For the past 15 years, David Puts, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Penn State University, has been thinking and writing about sex. Dr. Puts sat down with The Weekender to talk about what it’s like doing this kind of work.
THE WEEKENDER: How did you become interested in studying sex and relationships?
DAVID PUTS: I started with an interest in the evolution of human behavior. When you think about how natural selection shapes organisms, it makes sense that sexuality would be an especially fruitful area of evolutionary research. This is because the central tenet of natural selection is that traits that contribute to reproductive success get passed on to future generations, and those that detract from reproduction don’t make it. So traits that have historically been more directly tied to sex and reproduction tend to have experienced stronger selection.
W: What is your most memorable experience?
DP: The most memorable moment for me was in graduate school, when I produced the first graph of one of my primary research results. I was studying the evolution of sex differences in the voice, and I had predicted from existing theory and literature that women would be more attracted to deep, masculine voices during the fertile phase of the ovulatory cycle, and for short-term, purely sexual (versus long-term, committed) relationships. I found the statistical effects that I had predicted, but it wasn’t until I saw the results graphically that I got really excited.
W: Describe any challenges you had to face.
DP: I suppose there’s still some taboo about conducting sex research, but, of course, professionally, the people who review my manuscripts and with whom I interact are doing their own related research. Probably the biggest hurdle to this type of research is in getting grant funding. I’ve been lucky so far in getting the money that I needed, but I have plans for larger, more costly projects.
W: Why is researching sex important?
DP: We’re a sexual species. Each of us comes from an unbroken line of sexually reproducing ancestors, all the way back to the origins of sexual reproduction over a billion years ago. So it should be no surprise that our sexuality permeates our social lives. Understanding how we choose and compete for mates, and the dynamics of romantic and sexual relationships, helps us interact socially. It is also worthwhile to study the development of sex differences because many physical and mental disorders differ in their prevalence or severity between males and females. So understanding the genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences on the development of sex differences will help us understand the development of the many health problems that are sexually differentiated.
W: Discuss a particular project or article you have published, and explain why it is significant.
DP: In 2010, I published a paper concluding that over human evolution, men have competed for mates heavily through the use of force or threat of force against rival men. This conclusion runs counter to prior literature, which implied that our male ancestors were more like peacocks or birds of paradise, winning mates mainly by wooing them. It has been gratifying that this paper seems to have influenced other researchers’ thinking. The paper won an award and has been cited steadily in other people’s work.
W: Have any of your academic insights about sex changed the way you approach your own relationships?
DP: Maybe they did a bit more before I got married! I think my relationships have influenced how I think about sexuality more than the reverse. I haven’t really used academic insights to negotiate my personal relationships.