Here’s the first post I wrote about the book, here’s goodreads. I didn’t know I’d finish it this soon or I’d probably only have written one post about the book. Anyway – things didn’t change much along the way and I ended up giving it 2 stars on goodreads. Some of the stuff was really weak and I think I’m closer to one star than three. There’s quite a bit of speculation, and there are quite a few anecdotes. Many of the findings which are covered are not dealt with in nearly enough detail for them to be really all that trustworthy. The authors often use cautious language, but they don’t talk that much about why such cautious language is necessary, certainly not in any great detail; some readers will know, others won’t.
It should be noted that the book was easy to read, and so I never really seriously contemplated not finishing it. The theoretical frameworks presented in the book I think tend to constitute useful ways to frame specific problems or useful ways to think about behavioural patterns, but I didn’t feel like they actually added much new knowledge; lots of theoretical stuff covered in the book was already known to me, and one main motivation for reading the book was to get some data as well in order to figure out the extent to which given behavioural patterns matched expectations. I don’t really think they delivered in that respect. I should note that you can’t really fault the authors for the fact that not a lot of good science exists in some of these specific areas (you can blame them to the extent that they’re the ones conducting bad research of course, but let’s not go there…), but you can fault them for not being more open about how uncertain many of the observations and conclusions drawn in the book really are. As mentioned above they do use cautious language with a lot of qualifications and so on (a brief word search told me that they used the word ‘perhaps’ 10 times during the first 100 pages of the book; ‘may be’ is incidentally also used 10 times during the first 100 pages, and ‘maybe’ and ‘it seems’ are used 3 times each as well.), but unless you’re familiar with how scientific research works and know a little bit of statistics it’ll not be perfectly obvious to you why such cautious language is even necessary; they spend very little time discussing the sometimes blatantly obvious and huge limitations of the studies they cover. I consider this to be a problem in that I believe a lot of people who don’t know a lot about how science works will read this book – it’s easy to read and filled with anecdotes, and while reading the book I certainly didn’t get the impression that the intended readership consists of mechanical engineering graduate students from MIT. You can try to go from ‘how 55 mostly-white female college students from one specific study conducted in American town X near Florida (or wherever…) think about X’ to ‘how women think about X’, but the conclusions you draw from that one study probably need some additional support to be taken all that seriously. Don’t take this to mean that e.g. cross-cultural differences, to take an example, are not covered in the book; they are. The problem is that studies covered are most of the time not put into any sort of ‘proper context’. They’ll often jump from, say, ’55 women in study X’ to ‘women’ without any comments, and I’m sure some people will miss the fact that those women are actually the same. The ‘from ’55 women’ to ‘women” transition is not even the worst type; it’s far better than the transitions that involve an unknown number of women, because the authors can’t even be bothered to tell us how many people participated in the study behind the finding they happen to talk about now. As might be inferred, the authors will often only spend a few lines – perhaps a whole paragraph if things are going well – on a study, mostly just summarizing the conclusions from the paper, and then quickly move on to another couple of studies dealing with another matter. It gets really funny when a reported conclusion from a study sparks that familiar thought, ‘There’s just no way in hell a study that small had the power to actually show what they just claimed that it showed with any degree of confidence!‘ It often feels to me as if they’re rushing while covering the studies, and I can’t shake off the impression that part of the reason is that at least some of those studies really wouldn’t stand up to any close scrutiny.
Adding a few remarks about how this stuff (whatever ‘this stuff’ may be) matches up with, say, what we know about how romance novels are written, may be useful to some people, and you may gain a better understanding of the theoretical principles by reading a few remarks about how the sexual experiences of male bass players in bands can help enlighten us here; but these are not the methods usually applied in order to elucidate matters in the books I read. In more than a few sections there’ll be no studies at all, just some theoretical remarks interspersed within the mountains of illustrative anecdotes. “As anyone who has experienced junior high school knows…” Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason I kept reading – there’s some interesting stuff in there. But this is a very different kind of book from the ones I usually read, and I mostly don’t consider it to be different in a good way.
All in all: Too much talk, too little substance.
