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Is It Possible Men Don't Really Want Casual Sex?

Most men aren't sex-crazed Casanovas, a researcher argues. They're in search of relationships, not one-night stands.
 
 
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He’s got one thing on his mind and one thing only: sex. Namely, how to get it as often and with as many different women as humanly possible. He’s become a staple of modern comedies, from “Porky’s” to “American Pie” to “Superbad,” and he’s what research psychologist Andrew P. Smiler calls the “Casanova stereotype.”

This popular conception of young men is the subject of Smiler’s new book,  “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male.” This stereotype “tells us that guys are primarily interested in sex, not relationships,” he writes. “This contributes to the notion that guys are emotional clods who are incapable of connecting with their partners because, hey, they’re just guys, and guys are only interested in sex. “ The result is the belief that “guys shouldn’t be expected to achieve any type of ‘real’ emotional intimacy with their partners.”

But Smiler has an important question: “If Casonova-style promiscuity is men’s naturally evolved state, then why do most men want no more than one partner?” In “Challenging Casanova,” the Wake Forest University professor lays out the current data on young men’s sexual desires and behavior to make a case against this insidious stereotype. The book is grounded in research but nonetheless accessible and not exceedingly academic. It dares us to consider what might happen if we forgot everything we thought we knew about young men and began accepted the truth that they are largely interested in relationships, not endless one-night stands.

I spoke to Smiler in a break between his classes about everything from dating to hooking up, “Two and a Half Men” to the General David Petraeus cheating scandal.

You write in the intro, “We teach boys and girls that it’s normal and natural for guys to be promiscuous.” Is it not? What’s wrong with the evolutionary arguments about boys and men wanting to spread their seed?

First off, it’s not. All of the research that we have show that it’s only a minority of guys who have multiple partners per year, and I typically talk about this as three partners a year because that’s the Casanova average. It’s actually a minority of guys who want multiple short-term partners — that even comes up in the evolutionary research. The evolutionary argument basically goes that guys have the ability, theoretically, to produce hundreds of children per year, and they can never quite be 100 percent sure that any child is theirs, so they should spread their seed widely. But what gets left out of that is the fact that if you want your genes to go beyond that next generation — beyond your children to your grandchildren, then your odds are better if you actually stick around and help raise that kid until that kid is old enough to pass on his or her genes.

Why has this narrative about seed-spreading become so dominant?

It made it out of scientific circles and into popular culture in the 1980s as sociobiology, and parts of it got recreated as evolutionary psychology in the 1990s. So it’s gotten a lot of press attention as a new theory. Another part is it really caught on because it gives us essentially a simple answer to a difficult question and, for whatever reason, we here in the U.S., if not in many other places, really like those simple answers to difficult questions.

In mainstream media we’ve had all of this stuff on TV since the 1970s that really promotes this idea of promiscuous young men. The history, as far as I can tell, really starts with Fonzie on “Happy Days” and “Hawkeye” Pierce on “M*A*S*H.” And it continues with guys like Sam Malone on “Cheers” and Charlie Sheen’s character on “Two and a Half Men” and Barney on “How I Met Your Mother.” For several years now we’ve had so-called good guys who were also promiscuous. If you looked at TV and movies from the ’50s and ’60s, the promiscuous guys were always very clearly the bad example.

 
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