This Valentine's Day, Try Outlander

It's that awkward time of year again--Valentine's Day--when the forces of consumerism conspire to propel men into mate-retention mode: to avoid being dumped, you must proffer your mate a material token of the value you place on your relationship. That's the capitalist way to do it, but there's a much better option. The recent self-help book, Mate, advises men that the secret to mating success is to make decisions with science. To this end, it condenses volumes of biological, psychological, and anthropological research into the staccato prose of a sportscaster. The bottom line: women highly value commitment and protection in a mate, and men need to demonstrate their ability and willingness to provide them. This is sound advice, and the book is well worth reading. But for those who are pressed for time, there's an alternate route to the same information: female porn.

Before you get excited (if male) or offended (if female), allow me to clarify: I'm talking about the romance novel, which is widely recognized as female erotica. The romance audience is overwhelmingly female: 90.5% of romance readers are women. Moreover, the story action is driven by female mating concerns, and the romantic hero is recognized as the embodiment of what women find sexually attractive and arousing in a prospective long-term partner. The popularity of the genre, which generated $1.37 billion in 2008, is testimony that it pushes women's pleasure buttons.

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander is a case in point, and the recent Starz adaptation saves men the embarrassment of buying a romance novel. Set in the 18th century, the story revolves around the attraction and marriage of Claire Beauchamp Randall to the Scottish highlander, James Fraser. The series colonizes new romance territory by focusing on the couple's post-marital relationship. Whereas traditional romance novels end with the setting of the wedding date, Outlander explores what happens after the honeymoon. The market for this is potentially huge: 44% of the female romance readership is women between the ages of 31 and 49 who are currently in a romantic relationship. Outlander can thus be seen as an experiment that probes what women want from a long-term partner.

The upshot is that men and women are not turned on by the same things. While men are readily aroused by physical stimuli--e.g., images of naked women--women are stirred by cues of commitment and prowess. This is because, until very recently, a woman's only control over her fertility was abstinence--a strategy jeopardized by her vulnerability to rape. Pregnancy and lactation are metabolically expensive, and under the hunting-and-gathering conditions in which humans evolved, it was virtually impossible for a woman to single-handedly provide sufficient calories for herself and a developing child. Moreover, advanced pregnancy impedes locomotion, increasing a woman's vulnerability to predation. Childbirth, too, is dangerous--a risk not worth taking if the child is unlikely to receive adequate support. If she survives these obstacles, a single mother faces fifteen years of child rearing, during which she must trade off supervision of her child with acquisition of resources to support it. Because a child in this situation is unlikely to survive, our female ancestors who mated impulsively did not rear many offspring to maturity. Thus, women value support and protection in a long-term mate because, for most of human evolution, child-rearing was virtually impossible without them.

Outlander vividly illustrates this predicament. Virtually everywhere Claire turns, there is a man seeking to rape her. Jamie is the glaring exception: from the outset of their acquaintance he respects her person, taking no liberties and dedicating himself to her protection. In this task he is aided by his excellent martial skills, which--the skeptical reader might observe--most 21st-century men can't hope to match. This misses the point. Jamie's prowess is a product of his comparatively violent and lawless culture; in modern environments, being in decent shape and knowing basic self-defense are probably sufficient cues of ability to protect. Moreover, ability to protect is worthless if not backed up by willingness, and Jamie demonstrates this within twenty-four hours of their meeting, telling Claire: "Ye need not be scared of me, nor anyone else here, so long as I am with ye."

Jamie also demonstrates kindness and compassion for the powerless--a good sign that a man will be a caring father. We see this when he volunteers to take the punishment of a young woman, Laoghaire, who has been accused of loose behavior and sentenced to a beating. In so doing, he is motivated by a desire to spare the girl's grandmother--who has been kind to him--the pain and anguish of seeing Laoghaire publicly humiliated.

Laoghaire provides yet another test of Jamie's long-term mate potential. Shortly after their marriage, Claire is captured by the British due to her flagrant disregard of Jamie's instructions. He and his fellow clansmen mount a successful rescue attempt, but afterwards, custom obligates Jamie, as her husband, to punish her for heedlessly and selfishly endangering the clan. This is the controversial spanking incident, after which Claire retaliates by withholding sex. During this spat, Laoghaire makes a play for Jamie. Unlike Claire, Laoghaire has never been married, and is a dozen years younger than her rival--a point that she emphasizes, in true romance fashion, by displaying her perky cleavage. The offer is tempting, but Jamie politely refuses her, declaring that he has pledged himself to another woman and won't break that vow. There is no better test of a man's devotion and respect--this is the money shot of female erotica. For women, trustworthiness in a man is sexy due to the high costs of abandonment.

These examples are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: Outlander is a virtual guidebook to what turns women on. So this Valentine's Day, make a real investment in your relationship by taking an interest in your mate's mind and what it is designed to find sexy. Watch what she watches--you'll find it an eye-opening experience.