The science of monogamy and casual sex

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In the September 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, the magazine attempted to navigate the mysteries of the modern dating world, perusing New York City bars and chatting up men and women as they swiped left and right on the dating app Tinder. According to the article, it would seem that men are seeking only an evening, or perhaps just an hour or two of “companionship,” while women remain ever hopeful that a single swipe will someday end in matrimonial bliss.

The article was published just days before the Ashley Madison scandal broke, another technological “advancement” rumored to cater to the supposed male psyche. While the Vanity Fair article paints the picture that young women are highly dissatisfied with this shift in cultural norms, research would suggest the opposite— as a whole, society is seeking to define relationships and sex in a whole new light.

Trends in monogamy

These attitudes toward monogamy are not all that new. All animal species have distinct differences in mate selection, with females being choosier and males a little more indiscriminate. These behaviors take root, experts suspect, in the fact that the reproductive process is a substantial investment of time and metabolic energy for females. This makes females a limited commodity, leaving males to battle it out to mate with a female in her prime. This head-to-head competition is still keenly observed in animal populations and affected early man too— at least that is one theory, suggesting that this was the origin of macho competition. However, in order to advance and cultivate civilization, humans used their oversized brains to devise a way to live a more peaceful existence, giving rise to pairing off, living as a group (families), evolving language, and sharing food.

Regardless of the mate selection process, only about a dozen species engage in monogamy, staying together to raise their offspring. That devotion is generally limited to the short term: When offspring leave the nest, these partnerships usually dissolve. There are a few animal species that continue partnerships beyond child-rearing, and even among those that do, those relationships include philandering.

Historically, among humans, anthropologists cite that only 1 in 6 societies enforce monogamy as a rule. Most scientists view human monogamy, in all its forms, as a societal structure rather than a natural state. When taking this into consideration, it is easy to see why there is a cultural shift happening in America. In the past, women had a lot to lose with the break-up of marriage and family. Many women were dependent upon their husbands for income, and marriage was an opportunity to climb the social ladder for many women and their families. This social structure alone made it a high-cost venture for a woman to engage in extramarital affairs or call it quits on a cheating husband.

A shift in gender norms

Today, however, marriage is less about status and economic stability or even having children. Women are no longer dependent upon men for a foothold in society or financial support, and more women are opting not to have children, or are at least delaying children and marriage until later in life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47.6 percent of American women ages 15 to 44 were without children in 2014, up from 46.5 percent in 2012. The biggest factor behind these numbers were avoiding the hassles of juggling career and family. Of women surveyed aged 40 to 50, those that held professional positions were more likely to be childless.

Women are opting out of having children, climbing the corporate ladder, and, according to a number of recent reports, engaging in extramarital affairs too. When Ashley Madison was exposed, reports showed that 22 percent of the sites “cheaters” were men and 14 percent were women. According to Psychology Today, a 2011 study found only a marginal gender gap among cheaters, with 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women reporting extramarital affairs.

Among both men and women, instances of casual sex are up about 15 percent, according to research out of the University of Portland, but the number of partners and frequency of sex remains steady. As women have gained equal footing with men in society, the need to “pair off” for life is less of a necessity. Sex and relationships are now easily separated from climbing the social ladder and financial gains.

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Sex and relationships have evolved. Neither is exclusively about reproduction and raising offspring (and haven’t been for quite some time), but these cornerstones of American culture are no longer closely tied to societal gains either, taking the reasons for engaging in sex back to a very primal state, like true intimacy and physical attraction. This full evolution of sexual interaction makes what might come next a very interesting proposition.