A great many people believe that evolution has shaped men to be promiscuous and that guys have a hard-wired desire to get laid. Embedded in this is the assumption that men want to be free to chase and seduce any woman—or women—they please and that they only participate in relationships in order to “get some.” Implicitly, this means that guys have little real interest in any children they sire, because the point is to have sex with lots of women, not raise lots of kids.
The full argument is that this evolutionary strategy helps men pass their genes on to the next generation. By having sex with scores or hundreds of women in a year, they are theoretically capable of producing a great many offspring, thus perpetuating their genetic line. In essence, guys screw around and spread their seed in order to increase the odds that they’ll pass their genes on to the next generation.
If there were ever a group a guys that had the potential to be Roving Inseminators, undergraduate men would seem to be the group.
When you add in the fact that a man can never be 100% sure that a child is his—it doesn’t come out of his body—this might be a good strategy. After all, he wants to invest his (limited) resources in his own child, not some other guy’s. And if he can get some other schmuck to care for his child, so much the better.
I like to call these guys Roving Inseminators. I’m told Joe Pleck, who spent 30 years studying fathers, coined the term.
As I understand the history, Roving Inseminators were part of the Sociobiological Theory of the 1980s and made the jump into mainstream culture around that time. Sociobiology was generally debunked, but this approach to male (and female) sexuality was revived by the Evolutionary Psychology movement in the 1990s. Within the EvoPsyc movement, this approach to reproduction and mating is part of “Sexual Strategies Theory” (SST) and its primary proponents are David M. Buss from the University of Texas (Austin) and David Schmitt from Bradley University.
But there are some serious holes in this theory, and the research results from some of Buss’ and Schmitt’s work doesn’t really support this image of male sexuality. For me, this explanation has always seemed much too simple for a complex social behavior like coupling that is so closely tied to childrearing. But hey, I could be wrong.
Let’s look at some of the evidence, shall we?
Most of the research is conducted with university students, in the US and elsewhere. Those surveys are anonymous—no names and no ID numbers—and they’re mostly completed by Introductory Psychology students in return for extra credit. Most academic researchers work, and therefore collect data, at either large state universities or medium to large private universities that tend to be well known.
One of the central questions SST researchers ask is “how many sexual partners would you like to have in the next 30 days?” Participants can write or type any number they like.
Saying men want more partners than women doesn’t really tell us anything about males in and of themselves; it only tells us about men using women as the reference point.
Remember, we’re talking about American undergrads taking Intro Psyc. Most of them are 18 or 19 years old, unmarried, live on campus, and have no close adult supervision. Their neighbors, next door, on the next floor, or in the next building, are unmarried 18 and 19 year old young women who also live on campus and have no real adult supervision. We all know that there are lots and lots of parties, even a “hookup culture,” and a general assumption that all young women take the Pill. If there were ever a group a guys that had the potential to be Roving Inseminators, this would seem to be the group.
In studies with American undergraduates, somewhere around 20-25% of the guys say they want two or more partners in the next 30 days. That’s not a whole lot of Roving or Inseminating. When SST researchers have asked about the next 48 hours or the next week, the percentage drops to about 5%. If evolution has shaped guys to be Roving Inseminators, why are these numbers so low? Shouldn’t we be seeing numbers above—perhaps even well above—50%?
For the record, the research consistently shows that more males than females want multiple partners, regardless of the timeframe. But saying men want more partners than women doesn’t really tell us anything about males in and of themselves; it only tells us about men using women as the reference point.
About a decade ago, Schmitt put together a truly extraordinary research project that involved over 100 academic researchers around the globe. In each of 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands, team members surveyed about 100 young men and 100 young women. All of those surveys were conducted in the local language(s); this was not an English-speakers only project. In every sense of the word, it’s a truly amazing study. (If nothing else, consider the logistics.)
Overall, they surveyed over 9,000 young men, mostly college students, and almost one-quarter of them said they wanted two or more partners in the next 30 days. In no region of the world and in no single country did more than half the men said they wanted multiple partners in the next month. Not one.
So what’s up? Why so few Roving Inseminators? Maybe the guys are lying. It’s entirely possible that young man after young man, in study after study, in the US and around the globe, is not being honest. Not only that, they’re all not being honest in the same way. That’s right. I’m suggesting guys are minimizing how much sex they want instead of exaggerating it.
