Are Women Naturally Monogamous?

Gaugin--300x184[1]Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, was skeptical of evolutionary psychology, which sees women as monogamous and men as polygamous, due to genetics. Let’s take a closer look.

Children have the best shot at surviving if their mothers mate with only one man, who sticks around to provide support and resources. Thus, women prefer men who are older and richer. Moms put a lot into their kids because they have a small number of eggs compared with the millions of sperm that men produce. And all this is genetic, so says evolutionary psychology.

On the other hand, men will have more children (and reproduce their genes) if they are promiscuous because of their large sperm count. Again, the behavior is in the genes.

This premise seems to contradict the prior point that children are more likely to survive if their fathers are around to support them. Maybe more survive than don’t. Or perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest worldview: Babies who can survive without resources improve the gene pool?

The bigger dilemma: How do men manage to enjoy many partners when women are monogamous?

Men also value beauty above all else because attractiveness indicates health and an ability to reproduce. Oddly, supermodels are the most sought-out, yet they’re often so thin that they no longer menstruate. And I hadn’t known that so-called unattractive women were infertile. But never mind.

Returning to Darwin’s concern – and it doesn’t take a genius like him to make this observation – while evolutionary psychology had fit nicely with British middle-class behavior, where women sought resources and men sought beauty, Darwin pointed out that the theory did not fit with the British upper class. There, men were more concerned with wealth than good looks.

Now that Western women are able to make their own money, they have become more concerned with looks than in the past. And men now like to marry women who can earn some money – it’s a plus.

Other cultures don’t fit the theory so well, either.

Gauguin’s infatuation with Tahiti likely came in part from the women’s desire for many sex partners (prior to European influence).

Meanwhile, Europeans who were among the first to arrive in the Americas were shocked by similar behavior among the native women.

In these Tahitian and Native American societies the entire community cared for children, and property passed through women, so men’s resources weren’t an issue. These women weren’t called sluts, either.

Once Europeans transformed the cultures, things quickly turned around.

It appears that social structure and culture trump biology in explaining women’s monogamy.

There is more to discuss, but I’ll leave that for later.

For now I must ask: Are evolutionary psychologists unfamiliar with this information, or do they simply ignore it because the theory so well justifies a status quo in which women are told to stay monogamous, but understand men’s need for many partners, aka the double standard?

After all, it’s in men’s genes – or was that jeans?

Georgia Platts

Sources: Lips, Hilary M. Sex and Gender, 4th Edition. Mayfield. 2001; Eagly and Wood 1999. “The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles.” American Psychologist, 54 (6)

See also: Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography; Fauso-Sterling, Myths of Gender; Hrdy, Mother Nature; Meston and Buss, Why Women Have Sex; Ryan and Jetha, Sex at Dawn

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on August 17, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, race/ethnicity, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Just a thought — Obviously, with childcare, or being past child bearing age( notice that is when many women leave) and no worry about keeping a roof over one’s head or bills to pay – a female would be free to look around for the best partner to enjoy a physical relationship with. Why settle for a lousy lover who is just using your body for his satisfaction unless you are stuck with him for your very sutvival?

    Much like the religions which keep women subservient- punishment is laid at the feet of the women who dares to stray. did I digress?

    • The double standard that is implied by evolutionary psychology definately bothers me.

      I’m also amazed at how popular the theory is, given the obvious evidence against it.

  2. Very interesting piece Georgia, although I’m not sure there are many people around asking women to accept a man’s needs for many partners. (We might check with Tiger Woods about this.) I have always thought monogamy unnatural for both men and women, but the society–and especially women in the society–seem particularly unforgiving about both promiscuous men and women. Serial monogamy is acceptable, but not polyamory or “open marriages,” which had a brief social time in the sun in the 70s, but quickly got shoved back into the closet in the 80s and 90s. Of course many “swingers” still practice the craft, but definitely in an underground way.

    • Yeah, I don’t think this particular double standard happens a lot. But sometimes. For example, I was reading an article in Vanity Fair where Goldie Hawn mentioned that Kurt Russell has other lovers, but she doesn’t. She used evolutionary psychology to justify the behavior. The double standard irked me.

      I think the theory is implied in other instances: The double standard that elevates men for having sex with many partners in college hook ups, but which decreases the value of the women involved.

      Also, I saw Hugh Hefner and 3 of his girlfriends on Larry King a while back. While it was fine for “Hef” to have 3 girlfriends, the women kept insisting they weren’t sluts – they were monogomous!

  3. Look to the rest of the animal world for the answer: we can either look to the the rooster for example which the farmer keeps one in the pen to service all the hens and decide females like to have it that way – or rely on Beavers which mate for life, and will only take on a new mate if the first one dies, but it’s practically impossible to find an animal species that’s completely monogamous. Therefore I believe customs dictate as Georgia sugested how women are to behave.

    • Thanks Bettyjean,

      I’m on the monogomous side myself. But I get really irritated by double standards that reward men for having sex, but punish women. That is one of the implications of evolutionary psychology.

