Taking ADvantage
Social Basis of Human Behavior: Sex


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.


Humans, like many other terrestrial life forms, reproduce sexually. We, like all other sexual creatures, are subject to instinctive sexual desire triggered by appropriate criteria.

However, humans are unique in two ways. The first I mentioned in the discussion in Chapter Two Reproduction -- their anatomy has made sex more difficult.

It's the second unique thing about humans that makes their reproductive life unusual: humans can think. Thus, the criteria for desire and selection are greatly complicated. People apply not only physical, but societal, cultural and economic criteria to desire and selection.

The evolution of the human body and mind has resulted in an incredibly complex psychophysiology. This sets humans apart from how all other animals approach reproduction. Males compete for breeding rights, females select the best available male. Many female mammals come into heat, a limited period when she is impregnable. Before and during this period, physiological changes occur that are detectable by the male. She becomes the most desirable female around, and she wants sex. The males line up for her, compete for her, and she selects and mates with the best. When a mare comes into heat, she mates with the alpha stallion (the one that wins the mating battles). She doesn't think about it, she doesn't examine his physique or bank account; if he is the alpha stallion, he is the one with which to mate, since he has proven himself superior to other males. If she doesn't wish to mate with him, she simply walks away.

For other animals, instead of walking away, the female expresses her lack of desire by swatting the male. For example, a lioness, well equipped with weapons and close to the same size, can discourage any male by beating the hell out of him. He, having other females in his harem, shrugs his figurative shoulders and goes elsewhere.

Such is not the case for a human. Men rarely battle each other for breeding rights. Women don't come into heat: they can mate at any time, she can get pregnant any month, deliver any day. Women don't automatically mate with a man because he won a fight. However, people still apply criteria in selecting a mate, and those criteria are gender-linked.

Male Criteria

The human male has a drive to impregnate as many females as possible, to create as many offspring with his genes as possible. (Ehrlichman & Eichenstein, 1992) Thus, he applies criteria typical for a male animal. He looks for women who are impregnable: those who are old enough to be past puberty, but young enough to care for children for at least several years. He looks for healthy (i.e., clear, smooth skin, "bright" eyes, good conformation of body and limbs, etc.) women, so they can carry the fetus to term, deliver it, and care for it after birth. Beyond that, he doesn't really care. She doesn't have to be intelligent, talented, socially aware, or in any other way have a brain. In fact, the dumber she is the easier it would be for him to meet her criteria for desirability since they are less likely to be extensive.

Thus, men have minimal criteria for sexual desire; basically, they are concerned with a woman's anatomy -- as long as a woman looks young enough and healthy, she is desirable. They also consider her beautiful, since to a male beautiful and desirable are virtually synonymous.

What is considered healthy-looking has varied over the years and centuries, and from culture to culture. In periods when there were food shortages, a woman that is now considered obese was thought attractive since her appearance clearly showed she had ample reserves. Other changes such as cosmetics to produce a healthy appearance, costumes that exaggerated the hips and thus gave an impression of an excellent child-bearing structure, etc., have increased men's perception of a woman's desirability as a sexual partner. Of course, few men consciously relate certain features with health, and thus that is why they find them attractive. They simply find women with such features sexually attractive, and that's enough without analyzing why.

Many characteristics are deemed attractive by the culture. That is, they are learned. The human male has a mind as well, and is taught much of the way he is supposed to regard the world. This includes what the female features are that he should consider attractive (i.e., sexually desirable), including non-physical as well as physical attributes. Such non-physical attributes include a woman's mind, accomplishments, and prospects.

Nonetheless, although his culture and society may tell him that he should consider more than anatomy, "people are likely to express approval for socially approved characteristics rather than for what actually attracts them." (Daly, 1983, p. 304) Deep down inside he still howls at the moon when a woman meeting his physical criteria walks by. For a man, thinking reduces sexual desire ("think about baseball").

This does not mean that the human male is a walking hormone. He, like the female, is a member of the human race, and thus is also aware of human society, its constraints and demands.

