British couples are having less sex than a decade ago, people have become more disapproving of extramarital affairs and women are getting more into trying out sex with other women. So says the latest Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviour, published in the Lancet this week.
But women aren’t just getting more adventurous with the types of sex they indulge in, they’re doing it with a wider variety of partners. Women aged 16 – 44 reported an average of around 8 lifetime sexual partners which is nearly double the number reported 20 years ago, while the number for men hasn’t changed a lot and has even gone down in the last decade, now standing at 12.
So this is when we all start making a mental tally of our encounters from way back, to see where we rank in the bed-post notch count. It’s well known that while men tend to exaggerate their number of conquests, women are more likely to downplay the variety of their sexual experience. But Cath Mercer of University College London, one of the report authors, says that the survey methods this time round were designed to control for willingness to report and they’re pretty confident that these increases in sexual behaviours are real.
So why are women having sex with more men?
Many commentators like to suggest our biology dictates (or they accuse evolutionary scientists of saying) that while men should have sex with as many women as possible since this will maximize their lifetime reproductive output, a woman should choose one good man and stick with him, because after all, she can’t have more babies just by having sex with more men.
But this misses the point of how our behaviour has evolved and how flexible it is. The above assertions are true in some circumstances but certainly not all. Where women are heavily dependent on men for investment so they can raise the kids, for instance, it may actually be better, biologically speaking, for both genders to be fairly choosy and faithful.
And it seems the moral stance of the population as a whole has its basis in biology and depends on the prevailing relationship dynamics, i.e. what women need from men, and what men need from women.
In research presented at the annual conference of the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association this year, Michael Price of BrunelUniversity demonstrated that attitudes to promiscuity hinge crucially on perceptions of women’s financial dependence on men.
“We’ve found a positive relationship between female economic independence and moral acceptance of promiscuous male and female sexual behavior,” says Price. “People who report knowing more financially independent women in their social networks also express less moral aversion to promiscuity.”
Price argues that this all comes down to basic evolutionary principles; Does the daddy know for sure he’s the daddy? And is he going to stick around to help out with the kids? In situations where women in general depend on men to bring home the bacon – think 50s Britain and the stereotypical images of women lovingly preparing supper in their pinnies, ready to welcome home their hard-working hubbies – in these situations promiscuity is frowned upon big-time because if a man is going to part with that bacon and feed the kids then he wants to know he’s the dad.
On the other hand, where women are earning their own cash they don’t have to be so concerned about fatherly investment and the less risky promiscuity becomes.
From an evolutionary standpoint both men and women have plenty of potential reasons for having multiple lifetime partners (which I’ll go into in another post coming soon) as well as plenty of potential reasons not to.
“As the gender pay gap has decreased in the UK and other Western countries, and women have become more financially independent, the relative costs of engaging in promiscuity versus pair bonding have gone down, and so cultural rules against promiscuity have become more relaxed,” explains Price. And that, he says, may explain why we’re seeing an increase in the number of lifetime sexual partners for women reported in the Lancet survey.
It doesn’t make sense to argue that there’s anything “unnatural” about women having a variety of sexual partners through their lives, and just for the record, in my view the word “slut” is redundant, a non-word, a piece of nonsense. If independent women want to choose sexual variety, that’s bloody well up to them.