Boys are only after one thing

Or are they? That's the question, posed by our friend Josh, that we'll try to answer here. Does the old idiom about men wanting sex and women wanting love still hold? Or should we throw it out as a dated stereotype?

To start with, it's easy to skip the data here and get bogged down in the murk of evolutionary psychology. If we did that, we'd probably come up with something like: well, it makes sense that men should want to mate widely and women should want to be selective about it, because whilst both sexes seek to pass on their genes, only women bear the cost of having children.

But this is very speculative, and offers just one possible explanation for data we haven't yet presented.

Instead, we'll get into the research. About a decade ago, our friends at did a survey. It turned out that men fell in love faster than women, were more likely to want children than women, and were less likely to want their own space or time with same-sex friends than women. So much for "bros before hoes." But could it be true? Are men really the ones eager to settle down whilst their female counterparts gad about carelessly with disposable lovers?

The answer is probably not, or at least not from that survey. We already know that men are more visual and less selective than women,  so it's no surprise that they report falling in love faster. And our own data corroborates the fact that men are more likely to want children than women – but this doesn't necessarily mean they're ready to settle down and commit to a single partner. In fact, what's results omitted spoke more loudly than the information they did publish, like how men vs. women tended to prioritise partner attributes, or how seriously each sex tended to take prospective partners. We'd guess that the bulk of their results were less surprising than the press release implied.

Dating is also, famously, a tough gig for women, so if it's true that what women really want is commitment, it makes sense that a large provider of dating services would highlight data suggesting that their male users are commitment-hungry. (Of course, we're not immune from motivated reasoning either, which is partly why we use independent data to corroborate our own findings wherever possible.)

The ideal way to tackle this question would be with a study that crossed several different cultures and eras, surveying at least thousands of people and containing both self-reported preferences and what researchers call 'revealed preferences,' or information about preferences that we can infer from people's behaviour. To our knowledge, no such study exists. But we do have a close runner up: in 2003, the International Sexuality Description Project came up with a study that surveyed 52 different countries and more than 16,000 people on their desire for 'sexual variety,' or what non-psychologists might call sleeping around.

The findings were conclusive: across all cultures studied, men reported desiring a higher number of sexual partners than women. Indeed, several men had to be removed from the study for declaring, when asked how many sexual partners they would ideally like within the space of one month, that the answer was over 100. One man said over 1000. No women were excluded as a result of this filter.

The average number of partners men wanted to have within the next month was 1.87. For women, the figure was 0.78. Various time intervals were tried, up to a maximum of 30 years – over which time men reported wanting an average of 6.62 sexual partners, and women reported wanting 2.47. Middle Eastern men wanted the most partners, desiring an average of 2.54 sexual partners over one month, and East Asian women the least (0.35 in the same period). So in theory, at least, men definitely want more sexual partners than women.

And, in fact, this preference is borne out in reality: straight men average 6.1 partners over their lifetime, and straight women a mere 4.2.*

Interestingly, however, this gap has narrowed over time; those figures are from 2011-15, but earlier data sees men with more sexual partners and women with fewer.

These figures don't come close to eliminating the gap, but they do suggest that any explanation that relies solely on evolutionary psychology is incomplete.

*Real figures may be higher, although probably not as high as this study found.

We can now say with some confidence that on average, boys want at least one thing more than girls do: a variety of sexual partners. This doesn't mean that men only want sex: we already know that both men and women rate a partner's physical attractiveness as less important than whether or not they're a caring person.

But from what we've seen about their desire for multiple partners, it's hard not to conclude that when it comes to dating, men are more likely than women to be interested in, erm, screwing around. Still, the question deserves addressing properly: it's theoretically possible that men who want a new sexual partner every week intend to conduct meaningful relationships with each of them.

Data on this kind of intention is harder to come by, not least because most dating apps share almost nothing about their users (plausibly with good reason). We do know that women are more likely to feel miserable after casual sex, and more likely to engage in it because they feel unhappy or pressured. This doesn't mean all women dislike casual sex, or that all men enjoy it – only that the average emotional states of the sexes often differ here. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the orgasm gap.

When we look at Swan's own users, we find relatively little difference between the sexes, with women slightly more likely to be seeking something casual than men, and only more likely to be after a long-term relationship because they're less likely to be hunting for marriage – or, at least, less likely to say they're hunting for marriage.

But this is not altogether shocking: Swan's users aren't representative of the general population, and we already know that they're atypical on at least one related front (specifically that they're more likely to want children than their peers).

Men only want one thing (marriage and children)

It would be great to conclude that men and women have broadly similar appetites for casual sex vs monogamous relationships, and that now everyone knows this we can all be happy, but the truth is somewhat more old-fashioned – at least in the general population. But it would also be wrong to be blasé, or assume that the discrepancy will always be universal. The world is changing faster than research scientists can measure it, and much of the data that backs up a male preference for high sexual turnover is old. There are at least a couple of signs that men and women are becoming more homogenous in their preferences.

Our conclusion? Ask us again in ten years.

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