He will desire any woman in sight who satisfies his physical, instinctive criteria for the right sexual partner. However, the one he selects for actual pursuit, the one to whom he will devote resources trying to satisfy her criteria, must satisfy societal and/or cultural criteria that overlay the instinctive criteria. For most men, this will include those factors that make a woman a functioning and consequential member of the human race. Such factors include intelligence, wit and imagination. They may also include the same criteria that women apply to men, including money, status, religious or political affiliation, and power. All of these human male criteria enter his list of factors for determining a woman's suitability for pursuit. They are as vital to him as to her since they will contribute to the offspring's future. Human society, unlike many animals, insists that the male take an active part in the care of the female while she's pregnant and in the rearing of children. Since such is the case, men take these factors into consideration when deciding which woman to pursue seriously. Nonetheless, although these criteria will enter a man's conscious consideration of a woman's desirability as an object of pursuit, it doesn't reduce or alter his instinctive reaction to a woman's appearance as a sexual partner.

Female Criteria

The human female, on the other hand, runs into a real problem: the human mind. Remember that females must apply more criteria to select a male than males apply to a female. It is not the nearest possibility, but the best possibility that she desires. (Ehrlichman & Eichenstein, 1992) A woman's mind allows her, and indeed forces her to examine possible criteria to a much greater extent than any other animal. She can also project the consequences of choices into the future. What constitutes an alpha male, the best male with which to mate and produce the best possible offspring, depends on far more factors than any other animal on earth. The criteria for her to desire sexually a man can include strength or health or fighting ability, like the lion or the wolf. However, they can also include intelligence, money, power, prestige, position, status, attitudes, political or religious convictions, any number and combination of factors. It's whatever she believes a man should be that will result in 1) the best possible genes for her offspring, and 2) the offspring's best chance for survival and ability to pass on its genes. It is the human mind that allows her to consider the possibilities, the criteria, the future outcome of her actions. She does not go into heat and mate with the closest best bet. She makes plans, examines her choices, makes conscious decisions. Only the human female can make conscious, planned decisions about her sex life.

Women's ability to think consciously about their sexual lives does not mean she doesn't have instinctive desires as strong as a man's. What it does mean is she will often subordinate that desire: she may desire a physically attractive man, but she will not actually have sex with him until he has satisfied more than physical criteria.


This has led to the complex human courtship rituals. Courtship rituals among other animals can be lengthy, complicated, and even dangerous, especially to the males. (Daly, 1983) However, they are instinctive. The peacock's display, the bower bird's bower, the stag's battles are unconscious and unchanging. Sometimes the rituals do require practice, however. For example, the long-tailed mannikin bird's, in which an older male bird takes on a young apprentice. Although the bird's mating dance is instinctive, it's also intricate and needs practice to perfect the performance the female demands. In fact, the dance is a duet between the master and the apprentice. The female mates with the master if the duet is good enough, and not at all if it isn't a double act. (Attenborough, 1990)

Nonetheless, there is no guesswork involved in the ritual. Each species has its own that doesn't vary in anything but degree of virtuosity. If one male performs it better than another, the female instinctively chooses him.

Human courtship rituals, however, are not only complex, but often ad libbed. There is no one right way for a man to court a woman. Indeed, there are as many ways to court a woman as there are women. This again comes back to the fact that humans can think.

What often happens is that a man desires a woman, based upon his instinctive criteria -- what does she look like? Does she fit his anatomical criteria for acceptability? This is something he can determine by simply seeing her. After he's applied his physical criteria, he moves to the social. First, he tries to discover whether she satisfies what he considers the right societal criteria. Then he tries to determine if he satisfies what he thinks she thinks are the right societal criteria. One the basis of this guesswork, he decides whether he should pursue her to follow his desires.