Some quotes and observations from the second half of the book:
“As a highly social species, we are constantly threatened by potential mate poachers who try to lure our partners, be it for brief sexual encounters or for a more permanent relationship. We also face the risk that our partners might be tempted to leave the relationship in hopes of “trading up” to a more desirable partner. Among both dating and married couples, the Buss Lab’s research has revealed findings similar to those in our study: Women often use sex in many different ways to protect their relationships. They give in to their partners’ sexual requests in an attempt to keep them happy, they act “sexy” to take their partners’ mind off potential competitors, and they perform sexual favors or succumb to sexual pressures to entice their partners into staying. […] Women are motivated to have sex to mate guard because the costs of not doing so can be catastrophic. […] Having sex, even though it does not always work as planned, is partly designed to prevent infidelity and keep a couple from breaking up.”
“One study found that 79 percent of women who had affairs became emotionally involved with, or fell in love with, their affair partners. Although this finding may seem obvious, it is in stark contrast to the experiences of men, of whom only about a third become emotionally enmeshed. According to one study, most men’s motivations for sex outside their primary relationship are more a matter of desire for sexual variety.”
“Studies consistently show that men report higher levels of sex drive than women. This holds true for college students, middle-aged people, and even eighty- and ninety-year-olds. Men are also much more likely than women to say they want more sex than they are currently getting, whether measured among married persons or couples in the early stages of dating. In a study of 1,410 American men and 1,749 American women, 32 percent of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine reported a lack of sexual interest in the previous year, compared to 14 percent of men in the same age group.”
“I love my husband, but when you’ve been married for awhile, let’s face it—sex just isn’t that exciting anymore. It’s all so predictable. Even when we try to be “spontaneous” it’s almost comical because I can predict his every move. I have sex because I feel I “owe” it to him as his wife, and also because I love him and want to keep him happy. The truth is, though, most of the time I just lie there and make lists in my head. I grunt once in awhile so he knows I’m awake, and then I tell him how great it was when it’s over. It seems to be working. We’re happily married.
—heterosexual woman, age 48″
[One of many quotes of this kind from the book – often interview snippets like these are used to illustrate a point/problem. Quite a few of these quotes are incidentally thoroughly depressing to read. ‘We’re happily married’… But then again, what do I know?]
“Research indicates that women agree to unwanted sex more often than men do—but not by as great a margin as one might predict. One study of married couples found that 84 percent of wives and 64 percent of husbands “usually” or “always” complied with having sex when their spouse wanted to and they did not. […] What determines whether a woman will feel happy or remorseful after engaging in consensual unwanted sex? Probably the best predictor is whether the behavior occurred because of what psychologists refer to as approach versus avoidance motives. Approach-motivated behaviors refer to acts done in an effort to achieve a positive or pleasurable experience. In the sexual arena, this would mean, for example, that a woman agrees to have unwanted sex because she wants to make her partner happy and to feel that she is a good mate. That motivation would likely result in her feeling good about her decision. Avoidance-motivated behaviors, on the other hand, refer to behaviors undertaken to avoid negative or painful outcomes. This could mean agreeing to have sex out of fear of losing one’s partner or making the partner angry or disappointed. Consenting to sex to avoid negative outcomes more often than not leads to feelings of shame and remorse. […]
There is often a fine line between unwanted sex and rape. This is especially true when rape occurs in a long-term relationship, where the couple has engaged in consensual sexual intercourse in the past. Women who are sexually abused in marital relationships frequently define it as rape only if physical force or harm is involved. And research shows that when a woman is sexually abused in a committed relationship she is more likely to make excuses for her partner such as “He’s only like that when he’s drunk” or “I should know better than to provoke him.” They also tend to minimize the situation by claiming things like “It’s only happened a couple of times.” […] According to the National Violence Against Women Survey of eight thousand women, approximately 15 percent of the women had been raped and 3 percent had experienced attempted rape. Sixty-two percent of the assaults were by a past or current partner, and the likelihood of physical injury was higher with intimate partners than with strangers.”
