“Cougars” on the prowl

Interesting article in Time on the “Cougar” phenonemon that tries to explain it through an evolutionary psychology perspective:

A new journal article suggests that evolutionary forces also push women to be more sexual, although in unexpected ways. University of Texas psychologist David Buss wrote the article, which appears in the July issue of Personality and Individual Differences, with the help of three graduate students, Judith Easton (who is listed as lead author), Jaime Confer and Cari Goetz. Buss, Easton and their colleagues found that women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense sexual fantasies) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands. In other words, despite the girls-gone-wild image of promiscuous college women, it is women in their middle years who are America’s most sexually industrious…

Here’s how their theory works:

Our female ancestors grew accustomed to watching many of their children — perhaps as many as half — die of various diseases, starvation, warfare and so on before being able to have kids of their own. This trauma left a psychological imprint to bear as many children as possible. Becoming pregnant is much easier for women and girls in their teens and early 20s — so much easier that they need not spend much time having sex.

However, after the mid-20s, the lizard-brain impulse to have more kids faces a stark reality: it’s harder and harder to get pregnant as a woman’s remaining eggs age. And so women in their middle years respond by seeking more and more sex.

Hmmm, sounds reasonable enough.  And then, it turns out that the study has a very serious flaw:

And yet there are a few flaws with the data in the new paper. Chiefly: some three-quarters of the participants in the study were recruited on Craigslist, a website where many go to seek hookups, meaning there was a self-selection problem with the sample. (The other participants were students at the University of Texas in Austin.) The authors also note that there are some alternative explanations for why women in their 30s and early 40s might be more sexual. Many of them may simply be more comfortable with sex than women in their teens and early 20s. Still, that raises the question of why they are more comfortable: perhaps evolution programmed that comfort.

Both the finding and theory are interesting, but as long as they are based on soliciting participants from Craigslist, I don’t really put a lot of stock in them.  I think it would also be very interesting to see the degree to which this holds up in different cultural contexts.  Simply showing something exists in 21st century middle-class America is most definitely not enough to base a theory as resulting from human evolutionary pressures.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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