Although most people probably have several reasons
for taking this course,* were I to take a poll I would not be
surprised to find a common reason being curiosity about sexual
attraction, both our own and that of others. No matter
what our age or circumstance, interpersonal exchange is almost
unavoidably colored by an underlying substrate of attraction (or
disaffection, as the case may be).
Why do male birds often sport bright plumage,
which makes them all the more apparent to predators? In
his 1871 work, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation
to Sex, Charles Darwin first proposed the evolution of attributes
that bring individuals an advantage in reproduction, an advantage
separate and distinct from those that increase the odds of survival.
But Darwin did not explain how these advantages might have originated
and been maintained. David Buss, a professor of psychology
at the University of Michigan, has devoted a lot of effort to
studying the subject of how and why people choose mates.
Having found similarities in mate-finding strategies across
cultures, he debunks the commonly held belief that attraction
is largely culture-bound. He also argues that strategies
differ between the sexes. In collaboration with others, he has
collected his findings into a theory of sexual strategies.
Sexual-strategies theory holds that our
ancestors evolved sexual strategies that allowed them to mate
and reproduce successfully; those whose tactics were not successful
failed to become ancestors. Biologically, the sex that
invests more time and effort into raising the young will also
be more discriminating in choosing a mate, while the sex that
values quantity of inseminations over the raising of offspring
must therefore compete with same-sex contenders for opposite-sex
favors. This parental-investment strategy, proposed by
Robert Trivers in 1972, accounts for the original division of
sexual strategies between males and females. Thus, although
in humans there is certainly blurring of the lines, generally
males compete and females choose.
Sampling populations across 37 countries,
Buss and his colleagues found a preponderance of similarities
in sexual strategies. These similarities are specific
to the sexes and can be further divided by intent into short-term
and long-term schemes. In the biological sense, a man's
reproductive success is measured in number of offspring.
This can best be accomplished by impregnating a diversity of
females. To be reproductively successful, a woman must
carry her fetus to term and nurture the child until the child
is capable of self-care. This takes much more time and
effort to achieve, and only one man can father each child.
Thus, for a woman, multiple partners contribute much less to
Nevertheless, short-term and long-term
strategies are common to both sexes.
For a man, short-term strategies include
maximizing number of partners, identifying women who are both
sexually accessible and fertile, and minimizing his own cost,
risk, and commitment. Short-term strategies for a woman
can be considered as prefaces to long-term strategies.
They include determining the male's willingness to share resources
for her and her potential offspring, identifying men with high-quality
genes, evaluating potential long-term prospects from short-term
mates, and accumulating potential alternate mates.
Long-term strategies for a man must assure
him of his own paternity. Once he has identified a partner capable
of successful reproducing and parenting, a man's long-term strategy
requires commitment. A woman, of course, is always certain
of her own contribution to the conception of a child.
To maximize her chances of reproductive success once children
are begot, she must gain access to resources and protection,
and that is often achieved through securing a willing partner
whose long-term strategies are, if not identical to hers, at
As you work through the contents of this
course, consider your own situation. Often we are raised
with parental strategies that do not correspond to our own;
even if they should happen to correspond, however, it is wise
to differentiate between strategies taught and assumed by our
parents, and those we develop from our own sense of selfhood
and needs. For example, Dr. Buss's theory of
sexual strategies summarized above seems to fit well into the
context of reproductive intent. However, even when parenting
is not a priority or our reproductive years are behind us, we
are almost always aware of and sensitive to signals from attractive
people. So although it may constitute an important
component, reproductive intent is not the only basis of attraction,
and it may not be a factor with you. Attraction
need hardly be confined to reproductive prowess; ultimately,
attraction might empower a pair to transcend the bounds of singularity.
But no theory can accommodate everything; that's why there are
so many of them.
* Human Sexuality, a distance-learning
psychology course at Colorado State University
Self-monitoring is a personality characteristic identified
by Mark Snyder (1974). The hypothesis concerns one's
perception of and adaptation to surroundings, but he's not talking
about the jungle. To some extent, almost everyone modifies
his or her behavior in response to the presence of others; the
extent of this regulation varies. High self-monitors are
greatly influenced by situational cues and behave appropriately.
Low self-monitors are less influenced by ambience and more prone
to act in response to internal cues.
Research in the area of consumer behavior indicates differences
in buying behavior that are explained by Snyder's dichotomy.
