January 21, 2009
It’s poetry in motion
and now she’s making love to me.
The spheres are in commotion,
The elements in harmony.
She blinded me with science!
“Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me With Science,” 1982
It was one of those headlines that automatically gets a Drudge link: “Wealthy men give women more orgasms,” the Times of London declared Sunday.
Before we launch our “Win a Dream Date With Taki” promotion, however, let’s pause to ponder the gap between what the headline said and what the researchers found.
The article reported research by Newcastle University evolutionary psychologist Thomas Pollet, based on a lifestyle survey of some 1,500 Chinese women. “Increasing partner income had a highly positive effect on women’s self-reported frequency of orgasm. More desirable mates cause women to experience more orgasms.”
Surely, there are sophomore sociology majors who could spot the weaknesses in this conclusion. To begin with, the study relied on self-reported data. The Chinese survey respondents were asked whether they had orgasms during sex, with 121 answering “always,” 408 saying “often,” 762 replying “sometimes,” and the remaining 243 “rarely” or “never” having orgasms”or so they said.
The dubious reliability of self-reported data was one of the basic structural flaws of the Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 and 1952 reports on sexual behavior. Sex being an extremely private matter, it is nearly impossible to verify self-reported data about sexual behavior, and some self-reports are certainly false.
For example, a recent federal study (see Figure 6) found that U.S. men over age 25 typically reported more than six opposite-sex partners in their lifetimes, compared to a median four lifetime partners reported by women. Similarly, while 22.6 percent of U.S. men reported 15 or more lifetime female sex partners, only 9.6 percent of U.S. women reported 15 or more partners. From the inherent mismatch in this data, one can only conclude that when responding to such surveys, men tend to exaggerate, and/or women tend to minimize, their number of partners.
If survey respondents cannot be trusted to accurately report such a basic fact as their number of sex partners, how much confidence can be placed in women’s survey responses as to whether they climax “often” or “sometimes” during sex? And even if we stipulate that there is some validity to self-reported sex data, we can”t overlook the potential for cultural variability in results. Chinese women may be more orgasmic with wealthier partners, but is the same effect equally observable among Finns, Argentines and Somalis? (Let’s leave the “Pakis“ out of this, shall we?)
Stipulating even that this research from the People’s Republic is both valid and universally applicable, however, the sophomore sociology major would still ask: Does correlation prove causation? That is to say, is the man’s wealth a determining independent factor in his partner’s satisfaction? Or is it possible that wealth correlates closely with some other factor or factors that are more likely to be the true cause of the reported effect?
We know, for example, that good health is correlated with high intelligence, which is in turn correlated with higher income. And we also know that taller men are more likely to have high incomes. So, rather than wealth being an independent factor in the orgasmic equation, perhaps the research merely indicates that women get off more with tall, smart, healthy partners than with short, dumb, sickly guys.
Furthermore, we could turn the equation around and ponder selection effects among the women. Assuming that wealthy men have a greater choice among their partners, perhaps rich guys (in China, at least) are demonstrating an understandable preference for more passionate women, rejecting the bedroom duds who are in turn paired with low-income males.
All of which is to say that Professor Pollet has certainly not proven what the newspaper headline implied. Sorry, guys. If you win the Powerball lottery tomorrow, your winnings won”t automatically transform you into a romantic dynamo who drives women into spasmodic convulsions of ecstasy.
Which is not to say that Melissa Beech hasn”t made a shrewd bargain with her “sugar daddy,” nor that Natalie Dylan won”t get more than monetary satisfaction from auctioning her virginity. Rather, the inherent shortcomings of Professor Pollet’s research merely demonstrate that science is a feeble instrument for understanding sex.
When researchers actually do manage to “discover” some great truth about sex, it usually has a dog-bites-man obviousness, science proving what ordinary people already know through common sense. Women have always preferred high-income partners, as Professor Pollet might have discovered by surveying guys who ride mopeds and work as convenience store clerks.
Anecdotal evidence is abundant. Single guys in D.C., for example, constantly complain about the status-conscious romantic preferences of that city’s women who, upon first being introduced at a social function, will ask, “What do you do?” Smart guys (who may someday parlay their brains into wealth) manage to answer that question in ways that disguise their relative poverty. I recently advised a bachelor buddy”a researcher for a non-profit organization who also does occasional freelance journalism”to answer The Question by describing himself as an “investigative reporter.” It just sounds so much sexier, doesn”t it?
The possibility that a man might fool a woman about his income points toward some interesting research questions:
“¢ If a guy who makes $40,000 a year rents a Mercedes and puts a $600 suit on his credit card, goes to a nightclub and spends like a high roller, picks up a hottie and sweeps her off to a hotel luxury suite, will her orgasmic response be the same as if he actually were as rich as he pretends to be?
“¢ Should a woman demand to examine a potential partner’s 1040 forms before deciding whether she has sex with him? (“Sorry, I can”t get off on $65,000 a year. If you can get a raise to $80,000, call me.”)
“¢ Has the recent financial meltdown spawned a trend of frigidity?
There is no reason that university professors should have a monopoly on exploring these important scientific issues. In fact, given our new president’s promise to “spread the wealth around,” perhaps I can get a federal research grant to determine once and for all if a man’s increased income has an independent effect on a woman’s sexual satisfaction.
Give me a million dollars”call it a “stimulus””and I”ll let you know if it has any effect on my wife. My hypothesis is that her answer will be yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes! Yes! Yes!
Daily updates with TM’s latest