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Promiscuity Differs by Gender

Men and women are hard-wired for short-term sex -- but must we obey our brains?
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WebMD Feature

Men and women are programmed for promiscuity. But we differ in our desires.

Paradoxically, both men and women are also programmed to mate for life. Both can choose short-term or long-term sex strategies. What men want, however, differs from what women want.

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The theory that men's and women's sexual desires are hard-wired isn't new. It's been controversial for decades. Now a central tenet of evolutionary psychology, the theory holds that our sexual behavior evolved over millennia and is encoded in our brains. We aren't doomed to act out these programs. But they do shape our desires.

According to evolutionary psychology, men and women each evolved their own strategies for seeking sex partners. If that's true, men's sexual desires should be the same for men everywhere. And the desires of men everywhere in the world should differ in the same ways from those of women. The same would hold true for women.

Now there's convincing new evidence that this is so.

It comes from the International Sexuality Description Project, led by David P. Schmitt, PhD, Bradley University, Peoria, Ill. The projects findings appear in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The title sums it up: "Universal Sex Differences in the Desire for Sexual Variety: Tests From 52 Nations, 6 Continents, and 13 Islands."

"Both men and women show signs of being programmed to be monogamous in a certain way and promiscuous in a certain way," Schmitt tells WebMD. "The main difference is in short-term mating strategies, or how men and women go about being promiscuous."

Good Sex Partners vs. Lots of Sex Partners

"We don't say men and women always opt for short-term strategies," Schmitt says. "What we are talking about is that when they go for infidelity or promiscuity, men focus on large numbers and women focus on quality."

What really irks Schmitt is that many people interpret this finding to mean that women are designed to be faithful but men are predestined to be promiscuous. That's not what the evidence shows. Instead, both women and men are fully equipped for one-night stands and lifelong relationships.

Schmitt and colleagues asked men and women all over the world about what they wanted from long-term and short-term sexual relationships.

"What we found is that when men opt for short-term mating, they pursue larger numbers of partners than women," Schmitt says. "When women go short-term mating, they don't go for large numbers. They are a little more discriminating. They look for physically attractive men who have masculine facial features. Women look for men who are symmetrical, who are high in social dominance. This doesn't mean all women will be short-term maters. But when they opt to do so, they show these desires."

Another big difference: Men are ready to say "yes" to sex much more quickly than women. They say they'd need to know a person only a relatively short time before consenting to sex. Women want to know their potential partners significantly longer before sex.

Yet another difference points to the origin of the dumb-blonde stereotype: The minds of men.

"Men's preference for intelligence in short-term mates drops off the scale," Schmitt says. "If you look at what men want in a short-term mating partner, a sexual partner as opposed to a marriage partner, they prefer below-average intelligence."

These different desires hold true regardless of whether women or men are married or single, heterosexual or homosexual. And they hold true across six continents.

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