For instance, in buying a car, high self-monitors are more likely
to prefer sleekness and popularity over the functionality favored
by low self-monitors. One might expect that advertising
would affect these populations differently, and so it appears.
High self-monitors are impressed by social rewards and image associated
with a product, while low self-monitors are attracted by quality.
In evaluating other people, high self-monitors place a greater
emphasis on physical attractiveness than do low self-monitors,
who respond to other attributes. The socially defined attractiveness
of a circumcised penis might then enter into your own anatomical
Although a scale to classify people's monitoring tendencies
has been developed, alas, it is not to be found in this corner
of Alphabet Heaven.
The idea that we humans, who
like to think of ourselves as verbal, visual creatures, encased
in at least a veneer of propriety, might dispatch unseen signals
to unsuspecting others through the medium of scent might strike
us as being the least bit unbefitting. Yet, despite our
earnest attempts to abolish the pungent evidence of our existence,
various discretely located apocrine glands from time to time release
molecules of chemicals of the sort that drive animals more in
tune with their olfactory bulbs to distraction. And, as it is
said that every major perfume manufactured incorporates at least
a scintilla of pheromones in its clandestine list of ingredients,
belief in the power of these tiny molecules is hardly confined
to the fringes.
Most of the pheromones thus far identified,
both in humans and in lower animals, are tiny molecules that
have their effect in very small doses. Their apparent purpose
is not solely for the function of mating. They provide signals
concerning when and for how long to congregate in crowds, how
to identify and rank members of a society, where property boundaries
lie, and how to attract friends and confuse enemies. The signals
appear to influence the sender as well as the receiver.
Fish not only identify individuals with their
chemical signals, but the signals disclose changes in status
of the sender as he climbs and sinks in the local hierarchy.
In the water as elsewhere, apparently, there is no place to
Although there is evidence that humans retain
at least vestiges of the equipment by which these chemical signals
are generated, it is uncertain to what extent we still respond
to them. Certainly any responses we do enact are not high in
the scheme of consciousness. However, there are hints as to
our incognizant reactions. Detection of and response to chemical
signals explains the synchronization of menstrual cycles in
young women living in proximity. An article in Nature
by a methodical scientist who lived most of his time in isolation
on an island reported an increase in the dry weight of his beard,
recovered daily from his electric razor, on occasions when he
returned to the mainland and was exposed to women. Detection
of her own pheromones might be involved in a woman's reputed
tendency toward optimism and high spirits at the onset of ovulation.
And who among us has not at least contemplated obeying the appeals
of merchandising and covertly applying musk, perhaps to tip
the scales of enchantment in an attractive but elusive target.
When you think of passion, you may not connect it with jealousy.
Yet jealousy is in no small number of cases the genesis of homicide,
and the tempest brewed by jealousy evokes sympathy enough from
those who have tasted its fire that it is sometimes deemed justified.
Certainly homicide resulting from the outrage of betrayal seems
cut from a different cloth than its cousin, cold-blooded, premeditated
Although jealousy can certainly have valid reasons, having
reasons is not a necessity. As with any production of
the imagination, its creation out of nothing can have concrete
physiological consequences, which seem to lend it credence in
the bearer's mind.
Jealousy can be mistaken for, indeed could be deemed proof
of, love. F. Gonzalez-Crussi, who has devoted
some attention to such matters, quotes Ampelis, an experienced
courtesan in Lucian's Scenes of Courtesans, as she tutors
a young apprentice on recognizing true manly devotion:
"The man who has not been jealous, beaten his mistress,
torn her clothes--he has yet to be in love."
To a greater extent than most others, the Spanish culture
has a tradition of the trait of jealousy, an inclination that
might have been succored by the Catholic idea of a jealous and
implacable God. Centuries ago the idea of "honor"
became a means by which wives and daughters were rigorously
controlled; the concept of honor, or honra, was verbalized
in a number of closely synonymous but subtly differing words,
many of which, according to Gonzalez-Crussi, were still in use
late in the 20th century. During the Counter-Reformation,
when the convention of honor in Spain was at its peak, a multitude
of novels, theatrical plays, and music exalted the vengeance
wreaked by men in response to the slightest insinuation of female
misconduct. For the label of honra was equivalent
to that of a sterling reputation. One could not proclaim
it for oneself; it had to be granted by outside estimation.
