Sexual Strategies Theory

Sexual Strategies Theory Definition

Strategies are the means people use to achieve goals. If the goal is to obtain food, for example, one strategy might be to hunt, another strategy to gather, and a third strategy to scavenge. Sexual strategies are the means people use to achieve sexual or mating goals. Humans have evolved a menu of sexual strategies that includes, at a minimum, short-term and long-term mating. The sexes differ sharply in the adaptive problems they must solve to carry out each strategy successfully and so have evolved profoundly different sexual psychologies. Nonetheless, they share a universal emotion of love, which unites their reproductive interests in mutually produced children and reveals a feature of human sexual strategies that they profoundly share.

Critical Variables in Sexual Strategies Theory

Sexual Strategies TheoryThe sexual strategies theory begins with two critical variables that heavily influence sexual or mating behavior. The first is the temporal variable (time span), which ranges from short-term at one end to long-term mating at the other. Short-term mating has been given many names: one-night stands, hooking up, brief affairs, temporary liaisons. Long-term mating typically involves a prolonged commitment to one mate during a period of years, decades, or a lifetime. The ends of this temporal dimension are anchored using the descriptively neutral terms short-term mating and long-term mating. Matings of intermediate duration, such as dating, going steady, brief marriages, and intermediate-length affairs, fall between these points. Before the advent of sexual strategies theory in 1993, theories designed to explain human mating focused nearly exclusively on long-term mating and neglected the fact that short-term mating is a common sexual strategy across most cultures.

The second critical variable that forms the foundation of sexual strategies theory is biological sex— whether one is male or female. Biological sex becomes critical to human mating because men and women have recurrently faced profoundly different adaptive mating problems. These recurrently different problems stem from sexual asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Fertilization occurs internally within women, not within men; this has created an adaptive problem for men that no woman has ever faced—the problem of paternity uncertainty. Men never know if they are the biological fathers of their children. Women always know that they are the biological mothers.

Internal female fertilization also creates a critical adaptive problem for women: the selection of which male will fertilize her eggs. Women, not men, bear the metabolic costs of pregnancy and breast-feeding. This has rendered women, the high-investing sex, an extraordinarily valuable reproductive resource for men, the lower investing sex.

As a rule, across thousands of species, the higher investing sex (often, but not always the female) tends to be choosy or discriminating about its choice of a mate. The reasons center on the costs of making a poor mate choice and the benefits of making a wise mate choice. The higher investing sex suffers greater costs of making a poor mate choice. A woman who makes a poor mate choice, for example, risks becoming pregnant with a man who will not stay around to help her and invest in her child. She also risks passing on genes to her children that are inferior (e.g., genes for poor health) to those that would occur if she were to make a wiser choice (e.g., genes for good health). The lower-investing sex, in contrast, suffers fewer costs of making a poor mate choice—he can go on to reproduce with other partners, an option the higher investing sex is less free to do.

Another general rule of mating is that the lower investing sex tends to be more competitive with members of its own sex for sexual access to members of the valuable members of the high-investing sex. In summary, considering only the obligatory investment, one could predict that women would be generally more choosy and discriminating than men in their mate choices, whereas men more than women would be more competitive with their own sex for sexual access.

Adaptive Problems and Evidence for Sexual Strategies Theory

According to sexual strategies theory, however, both men and women have evolved to pursue both short-term (sometimes purely sexual) and long-term mating strategies. Sexual strategies theory provides a theory of the different adaptive problems men and women confront when pursuing short-term and long-term mating strategies. This paper describes a few of these adaptive problems and a few pieces of evidence supporting hypotheses about how they evolved to solve those problems.

Short-Term Mating

Consider first the adaptive problems men must solve when pursuing a short-term mating strategy. One is identifying women who are potentially sexually accessible. A second is identifying women who are fertile. A third adaptive problem is providing the motivational impetus for pursuing a variety of different sexual partners. A fourth is deploying successful strategies of seduction. A fifth is minimizing the time that elapses before seeking sexual intercourse. A sixth is avoiding becoming encumbered in high-investment, high-commitment relationships that would interfere with the successful pursuit of short-term mating.

