Sexual strategies theory is based on sexual selection theory. It proposes that humans have evolved a list of different mating strategies, both short-term and long-term, that vary depending on culture, social context, parental influence, and personal mate value (desirability in the “mating market”).

In its initial formulation, sexual strategies theory focused on the differences between men and women in mating preferences and strategies (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). It started by looking at the minimum parental investment needed to produce a child. For women, even the minimum investment is significant: after becoming pregnant, they have to carry that child for nine months inside of them. For men, on the other hand, the minimum investment to produce the same child is considerably smaller—simply the act of sex.

Women bear more responsibility, experience more risk, and must devote more resources to pregnancy than men. This difference in parental investment has led to different sexual strategies

These differences in parental investment have an enormous impact on sexual strategies. For a woman, the risks associated with making a poor mating choice is high. She might get pregnant by a man who will not help to support her and her children, or who might have poor-quality genes. And because the stakes are higher for a woman, wise mating decisions for her are much more valuable. For men, on the other hand, the need to focus on making wise mating decisions isn’t as important. That is, unlike women, men 1) don’t biologically have the child growing inside of them for nine months, and 2) do not have as high a cultural expectation to raise the child. This logic leads to a powerful set of predictions: In short-term mating, women will likely be choosier than men (because the costs of getting pregnant are so high), while men, on average, will likely engage in more casual sexual activities (because this cost is greatly lessened). Due to this, men will sometimes deceive women about their long-term intentions for the benefit of short-term sex, and men are more likely than women to lower their mating standards for short-term mating situations.

An extensive body of empirical evidence supports these and related predictions (Buss & Schmitt, 2011). Men express a desire for a larger number of sex partners than women do. They let less time elapse before seeking sex. They are more willing to consent to sex with strangers and are less likely to require emotional involvement with their sex partners. They have more frequent sexual fantasies and fantasize about a larger variety of sex partners. They are more likely to regret missed sexual opportunities. And they lower their standards in short-term mating, showing a willingness to mate with a larger variety of women as long as the costs and risks are low.

However, in situations where both the man and woman are interested in long-term mating, both sexes tend to invest substantially in the relationship and in their children. In these cases, the theory predicts that both sexes will be extremely choosy when pursuing a long-term mating strategy. Much empirical research supports this prediction, as well. In fact, the qualities women and men generally look for when choosing long-term mates are very similar: both want mates who are intelligent, kind, understanding, healthy, dependable, honest, loyal, loving, and adaptable.

Nonetheless, women and men do differ in their preferences for a few key qualities in long-term mating, because of somewhat distinct adaptive problems. Modern women have inherited the evolutionary trait to desire mates who possess resources, have qualities linked with acquiring resources (e.g., ambition, wealth, industriousness), and are willing to share those resources with them. On the other hand, men more strongly desire youth and health in women, as both are cues to fertility. These male and female differences are universal in humans. They were first documented in 37 different cultures, from Australia to Zambia (Buss, 1989), and have been replicated by dozens of researchers in dozens of additional cultures (for summaries, see Buss, 2012).

As we know, though, just because we have these mating preferences (e.g., men with resources; fertile women), people don’t always get what they want. There are countless other factors which influence who people ultimately select as their mate. For example, the sex ratio (the percentage of men to women in the mating pool), cultural practices (such as arranged marriages, which inhibit individuals’ freedom to act on their preferred mating strategies), the strategies of others (e.g., if everyone else is pursuing short-term sex, it’s more difficult to pursue a long-term mating strategy), and many others all influence who we select as our mates.

Sexual strategies theory—anchored in sexual selection theory— predicts specific similarities and differences in men and women’s mating preferences and strategies. Whether we seek short-term or long-term relationships, many personality, social, cultural, and ecological factors will all influence who our partners will be.


Video Learning

This video discusses the evolution of human mating and reproduction. The talk is part of a TEDxPSU event and is given by Dr. David Puts, Associate Professor of Anthropology at PennState University. The talk illustrates how evolutionary thinking can help us gain insight into how people compete for and choose mates, men’s care for their children, infidelity, and women’s orgasms. The evolution of human mating