Social Question

PerryDolia's avatar

Why aren't women more promiscuous?

Asked by PerryDolia (3481points) July 31st, 2009

I am serious about this question, despite its somewhat sexual context.

We are supposed to believe that much of our phisiology and behaviour were developed over thousands (or millions) of years. If we had females that were promiscuous and females who were not, why didn’t the promiscuous ones have more sex acts, and more offspring, providing ever more promiscuous females?

I understand the argument that women choose their mates for family stability and childrearing, I just find it hard to believe that this factor alone could outweigh the positive feedforward of promiscuity.

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51 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

The life expectancy back then was not very high. Few got older than 30. Moreover the offspring incubation cycle of female humans compared to other mammals is extremely long. In essence this means that the amount of offspring a female could manufacture over its lifetime was extremely limited. Wasting production capacity on inferior males would produce inferior offspring with sub-standard survability, compared to those who select their subcontractor (human males) carefully. In short, the offspring of non-promiscuous females had better survivability than those of the promiscuous females, and the non-promicious female offspring was in turn more likely to produce offspring itself without dying before fulfilling its purpose.

dpworkin's avatar

That question has theoretical answers that hinge on the likelihood of promoting the individual genome, but in reality I’m not sure that we have accurate data proving that women, if unfettered by societal norms, are any less naturally promiscuous than men.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Well, if women chose men based on stability and child-rearing, think about it this way: It would have been very detrimental to the female, because men tended to be extremely jealous and dominating. If women had been promiscuous and her current male partner found out that she was pregnant, but by a different man, chances are the male would have killed her baby and possibly even the female herself. This still takes place in many cultures around the world. Men have, apparently, the desire to spread their own seed and will not, often times, tolerate pregnancy of the woman they are taking care of, if the woman is pregnant by another man.

You also have to take into consideration that in most places around the world, men were the providers and so were easily able to repress women. This does not mean that women didn’t have the desire to have more sex or express their sexuality, but simply that they wouldn’t because their providers – who automatically held the power – would not tolerate it.

nikipedia's avatar

Evolution is driven by two components: natural selection and sexual selection.

As you point out, being promiscuous is very good in terms of natural selection. The more sex you have, the more babies you have, and the more babies you have, the better your odds are of passing on your genes.

But what about sexual selection? What are males concerned about when picking a mate? In evolutionary terms, possibly the most important consideration is making sure that when you care for your offspring, the offspring is actually yours. Why waste your resources ensuring the survival of someone else’s genes?

If you’re a female, you know damn well the offspring is yours. If you’re a male, you have to rely on female’s likelihood of fidelity. So, promiscuity would be selected against by males.

PerryDolia's avatar

@pdworkin Thank you for your answer. But, who set up these societal norms? I doubt it was the promiscuous men.

Darwin's avatar

The more sex you have, the more babies you have, and the more babies you have, the better your odds are of passing on your genes.

If you are male, yes, but if you are female you can only produce one child every 9 months, and then it is pretty helpless for years so you are tied up with that. It behooves a woman to find a guy who will stick around and feed her and the kids and protect them from various dangers. Thus, women who are not promiscuous, or who have sex with a small but permanent cadre of men, will survive to raise more offspring than women who go from man to man to man.

It isn’t really a societal norm, it is survival.

PerryDolia's avatar

@nikipedia, thank you for your answer. However, I have got to assume that men in earlier cultures would enjoy a little something on the side as much as men today, so promiscuity WITHIN the family would be discouraged.

But it still seems the promiscuous males would boink the promiscuous females as much as they possibly could.

dpworkin's avatar

Have you read any of the classic Feminist literature? I suggest beginning with The Scond Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@PerryDolia In any society, “the norm” is set up by whoever provides the most food or the food considered most valuable, which in most places tended to be or still is, provided by men. That’s also why in most cultures men have more than one wife. They get to sleep with all of them but are also (again, in most cultures) obligated to take care of their wives and the children they produce. The more wives they have, the more sex and children they have, and the more help the man and all of the women have, in raising offspring.

dynamicduo's avatar

There is no real benefit for promiscuity in females, though. A female is the one who bears the child and until recently was primarily responsible for its upbringing, thus it is in her benefit to carefully select a man who will give good genetics or good stability for the future family, as she has a limited number of children she can have and support!

