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GENDER STUDIES

Love, Lust and Homo Sapiens

February 13, 2005|Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett | Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist at Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Their book, "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs," was published in August by Basic Books.

What about the notion that men seek out very young, presumably fertile women? Many economists have noted that in these days when men's wages are flat or stagnant, their mating strategies are changing. More often they seek a woman who has completed her education. In fact, today, the more education a woman has, the more marriageable she is. Forty percent of married women earn more than their husbands, and studies show their marriages are as happy -- and at least as stable -- as those in which the male is the major breadwinner.

Men indeed do like good-looking women, but they don't have to be very young. In one experiment, when men were shown pictures of plain women in their 20s and more attractive women in their 30s and 40s, the men chose the good-looking older women. However, for men, beauty is not the prime ingredient in a mate. A worldwide study found that for both men and women, "kind and understanding" were the most sought-after traits in a mate.

And do women set their caps for older, wealthy men? No. In societies with a high degree of gender equality, where women have their own resources, they seek out men who are caring and able to bond with children, report psychologists Alice Eagly of Northwestern and Wendy Wood of Duke. In truth, what men and women look for most in a mate may simply be someone like themselves.

Cornell University biologist Stephen T. Emlen reported in 2003 that "attractive people tend to value attractiveness, wealthy people value mates with money and ambitious types and family-oriented souls tend to gravitate to others like themselves." The desire for similar mates was five or six times more powerful than the desire for beautiful or wealthy ones.

So what should we make of this landslide of evidence against the ultra-Darwinians' belief that mating is driven by rigid patterns of programmed sexual behavior? That we are more than puppets dancing to a preset tune. And perhaps "that old black magic" is as good a way as any to understand how and why we love.

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