How have sexual behaviors changed in our Millennial, #MeToo era? Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, explains the nuances of being just friends, friends with benefits, or a casual hookup -- and tells us how the trend toward longer courtships may change everything.
Dr. Stieg: We are here today with Dr. Helen Fisher. She is one of the world's leading experts on love and author and biological anthropologist. She is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute of Indiana university as well as a member of the center for human evolutionary studies in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. Helen, welcome.
Dr. Fisher: I'm delighted to be here. Thank you.
Dr. Stieg: I wanted to focus on some of the sexual behaviors that people display and I was up at my kid's college and was reading the newspaper article up there about this thing called "hooking up." What's the value of that? Has that changed the way our young people are thinking about relationships and love?
Dr. Fisher: It's not just young people. People over 65 have just as many hookups as younger, so yeah.
Dr. Stieg: Is it friends with benefits or is it hooking up? I mean this to me, this to me it seemed like what I was reading was person was working in the library until 11 o'clock, said I need some intimacy. Went down their lists, maybe this one tonight called them. They got together and had a few shots of tequila and found Shangri-La.
Dr. Fisher: Well that's a myth. The young are actually having far less sex than we did in former generations. It's very interesting because I studied these millennials. These are people ages 23 to 39 they talk a big game and everybody thinks that everybody else is hooking up. Now they are hooking up. But by the way, the term hooking up means a whole lot of different things to different people. Sometimes it isn't actually set in stone.
Dr. Stieg: Tell us, tell me what we're talking about. I'm thinking you hook up for sex and then you get on with the next day.
Dr. Fisher: Yes. So that would be a one night stand, but it would be a friends with benefits if you pick one person and spend a lot evenings with just that person and there's lots of rules to friends with benefits. So it's not just a fly by night, but what's so interesting about the young people—.
Dr. Stieg: Can we come up with a handbook for that? *laughs*
Dr. Stieg: I actually have one. I mean I've studied this stuff. It's very interesting. I mean I can go into the whole rules of it, but just millennials... Two thirds of millennials, these people in their twenties and thirties I still living at home. Now it's a lot harder to have a lot of sex with a lot of different people. If you're still living at home now, why are they living at home? Not because they're lazy. It's because it's a very ambitious generation. They're very ambitious. They want to get ahead. In the past, women would get into the job market but as soon as they found the right boy they would have family. These days people are building career before family. In the past women particularly wanted to build family before career and so the young are very ambitious and they are certainly hooking up but they want everything defined — it's called a "define the relationship" — D-T-R, and after four months of going out with somebody they want to know, are you sleeping with other people? Is this a committed partnership? Where is it going? And so they're very careful with their sex. They're not sleeping around for months or even years and not knowing quite where it's going. They want to know what's going on. They are a very cautious generation, you know. These are the ones that uh, grew up with car seats and bicycle helmets. Now we are in the #MeToo movement. A lot of young men are terrified. They want to make sure they know somebody before they get into bed with them. So what we're really seeing is sort of a four-part thing, a long period of what I call the pre-commitment stage. A long period of being just friends, just friends, just friends. Then they move slowly into, friends with benefits—
Dr. Stieg: Now this "just friends" as you say with quotation marks is that....
Dr. Fisher: It's not sexual.
Dr. Stieg: Not with benefits. Okay. Just friends.
Dr. Fisher: Just friends. And then they move. And 71% of people who move into friends with benefits have been just friends for quite a while.
Dr. Stieg: So it'll be interesting to see whether this process then results in a reduction in the divorce rate. Cause what you're describing to me is somebody that actually gets to know and like somebody before they get involved.
Dr. Fisher: Wonderfully said, and I just wrote a big academic article on that very thing and I call it Slow Love: Courtship in The Digital Age. It came out in January and basically I began to think, okay, so if we have this long period of pre-commitment of just friends and move into friends with benefits and slowly tell friends and family, then slowly move in together. Maybe with this very long period of courtship, we're going to see more stable marriages because when you walk down the aisle, you know who you are, you know you want to keep this person, et cetera. So I did a study of 1100 married people and asked them a lot of questions, but one of the questions was, would you remarry the person you're currently married to? And 81% said yes. I've also looked in the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations in 80 cultures, and the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain married.
Dr. Stieg: When you died at 35 being married for life was shorter than it. Now your average female is living well into her eighties and for me, taking care of patients in their nineties is not unusual. If you got married in your 20s you've been married 17 years, a long time.
Dr. Fisher: Isn't that interesting? Well you know most of the deaths in hunting and gathering days were infants. Anthropologists do to a life table thing, and they have found that if you survive infancy in a hunting-gathering societies as you were likely to live till your mid-70s. So they still had long marriages. But there was probably a good deal of divorce and remarriage because in every culture that I've looked at in the world where women are economically powerful, both men and women can leave a bad partnership in order to make a better one. And that's what we're really seeing today is it's so interesting. People are always saying, "Oh, technology is changing sex and love." It isn't. What's really changing is women piling into the job market and becoming equals with men economically and in those kinds of partnerships, you can leave bad relationships. One data point that astonished me from these singles. I've got data on 40,000 single people and one of the questions I asked was, if you were in a satisfactory marriage for a couple of years, would you leave as something like 36% said yes, they would leave satisfied to find one with all the bells and whistles, it was more better. They want it all more better. Now that astonishes me because women didn't have that option and men didn't have that option for a long period.