Men don’t have this concern, they can go around inseminating as many woman as they can get into. And now that sex does not necessarily equal having babies, woman can choose to be promiscuous if they want to. But this won’t come naturally to women for a few generations at least – such changes take time.

Zendo's avatar

You must be living i n the wrong neck of the woods, dude. Southern Cal is populated with millions of promiscuous women!

rooeytoo's avatar

Nice girls don’t, but boys will be boys.

That isn’t the entire answer, but it certainly plays a part.

berry_lips's avatar

We are. We just don’t kiss and tell.

laureth's avatar

Men who are promiscuous could father several children a week, if they tried.

Women who are promiscuous still mostly have to obey the nine month speed limit.

Different payoff ==> different strategy.

Men invest in quantity, women in quality. Theoretically.

tinyfaery's avatar

Then why are lesbians such sluts? Just asking.

Darwin's avatar

@tinyfaery – No children involved – strictly recreation.

Although I must admit the lesbians I know are monogamous,

tinyfaery's avatar

Young lesbians are bad…really bad. Many pair off quickly, but end up pairing up often. And, maybe it’s particular to my area. Some areas just have a lot more lesbians. There is a lot more to choose from. ;)

Darwin's avatar

Perhaps one should say young people are bad that way. Hormones are running high and experimenting is in the air.

Garebo's avatar

I have always said women are the key hole.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

girls are plenty promiscuous don’t you worry…

galileogirl's avatar

If you are talking about Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, in Hollywood known as “cavemen”, I would refer you to Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs. In developed countries today we are free to obsess about sex because our physiological and safety needs are met with minimal effort. Remember I said needs not wants.

Although sex is a physiological need it becomes less urgent if you have to walk 35 miles to the next source of water, there are wolves following your family and it just started to snow. Under those circumstances I don’t think Paleolithic people were thinking about sneaking away for a nooner,

As we passed into the Neolithic era when ownership of assets became more important women became viewed as property tethered by law and tradition often suffering deadly consequences if they followed their own destres. It has been less than 100 years since women have been freer, if not totally free, to make our own decisions. I think we have made great strides in ‘promiscuity” in such a short time.

rooeytoo's avatar

@galileogirl – GA for “I think we have made great strides in ‘promiscuity” in such a short time.” I’m not sure if it is something to be proud of or not, but I agree, we’ve come a long way baby!

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

@rooeytoo be proud, embrace the fact, relive the glory.

alive's avatar

the flaw in your question is that you are assuming that promiscuity is passed on like a genetic trait from mother to child.

(“why didn’t the promiscuous ones have more sex acts, and more offspring, providing ever more promiscuous females?”)

um. wtf. that is absurd. promiscuity is a personal choice, that is influenced by environment. there are many “promiscuous” women (depending on what your definition is of promiscuous)... and i really dont think it has anything to do with reproduction being that there are a variety of ways to control when you get pregnant or not.

hearkat's avatar

I think there are a few factors.

From a physiological standpoint, the hormones released from sexual activity and orgasm (and when breastfeeding) actually lead to a ‘bonding’ feeling, which is why we tend to get attached more easily than men.

As a heterosexual woman who enjoys sexual activity very much, and is done with making babies, and knows the measures to prevent that from accidentally happening… my biggest concern is disease. Women are more likely to get diseases from heterosexual activities than men are, because of the biology and physics involved – we are the ‘recievers’. Yes, there are ways to reduce the odds of getting a disease, but they all detract from the sexual experience for me. So I prefer to be in a long-term, monagamous relationship, so that those ‘barriers’ are no longer needed.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

@alive you’re right. But I think the “um. wtf. that is absurd…” response was a little over the top. It was a topic that Perry was unfamiliar with, and had a curiosity about it, so they asked a question, being condescending like that doesn’t help anyone out. That is what this site is based on, helping people find answers to any and all topics we can muster, not trying to show how much smarter you are by down talking a simple unknowing presumption. I’m not trying to be rude, I am guilty of it myself in certain instances, but I think it’s best for the people here, the site, and for ourselves to try and refrain from reactions like that.

mattbrowne's avatar

Evolution. A single woman can get impregnated by a single man (except for the few cases of fraternal twins with two different fathers) while a single man can impregnate thousands of women.