“The value of women’s virginity shifted dramatically with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961. […] In the landmark 1953 Kinsey report surveying nearly six thousand American women, 40 percent reported being nonvirgins before marriage. In a 1994 survey of more than 1,600 American women, approximately 80 percent of the women who were born between 1953 and 1974 reported having had premarital sex. […] The average age for a woman to lose her virginity also radically changed during this time period. In 1950, the average age for a woman to first engage in sexual intercourse—or at least admit to it—was twenty. In 2000, the average age was sixteen.” […] A study conducted in the Meston Sexual Psychophysiology Lab of more than four hundred Canadian university women showed that 72 percent of women of European ancestry had engaged in premarital sex compared with a much lower 43 percent of Southeast Asian women, most of whom were ethnic Chinese.”
“According to one study, approximately 25 percent of women in their thirties have had sex with five to ten different partners since age eighteen, and just over 10 percent have had sex with more than twenty-one different partners. By contrast, only about 15 percent of women in their late teens and early twenties have had between five and ten sexual partners, and approximately one-third have had sexual intercourse with only one person.” [here’s a post – unfortunately in Danish – with some Danish numbers.]
“Men possess [a] psychological tic, the sexual overperception bias, which is the tendency to overinfer women’s sexual interest based on ambiguous information. […] when a woman smiles at a man, men often infer sexual interest, when in many cases the woman is simply being friendly or polite. Other ambiguous cues—a touch on the arm, standing close, or even holding eye contact for a split second longer than usual—trigger men’s sexual overperception bias. As a consequence, women can exploit men’s overperception bias for economic gain, in what has been called a “bait and switch” tactic, a strategy that involves persuading men to expend resources as part of courtship, but then failing to follow through on an implied “promise” of sex.
Research has also found that most men find most women at least somewhat sexually attractive, whereas most women do not find most men sexually attractive at all.”
“Not all friends-with-benefits relationships result in unmitigated, mutually beneficial sexual bliss. Women who have these relationships also report some disadvantages. These include developing romantic feelings for the friend (65 percent), harming the friendship (35 percent), causing negative emotions (24 percent), and risking negative sexual side effects such as sexually transmitted diseases (10 percent). Interestingly, the vast majority of women, 73 percent, never explicitly discuss the ground rules or expectations for these relationships.”
“[I have sex] to get my way or to persuade my husband into something I really want and he might be opposed to.
—heterosexual woman, age 31
I will often use sex as leverage in my relationship to get what I want.
—heterosexual woman, age 27 […]
In modern Western cultures, […] direct exchanges tend to be far less common, or at least less explicit. Nonetheless, sexual economics sometimes continues to influence why women have sex within marriage. The exchange of sex may not be for economic resources per se, but rather for reciprocal favors. […] Sexual economics play out across cultures in many forms. On the mating market, women accrue significant power as a result of men’s sexual psychology—their desire for sexual variety, their sex drive, their sexual overperception bias, their persistent sexual fantasies, and a brain wired to respond to visual stimulation. As the valuable resource over which men compete, women can, and some often do, exercise that power to exchange their sexual resources for benefits, including food, gifts, special favors, grades, career advancement, or entrée into the movie business. In some of these exchanges, there is no sharp line demarcating honest courtship, seduction, and prostitution.”
“many women, when asked what motivated them to have sex, […] respond by saying they were deceived by a man, verbally coerced, plied with drugs or alcohol, or physically forced. These are not ways in which women want to have sex. But they are nonetheless some of the reasons women end up having sex. […] A recent study of online dating ads explored the extent to which men and women provide deceptive information about themselves. The researchers compared men’s and women’s advertised height, weight, age, and other characteristics with actual measured height and weight and independently verified age.
Fifty-five percent of the men, compared with 41 percent of women, lied about their height. Women were somewhat more likely than men to shade the truth about their weight. Overall, an astonishing 81 percent of the sample engaged in some form of deception, be it about physical characteristics, income, habits such as smoking or drinking, or political beliefs.”
“According to a survey of over 1,400 women aged eighteen to fifty-nine years, American women have sex about 6.3 times per month. The average is somewhat higher among twenty-to thirty-year-olds (7.5 times per month) and somewhat lower among fifty-to sixty-year-olds (four times per month).”
Go ahead – judge me…
I guess covering a book like this here is a great way to stop potential readers from being able to read my blog at work ever again… Oh well. I’m not sure the post is actually NSFW; it’ll probably depend upon where you work. Anyway, the book is written by Cindy Meston and David Buss, the latter of which I have quoted before here on this blog in various contexts. I decided to have a go at the book after I’d decided that the Duncombe et al book was crap. There’s some overlap, but fortunately not too much (or I’d also have thrown away this book).