Empirical studies support several hypothesized evolved solutions to these problems. Men pursuing a short-term mating strategy, for example, avoid women who are prudish and are not deterred by women who show signs of promiscuity (sexual accessibility problem). Men typically express a desire for a variety of different sex partners, have frequent sexual fantasies involving different women, and let less time elapse before seeking sexual intercourse (compared with women). Men are more likely than women to lie about the depth of their emotional commitment to seduce a woman. Men who pursue short-term mating experience a psychological shift, such that they find their sex partners less attractive immediately after intercourse— a possible adaptation to motivate these men to seek a hasty postcopulatory departure. The success of short-term mating requires not becoming entangled in a relationship with heavy commitment. In short, men show many psychological, emotional, and behavioral characteristics that suggest that short-term mating has evolved as one strategy within their mating menu.

Women confront a somewhat different suite of adaptive problems when pursuing a short-term mating strategy. For men, the adaptive function of short-term mating is straightforward, a direct increase in reproductive success as a consequence of successfully inseminating a variety of women. Women, in contrast, cannot increase their offspring production directly through short-term mating. Adding an additional sex partner does not directly translate into additional offspring, given their heavy metabolic investment to produce a single child (a 9-month pregnancy). Instead, women can potentially benefit, in the currency of reproductive success, by obtaining at least three potential benefits from short-term mating: (1) obtaining superior genes from a man who is high in desirability; (2) obtaining additional resources for herself or her children, which could be critical in lean times, food shortages, or other evolutionary bottlenecks; and (3) using short-term mating as a mate-switching strategy, either to provide a means for exiting one relationship or as a means of trading up to a better mating relationship.

Empirical studies support the hypothesis that women pursue short-term matings to obtain each of these benefits. For example, women pursuing short-term mating place a greater premium on physically symmetrical, masculine-looking, and physically attractive men, markers of good genes. They also state that obtaining economic and material resources are one of the reliable benefits they obtain from short-term mating. And women dissatisfied with their existing long-term relationship are more likely than are satisfied women to have short-term sexual affairs, using them as a means of exiting an existing relationship or exploring whether they can locate better mates.

Long-Term Mating

Short-term mating, of course, is not the only strategy in the menu of human mating strategies. Both sexes also pursue long-term mating: forming an emotional bond with one partner and committing sexual, psychological, and economic resources to that partner over the long term. When pursuing a long-term mating strategy, however, women and men still differ in several important respects. The sexes differ in their mate selection criteria, what they want in a long-term mate.

Men seeking a long-term mate historically have had to solve the problem of identifying a fertile woman. Men mating with infertile women failed to become ancestors. All modern humans are descendants of men who mated with fertile women. As their descendants, modern men carry with them the psychological desires that led to the success of their ancestors.

How did men solve the problem of selecting a fertile woman? They focused on two important classes of cues known to be linked to fertility: cues to youth and cues to health. Physical appearance provides a wealth of information about youth and health status, and hence fertility status. A study of 10,047 individuals from six continents and five islands discovered that men in all cultures on average place a greater premium on physical attractiveness when seeking a long-term mate, compared with women. Men universally also desire women who are young, and typically younger than they are; in contrast, women desire men who are a bit older than they are. In summary, men’s desires in long-term mating center heavily on cues to youth and health, and hence fertility.

Ancestral women faced a different adaptive problem: securing resources for herself and her offspring to increase the odds that she would survive through pregnancy and breast-feeding, and that her children would survive and thrive. Ancestral women who were indifferent to a man’s ability and willingness to commit resources to her and her children suffered in survival and reproductive success. Modern women have inherited the mate preferences of their successful ancestral mothers. In the 37-culture study, women indeed placed a greater value on a man’s financial status, social status, and cues known to lead to resources: ambition, hard work, and intelligence.

Love in Sexual Strategies Theory

Although there are universal sex differences in what women and men want in a long-term mate, both sexes universally want love. Love is a powerful evolved emotion that helped men and women remain committed to each other through thick and thin. Love helped bond ancestral men and women together, unite their reproductive interests in mutually produced offspring, and is powerfully linked to long-term mating.


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