There are two basic survival strategies for the genes passed on my men:

1) Promiscuity assuming a few kids raised by the mothers will reach sexual maturity themselves
2) Monogamy with all kids being raised by the mother and father and almost all will reach sexual maturity

Interestingly strategy number 2) proved to be far more effective! But 1) although a minority is still around.

fundevogel's avatar

@dynamicduo I’m in the “pregnancy demands a different sexual strategy” camp (its what my anthropology profs told me). However I don’t think the advent of birth control is likely shift the biological factors that discourage women from being promiscuous. I personally would love to be free of some of the annoying biology women are stuck with because of babies, but the fact of the matter is the women that will take the most out of birth control, the ones that completely separate sex from procreation won’t be passing on their sex-centric genes. Any biology that is consistent with avoiding procreation won’t be perpetuated ensuring the female biology will be baby centric for the foreseeable future.

Which kinda sucks. I feel like my freewill is undermined at the cellular level. I say “these crazy hormones are the only thing that keep women from ditching their babies and I want none of that hormonal mind control” and the body says “tough titties, you’re a girl and you have to play by our rules, have some more oxytocin.”

Sucks that biologically femininity revolves around not the female in question but her potential offspring.

galileogirl's avatar

I am not in the sex-centricity is genetic camp but but think it is more likely learned. Aling with the effects of media and peer input, a promiscuous mother is more likely to have promiscuous daughters,

fundevogel's avatar

Biology and culture tend to work together, living in social groups is in fact biologically enforced among humans as well as a lot of other mammals. The most basic precepts of human culture world wide most likely have a biological basis, including things unrelated to sex.

filmfann's avatar

Cause guys talk about how many girls they’ve banged.
Women are too smart to do that.

alive's avatar

all this talk about “evolution” making women less promiscuous seems totally unfounded to me. can someone at least give a source?

i think is is an improper assumption in the first place that that women have less sex than men. depending on the women and depending on the man, every person has their own personal conception of what is appropriate sexual activity.

as for number of partners, the ONLY POSSIBLE thing i can think of that makes someone (male or female) want to be careful about suxual partners is the high STD rate in the United States. but in other places where the STD rate is much lower (denmark for example) one night stands are extremely common.

and even all this about “offspring” or “pregnancy” doesn’t seem right to me because women can still have sex every day even if you are pregnant. they won’t get pregnant with any more children while they are pregnant.

mattbrowne's avatar

@alive – Couple months ago I watch a documentary on German television outlining the two male strategies as described above. It’s difficult to find good material online. Have a look at this short section here

alive's avatar

@mattbrowne the majority of that article is about social and cultural standards. the “nature v. nurture” is very short and not very substantiated. all it says is that is a “proposed theory”... and due to technological innovation women can control when they become pregnant (with 99% accuracy).

it seems it really comes down to nurture on this one…

hearkat's avatar

@alive… as both myself and fundevogel mention, the naturally occurring hormone, oxytocin, creates a bonding feeling in humans, and it is released in higher levels in women during orgasm. It is also released as part of the ‘let down reflex’ when the baby latches in to the mothers breast. It is an amazing rush of well-being unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. This is not a product of ‘nurture’ culture or societal expectations… it is nature, evolution or the way we were meant to be (whatever your belief system is).

alive's avatar

@hearkat 1) did you look at the link mattbrowne posted?

2) that hormone is released anytime you orgasm. first of this assumes that women orgasm every time they have sex. HA!!!!!! second of all the hormone doesn’t bond you to someone, it only you feel that way for a short time.. like cuddling through the night. but once you wake up sober, for me at least, i run!

mattbrowne's avatar

Also from Wikipedia:

Oxytocin is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and vagina during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating birth and breastfeeding, respectively. Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, trust, love, and maternal behaviors.

alive's avatar

the release of oxytocin makes sex an appealing act (pluss all of its other appeals), so one would want to do it over and over. some would choose the same partner repeatedly, others would choose different partners. and once again the choice between few partners or many seems to depend on the particular person (personality, social up-bringing, cultural standards, etc), not on the person biological make-up.

hearkat's avatar

@alive: Perhaps my body is extra sensitive to oxytocin, or releases more than other women; but although the rush is temporary, the connections that form in the brain are lasting… I am not a neuroscientist, but I am a health care provider and I have some knowledge of how the brain and brain chemicals work. Still I can only speak of my personal experiences of breastfeeding my son, and my sexual encounters.