He then initiates contact with her. When, where or how he will approach her has no set form or ritual. There is no particular mating season, like in deer; humans can mate anytime. There is no set mating ground, like the bower bird's bower or the seal's beach, where a female's presence means she is looking to mate. A woman's presence in a certain location, or any location, says nothing about her desire for sex. If a bird sings his mating song well, or a stag struts, bluffs and fights better than others, he's the most desirable male and mates with the female. Human courtship follows no such set criteria about what a man must do and how to do it to guarantee success. In fact, the less ritualized and more original his approach is, the more likely a woman is to accept it (if not him). He approaches her to determine if he guessed correctly about how well their criteria match. This he often does through conversation: what does she say, how does she say it, how does she respond to what he says and how he says it. Note that, for the man, physical desire almost always comes first.

She, on the other hand, often waits for the initiation of contact. If she initiates contact the man could assume that he already satisfies her criteria. Exceptions, of course, exist. If she sees a man that appears to satisfy some of her criteria, she may initiate contact. For example, he may be physically attractive, apparently have money and/or power and/or status, show intelligence and sensitivity to those around him, or otherwise satisfy some or all of her criteria. In any case, she then evaluates those men who contact her (or she contacts) to see if they really satisfy her criteria. Again, this is often done through conversation.

This is called dating.

If she fits his instinctive criteria, he will often ignore it if she doesn't fit his societal criteria. Physical attractiveness is all his instincts say is necessary for him to desire sex. She, on the other hand, will rarely ignore her societal criteria since her instincts demand they be considered in her determination of the right man. Physical attractiveness may be enough for her to allow his approach, but he must satisfy her other criteria before she will allow sex. She may even ignore physical attractiveness if he satisfies her societal criteria to a large enough extent. Those societal criteria have a greater influence on her and her children's future than his physical appearance. (Coombs & Kenkel, 1966) "One very interesting generalization is that in most societies the physical beauty of the female receives more explicit consideration than does the handsomeness of the male. The attractiveness of the man usually depends predominantly upon his skills and prowess rather than upon his physical appearance." (Ford, 1951, p. 86)

In 1972, J. C. Touhey compared men's and women's attitudes about dating. "Men were attracted to women who shared their sexual attitudes. Women were attracted to men who shared their religious beliefs. One interpretation of these results is that men date largely for sexual reasons, while women are more concerned to evaluate a man's prospects as a long term mate." (Daly, 1983, p. 304)

Some anecdotal evidence supports the above discussion. When I worked as a bartender, I often observed how the men and women interacted and decided to study what happened. An occupational hazard of bartending, but a great aid to studying people, is that people talk to you about anything and everything. Nothing is off limits, in particular interpersonal relationships.

Both men and women would talk to me about their initial reactions to the other sex, and whether they should approach, or allow an approach, or not, and what happened when they did or didn't. The men evaluated the women's appearance, and rarely asked me anything except if I knew her name. The women also evaluated the men's appearance, but would ask for much more information. I often saw a man approach a woman, but rarely the other way around.

One thing that was apparent was how much the men worried about how to approach a woman they found attractive. With no formula, ritual or protocol as a guide, the men often expressed their fear of rejection. Many of the sessions between men at the bar were devoted to whether, and how, to initiate contact. The men would dissect one of their member's approach and everything he might say if his approach was accepted. This was to lessen, not so much the possibility of rejection, but the blow to the man's ego and self-esteem such a rejection would cause. They seemed to assume that any approach would be rejected.

Two interesting points became clear: First, those men who were most willing and able to approach a woman were of two types. The first was the man who didn't care whether he was rejected or not. He was usually someone already in a relationship with a woman. Since such was the case, he had nothing to lose. Even when he wasn't trying to attract a woman, but just wanted to make a friend and talk, women seemed to find him attractive. I was struck by the question many of these men asked in a puzzled voice: "Where were these women when I was alone?" (I once asked a woman who was attracted to such a man why, since she knew he was already with another woman. Her reply: "Well, he must have something going for him.")

The second type of man was the one with such an overweening ego that rejection didn't dent it. He was the kind who, when rejected, would pass it off with the comment, "She doesn't know what she's missing." He would then move on to the next woman.