The child with the best chances of surviving long enough to make you a grandparent is the one who is raised by his two biological parents.
Why would they do that? Because they—college guys—are ashamed of what they want sexually? Because they’re interpreting the question as “how many partners do you think you could really have” instead of “how many do you want,” a mistake that suggests major reading comprehension issues. Because they’re trying to look good? To researchers who want them to say they want multiple partners? On anonymous surveys. Huh?
The other possibility is that the guys are being truthful. This makes a lot of sense. SST has always relied on the fact that kids are raised by a male-female couple. A male who raises a child that is the result of his wife’s illicit affair has been cuckolded. While SST is clear that such men exist and that they are not Roving Inseminators, it has never really explained who they are.
Other branches of Evolutionary Psychology have documented that child abuse, child neglect, and infanticide are 1) uncommon and 2) more likely when we’re talking about a man and his stepchild (vs. his biological child). So even though Mr. Roving Inseminator may have more kids than average, there’s a good chance some of them will die before they pass their genes on to the next generation. From an evolutionary perspective, that’s either a very small win or a loss. Sure, Mr. Inseminator’s genes were passed on to the next generation, but they didn’t go any farther than that.
In other words, the child with the best chances of surviving long enough to make you a grandparent is the one who is raised by his two biological parents. Paging Mr. Inseminator: your child needs you to be a parent.
The reality of Darwinian theory and human evolution is that the environment is incredibly important. Darwin said that environments select genes; the genes that get passed on are the ones most likely to succeed in a given environment.
Archeology, anthropology, and history tell us that humans have pretty much always lived in groups. Call them tribes, clans, cities, or nations, our species lives in groups. Even our understanding of prehistoric and proto-humans is that they lived with other people.
The most common form of coupling in human history has been one male and one female.
Those fields also tell us that the most common form of coupling in human history has been one male and one female. Polygamy, and to a lesser extent polyandry, have often been legal, but even where they’re legal, only a minority of folks practice them. After all, you have to be very rich and powerful to house and feed that many mouths.
The implication of this is that human beings have lived in family units for thousands upon thousands of generations. That’s documented in our oldest continuous histories, from the Chinese and the Jews, both of which are approaching 6,000 years. If a generation is 20 years, that’s upwards of 30,000 generations in recorded history, and who knows how many before those recordings started?
From an evolutionary perspective, that’s plenty of time for an environment to shape our biology. In fact, not only has that environment shaped us, it’s the environment we’ve always lived in. And that environment is one ongoing spouse at a time for the vast majority of humanity. Under these environmental conditions, evolution would select for the genes that create those dyadic couples and parents who are involved in raising their children. In other words, dads who care for their children are an evolutionary norm.
One clarification here: there’s nothing that says most guys will stay monogamous for decades on end. It tells us most guys are interested in raising their kids and are not particularly interested in having multiple partners in anything that might resemble the short term.
But evolution isn’t a one trick pony. It doesn’t proceed in a straight line where one gene gets tweaked and everything else gets held constant. That’s how we do science, but it’s not how nature works. Evolution allows multiple variations and lets them all go for it. The more complex the behavior, the more genetic variation there probably is.
Dads who care for their children are an evolutionary norm.
That certainly seems to be the story on male sexuality. Most guys aren’t particularly interested in being Roving Inseminators, although a minority clearly are. It’s why only about one-quarter of college guys say that want two or more partners in the next month, and why even fewer guys actually live that out. It’s why a lot of hooking up happens with known and ongoing partners, like “friends with benefits” and “sex with an ex.” It’s why “booty call” partners persist for weeks, months, or even years instead of finding a new person every time.
And that’s the point here. I don’t really think we should kill the Roving Inseminators—or their female partners—but I do believe that we need to get beyond the notion that this stereotype describes all guys. To their credit, Buss and Schmitt’s SST allows guys to adopt different strategies–short term and long term—even if their research focuses heavily on the short term. If we really want to understand male sexuality and if we really want to do better for our children, then we need to understand that guys understand and practice sexuality in a variety of ways.
-photo by MattysFlicks/flickr