Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sexual Math Revisited

Men are naturally more promiscuous than women.  That's an old idea, seemingly corroborated by survey data, study after study -- hence the idea has been an opium for sociobiologists, whose hobbyhorse is to construct just-so stories that rationalize and legitimate gender inequality.

But do the data tell us our sexual truth or sexual myth?  Gina Kolata, in her recent New York Times article,1 pointed out: "It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women" in a given population.  Kolata has mathematician David Gale illustrate this point:

"By way of dramatization, we change the context slightly and will prove what will be called the High School Prom Theorem.  We suppose that on the day after the prom, each girl is asked to give the number of boys she danced with.  These numbers are then added up giving a number G.  The same information is then obtained from the boys, giving a number B.

Theorem: G=B

Proof: Both G and B are equal to C, the number of couples who danced together at the prom. Q.E.D."

Jordan Ellenberg of Slate takes issue with Kolata:

The problem is hiding in the distinction between the median (the number reported by the CDC study [that Kolata questions]) and the mean (the number Gale was talking about). . . . Consider a village with 200 people, evenly divided by sex.  Ninety of the women are virgins, but none of the men is.  Each man has slept with just one of the sexually active women; each woman who's had sex, then, has had 10 partners.  In this case, the median woman has zero sexual partners, but the median man has one.  So we see a big difference in medians between the male and female populations, just as in the CDC data.2
On page 3 of the CDC study, however, it is said: "Twenty-nine percent of men reported having 15 or more female sexual partners in a lifetime compared with 9% of women who reported having 15 or more male sexual partners in a lifetime."

For men and women to have roughly the same mean, which has to be the case mathematically, and for men to have a much higher median than women, there ought to be a group of extraordinarily sexually active women who outclass the most sexually active men, helping raise the manhood median despite sexual lethargy of the other women, but the CDC study, based on self reported data, is no evidence for the existence of a female sexual overclass (see above, but also see Tables 7 and 9).

I conclude either men or women or both are lying.

Perhaps it is time to promote a new idea in order to correct the prejudice that makes people lie: what is attractive in women is wisdom and experience, and what is adorable in men is chastity and modesty.

1 "The Myth, the Math, the Sex," 12 August 2007, nytimes.com/2007/08/12/weekinreview/12kolata.html.

2 "Mean Girls: The New York Times Slips Up on Sexual Math," 13 August 2007, slate.com/id/2172186/.

1 comment:

D said...

If you believe in evolutionary explanations of human psychology, there are fairly straightforward explanations why men might want to inflate the number of sex partners they had had: women are likely to be attracted to men whose genes are good at passing themselves on; that is, men who other women are attracted to.

Women, in turn, would have a slightly less powerful incentive to reduce their count: men are likely to be attracted to women who offer a greater chance of paternity; that is, women who have (or have had) sex with fewer other men.

There are of course, counter-tendencies: men who have sex with lots of other women might make better (evolutionary) partners for flings than marriages, as other women's availability to them might reduce their commitment to being a good husband or father; chastity is only one small small part of women's attractiveness, with both availability and desirability being more important.

And none of this is to say that women's desire for Casanovas or men's desire for modesty can't be damaging or can't be reversed. Merely that, if we are to make an effort to "promote a new idea in order to correct the prejudice", we should do so with a solid understanding of the prejudice in the first place.