Perhaps those of us who are multiply orgasmic grow very attached—I know am quite particular about whom I share the experience with! Fortunately, since climaxing it isn’t difficult for me, I can “bond” with myself whenever.

And perhaps those who can not climax easily become even more attached when they do find a partner with whom they can reach orgasm. Most of us have been (or have a close friend who has been) in a relationship that was held together by sex. I never used to believe in pheromones, either… until I met a man whose smell gave me a similar feeling as the oxytocin rush.

Brain chemistry is fascinating.

PerryDolia's avatar

@hearkat so you think the bonding from oxytocin is the reason women are (or might be or seem to be) less promiscuous. Going back to the same partner to get the same rush is better than promiscuously looking for the rush in another, unknown partner?

hearkat's avatar

@PerryDolia: I don’t think it’s the only reason. As noted in my first response, the fact that heterosexual women are more likely to contract an STD is one of the reasons why I am not more promiscuous.

galileogirl's avatar

I step away for a minute and the ‘experts’ are talking about childbirth making women horny. The epitome of Turn off that computer and experience real life!

fundevogel's avatar

@alive I learned about human and primate reproductive strategies (that’s they’re called in science) in an anthropology class I took at my university. It was an excellent class taught by the head of the department Craig Stanford.

alive's avatar

@fundevogel you’re right. he’s hot. i’d fuck him.

ok ok. i actually have a real reply to your comments as well.

what i hear you saying is that biology plays a more forceful role in female sexuality than social conditions (yes i see that you also said they “work together”).

so if offspring is all that matters, why don’t women get pregnant as often as possible, i.e. popping out babies one after the other. many women chose only to have one baby. AND there are also plenty of women who choose to have NO kids at all. So if women are defying their biology, is it really biology?

your point seems to be much more related to apes than humans. but humans are not apes. yes there are plenty of similarities, but there are also striking differences. namely the human brain. the largest of all the primates. so large that human babies have to be born earlier (or underdeveloped) compared to all other primates and mammals—other mammals can walk and feed themselves when they are born, while humans can’t. Our big brains allow us to make much more complicated choices, and in this case sexual choices. ones that other animals are not able to consider.

lastly, i would like to point out that sex is not used purely as a reproductive activity in all animals. first of all there are gay animals, just as there are gay humans, so obviously there are other reasons for sexual activity than reproduction… also, dolphiins fuck for fun, and the GREAT bonobo! as you might know the bonobo uses sex as a tool for conflict resolution (does that count as promiscuity?)

fundevogel's avatar

@alive I never said anything about the influence of biology relative to culture. Both are significant, but not disconnected. I focused on biology because it is the lowest common denominator. Cultures and social doctrine varies, but all women have pretty much the same biological forces working on them.

“so if offspring is all that matters, why don’t women get pregnant as often as possible, i.e. popping out babies one after the other.”

I’m not sure where you got this out of my comment. From an evolutionary stand point child-rearing is very costly for a woman. It takes time to carry a child to term and time and resources to raise it to maturity. It is an incredible investment. If women went out and got pregnant as much as possible they would not be able to provide enough time and resources to all their progeny thus limiting their reproductive potential. Tribal women used to breast feed each child 3 or 4 years, ensuring she wouldn’t get pregnant again while the current child was still completely dependent.

“many women chose only to have one baby. AND there are also plenty of women who choose to have NO kids at all. So if women are defying their biology, is it really biology?”

Yes, that fact that biology can be defied does not mean it does not exist. The biology that governs female sexuality is hormonal. You can go to the doctor and get your levels checked. You can take a pill to regulate them. If you don’t have them you are in serious shit. The female hormones, while sometimes frustrating are vital to healthy living. Women who have had their ovaries removed (which produce hormones) have more trouble keeping fit and suffer from higher levels of bone loss and osteoporosis.

Plus even if you don’t to have babies, hormones make life sexier and oxytocin is pretty much completely responsible for the feeling of love.

