Astonishingly, this study still gets trotted out as evidence that women are less sexually driven than men; it is harnessed, even now, by proponents of evolutionary psychology and other theories holding that men are promiscuous animals whose reproductive strategy is to impregnate as many women as possible, while women are clinging creatures who want to enforce monogamy on men. Refuting this line of argument can put advocates of women’s sexual freedom in a bit of a bind, however: If you argue that women are in fact naturally promiscuous, or that women do crave random sex with strangers, or that women chafe at monogamy as much as men, is that really much of a feminist triumph?
Questions such as these have been engaged by a number of recent books, such as “Sex at Dawn” and “Mating in Captivity,” which explore the mystery of human sexuality, the problem of monogamy and the related distinctions — if there are any — between the genders. We seem to be at a cultural moment when our ever-lengthening lifespans have illuminated the challenges of long-term pair-bonding, and newer technologies have enabled researchers to develop more sophisticated methods of measuring desire as well as its waning.
To the ranks of such books, add“How We Do It,” by Robert Martin, a curator of biological anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, and “What Do Women Want?,” by journalist Daniel Bergner. The first is a tour of the evolution of reproduction in humans and other primates; the second is an inquiry into female desire, which Bergner describes as an “underestimated and constrained force” that makes women far more attracted to strangers, and far less suited to a life of staid fidelity, than the evolutionary psychologists would like us to think.
Martin, who has spent his career among owl monkeys, bush babies, mouse lemurs and other primates, including college students, approaches the “Are humans monogamous?” question by considering anatomy. On the probably-not side of the equation, he points out that humans are sexually dimorphic in the sense that there tend to be significant differences in body size between males and females. Dimorphism is also found in gorillas, which live in harems, and orangutans, which tend to be solitary and are not pair-bonding. Among those few non-human primates, such as gibbons, that do monogamously pair-bond, males and females tend to be similar in size. Then again, male and female chimps are also close in size but shockingly wanton, so there is no clear rule of thumb.