Thursday, July 25, 2024

Zero-Sum Sex

We mentioned David Buss in our discussion of mixed mating strategies earlier, but most of his work concerns the study of jealousy. Buss doesn’t buy the notion of sharing food or mates, conceptualizing both in terms of scarcity: “If there is not enough food to feed all members of a group,” he writes, “then some survive while others perish.” Similarly, “If two women desire the same man... one woman’s success in attracting him is the other woman’s loss.” Buss has little doubt that evolution is “a zero-sum game, with the victors winning at the expense of the losers.”7

Far too often, the debate over the nature of human sexuality seems like a proxy war between antagonistic politico-economic philosophies. Defenders of the standard narrative see Cain’s gain as Abel’s loss, period. “That’s just how life is, kid,” they’ll tell you. “It’s human nature. Self-interest makes the world go round, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and always has been.”

This free-market vision of human mating hinges on the assumption that sexual monogamy is intrinsic to human nature. Absent monogamy (individual male “ownership” of female reproductive capacity), the I-win-you-lose dynamic collapses. As we outlined above, Buss and his colleagues get around the many glaring flaws in the theory (our extravagant sexual capacity, ubiquitous adultery in all cultures, rampant promiscuity in both our closest primate relatives, the absence of any monogamous primate living in large social groups) with pretzel logic and special pleading about Homo sapiens’ internally conflicted, self-defeating “mixed mating strategies.” Twist and stretch.

Buss and his colleagues have conducted scores of cross-cultural studies designed to confirm that men and women experience jealousy differently from each other, in consistent gender-specific ways. These researchers claim to have confirmed two important assumptions underlying the standard narrative: that men are universally worried about paternity certainty (hence, his mate’s sexual fidelity is his main concern), while women are universally concerned with access to men’s resources (so a woman will feel more threatened by any emotional intimacy that might inspire him to leave her for another woman). These gender-specific manifestations of sexual jealousy would appear to strongly support the standard narrative.

In a study typical of this research, Buss and his colleagues asked 1,122 people to imagine their partner becoming interested in someone else. They asked, “What would upset or distress you more: (a) imagining your partner forming a deep emotional (but not sexual) relationship with that person, or (b) imagining your partner enjoying a sexual (but not emotional) relationship with that person?” In studies like this conducted on college campuses around the United States and Europe, Buss and his colleagues consistently got more-or-less the same results. They found that men and women differed by roughly 35 percent in their responses, seeming to confirm their hypothesis. “Women continued to express greater upset about a partner’s emotional infidelity,” Buss writes, “even if it did not involve sex. Men continued to show more upset than women about a partner’s sexual infidelity, even if it did not involve emotional involvement.”8

But despite the apparent cross-cultural breadth of this research, it lacks methodological depth. Buss and his colleagues succumb to the same temptation that weakens so much sexuality research: reliance on a subject population more convenient than representative. Almost all the participants in these studies were university students. We understand that undergraduate students are low-hanging research fruit — easy for graduate students to locate and motivate (by offering partial course-credit for filling out a questionnaire, for example), but this does not make them valid representatives of human sexuality. Far from it. Even in supposedly liberal Western cultures, college-age people are in the early stages of their socio-sexual development with little, if any, experience to draw on when considering questions about one-night stands, long-term mate preferences, or their ideal number of lifetime sexual partners — all questions explored in Buss’s research.

But Buss is not alone in this distorting focus on undergrads. The majority of research on sexuality is based upon the responses of eighteen-to twenty-two-year-old American university students. While one could make a case that a twenty-year-old guy is more or less like a turbocharged fifty-year-old, few would argue that a twenty-year-old woman has much in common with a woman three decades older in terms of her sexuality. Most would agree that a woman’s sexuality changes considerably throughout adulthood — for the better, if conditions allow.

Another problem with using college students in the sort of multicultural study Buss conducts concerns class distinctions. In underdeveloped countries, university students are likely to be from the upper classes. A wealthy Angolan student may have a lot more in common with a Portuguese undergrad than with someone his or her own age living in the slums of Luanda. Our own field research in Africa suggests that sexual beliefs and behavior differ greatly among social classes and subcultures there — as they do in other parts of the world.9