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Sexy beasts

There's potential good news for women who like to fuck around, or who find monogamy as much or even more of a challenge than the men they know: You are not evolutionary freaks after all. As a matter of fact, in the right cultural circumstances, you would have been evolutionary heroines.

But before I let you ladies off the hook for your legendary evil ways, allow me a word about the limitations of evolutionary "science." We've been expected to buy wholesale the authoritative-sounding, conveniently patriarchal theory that it's "natural" for men to be promiscuous and women to be sexually reserved. Those invested in a dreary 1950s vision of female chastity have been this theory's best customers. But as far as I can tell, the "scientists" who came up with this stuff work as follows: They look at the current state of human society and then work backward toward a biologically based explanation for how things got this way. More than one critic has hammered the results of such methodology for being nothing more than a series of "just so" stories, steeped in circular arguments where the premise and the conclusion are exactly the same.

So it's nice to see some relatively hard evidence that flies in the face of such speculation. As Sally Lehrman writes in "The Virtues of Promiscuity," posted on July 22 at, traditional evolutionary psychology asserts

that human society is based on the age-old economic contract between the sexes: Men hunt and women raise children. Fathers provide meat for the family, and in exchange, moms offer fidelity and the guarantee of paternity. While men--who produce millions of sperm--are inveterate philanderers, gals, stuck with relatively few eggs that require a significant investment, tend to be choosy and coy. Men therefore are biologically prone to spreading their seed far and wide, while women focus on finding the perfect pop.

But Lehrman reports that some anthropologists now focus on the 20 or so tribal cultures in which women have been free and, in fact, are encouraged to have numerous sexual partners.

Less than 50 years ago, Canela women, who live in Amazonian Brazil, enjoyed the delights of as many as 40 men one after another in festive rituals. When it was time to have a child, they'd select their favorite dozen or so lovers to help their husbands with the all-important task. Even today, when the dalliances of married BarĂ­ ladies in Colombia and Venezuela result in a child, they proudly announce the long list of probable fathers.

The cultural rationale seems to go as follows: The more potential fathers a child has, the more men are obligated to that child. This broadly shared responsibility gives comfort to both husbands and wives, especially in societies where young males have a high death rate. Anthropologists link up these findings with studies of female primates, who generally associate with one mate but then "exhibit a polyandrous tendency when given the opportunity to stray." Apparently, the offspring of slutty primates have a better chance of survival than those whose mothers stay true to one ape.

While I was reading this article, I had a foggy memory from my grad-school days of reading Jacques Derrida on why it's ludicrous to try to separate "nature" from "culture." As I recall, he reinforced my discomfort with claims about the biological basis of social norms. It seems that humans--as well as our primate cousins--make individual and collective decisions based on a combination of biological impulses (to find food, stay alive, ensure the survival of the next generation, etc.) and ever-changing physical circumstances and social/ cultural expectations. Thus, the multiple-fathers paradigm works well for the tribal, communal people of the Amazon, but here in a society organized economically around the concept of the nuclear family, we prefer a solid one-to-one correspondence between father and child. That's why we get Jerry Springer or Maury Povich sponsoring DNA tests on reluctant dads who have been remiss in their child-support payments.

Another thing has always bugged me about evolutionary determinism: It can't explain the complexity of people's emotions, the ambivalence or dissonance they feel even when they are acting in accordance with their alleged biological imperatives. Thus we end up with happily married women made to feel horribly guilty just for fantasizing about other guys, and happily married men made to feel freakish for not really wanting to hang out at the strip club with their single pals.

I knew many sluts of both sexes in my late teens and early 20s. Some were wallowing in self-loathing and a kind of mind-from-body detachment generously fueled by inhibition-dampening substances; others were openly rebelling against the sexual rules promulgated by their parents; still others, it seems, were staving off boredom until their soul mates came along. Different things motivate different people at different times in their lives. The welcome information about multiple-father cultures tells us something about the malleability and variety of human sexuality. Meanwhile, textbook speculations and pseudoscientific "just so" stories can't reduce the multifaceted demons and angels that drive us.

Sandy Asirvatham writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to

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