“lastly, i would like to point out that sex is not used purely as a reproductive activity in all animals. first of all there are gay animals, just as there are gay humans, so obviously there are other reasons for sexual activity than reproduction… also, dolphiins fuck for fun, and the GREAT bonobo! as you might know the bonobo uses sex as a tool for conflict resolution (does that count as promiscuity?)”

Sex is fun because animals that enjoy it are pretty much guaranteed to out reproduce animals that don’t. Thus perpetuating animals that enjoy sex. When natural selection chooses horniness it’s not so surprising that it’s horny selections start pioneering new ways to have sexy fun. So long as they’re reproducing as a community it’s still about reproduction as far as nature is concerned.

and humans are apes.

alive's avatar


ok but you are still using biology to explain promiscuity. this is flawed from the start because “promiscuity” is a culturally, and socially developed concept.

Having multiple partners in some cultures is a faux pas, while in others it is common, even expected, and also accepted, therefore in some people’s view (like mine) there is no such thing as promiscuity (with the exception of a person using sex as a coping mechanism for some emotional problem, such as being a victim of sexual abuse as a child).

fundevogel's avatar

@alive You seem to think you can separate culture from biology. Culture is shaped by biology. Almost every early human culture has had their own version of Cinderella, and their own gods to beg pardon and solicit blessings from. All over the world moving rhythmically to music was practiced as a unifying social activity and no one, anywhere, was content to just get rid of their dead without some sort of ritual.

If these practices arose purely from culture, independent of biology, you wouldn’t expect every culture on earth to put so much energy into things with no concrete value. The fact that they all invest time into the same sorts of practices shows that they do have a reason to engage in this activities. It just isn’t external, the need is a product of their shared human biology.

These practices may very drastically from society to society, but the fact that each fulfills the same needs demonstrates that people a world apart share some fundamental humanity independent of culture. Biology. And if biology can write Cinderella for every continent I it might have more than a little say in how you shake you baby maker.

alive's avatar

i actually do not think that culture can be separated from biology. what i am saying is this particular question is essentially about culture, and is mistakenly labeled as a question of biology.

sex is biology, yes. but sexual practices are cultural.

the concept of promiscuity is a cultural concept. while all people have sex. not all people have the same standard for what is or is not promiscuous.

therefore all the arguments about biology are moot points.

the answer to this question is that some women are promiscuous, and some aren’t (depending on whose standard is being used to define promiscuity). And like I said in my fist post, promiscuity does not pass on to off spring. It is not a biological or genetic characteristic.

Even IF it was passed on to the children, “promiscuous” women don’t necessarily have more children because of many forms of birth control available.

fundevogel's avatar

@alive You’re talking about promiscuity simply in terms of its social conotations then? I’ll agree that those are a product of culture, though the culture itself would have been significantly shaped by biological and environmental factors.

I wasn’t thinking of the words negative social connotations, so much as its description of behavior. You can apply the term promiscuous without passing judgement. Scientists call bonobos promiscuous and they sure aren’t judging them. In fact looking at the thesaurus promiscuous is the least judgmental way to refer to sleeping with a bunch of different partners.

I had thought the asker had also been referring to behavioral aspect of the word, because he (or she?) mentioned both physiology and behavior in the question. Though I can see the mix up since it seems our language conspires to keep even clinical discussion of sexual behavior tinted with our Puritanical history.

Tastentier's avatar

Studies have found that women are just as promiscuous as men, but they are also better liars and generally more secretive about their adventures. As a rough estimate, about 30% of the children of married women were not fathered by their husbands, who are not aware of this in most cases.

The reason is simply that kind and domestic men who make good fathers, as well as successful men who make good partners for the sake of social security and status, are not always the most attractive and physically healthy specimen. This leads to the common female strategy of marrying a good provider and then finding a young and attractive sperm donor behind his back.

Of course women don’t consciously plan and think like that. They fall in love, get married, the infatuation wears off, their husband suddenly seems cold and uncaring (even if his behaviour didn’t change at all), some handsome stranger shows romantic interest, and that’s that. Humans are as instinct-driven as any other animal.

WestRiverrat's avatar

Women just don’t advertise their affairs as much as men do.

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