For every bee there is a flower …

Having recently been scolded for citing survey data on an anthropology blog (mea culpa), I’d like to rectify the situation by referring readers to this fun piece in the NY Times about the myth that men are more promiscuous than women:

In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women.

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

The article offers two explanations. One is that “men exaggerate the number of partners they have and women underestimate.” The other is that “men are going outside the [survey] population to find partners.” For instance, most surveys don’t include paid sex workers. Feministe plays with the idea that promiscuous women “don’t count”:

But I’d say that what we’re seeing here is actually the conventional explanation for the discrepancy: women don’t have much sex compared to men, but supposedly there are some women who “make up for the difference” by having LOTS and LOTS of sex with then menfolk. Furthermore, these women don’t count, at least not for the CDC’s purposes — they’re beyond the pale, outside of society. They’re prostitutes, or as Ms. Aral suggests, they’re foreigners. In the past (of segregation and slavery) and still today in so many cases, they’re women of color. They’re women who have to be left out of the math in order to make the “common sense” 7:4 ratio accurate. They’re the original reference of the shame-word “slut.”

They’re every type of woman who’s been made to to serve as the “whore” of the classic “virgin/whore” dichotomy — to balance this mathematically impossible equation by having all the sex that good marriageable white-wedding girls supposedly don’t. (Even though this is also the survey that pointed out that 89% of Americans have premarital sex.) I could go even further and start talking about how this relates to characterization and exploitation of trans women as sex workers, in the US and around the world, as a kind of ultimate “doesn’t count as a woman” but I’ll save that for another post. You get the idea.

That the press and the public love to see their gender stereotypes reinforced, despite the questionable nature of the data, is something that has also been extensively covered at Language Log in a series of posts on the myth that women talk more than men.

13 thoughts on “For every bee there is a flower …

  1. This argument is quite beside the point.

    First, it neglects the possibility that promiscuity might be generalized in one group (men), but restricted to a few persons that are outside the group in the case of women (prostitution being a fitting example). You have to take variation into account: a tiny number of women might be responsible for a lot of reported one-night stands (and they might not want to admit of it, or they might lie outside the group under scrutiny), whereas many men could have had one-night stands with this tiny bunch of women.

    Second, I don’t see why we should assume that a prostitution effect would be negligible. Do we know so much about prostitution, a barely legal, often informal, pervasive activity with fuzzy boundaries? I doubt it.

    Third, the NYT paper forgets one obvious possibility which is rape. Am I enforcing gender stereotypes if I state that most rapists, homo- or heterosexuals, are men?

    But most of all, the fact that many women who have promiscuous sex have to get paid for it, whereas most promiscuous men enjoy it and report it with a certain amoint of pride, is a telling fact about the differences in sexual behavior and sexual cognition between the two sexes.

    Accusing psychologists to enforce gender-stereotypes is a very hackneyed critique; a more useful attitude would consist in trying to understand why there are any stereotypes to enforce in the first place. One possible answer is that they may bear some correspondence to something in the real world.

  2. Actually, apparently Kolata’s conundrum is based on a faulty premise. See “this”:

    It’s not every day I get to read a mathematical theorem in the New York Times, so I hate to complain. But Kolata isn’t quite right here. The problem is hiding in the distinction between the median (the number reported by the CDC study) and the mean (the number Gale was talking about). The mean is what people usually call the “average.” To calculate the mean number of sexual partners among a group of men, you add together each man’s sexual partners, then divide by the total number of men. The median, on the other hand, is the number you’d get if you line all the men up in order of their number of partners, then ask the man in the middle to state his count.

  3. The issue of male promiscuity has been around for a long, long time. The same critiques of the argument have been around for just as long. Ironically, there seems to be little work aimed at addressing these critiques. For example, the points raised in the comment from Oliver Morin, that “…most promiscuous men enjoy it and report it with a certain amount of pride”, does not fit at all with my experience. Most promiscuous men that I know have experienced episodes in their lives that, if it had happened to a woman, we would call it abuse. Others have personality flaws that label them as deviant or at least outside the norm.

    The uncomfortable reality of this problem is that very few of the highly-educated and very middle-class researchers of this problem have much personal experience with the phenomena of their study.

  4. To Scott Summers: It seems to me you are confounding two possible meanings of “promiscuity”, namely 1) having many different sexual partners, which means having sex with several persons at different times, and 2) having sex at the same time with different people. Middle class professors may not be accustomed to having a threesome, but many of them do cheat on their wife once in a while.

    Concerning your personal experience of men getting “raped”: these are single cases. Fortunately, there is much more than anecdotes and personal experience to settle this issue. There is an overwhelming amount of data. Just take a look: unless there is some very serious bias which has not been identified, men are the rapists.