I consider the book to be light reading and that’s part of why I’m reading it now; Mas-Colell is not light reading. I’m not too impressed and I’m only at a 2-star evaluation at this point, having read roughly half of the book. Much of the research presented is of questionable validity due to reliance on self-reported data [here’s a relevant link] and small n studies, and the book is less data-driven than I’d expected. Often they’ll neglect to even tell you about the n’s and only talk about the percentages, so you have no clue if those 36 percent they’re talking about are actually just 9 college educated women out of 25. You could look up the studies yourself, true, but if you need to do that in order to figure out if the authors’ inferences can be trusted or not how much value does the book really add? There are some interesting notes and observations, but it subtracts a lot that you can’t always tell if they can really be trusted or not.
Some stuff from the first half of the book below:
“Back in the 1930s, a study examined five thousand marriages performed in a single year, 1931, to determine where the bride and groom lived before their wedding. One-third lived within five blocks of each other and more than one-half lived within a twenty-block radius.” [Things have changed since then, but probably less than you’d think.]
“DNA fingerprinting studies reveal that roughly 12 percent of women get pregnant by men other than their long-term mates” [Yeah, well… I know I’ve touched upon this one before, but people seem to keep writing books in which they make claims about these things which are probably not true, and as long as they do that I’ll keep repeating that those estimates are most likely wrong.]
“Research reveals that women find certain body movements to be more attractive than others. […] Nonreciprocal same-sex touching—when a man touches another man’s back, for example—is a well-documented signal of dominance. Women see “touchers” as having more status, a key component of a man’s mate value. Space maximization movements, as when a man stretches his arms or extends his legs, are another dominance signal. Those who display open body positioning—for example, by not having their arms folded across the chest—are judged to be more potent and persuasive.
Evolutionary psychologist Karl Grammer and his colleagues conducted a study in three singles bars in Pennsylvania. They coded men’s nonverbal behaviors and then examined which ones were linked with making “successful contact” with a woman in the bar—defined as achieving at least one minute of continuous conversation with her. They found five classes of men’s movements linked with successul contact: more frequent short, direct glances at women; more space maximization movements; more location changes; more nonreciprocated touches; and a smaller number of closed-body movements.”
“Why a sense of humor is so important in sexual attraction has been the subject of much scientific debate. One critical distinction is between humor production (making others laugh) and humor appreciation (laughing at others’ jokes). There’s a sex difference—men define a woman with a good sense of humor as someone who laughs at their jokes! Men especially like women who are receptive to their humor in sexual relationships. Women, in contrast, are attracted to men who produce humor, and that’s true for all types of relationships, from one-night stands to lifelong matings.”
“A person’s mood at the time of an initial encounter is an important factor in determining attraction—positive feelings lead to positive evaluations of others and negative feelings lead to negative evaluations. In fact, anyone or anything simply present when positive or negative feelings are aroused also tends to be liked or disliked as a consequence.”
“when it comes to actually choosing a long-term sexual partner, it is more the rule than the exception that “similars” attract. Several studies have shown substantial similarity between husbands and wives in their attitudes about faith, war, and politics, as well as similarities in their physical health, family background, age, ethnicity, religion, and level of education. Dating and married couples are similar in physical attractiveness, and young married couples even tend to be matched in weight. The “matching hypothesis”—as named by social psychologists—is so strong that observers react negatively when they perceive couples who are mismatched on levels of attractiveness. There is one notable exception—a beautiful woman and a less-attractive man. In this scenario, consistent with evolutionary logic, people judging the mismatched pairs ascribe wealth, intelligence, or success to the man.”
“All of the nerve endings in the vagina lie in the outer portion of the vagina, near the opening. This means that women are sensitive to light touch or stimulation of their vaginas only when it is applied to this outer region. Further inside the vagina there are sensory receptors that respond to more intense pressure. Vaginas probably evolved this way because having highly sensitive nerve endings threaded throughout the vagina would have made the extended penetration of sex painful.
