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Why Does Sex Make Men Dumb?

Why Does Sex Make Men Dumb?: © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

© Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

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Why do so many men succumb to a lust that clouds their good judgment? It’s a perennial question that’s likely been around for as long as penises have been poorly behaved. Broken marriages, illegitimate children, friendships torn asunder … these are some of the better-case outcomes of poor decision-making due to intense male sexual arousal. More serious consequences can involve jail time and landing on a sex-offender registry.

Last week I traveled from my home in New Zealand to San Diego, California, where I’d been asked to deliver the keynote lecture at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). The invitation had come about through my latest book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, a popular science account about research and theory in that incendiary field of “deviant” sexuality. Given an audience of people accustomed to seeing the very worst of human nature on a daily basis—forensic psychologists, case workers, prison officials, psychiatrists, therapists, lawyers, judges and others dealing regularly with sex offenders—I decided to speak about a curiously understudied topic, titling my talk: “Does Lust Make Us Stupid?”

With the stakes so obviously high as they are with sexual abuse, empirical research on the effects of sexual arousal on decision-making remains criminally slim. What’s worse, there’s been little-to-no attempt to incorporate the few important clues from researchers into preventative strategies and clinical practice. In fact, most of the professionals in the audience had never even heard of the studies I described to them (and which I’m about to share with you as well).

Most of our ideas about lust and decision-making are shaped more from culture than from science. In the classic 15th century Arabic sex manual The Perfumed Garden, the male member is referred to as El Bessis (“The Impudent One”). “It has received this name,” the anthropologist Richard Burton translated, “because from the moment that it gets stiff and long it does not care for anybody, lifts impudently the clothing of its master by raising its head fiercely, and makes him ashamed while itself feels no shame.” There’s a great line in Georges Batailles’ Story of the Eye in which a priest who’s just been seduced into an orgy that would make an extreme fetishist blush feels the crushing weight of his acts. “Once his balls were drained,” writes Bataille, “his abomination appeared to him in all its horror.”

It wasn’t until 1997 that the first true experiment—one in which male participants were actually induced to experience sexual arousal before having them make critical decisions—took place in a controlled laboratory setting. In that groundbreaking study by the psychologist George Loewenstein and his colleagues, male undergraduates from The University of Maryland were shown images of attractive women and then asked to respond to a scenario in which they bring an intoxicated and famously promiscuous young woman named “Susan” home after a date. Susan dims the lights, and “begins to kiss and rub your penis through your pants,” then stops and tells you that she no longer wants to have sex. When asked what they’d do next, the participants reacted in different ways, depending on if the pictures they had just looked at were nudes or not. Guys who just spent time salivating over attractive nudes were significantly more likely than those in the other conditions to say that they’d coax Susan to remove her clothes anyway in that scenario. They were also more likely to judge that the other men in the study would do the same thing, also sexually coercing Susan. By contrast, after reading another hypothetical scenario about whether they’d drive a car after having a few drinks, there was no difference between the nude and the non-nude priming groups.

With that earlier study buried in an obscure criminology journal, the question of how sexual arousal influences male decision-making went without attention for years. Then, in 2006, Loewenstein teamed up with the social psychologist Dan Ariely to conduct a follow-up study. And this one made more of a splash. It was a simple experiment. The researchers had undergraduates from UC-Berkeley answer a series of sexual questions, many of which were the type that you might overhear in an eighth-grade lunchroom. “Would it be fun to watch an attractive woman urinating?”, for instance, “Could it be fun to have sex with an extremely fat person?” Others were more disturbing. “Would you slip a drug to a woman to increase the chance that she’d have sex with you?” “Can you imagine being attracted to a 12-year-old girl?” “Would you keep trying to have sex with your date after she says ‘no’?” And so on. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that those men who answered the survey while not especially sexually aroused didn’t find these things very sexy. By contrast, those male participants who’d been instructed to masturbate at home to the verge of orgasm and then to shift their attention to the questions were far more “open-minded” about the deviant acts, more willing to trick or coerce their dates into having sex, and more likely to say that they’d practice unsafe sex.

A handful of other studies have found essentially the same thing. When a man is in a state of erotic lust, his impulsive, short-term desires for sexual gratification trump his rational, long-term decision-making; his moral reasoning becomes grossly impaired; and he lowers his sexual standards. That’s not so much an excuse for bad behavior as it is a lamentable fact about the male brain. It’s also one that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, one in which decisions that appear “stupid” to us now reflect smart adaptive logic tens of thousands of years ago. With a virtually unlimited number of sperm cells and a time sink of 30 seconds (our species’ average ejaculation latency), being too picky was costly. Another finding from recent years is that men misjudge women’s sexual intent in their favor—a friendly smile, for instance, is taken as a flirtatious invitation—and this warped cognitive bias flares up especially when men are sexually aroused. Such distortions may encourage socially risky, even harmful, decisions, but when the bottom line is genetic propagation, other peoples’ reproductive interests take a back seat.

So what do we know about the effects of female sexual arousal on women’s decision-making? Almost nothing, unfortunately. That research simply hasn’t been done yet, perhaps because it’s men doing the bulk of the stupid (and often criminal) decision-making. But a 2003 study by Daniel Fessler and C. David Navarette showed that women who are ovulating tend to find deviant sex (intercourse with sea turtles, passionate love affairs with 90-year-old men, incest, that sort of thing) to be more wrong and disgusting than those at lower risk of conception. In other words, with a finite number of eggs and the very real risks associated with getting pregnant, women tend to be more cautious than men when it comes to mate selection, especially when they’re likely to conceive.

A study in press at the journal Motivation & Emotion shows this complementary sex adaptation even more vividly. In this experiment by the psychologist Adam Fetterman and his colleagues, male and female undergrads were told that they’d be answering a computerized survey while wearing a random cardboard cutout on their chest. The cover story was that these cutouts represented a variety of shapes and colors, and that the researchers were interested in how different objects affected people’s decision-making. But in reality, there were only two possibilities: a large orange arrow pointing upward (towards the subject’s head) or one pointing downward (towards the subject’s genitalia). When men answered the survey while having an arrow pointing down to their crotches, they expressed a greater interest in short-term, casual hookups. By contrast, women responding to the same questions while an arrow pointed to their vaginas betrayed a greater interest in long-term, meaningful relationships. Yet there was no difference at all in men and women’s dating preferences when these same arrows pointed upward.

The lustful human brain evolved to be a very different kind of creature from its sexually sober counterpart, but acknowledging this difference between our “hot” and “cold” selves can help us to understand our own regretful choices. It’s also vital for developing effective prevention strategies against sexual abuse. Knowing how our rational minds get pirated by lust in the heat of the moment—and realizing that we’re also notoriously bad at predicting our behavioral responses under these intense emotional conditions, a phenomenon known as “affective forecasting"—can help men to avoid (or at least come better prepared for) the scenarios most likely to get them into trouble.


Jesse Bering, an Associate Professor at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand, is the author of Perv (2013), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and The Belief Instinct (2011). Follow him on Twitter @JesseBering.


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