Why Do Women Fall for Jerks?

Here, Judy Dutton, the author of How We Do It: How the Science of Sex Can Make You a Better Lover, answers one of life’s eternal questions.

Q: Why do women always seem to fall for jerks?

Believe it or not, there’s an evolutionary explanation for this called the “sexy son hypothesis.” What this means is that jerks, or bad boys, appeal to women because thanks to the more aggressive, risk-taking ways of these men, they are often successful, powerful, and – here’s the clincher – pretty suave with the ladies. A son born by this man, women assume, will also be successful, powerful, and pretty suave with the ladies. As a result, odds are good that this sexy son will bear a woman many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and spread her genes far and wide in the future. In evolutionary terms, this is a good thing, so that’s why jerks can reel women in.

Q: What’s the payoff for dating a jerk?

Many people assume that women date jerks because they have low self-esteem or are gluttons for punishment. But according to the sexy son hypothesis, women date jerks because they have better genes. The downside, of course, is that jerks rarely stick around to help change the diapers or pitch in with the grocery bills. That’s a huge downside if you want kids and a long-term commitment.

Q: Why don’t we pick nice guys?

Nice guys are great for marriage, companionship and raising a family, but they don’t necessarily have the best genes. Because both nice guys and jerks have their own unique benefits and downsides, women are constantly torn between the two, a theory that’s also known as the “cads vs. dads” dilemma. We see this all the time in movies. On Sex and the City Carrie Bradshaw constantly waffled between sweet, steadfast Aiden and the flashier, fly-by-night Big. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, the heroine is so busy chasing her charming, cheating boss that she almost misses her chance at a real relationship with the stuffy-but-reliable family friend.

Q: How can a woman kick the jerk habit?

First, a woman must decide if she’s looking for a long-term commitment with kids in the picture, or whether she’s just out for a fun fling. If she’s out for a fun fling, then she should feel free to go for the bad boy. If she wants marriage and kids, she should go for the nice guy. Women should also keep in mind that even if a bad boy does have better genes, if he doesn’t stick around and help a woman raise his children, those children may not grow up to be very successful or sexy themselves. On the other hand, even if a nice guy’s genes aren’t as great as a jerk’s, the fact that he will stick around and pitch in with child rearing may mean that his kids will end up being very successful and sexy. Nice guys, in other words, do win in the end. So do the women who go for them. The jerks will end up right where they belong, sitting in bars, alone.