Because of the way the vagina is designed, some women find stimulation of the vaginal opening the most pleasurable aspect of penetration. And because the nerve endings become less sensitive after repeated stimulation, some women say that penetration feels most enjoyable at first entry. Taking short breaks during sexual activity to focus on other erogenous zones allows the nerve endings in the vagina time to regain their sensitivity. Breaks allow women to reexperience the initial entry pleasure.” [Wondering why stuff like this was not covered during sex ed…]
“By 2001, there were no fewer than twenty-six distinct definitions of women’s orgasm in the research literature.”
“In a survey of over 1,600 American women ages eighteen to fifty-nine, only 29 percent of the women overall said they were able to have an orgasm with a partner. Sixty-one percent—more than twice as many—said they were able to have an orgasm when they masturbated.” [I found these numbers depressing.]
“research shows that men are actually more likely than women to “fall in love at first sight,” which may be the result of an evolutionary adaptation. Men generally are more quickly swayed by physical appearance when choosing a partner than are women, who tend to rely on a wider range of signals, including scent and personality, for the initial spark of attraction. […] The qualities women seek, particularly in a long-term mate, take a longer period of time to evaluate. “Love at first sight” is just more straightforward for men.
Beyond that first rush of emotion, men also appear to stay in love longer: A study that assessed 231 college dating couples from 1972 through 1974 refuted the stereotype that women are the lovers and men are the leavers. The study found that women were more likely than men to break up a relationship [this part should be old news to ‘regular readers’ – see e.g. this post (“The 2004 survey found that 93% of divorce cases were petitioned by wives”)], and they were also more likely to see the breakup coming well in advance. […] There is also some evidence to suggest that breaking up a relationship is more traumatic for men than for women. Obviously it depends on the circumstances of both the relationship and the breakup, but in general, after a breakup, men tend to report more loneliness and depression.”
“Whereas 53 percent of men in one study said that they would have sex without kissing, only 15 percent of women said they would consider sex with someone without first kissing them. […] “Bad” kissing is definitely a sexual turnoff for most women. One study found that 66 percent of women (as compared with 58 percent of men) admitted that sexual attraction evaporated after a bad kiss.”
“Within the United States, Americans purchase some 2,136,960 tubes of lipstick and 2,959,200 jars of skin care products every day. Roughly three hundred thousand American women undergo breast augmentation surgical procedures each year.” [I was curious about the latter number because that sounded high to me, but it seems to check out; see this link] […] “women spend nearly ten times as much on appearance-enhancement products as men do.”
“Studies conducted in Germany [used] digital photography to capture what women wore to singles bars and interview[ed] them afterward. Using a computer program that calculated the percentage of skin revealed by women’s clothing choices, they discovered that women in the most fertile phase of their ovulation cycles wore more revealing clothing and showed more skin than women in the nonfertile phase. Ovulating women dress for sexual success. Another group of researchers, led by UCLA evolutionary psychologist Martie G. Haselton, found that women in the fertile phase of their cycles wore nicer and more fashionable clothes and showed more upper and lower body skin than the same women in the low-fertility phase of their cycles.”
“Why would women intentionally evoke jealousy, given that it is a dangerous emotion, known to be linked to physical violence and even murder? One clue comes from the circumstances in which women use the tactic. Although many couples are equally committed to each other, a substantial minority—39 percent according to one study—exhibit an involvement imbalance in which one partner is more committed to the relationship than the other. Within this group, when the man is the more committed partner, only 26 percent of women report intentionally evoking jealousy. In sharp contrast, when the woman is more committed to the relationship, 50 percent of the women resort to jealousy evocation.
Women’s strategic provocation of a partner’s jealousy serves three functions. First, it increases her partner’s perception of her desirability. The sexual interest of others is a gauge of a partner’s overall mate value. Second, a partner’s response to a jealousy-triggering situation provides a litmus test of the level of his or her commitment. For example, if a man is indifferent when his partner sits seductively in another man’s lap, it may signal a lack of allegiance, and the level of his jealousy can be a signal of the depth of his emotional dedication to the relationship. Perhaps most important is the third function—to increase a partner’s commitment. This is especially true among men, who are much more likely to commit to a woman whom they perceive to be highly desired by other men. A jealous man becomes more smitten, comes to believe that he is lucky to be with his partner, and so doubles his dedication.”