Dr. Fisher: What's the most common myth about men and the most common myth about women and sex?
Dr. Stieg: Well, we're back to that one night stand business. Men actually do think that having a sexual encounter with women is a very important stepping stone towards a partnership. Whereas women don't feel that, so actually, sex is more intimate to men than it is to women because what is the woman giving him? She's giving him a gift that may send his DNA on into eternity. Men are thinking that way, but for men, sex is a gift that women give them.
Dr. Stieg: So are you saying women are inherently more promiscuous than men?
Dr. Stieg: It's amazing, I've looked at all that data. All the data show that men are more promiscuous and the data goes back to the 1920s.
Dr. Stieg: And that's because they're the hunter-gatherer or?
Dr. Fisher: You know what? I don't think it's true.
Dr. Stieg: What you just said was men are more emotionally invested in it than a woman. So intuition would tell me then that maybe the woman would be more, promiscuous because it doesn't mean as much to her.
Dr. Fisher: I think it means something different to her. She's giving more, she's taking a bigger risk. She can have the baby. She's the one that's going to cart that fetus around for nine months. Childbirth has been very dangerous through most of human evolution and in every culture in the world. Women spend more time in the daily care of small children, but there's a lot of myths. But in terms of adultery, every single time there's a man who's sleeping around, he's generally sleeping around with a woman. So what's going on here? Are men lying about the fact that they have more women? Are women reducing it? What, what's going on? Is there a Madonna and a whore? I mean, some women are sleeping with a lot of men and some women are just being very faithful. Are a lot of men bragging when it isn't a really a sexual relationship? Do the sexes define sex differently? Uh, which they can often do. So anyway, there was only one study that helped me, it was a study out of England several years ago and they did find that, uh, men were bragging and women were lying and that, and today I do know—
Dr. Stieg: When I hear these statistics or read them about the number of people that are having extramarital affairs and I'm somewhat flabbergasted by, you know, the numbers are up in the 30 to 50% range.
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, it's amazing who you ask. I used to get, uh, a little, uh, thing on divorce and a little pamphlet regularly and they said as much as 70% of people were adulterers. And then you take a look at other data and you find it's 15% of women and 25% of men. It's very hard to, to really know the data. And this is something we naturally lie about. You know, I'm not condoning it in any way, but, uh, it's something that, uh, people, uh, even lie to themselves.
Dr. Stieg: So what's the scoop on the male attraction to a woman? Is it that they're going for the most beautiful woman or are they going for, what characteristic are men really looking for? When I was reading through some of your material, it said that people aren't necessarily attracted to somebody that's good looking.
Dr. Stieg: I don't know. I don't know. Maybe I'm old fashioned. I still like to be pleased with my eyes.
Dr. Fisher: We all do. I mean, we all have parameters.
Dr. Stieg: Some, some different characteristic. Attractive. I get that.
Dr. Fisher: Exactly. That's the point. That's good. Good looking women actually are sending very important, uh, signals. I mean, the waist to hip ratio is very important for whether you're going to be a person who has hypertension or cancer risk or, or, uh, even mental illness. So we're sending all kinds of, you know, I mean, men need women with clear skin. Uh, that means they've been able to fight off pathogens, Nice teeth, uh, signs of health. Same with what women are attracted to men, but in bed what they want is somebody who's caring, somebody who's enthusiastic, somebody who can communicate with them. Uh, somebody who is a good kisser and almost 80% of both men and women regard orgasm as an essential part of good sex.
Dr. Stieg: So now I'm going to turn you into the sex counselor. And how often should people have sex on a weekly basis? What's good for them emotionally, physically?
Dr. Fisher: In America, it's a bit of a disaster. 23% of them. Single Americans. I don't know about married Americans, but it's going down in married people too, which I don't understand, but among single Americans, and there's a whole lot of them, about one third of the population. The way I asked the question is, "Have you had sex in the last year?" 23% of single Americans had not had sex in the last year. Uh, 50% of people over the age of 60 had not had sex in the last year.
Dr. Stieg: Aging prematurely?
Dr. Fisher: I think they're lacking a partner is what they're doing. And don't forget, we've got problems with obesity and, and lack of exercise and where people are working too hard. And, but what's really appalling to me is 37% of people in their 30s did not have sex in the year 2018. 37% of people in their thirties did not have sex. And about 28% of men in their 20s, uh, did not have sex in the last year. More women in their 20s had sex in the last year than men. You know, anthropologists have long regarded Americans as what we call a sex negative society.
Dr. Stieg: I've read that in France they—.
Dr. Fisher: They're more relaxed about it.
Dr. Stieg: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They have more sex and, which is, I'm presuming based on your earlier comments, that would be good for the American.
Dr. Fisher: Oh, there's piles of good things about sex! You know, the other thing is Christianity has long been tepid about sex.
Dr. Stieg: It's probably not only Christianity, I mean a lot of religious forms...
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, the Asians, apparently did not link sex with sin. It was a secular issue, not a religious issue. There's all kinds of cultural rules that guide the human brain, but the bottom line is sex is good for you, and for the right person.
Dr. Stieg: Sex is good. Helen, thank you for spending this time with me to talk about lust and really attraction and what pleases people in the sexual act. Thank you so much for being with me.