  5. I am indeed confused. In the your comment you state, “many women who have promiscuous sex have to get paid for it.”In your response to my comment you define promiscuity as, “1) having many different sexual partners, which means having sex with several persons at different times and 2) having sex at the same time with different people.” There is no other meaning supplied.

    You certainly live in a different world from me when you say that a woman who has sex with more than one man or commits adultery has probably been paid to do so. I have an entirely different definition of the term derived from animal behaviour studies, but I’m sure I’ll be able to get to that in a later comment.

    I made no mention of women raping men. I meant to imply promiscuous men are doing so because of personality defect probably related to developmental trauma, rather than a ‘natural’ desire.

    Finally, my name is spelled with an O.

  6. Strong.

    I actually saw that criticism, but I ignored it because later on in the Slate article (did you read the second page?) it says: “Not that Kolata’s conclusion is inaccurate.” And later: “In the end, then, Kolata is right.”

    I read that as meaning that she flubbed her language but reached the correct conclusion.

  7. “But in making this subtle mathematical point, [Kolata] chose to gloss over a much simpler one—that the mean and median are not the same.” I guess her ‘set up’ about logical impossibility doesn’t work because she hasn’t remembered statistics 101?

  8. Dear Scott; sorry for misspelling your name. I also made a mistake when I talked about men getting raped; I should have talked of men getting abused. Sorry for these misunderstandings.

    When I am saying that many women who get massively promiscuous sex get paid to do so, I am referring to a tiny part of the population, namely prostitutes (this is obvious in the context of my first comment), and I am referring to massive promiscuity (that is, having a really huge number of partners, not one extra-marital affair – again this is clear in context). I was obviously not implying that any adulterous woman is adulterous for money.

    When you say that promiscuous men are promiscuous because of “a developmental trauma” and not because of “a natural desire” (your words), which kind of promiscuity are you referring to (1 or 2)?

  9. Strong,

    Here is how I understand the Slate article:

    The problem is that she mistook the difference between the CDC study (median) and “Another study, by British researchers” which used the mean. As Slate says: “In this case, it’s indeed mathematically impossible that the numbers are correct.”

    The mathematician she quotes was referring to studies which use means, like the latter one. So she flubbed the article because what she says is true in general but not true of the CDC study which she chose as a lead for the article.

    Looking at it now, I should have made this clearer in my post.

  10. As always, these kinds of articles always make me want to see how the data was actually collected. How did researchers define sex partners, if at all? To some people, a sex partner is someone with whom they had intercourse. To others, mutual masturbation is enough to count someone as a sex partner. Was this operationalised for respondents or was it left up to their own judgement? If it’s the latter case, is it possible that males and females have a tendancy to define “sex partner” differently?

    Also, what was the age range of the participants? I think this is important to consider and can have a huge bearing. The frequency of new sex partners can vary over a life time. Men and women may become comfortable enough with their sexuality to experiment at different ages.

    Were same-sex partners explicitely included in the question? Perhaps people would not include them unless asked and perhaps others would not include them at all.

    Finally, is it just because I’ve been hanging out in the queer community for too long or is even 7 partners low? I know, I know, I’m propagating another stereotype . . .

    Oh, another finally: the article starts off with the oft-used reasoning that it makes evolutionary sense for men to be promiscuous so they can spread their genes and for women to only want to be with one man because of having to nurture offspring and yada yada yada. Why is this assumption so infrequently examined? I’ve read counter-arguments (would have to dig out a source) that claim that there may be some “evolutionary” basis for female promiscuity . . . if several males think that a young child *might* be their’s, that makes several males that might be more friendly to the female and said offspring.

    Also, these evoltionary arguments always presuppose that reproduction is THE main drive behind people’s sexual impulses. What about pleasure? What about the fact that women have an organ that is solely devoted to sexual pleasure? I haven’t conducted formal interviews on this, but many informal discussions with “sluts” of all genders, sexes and persuasions have indicated to me that the next generation’s genetic composition is the last thing on people’s minds when they are being promiscuous.

  11. Oliver, no problem.

    Particularly taking into account Nancy’s comment about the term ‘sex’, I think what we’re getting at here is a problem with defining promiscuity. Let me try and get around this.

    If you mean, as seem to imply right now, someone with hundreds or thousands of sex partners, there would be very few men or women. What kind of people are these? Some, but not all, of these women would be professional sex workers. Some of the heterosexual men would have to be as well. Male pornographer John Holmes once claimed to have had 10,000 sex partners, which I take to be a life-time ceiling for heterosexual men. This might also include some of the men who were not professional pornographers who participated in the movie The World’s Biggest Gang Bang. And while these men may be proud of what they did, I doubt this sentiment is shared by any but a handful of others. John Holmes, for example, became involved with drugs and crime, eventually dieing of AIDS. My point is that people, man or woman, involved in the lifestyles that allow huge numbers of sex partners are deviants.

