Men are dogs. Guys only want one thing. The human male evolved to be promiscuous. From Charlie Sheen to David Petraeus, our cultural landscape is littered with seemingly endless examples of men who in one way or another live down to these low expectations. Perhaps men are just hardwired to disappoint, and the sooner we all accept that grim reality, the more inured to heartbreak we'll all be. Or so the popular stereotypes tell us.
For decades, the dominant direction in popular science has been towards a dim view of male self-control. That trend may have reached its nadir a few years ago when the authors of A Natural History of Rape suggested that sexual assault was simply an evolutionary adaptation –- and one which could be best circumvented by urging women to cover up. This science (which is often misrepresented in media coverage) is reinforced by a relentless barrage of stories about philandering public figures. Men and women alike end up buying into a myth of male weakness, deploying suspicion and cynicism as a prophylaxis against the pain of betrayal.
But what if everything we think we know about men –- and boys –- is wrong? A new book suggests that our stereotypes about guys are rooted more in myth than in science. In Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, psychology professor Andrew Smiler argues that most young men would rather have emotional and physical intimacy with one partner than rack up a slough of numbers on the bedpost.
If there's one mistake we consistently make about men, Smiler argues, it's that they aspire to be "Casanovas" (promiscuous men, after Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century Venetian womanizer who documented sleeping with 116 over a period of 40 years.) Whether motivated by a hunger for status in the eyes of other men, or driven by the (supposed) evolutionary imperative to spread their seed, most men want one thing -– but never with just one person. So goes the myth.
Smiler cites the findings of the International Sexuality Description Project which found that when asked about what they'd like to have happen in the next month, 25% of young men wanted to have two or more sexual partners in that time frame –- something that only 5% of young women admitted to wanting. The researchers themselves, he notes, focused on the obvious takeaway: men are statistically more likely to admit to wanting multiple sexual partners than women. Smiler points out, however, that the researchers downplayed the more significant conclusion: 75% of young men, despite the cultural pressures towards heterosexual male promiscuity, wanted only one (or zero) partners in the upcoming month.
In Challenging Casanova, Smiler notes that heterosexual young men tend to fall into three categories: a small percentage of "players" with a high number of sexual partners; an equally small percentage of young (almost always devoutly religious) dudes who are determined to remain abstinent until marriage, and a much larger third group whom he argues want to follow "a reasonably traditional, romantic approach to dating." Even when they're "hooking up" (a practice that is neither as novel nor as ubiquitous as wistful and censorious aging pundits imagine) these guys are engaging in the gateway behavior into what they hope will be a relationship.
These findings contradict most of our received wisdom about what young men really want. "I'm constantly told that the ‘boys are lying' to me about what they really want," Smiler says in a phone interview. "The Casanova myth is so deeply ingrained that people are convinced that boys who claim to want relationships rather than casual sex are either incredibly rare or full of crap." The small number of genuinely promiscuous boys is explained away by absence of opportunity rather than absence of desire; the myth that most young men would be Casanovas if they could is as tenacious as it is unfounded. There seem to be few other aspects of human sexual behavior where the disconnect between reality and perception is so vast.
The new research about young men and romance is hard to accept because the emerging trend of "caring, romantic boys" doesn't gibe with our experiences of an older generation of men. Yet Millenial guys are genuinely different in their attitudes towards sex than their Gen X and Boomer elders. A substantial part of that evolution can be explained by a much-more widespread acceptance of cross-sex friendship. "Today, most boys have at least one friend who happens to be female –- a ‘girl friend' but not a ‘girlfriend,'" Smiler writes; until recently, "that was incredibly rare." The mainstreaming of platonic friendships with the other sex has transformed young men's attitudes towards sex, Smiler suggests -– and it has done so for the better.
Yet while guys today are much more likely to have female friends than their fathers did, they remain at a key disadvantage in terms of receiving accurate sexual information from their parents. Smiler notes that far fewer boys than girls received "the Talk" from an adult. Those that do get the talk tend to get it from their mothers; while many moms might prefer that their boys get the "birds and bees" discussion from their fathers, too many dads are still reluctant to talk seriously and candidly with their sons. Paternal reticence explains why boys, to a greater degree than their sisters, get sexual information from peers and the media rather than parents. That boys have "evolved" as rapidly as they have despite being immersed in a Casanova-celebrating culture — and despite the continued absence of parental direction -– is all the more remarkable.
Perhaps the biggest take-away from Smiler's work is that men's sexual choices are just that, choices. Physiology and evolution may influence desires, but they don't override any man's capacity to reflect before acting. The myth of male weakness and the Casanova Complex suggest that men are ultimately powerless in the face of their sexual impulses, and that it is the responsibility of those who are less horny -– women — to cover their bodies, set healthy boundaries, and generally prevent civilization from collapsing into orgiastic chaos. Young men today don't have any less testosterone than did their dads, but when it comes to sex, they're thinking and acting differently. Biology hasn't changed, but boys have, and for the better. May they teach their parents well.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.