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The Psychology of Sex

Glenn Wilson on Cross-Cultural Comparisons

Historical and anthropological comparisons show that the same sex differences within the domain of love and marriage have prevailed in virtually every time and place. Among the ancient Greeks, for example, the male need for sexual variety was openly conceded and a ‘double standard’ was firmly maintained (Bardis, 1979). It was usual for a husband to have sex with prostitutes, foreign women and slaves, and possibly even teenage boys, while the wife was expected to be a virgin before marriage and faithful to her husband after. Men were permitted concubines as long as they could afford to keep them and the legitimate wife was not particularly jealous, because her social status was higher than that of the concubine.

This is typical of the pattern seen in the vast majority of societies of the past. Men occupied nearly all the positions of political power, and those that held the highest rank in society gained access to the most females. Mythical societies like the Amazons, which are supposed to have reversed this pattern, are purely imaginary; they never existed (Goldberg, 1977).

Among human societies, polygyny is by far the most common marital system (Ford and Beach, 1951). George Murdock’s (1967) Ethnographic Atlas presents a categorization of 849 societies. Of these, 709 are polygynous and only four are polyandrous (women being permitted more than one husband). In the latter, exceptional cases, extreme conditions can usually be identified, such as severe economic deprivation leading to the practice of female infanticide. The surplus of males and the need to have more than one bread-winner thus creates a climate in which it is acceptable for women to acquire more than one husband. Even then, the women seem little inclined to capitalize on their privilege.

As noted above, in officially monogamous societies like our own, men are usually recognized as being more attracted to the idea of extra-marital sex than women, and many socially powerful men maintain mistresses as well as legal wives. Oil millionaire Paul Getty Senior, for example, kept a house full of women who were effectively wives. The practice of ‘serial polygamy,’ of marrying a succession of wives one after another, is also more common among rich and powerful men in our society, such as Hollywood film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Micky Rooney.

Officially acknowledged polygamy is a much more widespread norm. Throughout the world it is common for women to be treated as the property of their husbands. In cultures as far removed from one another as the Aboriginals of Australia and the Eskimos of Alaska, wives may be bought and sold, inherited, loaned to guests and friends and used to pay debts. The number of wives a man has is determined primarily by how many he can afford to support (Mulder, 1988).

Similarly, in all societies prostitution is an almost exclusively female occupation, sex being viewed as a service that is rendered to men by women. The few male prostitutes that do exist cater mostly to homosexual men and are called ‘rent boys’; gigolos are an extremely rare breed and their services as escorts, companions and status symbols are just as important as their stud value.

The treatment of women as sexual commodities is dictated not just by the superior social power of men but by the simple biological fact that the reproductive potential of a man is much greater than that of a woman. For example, the late King Sobhuza II of Swaziland had more than a hundred wives, around six hundred children and untold numbers of grandchildren. In fact, about 20 per cent of Swazis are said to be members of his family. It hardly needs to be said that no woman can ever produce anything remotely like six hundred children, regardless of how many husbands she acquires or men she sleeps with. Despite Catherine the Great’s reputation for lustiness, and for having sex with vast numbers of men about the court, she was not distinguished as a prolific mother.

The Guinness Book of Records lists sixty-nine as the greatest number of children ever produced by a woman, compared with an official male record of 888 contributed by the last Sharatan Emperor of Morocco. Had he been inclined towards monogamy, his genes would have been much rarer in the world today.

This fundamental physiological difference between mammalian males and females must, throughout history, have led to divergences between the sexual instincts of the two genders. To say that King Sobhuza and the Moroccan Emperor are exceptional men is irrelevant; the point is that men who are exceptional in exactly this respect pass more of their genes on to the next generation of men than do ordinary men. And, however slight this tendency, it is bound to have a cumulative effect on the evolution of male instincts over a period of several million years. For women, what counts is that the survival of the limited number of children they do produce is assured, and this depends of the quality of the progenitors, not their quantity. Thus women will inevitably have evolved different instincts from those of men – tendencies toward partner selectivity and loyalty as mothers, not lust and sexual sensation-seeking.

Glenn Wilson, The Great Sex Divide, pp. 51-53. Peter Owen (London) 1989; Scott-Townsend (Washington D.C.) 1992.

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