  4. I think that women are remain monogamous because first off they are tied down by family responsibilities such as kids,husband, and ultimately upholding a family image. Men are more free to engage in promiscuous acts because the women to too busy taking care of the family internally as the husband the bread winner supports the family externally. Therefore a lot of women are more dependent on their spouse.However, nowadays women are actually more promiscuous than men because of they are more women are in the work force.

  5. You’ve gotten it wrong.

    EP doesn’t say women are monogamous. In fact, there is piles of evidence to show that women prefer a different kind of man during estrous, leading directly to cuckolding. Maybe the alpha male doesn’t stay around forever, but the women probably lived in groups, trading sexual favors for male assistance, which would make your objections here moot. The biological father might not be around to support them but someone will.

    “The bigger dilemma: How do men manage to enjoy many partners when women are monogamous?” Easy, this is a far more complex situation than you are allowing. You’re setting up straw men. Where are these papers that you’re citing?

    “Men also value beauty above all else because attractiveness indicates health and an ability to reproduce. Oddly, supermodels are the most sought-out, yet they’re often so thin that they no longer menstruate”

    At this point I am regretting even trying here because you obviously didn’t think this through at all. There’s no data to support the idea that the average man wants a super skinny woman who can’t menstrate. Actually, it’s such a ridiculous notion my jaw is still on the floor. Show me one study that confirms this. Yeah, the consensus is that this is not true.

    Nice source, here’s a review from Amazon “If you need this for a class but want an older edition, go for it. Almost all the research is 30+ years old. Also, I’m all for women empowerment, but this book is definately biased and makes the research conclusions unreliable. There are better options out there.”

    I’ll just stop now. You have no idea what you’re talking about, knocking down strawmen like crazy. Good luck with the witchhunt though!

    • EP doesn’t say women are monogamous?

      Okay, maybe not 100% monogamous, but relatively speaking, EP does say that women are “monogamous” compared with men. Evolutionary psychology “explains” that women’s (relative) monogamy stems from having so few eggs compared with men’s numerous sperm. Yet in cultures where there is equality and men don’t have control of property and resources women and men are both polygamous.

      Re: “The bigger dilemma: How do men manage to enjoy many partners when women are monogamous?” Easy, this is a far more complex situation than you are allowing.

      If it’s so easy, why don’t you explain it?

      Re: Where are these papers that you’re citing?

      What papers are you referring to? The mathematicians who can’t figure out how men can have more partners than women?

      Re: There’s no data to support the idea that the average man wants a super skinny woman who can’t menstrate. Actually, it’s such a ridiculous notion my jaw is still on the floor. Show me one study that confirms this. Yeah, the consensus is that this is not true.

      What men prefer is culturally-based. Sure, in studies men say they like more meat on the bones than women expect. But the most sought-out women in America are skinny, large-breasted supermodels. I hadn’t noticed that skinny supermodel, Gisele Bundchen, had much trouble getting dates. And she seems to have married well. Then there’s Howard Stern pointing out any excess fat for women to lose. Why are the models in Playboy, and most pornography, super-skinny? Because men don’t like that, and want to buy skin-mags of women who have more meat on the bones? How about the popularity of Victoria Secret, and their angels? The market speaks volumes. I have the build that EP says men prefer, but I’ve had men wanting me to lose weight. Meanwhile, in parts of East Africa men prefer fat women.

      Re: Nice source, here’s a review from Amazon “If you need this for a class but want an older edition, go for it. Almost all the research is 30+ years old. Also, I’m all for women empowerment, but this book is definately biased and makes the research conclusions unreliable. There are better options out there.”

      Which source? I used several.

  6. It sounds absolutely ridiculous to me that a man is OK on having multiple partners (while having one stable relation in which the woman is, of course, monogamous), because of that evolutionary bull stuff. Why? Because if one woman (that is, the woman he is “cheating” with) gets pregnant and the father is not a man she is in a relation with, she is looked down upon by people.

    I’m so sick of this shit already.

  7. And I also resent reading online some studies that pointed that averagely, women have x partners during their life, and men have y partners, when x<y.
    How can they present these studies like they are, without questioning them and pointing out the impossibility? How can averagely, men have sex with 10 women and women have sex with 4 partners be possible, unless, implying the men had, probably sex with sheep and counted them as "partners" (alright bad joke, but wtf?) How can we pretend that women can really have few partners and men many partners?
    This is obviously because women very much downward their real number, and men report higher numbers than the actual truth. This should stop and people shouldn't have to be ashamed by their numbers.

  8. I think that evolutionary psychology is sort of an interesting idea but perhaps not executed well and I would hope people are trying to push the field in a new direction. I would expect that a lot of what we do would be determined by, or have a lot to do with, evolution, and looking at the mind within the context of evolution could be fascinating. However, instead we find yet another double standard for men and women.
    You cited examples of different cultures with different accepted sexual practices. I believe that culture is largely affected by the physical environment it exists within and it adapts to help people survive within that environment. So I would agree with you when you say “social structure and culture trump biology” but I would also argue that culture (and the fact that we have so many different cultures) is intertwined with the idea of evolution as it helps us to adapt.

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