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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Research Determines Exactly What All Women Want, All The Time, In Every Scenario...Except Not

A great pop science write-up on decades of animal research (human and non) on female mate choice- MA.

by Leigh Bond

Who says that women only like jerks? A new study published in the journal Science from Binghamton University and the University of Arizona adds yet another clue to the mystery that is female sexual selection.  "Nice guys don't always finish last," says the press release.

Of course, the nice guys in question happened to be insects. Researchers in this study observed the effects of a controlled group of male water striders – both aggressive and low-key, and their sexual relations with the females in the group. According to the study led by Omar Tonsi Eldakar of the University of Arizona’s Arizona Research Laboratories, groups of “gentlemen” water striders mated with  more females than did groups of the “psychopath” suitors. The research contradicts previous laboratory studies finding sexually aggressive males more successful at reproducing, said Eldakar. In previous studies, the females were blocked from leaving the areas populated by the sexually aggressive males; this study showed that actually given a choice, the females would leave whenever the jerk bugs came around - the nice bugs got the girls.
A lesson, according to Scientific Blogging, for all women. Their article based on the study approvingly notes that, "Female water striders don't like the bad boys and they don't even have to reach the age of 30 before they wise up about choices in males." Of course, most water striders die off before their second birthday. But still: human ladies could learn a thing or two!

This is not the first time a news release or article has claimed that the key to human sexuality lies in understanding our animal friends. Nor is it the first time that  the evidence contradicts previous research. To wit: Seahorses want their ladies large and pushy, capable of producing bigger, better eggs; the fickle female katydids change their type by the season – in winter, they like the ‘cool guys’ and in summer, they ‘like them hot.’ Peahens may play it shallow and like their peacock flashy , but redback spiders swear that smaller mates make better lovers and like them fast and frisky. High balling isn’t for all species however - male sand gobies play a different game and pull their ‘Mr. Mom’ card to snare their lady’s heart and nest; female beetles show that swimming the low tides of the gene pool bodes for superior egg fertility – studies have shown that higher paternity shares go to males with lower genetic quality. Bowerbirds apparently don’t care one way or another - they’d really just like their nest to be blue.

Of course, the human evidence is just as contrarian. In the battle between dads versus cads, a study by the University of Michigan shows that women prefer dads – “men who are kind, compassionate and monogamous” over classic Byronic heroes, dominant, dark and daring – or at least for the long term. Counter this with a Cornell University study that swears women in cities really just want men with money, and suddenly “nice” isn’t quite enough. Rich jerks won’t cut it either though, according to a UCLA study published in the journal Personal Relationships that shows women prefer prestige, true, but will still shy away from coercive encounters. And being rich won’t save a marriage either, according to John Gottmann at the University of Washington, who says despite any superficial qualities, happiness lays rooted in friendship .

All this information might lead one to believe that the idea of "what women want" – a neatly packaged biological urge all women are evolutionarily compelled to follow – is a bunch of crap.
Daphne J. Fairbairn, Professor of Biology at the University of California: Riverside, and editor of “Sex, Size and Gender Roles: Evolutionary Studies of Sexual Size Dimorphism” warns about not approaching these studies-- or their sexed up press releases--with a critical eye. “It would be nice if societies work this way, but they don’t,” she says, of the environments created by scientific research.
The real world is not a controlled environment – it’s messy, cut-throat, and competitive. Scientific studies typically generate an idea of something that could work, but are less successful at demonstrating something that already does. Water striders case marks a classic example: different experiments setting up different artificial environments, and coming away with different results. Moreover, we should note, women and water striders are not the same thing. Not even close. And the idea that our behaviors and actions can be determined by evolutionary or biological drives we inherited from either caveman ancestors or our animal antecedents is reductive at best, lazy and offensive at worst.  

In other words: all this talk about scientists proving what ladies REALLY want? It's about PR departments of hospitals and research institutions marketing their fascinating-to-few-but-other-scientists breakthroughs by making a journal in Nature sound like Cosmo.  It's about media outlets looking to fill a slow news day with stories that sound like sex advice instead of scientific advancements. What's it's not about is any resonating truth about female sexuality.
Sex sells, as they say.  But when it comes to research "proving" what women want, we're not buying it

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