What can evolution tell us about one-night stands?

According to the BBC and a bunch of other coverage of a study published in Human Nature, it tells us that women aren’t as likely as are men to enjoy a one-night stand:

Just under half of women who answered the internet poll, published in the journal “Human Nature”, said they felt it had been a bad idea.

Four out of five men, in contrast, said they were happy with a brief fling.

Note the manipulative presentation of the numbers. In actuality, 54% of women and 80% of men enjoyed their brief romps, but that doesn’t seem as extreme a difference as “just under half” of women regretting it and “four in five” men enjoying it. But however we phrase these results, does this lead us to conclusions about, say, the ability of men to please women the very first time they hop in the sack together? Or perhaps conclusions about people who answer Internet polls about their sex lives? No, of course not. Women’s dissatisfaction must be evolution in action.

“In evolutionary terms women bear the brunt of parental care and it has been generally thought that it was to their advantage to choose their mate carefully and remain faithful to make sure that their mate had no reason to believe he was raising another man’s child.

“Recently, biologists have suggested that females could benefit from mating with many men – it would increase the genetic diversity of their children, and, if a high quality man would not stay with them forever, they might at least get his excellent genes for their child.”

However, she said that if women were designed by evolution for short-term relationships, they would enjoy them more, and the survey suggested this was not the case.

Coming down to earth from those lofty clouds of conjecture, now: what does evolution tell those of us in the reality-based community about behaviour?

Nothing. Really, really nothing. Behaviour is cultural. People’s emotional responses to circumstances — and I’m not talking about basic nervous-system, fight-or-flight-inducing circumstances, but everyday happenings — are culturally driven. You can’t conclude a darn thing from them about evolution.

Of course you can get lots of media attention if you try to do so anyway, particularly if — as in this study — you conclude that there’s something wrong with women.

Salon (Men: Score! Women: Whoops!) is so far the only media coverage of this I’ve seen that even mentions culture:

I’d sooner believe that this study illustrates the familiar stud-slut double standard. Even young women of the hookup generation — and I am one — aren’t immune to culturally commanded sexual shame; greater permissiveness toward one-night stands doesn’t necessarily make it easy for women to feel proud of their sexploits. On the same note, it’s no surprise women report less sexual satisfaction from their hookups: Plenty of women don’t exactly experience sexual shame as an aphrodisiac, and hookup culture doesn’t emphasize female pleasure so much as it does humping like bunny rabbits.

So: +1 points for Salon for addressing the culture aspect. A sharp slap with a wet noodle to Human Nature’s peer reviewers, who should not have published such a flawed study, and a big “boo, hiss” to all the science reporters who covered it without turning on their brains.

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