Men keep blaming ‘Nature’

While campaigning for office of the President of the United States, it is now known that Senator John Edwards was having an affair. The spectacle is exaggerated by the fact that his wife, Elizabeth, was at the same time dying of cancer. While the media is of late focusing on the mistrial, there is an overriding question—one of morality—that remains: how could a man cheat on his dying wife? Is this Christian single-term senator, once branded for his likeability and honesty, just a sexually driven, self-centered man without morals? Or is he essentially no different than many men; those driven by a sexual desire currently incompatible with socialized belief systems on sex?

You may be shocked by the risk Edwards took to his family and candidacy. You might attribute this behavior to the occurrence of men in power; power which compels one to take larger risks while simultaneously believing himself immune to discovery. I, however, analyze Edward’s infidelity through a century-old framework. The argument suggests that nature compels men, average men, to take sexual risks. The argument is that while we are (on the one-hand) in charge of and responsible for our behaviors, we are simultaneously not ‘fully’ in charge of our own sexual destiny. Our biological makeup compels many (perhaps most) men to seek short-term, selfish sexual pleasures; and that this has at least ‘some’ basis in our long-term survival. Our rational decision-making processes erode in light of our bodies’ constant campaigns to partake in carnal delight.

While conducting the research published in my book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating (Oxford University Press, 2012), I heard these types of risky cheating narratives from approximately 3 out of 4 of the 120 men I interviewed. Men who often cheated when there was a very good chance that word would get back to their partner of the offense. I call this type of sex the “oh shit, oh shit, oooooh shit” orgasm because the psychological framework goes like this: “that feels good. That feels really good! (then, the moment after orgasm)… Oh shit, what have I done?” In my research there was a common narrative: the desire for orgasm temporarily squashed their socialized (and deeply held) sense of morality.

My research highlighted that when the men’s bodies craved sex, they—not always, but every now and then—eroded at the intellect that normally governs the rational side of our thought processes. They recognized that they should not be doing what they were, but the consequences somehow seemed dim. It is the same psychological apparatus that influenced them to have unprotected sex, when they knew they should not. It seemed okay — somehow worth it—for this particular circumstance. They were, in effect, drugged by sexual desire.

This is why I suggest that culture cannot normally prevent what our genes desire. Culture might win much, or even the vast majority of the time – but carnal desires will eventually triumph. It is this same notion that led one early 20th century sex researcher, Robert Park, to argue that, given enough time together, if two people desire sex with each other, it will occur despite social censure.

The “oh shit, oh shit, oooooh shit” orgasm likely represents internal orders from thousands of years of honed survival. With so many men cheating in my study cheating while simultaneously not wanting to cheat, I’m not willing to condemn them all as simply immoral. There is something else at play here.

Daily, multiple inherent biological drives compete with socially constructed notions of decency. The moment that orgasm happens, it is our culturally constructed ego that dominates; this is because the inherent drive has been temporarily satisfied. We feel guilt because society tells us that we should feel guilt. We feel remorse and shame because our instinctual actions have been socially coded as such. Once the carnal desire is met, the moralizing begins.

This battle between what the body desires and our socialized sense of morality wants plays out in other arenas, too: smoking, fatty foods, gambling, drinking, failure to exercise. It seems to land disproportionally on the side of what our genes desire when temptation is easy to obtain (such as food) and less with sex. But innate sexual desires nonetheless win out from time to time. Regrettably, whereas one can run a few miles to make up for eating a candy bar, the consequences of orgasm, as Edwards has learned recently, can be much more severe.

The point is: the desire for sex is so much a part of our nature that men unwillingly risk love, family, career—and in some Islamic countries—even their very lives for it. What would drive gay men to have sex in countries where they are killed for it? The answer is that it is human nature to pursue sexual pleasure, gay or straight.

So while it is certainly true that for Edwards to best serve his dying wife, he required greater obedience to his own notions of morality; when it comes to an inherent drives as strong as sex, millions of years of evolution have equipped us with a tool that socialized notions of morality cannot always handle. Thus, once we have that orgasm, and our deep-seated drives for sex subside, we are roused to the moral reality of our times, that this is not socially acceptable: oooooh shit!