not well known/accepted in society at large. Many men (and women) still hold the stereotype of holding off marriage as long as they can, unless they were raised with some fundamentalist beliefs about it.

      There is a HUGE gap between what we know is true from observation and research and what is often believed. Which is, I suppose, Meghan’s point.

      • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

        Some of us don’t want marriage, period. “Holding off” is very prejudicial language.

        • Andrew Pari

          Oh, I agree! That’s why I threw in that it’s a stereotype. Maybe I should have put it in quotes as you did.

    • Lafaye

      Reading research about who is happiest re: marriage status, and finding out that married men are the happiest and married women are less happy than single women, it makes it less surprising that women are the ones groomed into it so heavily from a young age. We need to be rescued by princes, we daydream of our “big day” for years, we play games as schoolgirls about which boy we might marry, etc. But it’s the men who in actual fact are the ones rescued by a woman upon marriage. So it’s also kind of a huge reversal at the same time.

      The saddest part is that it’s so hard to break the constant bombardment from our culture towards women of “Pair up!! You need a man!! You’ll be a reviled spinster if you wait too long!!” etc. etc. I have way too many girlfriends who can’t get out of that “race” to get a man before they’re “too old.” They’re depressed over it. When some of them do land in a relationship, they’re miserable still because the guy treats them like garbage (I wonder sometimes if men can detect a woman’s desperation, and know he can get away with a lot because the woman will hang on to him regardless, lest she be SINGLE!!!!1!!11! again).

      • Meghan Murphy

        Oh gosh, I know what you mean. It feels like most women I know are feeling that pressure big time if they haven’t gotten married already. So stressful! While, on one hand, I do feel that pressure too sometimes (i.e. I’m getting too old to date or something silly like that), I also feel relieved to not have that extra burden of wanting to get married and reproduce – it strikes me as extremely stressful, never mind a great way to put tons of pressure on your relationship like, this HAS to be the one/this HAS to work, otherwise it’s ‘too late’.

  • Andrew Pari

    I rarely resort to the now cliched “This!,” but THIS!

    And well done, too.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Andrew!

  • Chris

    First, don’t like the assumption that people like Wente make that women over 40 are somehow less desirable as partners than men over 40. Why take that for granted? Obviously any such attitudes, even when they do exist, are socially constructed, not biological.

    Any even if all the men just looking for young “free milk” are not interested in older women, that just means the older heterosexual women are free from having to deal with these sods (expanding, not restricting their options), and the older lesbian women need waste less time explaining why their advances can only be fruitless.

  • Missfit

    I always thought since I was a kid (since I saw my mother and my aunts cleaning, shopping, doing laundry and cooking for their husband, while working outside the home as well) that men got a better deal out of marriage than women. And I did not even know about ‘sexual economics’ then!

    I wonder: how come women ‘won’t have the same choices, man-wise, at 35 or 40 that we had at 25’? Wouldn’t women in their 30s generally date the men who happen to be in their 30s like them? Is the men to women ratio suddenly falls down once women reach their 30s? Something does not add up here… Or is it because men in their 30s and 40s would be too busy having uncommitted sex with a disproportionately large amount of available 20 something women wanting to ‘hook up’ with them? Riiiiight….

    Because no man wants to develop an emotional/spiritual/intellectual/loving relationship with a significant other, have children and be committed to their family. All they want is sex and this is the only reason they would marry.

    And why would women marry again??? To be with someone who has a fake interest in her person just so he can expect sex? To have children? Well, marriage is not necessary fot that and it surely is not worth it.

  • Uggggh Marriage

    I’m 25, married at 21, to a man I met when I was 15. We pretty much have nothing in common, never developed a solid friendship or foundation, and now have a mortgage and an 18-month-old to think about.

    Don’t get married, girls. Become feminists early, know yourself, have sex, don’t live in fear, and and and and and and and…

    :::sigh:::

    • nikki

      I like that – “become feminists early”. In my experience, being married at 28, I am grateful that I became a feminist first. I guess I was always a feminist, but to really actively think about female equality and what it means to me, really helped define what I needed in a potential ‘suitor’. His studying gender theory was so sexy.

  • Lucy

    So this is the other extreme end of the spectrum I guess.
    I think i understand where this article is coming from, especially the part where marriage is not a permanent solution to happiness but on the other hand, some people just want to wait, marriage or not. Some aren’t interested in flings and some rather want (some need) to form a deep relationship before they have sex. Waiting is not for everyone and they shouldn’t have too. If this isn’t what the article is arguing about, I apologize for my misunderstanding in advance. I’m probably jaded from keeping seeing the whole “you aren’t liberated until you participate in hook up culture” from self proclaimed sex-positives around the Internet.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hi Lucy,
      I definitely would never argue for compulsory sexuality or that hookup culture is ‘good’ for women. If women want to ‘wait’ or if they don’t want to have sex with men (or with anyone) at all, I’m in full support. I don’t advocate for flings (although I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are universally ‘bad’) and while I happen to have had a number of one night stands in my life, I don’t think that is the best route towards empowerment or pleasure. I completely agree with your criticisms around the ‘lots of sex with men will liberate you’ thing that seems so popular these days. ‘Sex-positive’ feminism is b.s..

      • Lucy

        Thanks for the reply and clearing things up.
        Best of luck.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Sorry if that was unclear in the post.

      • Cheryl A

        “Sex positive” feminism is BS. I have been a feminist since 1966 and MS. magazine, so I have seen the gamut.

        I think not only is “sex positive” feminism BS, but after living through the most liberal supposedly generation ever for women’s choices, harumph I’d say that even Penis in Vagina as the definition nf “sex” has to be on the table.

