A new book challenges the assumption that men are naturally, voraciously promiscuous.
Tom met his last girlfriend at a house party in Seattle. They bonded over their mutual interest in world politics, danced a little, and flirted a lot. At the end of the night, he kissed her. And it all went downhill from there.
"I can't have sex with you tonight," she told him. He hadn't been expecting that they would. "Well, how about dinner, then?" he asked her. She laughed. "Of course you would say that!" she retorted. "She thought I was just trying to get into her pants," Tom recalls.
It was a dynamic that would continue throughout their short-lived relationship. She would drop snarky comments about how guys were only after one thing or how they couldn't be trusted, and when he called her out on them, she would reply that it was the way of the world and "you can't fight against it." When they did have sex, six weeks after they first met, they broke up less than a week later. "It was stifling, because I wanted to communicate with her, but I felt like I couldn't," says Tom. "She had all these ideas about who I was and what I wanted from her that just weren't true."
A classic case of youthful miscommunication? Perhaps. But Tom's ex-girlfriend didn't draw her beliefs and assumptions out of thin air. They go to the core of the way many people conceive male sexuality: as an all-powerful, indiscriminate hunger for female flesh that renders men helpless in its grip.
Andrew P. Smiler, a visiting professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and author of new book Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, calls it the "Casanova Complex"—named for Giacomo Casanova, the 18th-century Italian who famously reported bedding 116 women over a 40-year span.
Sometimes the stereotype is framed as light and cheeky—think the "boys will be boys" mentality exemplified by sitcom womanizers such as How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson or Two and a Half Men's Charlie Harper. Other times it is presented as something darker and more amoral: Think the spate of articles seeking to answer the question of "why men cheat" that followed the revelations of General Petraeus's affair with his biographer, or the portrayal of rape as something that happens when a woman's skirt is too short, or a man has had too much to drink.
In either case, Smiler says, the Casanova Complex can be drilled down to "the idea that guys are only interested in sex, and that they are supposed to hook up regularly and endlessly with all sorts of new partners." And in either case, it is presented as a done deal—as Tom's ex-girlfriend put it, "just the way things are."
But while the Casanova Complex may be culturally pervasive, it doesn't stand up to reality. According to Smiler, research shows that only 15 percent of guys have three or more sexual partners in any given year (the number Giacomo Casanova averaged over his sexual career). Expand your sample to three years, and that number drops to 5 percent.
In other words, young men might hook up—as do young women, for that matter—but hook-ups aren't the only type of relationship they engage in, nor is casual sex something most guys have on a regular basis.
Rather than the hyper-sexual, promiscuous male being the norm, Smiler argues, it's just one of four main categories young men fall into: the others being the romantic (relationship-oriented men whose hook-ups usually incorporate an emotional connection), the emo (relatively passive "nice guys" whose hook-ups and relationships are usually initiated by the women they hook up with), and religious guys, who date with intent of looking for a life partner and are reserving sex until marriage.
So, why does the Casanova stereotype loom so large? Casanova types have always existed, but the notion that they represent the everyman—or what the everyman would do if he was given the opportunity—is relatively new, says Smiler. It first emerged in the mass media in the post-sexual revolution 1970s, manifested in characters like M*A*S*H's "Hawkeye" Pierce and Happy Days' The Fonz. In the 1950s and 1960s, men who were sexual with multiple partners were put forward as cautionary tales and bad role models; now they were put forward as heroes.
The sociobiology movement of the 1980s further entrenched the Casanova stereotype in the public imagination, positing that men were evolutionarily programmed to seek out as many partners as possible in order to maximize their chances of reproductive success.
One cross-cultural study referenced by Smiler found that 25 percent of men say they would ideally have two or more sexual partners within the next month, compared to just 5 percent of women. But that still leaves 75 percent of men whose "ideal" is either zero or one. "If guys are biologically programmed to want multiple partners," writes Smiler in Challenging Casanova, "why is it that [they]... overwhelmingly say they're looking for only one partner when completing anonymous surveys?"
On the surface, such a framing of the male libido might look like a celebration of men's desires, unrestrained and free to express themselves as nature intended. As Smiler points out, characters like The Fonz, Barney Stinson, and Charlie Harper are usually among the most charismatic on their respective TV programs. "For whatever reason, the writers give them the best lines. Things usually work out in their favor."
But the Casanova Complex is rooted as much in sex negativity as it is in notions of sex as liberation. It posits that at its heart, male sexuality is a dark and dangerous force.
Today's Casanovas may be glamorized, but they're also presented as being at the mercy of their libidos, willing to lie and manipulate in the pursuit of a moment's pleasure—or a "score" on the sexual playing field.
That's not a celebration of men—it's an insult, a reduction of half the human race to a stereotype. And it is a stereotype that has emotional and practical consequences: from teen pregnancy and STIs (Smiler says that guys who subscribe to the Casanova Complex are less likely to use condoms), to young men who feel pressured to pursue sexual intimacy they're not ready for in order to be a "real man", to relationships like Tom's—where one party is forever waiting for a betrayal that never comes.