It could be increased by commendable actions, and it could instantly
be lost. Once lost, there was but one means to restore it:
The sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson
suggests that homosexuals might be the carriers of altruistic
genes. Although homosexual behavior occurs in animals ranging
from insects to mammals, it often manifests as a latent bisexual
alternative to heterosexuality in the more intelligent primates,
particularly rhesus macaques, baboons, and chimpanzees.
While most humans have a bisexual inclination at least in certain
stages of development, however, a mature homosexual stance, like
that of heterosexuality, tends to be fairly inflexible.
Wilson calls the property homophile, and suggests that it explains
the significance of human homosexuality.
Like heterosexuality, homosexuality is a
form of bonding that strengthens affiliations. The tendency
to be a homophile, Wilson states, could have a genetic basis
that may have spread in early hunter-gatherer societies because
of the selective advantage possessed by those with the genes.
This raises the question of how genes conferring homosexuality
could have spread when the bearers tend not to reproduce.
In answer to that question, Wilson suggests
that early homosexuals might have assisted members of the same
sex, whether males that hunted or females that performed domestic
chores. Freed from the responsibility of nurturing children,
these people might have been in a special position to support
close relatives. They might also have assumed special
roles as religious and artistic figures. If homophiles
truly assisted the survival of close relatives, their relatives
would have enjoyed greater survival and reproduction rates,
and the genes they shared would have been sustained. Some
of those genes would have been those that predisposed bearers
toward homosexuality, and so a proportion of the population
would have continued to inherit those genes. The idea that homosexual
genes might continue through collateral lines of descent is
called the "kin-selection hypothesis."
In some primitive cultures that survived
long enough to be studied, male homosexuals adopted the dress
and manner of women and sometimes even married other men.
Known as berdaches, they sometimes specialized in women's work
or as advisors, and even became esteemed as shamans. Female
berdaches were rarer but also documented.
From the evidence we have been able to gather,
transvestites in primitive societies appear to be predominantly
homosexual. Interestingly, that does not appear
to be the case with modern Western-culture transvestites, most
of whom color themselves as heterosexuals in North American
As we come to the end of the course, I thought
it would be a good time to discuss the end of relationships, the
relationship once satisfying that somehow went wrong. (Wrong
relationships that keep going are another subject entirely.)
Relationships end for as many reasons as they begin. One
theory, which sounds to me cynical but nevertheless possible,
is that people are in your life when they are because they are
teaching you something that you need to know. Perhaps if
we could be sensitive to that possibility in people whose acquaintance
sparks an interest in us, that perhaps some of that interest springs
more from potential revelation than potential love, we would be
somewhat more cautious in our approach toward an interesting party.
We tend to get more cautious as we get older
anyway. Some caution stems from the memory of past pain,
some arises from more certain knowledge of what we need, and
recognition of its presence, as well as its absence. It
seems to me that the caution that comes from the memory of past
pain can have one of two colors. It can have the color
of fear, and so cause us to shy away from what we've not had
the courage to explore, or it can have the color of wisdom.
Wisdom comes not just from experience, but from experience that
has been chewed, swallowed, and digested; in other words, experience
that, regardless of the pain it might have brought, also caused
us to learn.
The learning that we take from failed relationships
is easily oversimplified, as when we simply decide that we had
chosen the wrong mate. Look back on the circumstances
of the decision; at the time it did not seem wrong. The
person offered, or seemed to offer, something that we wanted
and needed. Probably the two of you were open and communicative
with each other. As time goes on, everybody has less to
say. If communication is sufficient, however, words need
not come in quantity.
Communication dries in the heat of issues
that have not been resolved. These issues may have
been new, between the two of you, or they may have been old.
They may need to be addressed between the two of you, or they
may need to be faced alone. It is said that, in early
relationships at least, people tend to pursue for mates people
who resemble a parent, and that the pursued thus tend to have
or to be endowed with traits of the parent. If this is
true, and whether or not the parenting was "good,"
it is another form of bringing past history to new turf.
At first we may not be able to escape this; perhaps the best
we can do is to recognize it and do what we can to fix what
must be repaired. Otherwise the unsettling tendency is
for us to drag unresolved issues like so many awkward bundles
of baggage from one failed relationship to another that, thus
unfairly burdened, is likewise fated to fail.
articles are excerpts from coursework provided under contract
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