    Let’s discuss more modest numbers – I mean people with dozens or a few hundred sex partners. What kind of people are these? Some of these would be the people I refer to who as having experienced childhood trauma – by which I mean early sexual experiences with older partners. I have nothing but anecdotal evidence on this, but I believe that both men and women who fall into this category of more socially acceptable promiscuity started their sexual lives before any of their peers with partners who were probably manipulating them. In one case (for women), it reported as abuse; in another (for men), it is reported as an exciting experience. My point is that the experience is cognitively perceived the same way and produces similar patterns of behaviour as an adult, but the social label placed on this behaviour has historically been quite different.

    Some final points on this.

    It is incorrect that men who boast of many sex partners are somehow perceived positively. This may be true in some social situations, but generally in life, knowledge of someone’s vast sexual experience can affect many different aspects of life, ranging from hiring decisions to judgment of suitability as a husband.

    Most of the research on human sexual behaviour is quite uninformative. So little do we really know that it is almost impossible to tell how current changes in attitudes about female sexual behaviour have changed patterns of actual behaviour. For example, what does the growing number of adult women arrested for having sex with young boys really men? It is rumoured that the Internet has made meeting married and single women for casual sex significantly easier. Is this true?

    In fact, this whole discussion was started because not even the most basic questions about human sexual behaviour can be answered meaningfully from the kind of data gathered in social science research. We can play the academic career game, pretend it’s real, and argue from there. But the fact is that the data tells us very little that’s meaningful.

  12. To Scott and Nancy:

    Scott, your point about sex athletes and porn stars is well taken, but it wasn’t them I was talking about. I was referring to everyday sex workers or sex addicts who have much more partners, relatively speaking, than most other people of the same sex. It is important to bear in mind that we are dealing with relative quantities here, not with absolute numbers or subjective appreciations – hence the uselessness of wondering what “huge” means in absolute terms, or whether 7 partners a month is that big a number or not. What matters is comparison.

    Scott’s point about multi-partner people having suffered from child abuse is interesting to discuss, but it is not directly relevant to the question of gender differences in sexual behavior – since Scott wants his idea to apply both to men and to women. If Scott’s speculation were true (as it might well be), we have no reason to suppose that it could explain the striking gender differences in reported sexual behavior that we are trying to explain.

    If Nancy’s sketch of an evolutionary argument is taken to predict *greater* promiscuity in females than in males, then I think it is not convinving. Nancy’s argument goes this way: “If several males think that a young child *might* be their’s, that makes several males that might be more friendly to the female and said offspring.” (Nancy). Consequently, females have an interest in mating promiscuously because that would “buy” them a crew of devoted male protectors who are lured by paternity uncertainty into taking care of them and their child. That is an interesting hypothesis, but it neglects the standard consequence of paternity uncertainty, which is the following: if one male can only suppose that a young child might be his, whereas a female knows practically for sure that a young child is hers, she has more interest in concentrating her investment on that child, and the male has more interest in making another child that *might* be his. And since he cannot be sure, his interest is to dilute his investment between several partners and children.

    Now, if males have children with many females, each and everyone of these females can play with paternal uncertainty to lure men into investing more in them and their offspring. Each female’s effort would balance the others’, so it would not result in males becoming less promiscuous. It could even happen that the less confident men, those who make more offspring and invest less in them, would be selected for, in a species where females play with paternity uncertainty. In this case, males would become even more promiscuous.

    It is not true that “these evolutionary arguments always presuppose that reproduction is THE main drive behind people’s sexual impulses” (Nancy). Evolutionary theorists acknowledge the fact that animals do not represent the fitness consequences of their behaviour. All their arguments require is that people are lead by various psychological mechanisms (such as the search for pleasure), to act in an adaptive way. These psychological mechanisms do not necessarily include (actually they hardly ever do) a specific motivation to reproduce.

    Both Nancy and Scott hold sex research in very low esteem, and they evoke the possibility of throwing it all away to the dustbin because we know next to nothing about sex anyway. Nancy suggests that sex researchers make gross methodological mistakes by forgetting to control for very important factors. I am merely an amateur, so I am not in a position to defend the field, but I don’t think it is much more miserable than the rest of social science. 50 years of research have adressed, if not altogether eliminated, the most obvious biases mentioned by Nancy. Besides, throwing the extant data away because, you know, systematic surveys are all more or less biased, so why bother? is not the best way to to discuss a survey – is it?

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