The second point I found interesting: the more physically attractive the men thought a woman was, the less willing they were to approach her. When I asked why, the most common reason was, "Are you kidding? I wouldn't have a chance with her." When I asked what they meant by "a chance," they said, "You know. To go to bed with her." When I would suggest approaching her just to talk, they generally looked at me as if I had grown another head. (Occasionally, the reaction was, "You know, that might work.") When I asked why they thought they wouldn't have "a chance," the usual reply was, "Look at her. She's got to have a hundred boy friends. How can I compete?" It was clear that these men feared the rejection they thought would be automatic in approaching an especially attractive woman. That males compete for the approval of females is as prevalent among humans as among other animals. This became clear when the bar had a dance.

The bar, which had a dance floor, often brought in a band for a dance. On these evenings, groups of men and groups of women would come in. The men would stand at the bar and evaluate the women as they entered. The waitresses told me the women, who went to the tables, were doing the same about the men. When the dancing started the men asked women to dance. I was often struck by the fact that the women the men had most highly rated in attractiveness were often not asked, and were left alone at the tables.

I would go to these tables to clear glasses and ashtrays. While there, I would ask the woman, "What are you doing sitting here all by your lonesome?" The usual answer was just a shrug.

One night, however, one of these women came up to the bar. She was one that all the men, from what I heard, had agreed was, "The best one here." She apparently needed to talk. After some small talk, I was surprised when she asked, "What's wrong with me?" I asked, "What makes you think anything is?" She told me that she goes to dance after dance. However, while all her friends that she's there with are asked to dance, she almost never is. "I'm tired of just sitting there. I want to dance, too." I suggested that the men may be worried about her boyfriend. She asked, "Do you see a boyfriend? If I didn't go with my girlfriends, I wouldn't go out at all." When I expressed surprise that she didn't have a boyfriend, she asked how she could have one if no man asks her out? As we continued talking it became clear that, the more attractive men had found her as she got older, the less they approached her. "I got more attention from the guys when I was flat-chested and all knees and elbows," she complained. "Well, at least they talked to me," she finished. When I suggested she simply ask some guy she found attractive to dance, she looked shocked. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "He'll expect me to go to bed with him." She was probably right.(1)

Two other examples, one from a man's perspective and one from a woman's, will help illustrate how men and women often regard contacting each other: In one instance, a man told me he was very attracted to a woman in the bar. He asked me her name, then approached her. They spoke for quite some time. When he came to get them both another drink, I remarked that he seemed to be getting along quite well with her. He told me, "I have no idea what she's talking about, and I don't think she does, either. It's not even interesting. But who cares? She's gorgeous." With that, he took the drinks back to the table and sat down, smiling and nodding at whatever she said. Although she fulfilled none of his social criteria, she did satisfy his physical. That's all that was necessary for his desire to remain high.

In another instance, a woman told me she found a man across the room attractive, and asked me to subtlely hint that she would like him to approach her. She made it quite clear to me that she was attracted to him sexually. She made it equally clear that I was not to give him the impression that she was anything but indifferent whether he approached her or not.

He got the hint, went to her table, and soon they were talking. However, within fifteen minutes she was looking at me with a "How do I get out of this?" look on her face. I pretended she had a phone call, and she left long enough for him to lose interest and look elsewhere. It turned out that, although he satisfied her physical criteria, he fulfilled none of her social criteria. In fact, she considered him stupid, vain, egotistical, boring, and broke. Her desire for him disappeared entirely when she discovered this.

To reiterate, ". . . men date largely for sexual reasons, while women are more concerned to evaluate a man's prospects as a long term mate."


Nonetheless, changes in human society, particularly in Western cultures, are altering how many people apply their criteria. Although the animal instinct in humans is to have children, the ability to think and project into the future have many people wishing to avoid having children: over-population, economic inability to support children, destruction of resources, interference with personal goals, etc.. In the past, the only way to avoid having children was to avoid having sex. However, with new birth control methods the fear of pregnancy is greatly reduced.

