Shankar Vedantam writes in the Washington Post that scientists are debating whether male infidelity is biologically normal. A recent worldwide survey of more than 16,000 people revealed that men?whether single, married or gay?want more sexual partners than women do.

“This study provides the largest and most comprehensive test yet conducted on whether the sexes differ in the desire for sexual variety,” says researcher David P. Schmitt. “The results are strong and conclusive?the sexes differ, and these differences appear to be universal.”

This means that male promiscuity may be hardwired in the genes, and therefore “normal.” “It is the first systematic, massive, scientific study of these sex differences,” says evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss. “The evidence he presents is irrefutable.”

Schmitt thinks the roots of this sex difference lie in ancient hunter-gatherer societies. Men who sought sexual variety had a greater chance of passing on their genes, while women who kept their mates improved their chances of raising children. This also means that promiscuous men passed on those tendencies and monogamous women passed on the opposite tendencies, so we’ve ended up with a mismatch between the sexes.

But psychologist Terri Fisher says women are less likely to report their true sexual desires. In another study, men and women were asked whether they masturbated, watched soft- or hard-core porn, with each “yes” scoring one point. On average, men scored 2.32 and women 0.89. But women’s scores jumped to 1.53 when their replies were anonymous. And when they took the test alone in a locked room, then put their answers in a locked box, their average scores shot up to 2.04, while men’s didn’t change. Fisher also found that when anonymity was guaranteed, women reported having sex for the first time at a younger age.

Evolutionary psychologist Pamela Regan thinks that men in hunter-gatherer societies who stayed with a single mate and helped raise their children might have been more genetically successful than promiscuous males, because they could pass on more of their genes if their children survived long enough to reproduce.

“I have heard people say, ‘I can’t help it, I am a man?I have to spill my seed,'” says Regan. “That’s using science to justify your bad behavior.”

Maybe we need to learn new ways to figure out what the opposite sex wants.

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