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Males prefer older females

Not among humans, of course. This is among chimps, as reported in the Nov 25th, Science News [1] (sub. reqd.), based on work done by Martin N. Muller and others reported in the Nov 21 issue of Current Biology (abstract [2]).

(I’m not sure why this is big news at this point. I heard much the same thing in primate anthropology classes I took decades ago. This has been observed repeatedly.)

Muller’s explanation, though, is what led to this post, just as soon as I stopped hooting with disbelieving laughter. From the SciNews article, “…nothing beats the sex appeal of an old female chimp. If that preference makes no sense to the average human male who’s entranced by young, smooth-skinned women, it’s because the mating game has evolved in different directions in chimps and in people…. People usually form long-term sexual partnerships. Men thus tend to look for women’s physical signs of youth, which signify childbearing potential for years to come….”

This is the first time I’ve seen one of these just-so story explanations based on male monogamy. The very first time. I mean why didn’t I think of that? Of course human males have to go for young women, because after they’ve found their one and only, they’ll never ever have sex with anyone else. If they go for some licentious old hottie, fwump go their chances of fathering more than a couple of kids before she’s past it.

Further on in the SciNews article, they quote a William McGrew of the University of Cambridge who says the findings of preference for older females, if they hold up, show that, “a female’s proven ability to mother infants must be a very important factor for chimpanzee males seeking mates.”

More hooting. Sorry. I just can’t help myself, even at an august prof from one of the world’s oldest universities. I can see the horny male chimp, while the horny young lady chimp is presenting her estrus-swollen hindquarters, trying to remember how many infants she’s had. (And were they his or some other guy’s? These things are important, if you’re a chimp, planning ahead so that you stay in the gene pool.) Then he saves himself for when Big Momma finally stops nursing her latest and goes into heat.

Give me a break. These guys are suffering from blindness to facts caused by their inability to understand them.

The single biggest fact they seem to be missing is that sex among us behaviorally complex creatures is partly a learned activity. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it does make better (true of both sexes, of course). I’m not talking about technique, but that one learns how to get the most enjoyment out of the activity. That makes for a more interesting experience for the partner, even without special techniques. So maybe the reason chimp males are attracted to older females is because they are … wait for it … sexier. They are better at having sex. They are more fun to have sex with. You know, sexier.

Male chimps may be way ahead of Muller and McGrew in understanding that females can do all sorts of interesting things, besides mothering babies.

So why aren’t human males equally attracted to successful forty year-olds? One hypothesis, favored by the Mullers of the world, is that none of this applies to humans, because it just isn’t in our genes. There’s another glaring difference in sexual behavior between humans and all their close animal relatives that is explained the same way. Why is it that human females who want sex never seem to mention it, forget running around presenting their hindquarters? Because it’s just not in our genes.

“Because that’s the way it is” tends to be considered a pathetic explanation in science. It’s especially pathetic when it’s applied selectively. Tool use among chimps is not considered unrelated to ours. Dominance hierarchies, mothering behaviors, or fruit-gathering strategies all have resonances in human behavior. But not sex. That’s totally different, just because that’s the way we are. The cop-out is not only pathetic, it’s also unnecessary in this case. There’s another huge pink elephant in the living room that’s being overlooked.

Male-female relationships are all mixed up with power. We barely even have a concept of sexuality with no element of who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, who’s losing. If sex was sex and had nothing to do with power, “fuck you” wouldn’t be a curse. Unfortunately, power and any kind of fun don’t mix, so sex becomes a bit of a battle, which is explained by the battle of the sexes.

Once power is involved, it becomes vastly important to hang on to it. Try a thought experiment. Which sexual partner will be easier to control: an experienced forty year-old or an inexperienced sixteen year-old? If not losing control has become your first priority, unlike the carefree male chimp, the universe of potentially desirable females has just shrunk down to the goofy ones.

We also barely have a concept of female sexuality. The male concept of sex has been everywhere for so long that sexiness is a young woman. You have to go to San Francisco’s Castro district to find images of blatantly sexual men out there where anyone can see them. And even those aren’t aimed at women. We are the species that has to learn everything. We even have to learn how to smile. So when are girls supposed to learn that women want sex? Not admiration, not social status, not championships in beauty pageants. Sex. Where are they going to see how women go after sex? Instead what they see is a great deal of information on what happens to women who “want sex.”

And yet people, men and women, react with stupefied disbelief to the idea that it would be natural for human females, including, say, forty year-olds, to demand sex. They react with stupefied disbelief to the idea that the lack of such behavior is a symptom of something peculiar about the way we humans deal with sex. They react with stupefied disbelief that it might be natural for men to be attracted to women of any reproductive age, and vice versa. No, we’re not like that because it’s “just the way we are.” We can’t even let ourselves suspect how much power structures sex. And so we get the hilarious “logic” of the Muller’s of the world, coming up with male monogamy as an explanation for preferring inexperience.

Of course, if we followed the data, the way scientists are supposed to, we’d have to admit that not only are we related to chimps, we also apparently have something to learn from them.

Technorati tags: science, anthropology, sex, relationships, Muller