Please note that the concern and/or onus of worrying about birth control is usually the woman's responsibility. To her, reproduction is the creation of children that have a good chance to survive and reproduce in turn. Thus, her consideration of the social and environmental necessities to achieve this is a major part of her decision to have children. To the male, his instincts say, "Get her pregnant," which often lessens his consideration of birth control.

Obviously, the modern world, by which I mean since the late 1940s, has brought great revolutions in the relationships between the sexes. The introduction of birth control devices, including the pill, has released women from many of the biological and social restrictions that held sway for thousands and millions of years. They no longer had to worry about the biological consequences of sexual activity.

In addition, in the United States during World War II women replaced men in the workplace to free the men for military duty. At the end of the war, many of the women refused to return to their pre-war life. They had enjoyed success and personal satisfaction with their life in the workplace. They also liked the independence and confidence that came with being self-sufficient rather than dependent on a husband. These factors made going back to the home, "women's place" before W.W.II, seem boring and unfulfilling. They therefore set a trend for women in the workplace, leading to their economic independence and a more equal status in society with men.

With these releases from dependence and fear of pregnancy came a social revolution in male/female relationships. Women now allow their instinctual reactions to sexual attraction freer rein. They accept or initiate contact with men who may fit only her physical criteria, starting and ending relationships much as men have, enjoying sex for its own sake.

However, this modern social revolution does not reduce the great differences in the way men and women regard sex on an instinctive level. The instincts that control sexual desire have evolved over a billion years: male promiscuity and his simple, strictly physical criteria for a woman to be desirable; female caution and her complex physical and social criteria to select the best possible man. That many of the social criteria that she had to consider have lessened, and that he didn't consider have greatly increased in the last forty years, cannot reduce those millions-year-old instincts.

Again note, however, that it is the woman who makes the choice about mating. She selects the man she prefers from among those men she attracts, the ones who apply for permission. He may, strut, brag, cajole, or beg, but it's her choice that, in the end, he must abide by.

Under some circumstances it may appear that he is making the choice. However, what is happening is that he satisfies several women's criteria. Thus, they will sometimes simply wait their turn with him. We see this sort of behavior among so-called "groupies," usually girls or young women who hang around and have sex with rock or athletic stars. The star satisfies the women's criteria, and they have all chosen him. The criteria may be his body, his fame, his money, or the prestige she can gain from having sex with him. In any case, she made the choice that, if he were just another guy, she might not have. In that case, he would have to apply like any other man.

Another case in which the man appears to make the choice is that of polygyny, a man having multiple wives. However, here again the woman decides that he satisfies her criteria enough to make her willing to share him with the other women. In fact, she may consider polygyny a good idea, since it gives her other women with whom to share work and childrearing, and even give her free day-care so she can pursue her own career without the hassle and expense of child care with no parent at home. These social advantages may outweigh her biological desire for fidelity. (Daly, 1983)

There is a case in which the man is making the choice rather than the woman: that is the instance of rape. However, rape is generally considered to be an attempt at power rather than sex, that he wants mastery over her rather than to mate with her. Since there is little quite so personal as sex, sexual violation of her body gives him an even greater sense of power over her than controlling her body by tying or beating her. Every species in which researchers have observed rape, such as chimpanzees, orangutans and at least eighteen species of birds (Gladstone, 1979), considers it deviant behavior. The offender is often ostracized or banished. A biological basis of this may be that it is counterproductive in a species' reproductive strategy for the male to make the final choice. (Daly, 1983)


(1) As a close to this incident, I went off-duty before the end of the dance, and this woman asked me to dance with her. Clearly, our conversation made her feel safe with me, because I was sympathetic to her plight and made no "moves" on her. Of course, my instinctive reaction was, "ALL RIGHT!!!" (I am, after all, male, and have all the same instincts as any other male). However, I realized that what she wanted was a friend, and a chance to dance and have some fun. Since no other man seemed willing to dance with her, who better than her confidante and bartender (which are synonymous terms to many)? We are still good friends, and I thank her for letting me use this incident for illustration.

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