        Penis in Vagina sex is where women get all the risks – disease (HIV on rise in women now,especially latina and black), pregnancy (which can kill) with resultant potential risks of either childbirth or abortion, and what I experienced is that my oxytocin the bonding hormone released in coitus, does NOT release anymore after a few sex bonded relationships that burst.

        I believe women should been sex educated that Penis in Vagina is a highly risky and unnecessary act. Lots of more ways for female pleasure! I’d counsel girls to not expose themselves to the patriarchal Penis in Vagina requirement currently enforced on about 100% of females.

        Sex positive? If feminists were truly in power the males would stick it in a lot less – it exposes females to all kinds of health risks.

        With overpopulation we need way less Penis in Vagina sex – it’s at the root of all the environmental degradation of overpopulation. Just cast that seed on the ground, dudes.

        • Lela

          Glad you brought this up Cheryl! “Sex positive” culture (a.k.a. pornstitution marketing machine) is indeed profoundly negative toward women’s sexuality and women’s health, favouring the male perspective and experience and attempting to tailor women’s sexuality to fit. Some of us are fortunate enough to see through this eventually, after enough cognitive dissonance and often, unfortunately, trauma. We can look at “sex positive” culture as a function of consumerism under patriarchy; appealing to the male consumer is the goal.

  • Graham Blake

    The premise of Wente’s article is completely undercut by its content. It is also completely insane. The premise effectively boils down to this: “Women are cows, and must aspire to selling themselves for the highest market value possible.” She goes on to argue that the value of cows is depreciated in the college sexual marketplace, because women now outnumber men in that market. She then goes on to argue that it would also be a mistake to wait until later in life to sell, because “men’s choices will get better with age (especially if they’re successful), but theirs will get worse.” Assuming we are talking about the same group of women, i.e. the women who are better educated than their male peers, they will in fact be in a superior economic position (all other things being equal), sexually and otherwise. There may in fact be no need to sell the cow at all. Educated women who enjoy opportunities of economic equality would not need to.

    Now we can probably agree that women do not yet fully enjoy opportunities of economic equality. That’s exactly the point, and precisely the social problem that needs attention. If that problem is adequately addressed, the depreciation of a woman’s value as a cow becomes irrelevant. That can only be a good thing.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Ha. Exactly. It’s like she wants us to move backwards. If we were equal in society why would we need to worry so much about whether or not a man would be willing to marry us? The fact that we DO need to worry about it (or are convinced that we should worry about it) merely signifies the fact that we are not, yet, living in an equitable society.

  • oin

    I know this is just a minor detail, but it actually makes me feel a lot better about some of the things I have gone through in my life to hear you write so causally– but also with a tone of, perhaps, regret but NOT shame– that, yes, you have slept with douches and had one night stands and, yes, you have been in long term relationships.
    It just makes me feel like, hey, I’m not such a lost cause / idiot bumbling about the world making stupid mistakes that no one else would make.
    So thank you for that.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Well I’m sure there have been times in my life when I felt shame, but hey, we do what we do. I’m still making mistakes now, I can’t hate myself for that. I can only try not to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I feel like part of being in my twenties was sleeping around with douchebags. And that’s fine. It happens. But now that I know it’s not worth it, I don’t really do that so much anymore. Ah, life. So many lessons to learn : )

  • marv

    What a super intelligent blog, Meghan. That affirmation applies to everyone’s comments as well. I might dumb it down with mine.

    Marriage fundamentalists have a religious zeal in agonizing about those who will be “left behind” by the rapture of the saved. They reduce feelings of deep anxiety over “missing the boat” to psychological explanations while overlooking the political ones.

    A related problem with the marriage myth is that a highly profitable and dubious industry (alongside of wedding businesses) has arisen around it promoting therapy and counselling to heal troubled relationships. Treatments aim to overcome communication deficits and behaviour dysfunctions including women’s disinterest in or disdain for sex. Both spouses are urged to admit to being blind, insensitive and judgemental about each other’s needs and to transcend sexual inhibitions. The husband must be more nurturing and emotionally vulnerable. The wife should not only submit to her husband’s advances but take more initiative in engaging in PIV sex even if she feels utter revulsion towards it. Add a dash of porn or BDSM and presto, the original flame will be rekindled. Acting (with prompts and props) cures mental illness, I presume, in this scenerio.

    Because this approach avoids systemic causation (patriarchy), it couldn’t possibly diagnose the institution of marriage accurately. Gender inequality and the disparity of elevating sexual over nonsexual relationships are the predicaments, not maladaptive communication skills. We owe Freud, among others, a debt of scorn for inventing this “dangerous method” of psychotherapy which analyzes sexual/social relations outside of their political context. See cherryblossomlife’s post for a much deeper exploration of psychiatry and women: http://radicalhub.com/2012/09/26/the-case-for-the-sanity-of-women/#more-8445

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh definitely! The idea that sex fixes relationships or that a lack of sex signifies a failed or unhealthy relationship is rampant. So incredible stupid. Whenever there have been ‘sex issues’ in my relationships they’ve ALWAYS been due to a lack of care, respect, abuse, trust etc, nevermind porn use on the parts of my partner. I mean, somehow I’m supposed to just keep having sex with someone who isn’t caring or respectful because that will repair a relationship? Fuck that. There are also myriad of other reasons why PIV might not be happening in a relationship and it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something ‘wrong’ with the relationship.

  • DanaGG

    I began my research on the effects of the internet and society on the development of women’s identities after watching Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary called Sexy Baby. This documentary really opened up a debate between me and my three female friends about how the media affects the way we interact with others. I really love this article because it really extracts all the different issues both men and women face in a modern society. I also like that it goes beyond stereotypes like men are naturally sexually excited and women are more sexually contained. I also love that this “lack of men” is mentioned. I will be re-posting this!