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About Philandering Phil…

Posted in Book Reviews on March 16th, 2011

Back in January, when I reviewed Sex at Dawn, one of my criticisms of the book was:

[T]heir chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with this chapter. The paperback edition of the book will include an addenda to the story, addressing reader feedback:

First, many men report that they had affairs simply because opportunities arose, while women—for whom such opportunities tend to be more plentiful—generally report a more complex confluence of motivations…

A woman in her 40s may well approach a “friends with benefits” situation completely differently than she would have two decades earlier, for reasons relating both to hormonal levels and life experience.

In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?). Men—even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men—often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless…

A similar assessment of women’s motivations and experiences of extra-marital affairs would require far more space than we have.

I think this is fair. Men are more straightforward about their reasons for having affairs than women. I’m interested to know what further research would say about this topic. When a tempting situation arises, do men stray more easily? Or is it just that men have a set of criteria that are met more frequently?

3 Responses to “About Philandering Phil…”

  1. Mrnaglfar Says:

    There’s plenty out there on different mating strategies, but if you want good information, Sex at Dawn is not the place to be looking. It gets so much wrong so badly I’d actually call it one of – if not the – worst book on the subject I’ve read. I’d urge you to not use it as a good-to reference for anything; I’d suggest using The Evolution of Desire, The Myth of Monogamy, and The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality (though that one is a bit more advanced)

    That said, women cheat on their partners for a number of reasons, though this is more a question of why some women opt for more short-term mating styles versus long-term ones. It could allow access to resources provided by a man; it could help cement friendships for the purposes of defense; it could allow a woman to have an offspring by a male of higher genetic quality (while a highly attractive man might not be willing to enter into a relationship with many women, he’s more likely to be willing to engage in sexual intercourse. Alternatively, a woman can have her offspring by one male – generally of higher quality – and have those offspring raised by her committed partner).

    As for men and women reporting affairs, consider two studies: First consider the classic Clark and Hatfield study, where a male or female confederate approaches a member of the opposite sex on campus, asking them whether they’d (a) go on a date with the confederate, (b) go back to the confederate’s house, or (c) have sex with the confederate. While both sexes were about as likely to agree to a date, when it came to having sex every single woman refused the offer (often indignantly), whereas the majority of the men (about 75%, if memory serves) agreed to sex (the ones who didn’t were often apologetic about saying no).

    The reason for this is ultimately that the cost/benefit ratio of sex throughout human history has been different for men and women. A man’s investment can end the moment he ejaculates; a woman’s investment – if she becomes pregnant – lasts a minimum of about nine months (barring miscarriage or premature birth), followed by about 2 years of breast feeding, which often causes a woman to cease ovulating. A “bad” mating choice by a man costs him almost nothing (if he’s single), whereas a “bad” mating choice by a female can cost her about 3 years of her reproductive life and a ton of calories.

    The second study to consider (which I initially found in one of Dan Ariely’s books, I believe) deals with the fact that men and women tend to report having different numbers of sexual partners of the opposite sex, which is statistically impossible. In this experiment, men and women were divided into three groups: (1) asking by an experimenter about how many sexual partners they’ve had in their life, (2) anonymously filled out a survey about how many partners they had, and (3) were hooked up to a fake lie-detector and asked about how many partners they had. For men, those reports remained relatively constant; for women, those reports steadily increased from group 1 to 3.

    While self-reports may be useful, they can’t always be taken at face value, which really complicates matters.

  2. MissCherryPi Says:

    Have you seen the recent study from the University of Michigan by Terri Conley? I read summary here. It seems that women perceive more of a risk of intimate partner violence and are less likely to think that they would enjoy the encounter when compared to the way men would when approaching a one night stand.

  3. Mrnaglfar Says:

    And, for once the science reporting wasn’t awful, and the paper really did conclude what the press report says it does: that most of the gender difference in women’s and men’s propensity to agree to a broad-daylight, out-of-nowhere proposition for casual sex is driven by women’s perception that their risks are higher, and their likely enjoyment is lower from the proposer.

    I see another articles confusing proximate and ultimate explanations for behavior, then claiming the proximate explanation is the correct one. That’s a fairly common, and immensely frustrating, mistake people make; proximate and ultimate explanations are both required and complimentary, rather than competing explanations.

    And I just saw the words “pleasure theory”, so allow me to counter with a link of my own (here’s Robert Kurzban, on that same study):

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