Saturday, November 29, 2008

A woman gets pregnant, so she needs a man? Maybe not.

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

We’ve all heard the arguments for and against biological determinism, or the scientifically dubious notion that women don’t want to sleep around because they need a man to take care of them. Is promiscuity really that unusual, or unnatural, in women? An article by Mairi Macleod in the New Scientist shows some much-needed efforts to tease out the actual biological basis for promiscuity in both men and women, while taking into account the social factors – little things like trust, which may not be written into our DNA.

The article opens with an interesting assertion: although you may not like to advertise your willingness for a hook-up or a one night stand, it may be written on your face. Earlier this year, a study conducted by researchers the University of Durham revealed that the majority of test subjects were able to accurately judge whether a person was looking for a committed relationship or a fling – just by looking at their photograph. The plot thickens: men who are more inclined toward casual sex are more likely to be described as “masculine”, while women, similarly defined, are “attractive”.

Surely these judgments are more than biological. We need to question why people have such a widely varying approach to sex, one which actually fluctuates more within the sexes than between them.

Possible factors: men who are more likely to have affairs are also more likely to score in extroversion tests, indicating that they’re more open to new experiences. And apparently Freud comes into it as well: women who grew up in stressful conditions, especially with an absent, unfaithful or abusive father, are more likely to have sex earlier and more often, because there seems to be no incentive to wait for a stable, nurturing relationship. Men seemed to have similar tendencies. Although across the board they seemed more likely to more capable of dismissing attachment, this was more related to social factors. Men who grew up with stable, nurturing parents – and are thus described as “secure” – were more likely to be monogamous. So the issue, once again, is trust.

The article did acknowledge some biological issues. But they showed, once again, more variance within genders than between them. And although willingness to engage in casual sex does seem in some way to be tied to testosterone levels, we need to remember that this is a hormone which is present in both men and women. The problem of what makes people promiscuous is far more complex than the traditional biological determinist argument would have us believe. Some women, yes, are looking for committed relationships – but so are some men. And although the fact that women, and not men, get pregnant will always throw a wrench into the equation, there are significant reasons to believe that women are as sexually unrestrained as men, and that their behavior in the past has not been regulated by biology, but by cultural strictures. For example, in Scandinavia, where women are given access to daycare, maternity leave, and other resources which relieve social stress surrounding sex and childbearing, women are also considerably more sexually liberated.

Food for thought? I think so. And this Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for articles like this, which show up the ridiculousness of biological determinism.


At November 29, 2008 at 5:16 PM , Anonymous CristinaL said...

Scandinavian women may not be as sexually liberated today as you suppose:

But also, I was with your argument until you dismissed "the ridiculousness of biological determinism" Surely, one must be cautious in judging men and women as wholly or mostly divided by biological differences, but that doesn't mean that those differences aren't also sometimes valid and that they shouldn't be considered in a larger context. To dismiss these differences as "ridiculous" not only alienates certain readers, it ignores certain facts in favor of others. I think the general point of your post was to consider multiple perspectives, but your last line seemed to undermine that.


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