Study Explains Cougars with Evolution. Uh, disagree.

People love explaining human sexual behavior with evolution. If a behavior exists, it must be because of evolution…right?

In a recent study, among 827 women who self-reported on sexual behavior and fantasies, those women in the 27-45 age range reported the highest frequencies of sex and fantasy. The study authors explain this with evolutionary theory: older women compensate for their aging uterus by being hyper-sexual. Essentially, they’re saying an aging female brain incites more sexual desire in order to compete with younger (and ostensibly more attractive) females.

Here are my critiques of this analysis:

  • Nulliparity. If the evolutionary explination is correct, you would find that nulliparous women (those that have never borne a child) would have higher rates of sexual fantasy and behavior than women in their age cohort with one or more children. Pregnancy and childbirth are hard on the human body so it makes sense to level off sexual desire with age if a woman has already had children and women with no children would have more of an impetus to be hypersexual. An earlier study by the same researcher found no difference on account of having children or not.
  • Does not account for fecundity. Women with higher fecundity (fertility) would be less likely to need this adaptation because they get pregnant easily.
  • Fails to address social factors. The social taboo against female desire for the sake of desire can compel younger women to avoid sex and actively resist fantasies. Factor in roommates, ability to assess or obtain a sexual partner and sexual confidence, and an argument for social conditioning emerges.
  • Simplifies evolutionary theory to explain  one strategy. Multiple mating strategies and behavioral adaptations exist within the same species. I’ve written about oversimplification of evolutionary theory in media before.
  • No cross-cultural or longitudinal comparisons. If the “cougar” approach to mating is indeed an evolutionary adaptation, you would find this phenomenon in many locales and points in history. I checked into data from the Kinsey Studies and the evidence is a bit muddled concerning frequency. Women reported a gradual rise in solitary sexual practices (ie jillin’off) but the website summary does not state when that behavior begins to level off.

I freely admit my bias when it comes to evolutionary explanations, especially concerning desire. The biggest reason is that the evidence is contrary to my experience as well as many of my female friends. When I was a teen my sexual desires came into conflict with basic social acceptance. I felt horny but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even realize that masturbation was an option for me. Instead, I supressed everything I felt between my legs and was constantly frustrated. One time, at 16, I was so horny I actually cried.

And no wonder. If the recent public outrage and ridicule of Taylor Momson’s vibrator comment is any indication, young women are still being shamed about their sexual desire.

I’m not in Time’s “old lady” category just yet (27-45, WTF?) but I definitely fantasize more and have more sex. Why? I don’t feel ashamed about it. Simple as that. Cheers to getting older and learning when to not give a fuck about others’ opinions.

Note: I am not saying that biological factors are meaningless in this case. Rather, a completely biological explanation is insufficient to explain human sexual desire.

11 thoughts on “Study Explains Cougars with Evolution. Uh, disagree.”

  1. I already told you this, but… OMG I love your blog, your writing style and the way you put my thoughts and beliefs into words. Everytime I read one of your posts I want to clap and yell out “Bravo”!
    Thanks for sharing all this with the rest of us.

  2. “Older” women age 27-45?? WTF? I thought cougars meant much much older women.
    Few points:
    1. Why does women sexuality always have to be explained with wanting babies?
    2. Contrary to what the article states, I don’t think our female ancestors had more children because of psychological traumas but because of the lack of contraception and family planning and the female role in society back then (whenever it was that our ancestors existed.)
    3. I too dislike this popular evolutionary “science”, which is very trendy to use nowadays for explaining just about any possible human behavior.
    4. Another note about the study- 75% of the participants were recruited from a hook-up site, and the rest were university students (probably younger), meaning that the “older women” in the study were from an imbalanced group.

  3. I wrote a takedown of this study too, and I got some pushback from someone whom I suspect is connected to the researchers (or possibly of them). So I went to look at the original study (not just the Time summary) and in a lot of ways it’s even more problematic. It’s Time that labeled these women “mid-life” – but the researchers instead referred to them as “reproduction expediting” from the beginning of their investigation, thus assuming what they ought to be proving.

    Also, the sample consisted partly of UT Austin undergrads and partly of women recruited via Craigslist, so there’s no reason to think they’re at all representative of U.S. women. You’re right to question the cross-cultural applicability of this, but I’d question whether it’s even applicable to all Austin women. I’d hoped the original journal article would address this, but nope – nada.

    Great analysis. And congratulations on earning your degree!

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, this part really raises my ire: “researchers instead referred to them as “reproduction expediting” from the beginning of their investigation, thus assuming what they ought to be proving.

      One of my research methods professors called this the “Yellow Armadillo”Hypothesis: “In this study, we will determine if yellow armadillos are yellow.”

      It feels like sexuality research falls prey to this far too often.

  4. I’d definitely disagree with an evolutionary perspective in favor of one more oriented towards experience/maturation/nurture. I know my references are more anecdotal and entirely based on circumstantial experience as opposed to a meticulous study, but I also know they were taken without some specific conclusion craving to be supported; a LOT of studies seem to ignore or emphasize details on grounds of their aim in research.
    The women I’ve encountered who have greater sexual maturity/experience/familiarity (noticed as mostly aged mid 20’s to mid 40’s) tend to be more sexually-oriented, but they also hold with that significantly more confidence, comfort and allure in regards to their sexuality. It very much seems centered around, “I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I know what I want/what I’m good at and how to take advantage of this.” It seems more a sign of (and does tend to correlate with) applied intelligence, not some innate or instinctive drive.

    This is basically a lengthy and in-depth way of saying: I enjoyed the article and very much agree with what you’ve said.

  5. Jeez, Louise – great post.

    Got to keep my comment brief because I’m a ripe, old 27 and need to get back to the reproductive expediting I’m obsessed with these days.


    1. “Babiesbabiesbabiesbabiesbabies…”

      I laughed so hard I choked on my coffee a little when I read that. Ha!

  6. As someone who’s very experienced with the university environment and has read a lot of peer reviewed studies i can see there are a lot of problems with the study. Many times studies are put together to help an academic keep tenure and to bring more money into an institution. Its not often ive seen researchers do the same study repeatedly over time to “supplement” their own work just because its easier than doing a new study.

    Next it seems like whoever did this study did not work out any bias or reliability problems and its surprising they got published at all.

    As for evolution taking a part in sexuality, i would think we should be using it to explain why the body is the way it is. not why it makes people act the way they act. at least not exclusively. if you focus on biology more than sociology or psychology you’re going to make yourself look like a fool. the modern scientist should always be taking an integrated approach to the world because it’s clear that humans are too complicated to focus on just one area of science to attempt to explain them.

    1. “the modern scientist should always be taking an integrated approach to the world because it’s clear that humans are too complicated to focus on just one area of science to attempt to explain them.”


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