Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Do Evolutionary Psychologists Think Women Hate Sex?

Published 13 October, 2010

If the pen is mightier than the sword and all that, then does it strike anyone else as crazy that we let people just sort of write whatever they feel like and post it on the internets, willy-nilly, while at the same time, I can’t walk around with my Crocodile Dundee knife without drawing attention from Los Angeles’ finest?

Ok, it’s mostly just a throwaway line, but yesterday Stanton Peele wrote a little piece in the Huffington Post about female sexuality, which included this: “Indeed, as revealed by the new bestseller, “Sex at Dawn” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, there persists an industry (called Evolutionary Psychology) that erroneously reads prehistory and primate behavior to claim that women are genetically predisposed to monogamy and marriage rather than to enjoying sex.”

I’m not going to comment on the book because I haven’t read it, so I’ll just talk about Peele’s comment.

First of all, ok, yes, I find it a little irritating that Peele talks about the discipline of evolutionary psychology as an “industry” – hey, where’s my union card? –  but much more irritating that he talks about the field as something that “persists,” the way you would talk about a hacking cough, or something else you hope will just sort of go away, like, say, critics of a field that don’t know anything about it.

Second, I suppose I find it annoying that he thinks that what we do is reading prehistory or primate behavior, but it’s much worse that since I don’t think this is really what we’re doing, it’s pretty hard to imagine that we’re doing it erroneously.

Third, this “genetically predisposed” is only partly annoying. At least he didn’t say “genetically determined.” Still, why all this poking of genes everywhere?

But what really tugs my beard is the idea that we evolutionary psychologists think women are disposed toward monogamy rather than enjoying sex. See, here, to see why this is a mistake, you don’t actually have to know the first thing about evolutionary psychology. Even before one cracked a page of a relevant source, you could, through the application of a touch of logic, notice that monogamy and enjoying sex are not logically mutually exclusive. [Insert easy joke about marriage here.] One is a mating system, one is a motivational system. All possible quadrants are available. Can you have an organism that is designed to be monogamous and designed to enjoy sex? Sure. I’m guessing that, in fact, this is true of, well, all monogamous species. Sex-hating individuals, whether monogamous, polygynous or what have you, tend not to want to have sex, which can lead to reduced fitness.

Do evolutionary psychologists believe that women don’t enjoy sex, as Peele suggests? Well, it was hard to find just the right about this. If only an evolutionary psychologist (or two) had written a book all about how much women like sex that had a really clear and explicit line, maybe like, “Women enjoy their sexiness and their sexuality,” especially if it were somewhere prominent, like page xx of the introduction. I mean, that would cement the case. Right? If only…

Ok, seriously (by which I mean not really all that seriously), that’s basically four mistakes in one sentence, which is a good segue to the one thing that Peele got right, which is that the book he mentions really is doing well. (Robin Hanson has some remarks here.) Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to plug Sarah Hrdy’s book, which discusses some of these issues. I like to think that if the book does well, maybe she’ll buy a vowel for her last name.

  • http://www.vidapaleo.com Jorge

    Thanks for the post Robert. The amount and viciousness of some unfounded criticisms I stumble into when reading about EP is very surprising, and somewhat puzzling to me. It would seem that theorizing about our hard-wired behaviors triggers a strong defense mechanism in many people, resulting in straw man arguments, sweeping statements and other emotionally driven and somewhat irrational responses. Sort of like the emotional reaction one gets when daring to question the relevance of cultural relativism in certain circumstances.

    Have you ever thought of applying EP criteria to the analysis of the drivers behind these behaviors? Could be fun…

    Cheers and thanks for the great blog.

  • Rob Kurzban

    Thanks for the kind words. I, in collaboration with one of my students and one of my former students, have been working on exactly the idea you suggest. Others have already made some progress, I think, such as Glenn Geher, e.g.: http://www.evostudies.org/pdf/GeherVol2Iss1.pdf. I think it’s an interesting question. When a field emerges, confusion is natural. When the confusion persists, that suggests something interesting is going on.

  • http://www.vidapaleo.com Jorge

    Thanks a lot for the link Rob.

    “Explaining phenomena in terms of socialization seems axiomatic in these fields – and this fact may explain these findings. In fact, focusing on experiential causes of behavior does potentially lead to
    relatively clear applications for solving social problems – as such, there is likely some utility to this perspective.”

    Makes complete sense to me. My own experience within my field of work confirms as well that people trained within the qualitative data fields tend to be less accepting of a more quantitative approach to human nature (which would be increasingly protagonic thanks to fields like EP, neurobiology, etc). Should this be objectively confirmed, its impact on policy and academia could be significant.

    All the best.

  • Pingback: David Buss defends evolved sex differences (exclusive!) « A Fistful of Science

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