Small, Meredith (1992). The Evolution of Female Sexuality and Mate Selection in Humans. Human Nature. 3, 133-156.
Throughout history, attempts to study women’s sexuality and mate selection have been inaccurately depicted due to cultural bias. But recently, Psychologists have found universal traits in human female mating that suggest an evolutionary influence. Consequently, Meredith Small, from the Department of Anthropology at
Human Female Sexual Response
Human females differ from other animals in that they are “menstrual” rather than “estrous,” which mean they can copulate, or engage in sexual intercourse, at any time during their hormonal cycle. (In addition, human females are reflective ovulators; therefore they will ovulate regardless of sexual intercourse.)
In human females, the clitoris is the organ of arousal, and is comparable to the penis. According to Small (1992), some argue that the clitoris is not a direct result of evolutionary selection because orgasms, or sexual pleasure, are not necessary for successful female reproduction, whereas it is essential for males, so the penis is under strong selective pressure. (p. 136) Yet others argue that orgasms are of tremendous value during intercourse, thus the selection of the clitoris runs parallel to that of the male’s penis. Small also writes, “Given that the human embryo is a female rather than male blueprint, it might be more accurate to suggest that the penis is a homolog to the clitoris” (Small, 1992, p. 136).
According to Lovejoy, when compared to other primates, human females are said to be “continuously receptive,” where receptive is defined by three stages of female estrus—attractivity, proceptivity and receptivity. Attractivity refers to whether females appear attractive to men. Proceptivity refers to a female’s interest in intercourse, and her attempts at initiation. Receptivity refers to a female’s positive response to interested males. Yet Small disagrees with labeling human females as “continuously receptive,” particularly because human females are “menstrual,” so the classifications of an estrous cycle become incompatible. For example, although females can be said to be continuously attractive because males perceive them so, it is not to suggest that females will always be interested in intercourse, or that they will positively respond to the attention paid to them by males. (Small, 1992, p. 137)
Women’s Interest in Sex
Although human females are not presumably bound to hormonal changes because they do not have estrous cycle, the notion that females are less interested in sex than their male counterparts is quite prevalent. Not only has this idea been culturally promulgated, but it also appeared to be supported by evolutionary theory. Small further illustrates, “Darwin even suggested that the reason females were likely to be choosy sexual partners was not that females were the limiting reproductive resource, as we now know, but that females were simply not interested in sex and were less passionate than males” (Small, 1992, p. 138). Today, there has been a shift towards more biological hypotheses.
According to Symons, males will tend to seek a variety of mates in order to maximize their productivity, whereas females will be choosy. Biologically, males have expendable gametes, thus multiple partners is efficient. Conversely, females have a limited amount of gametes, and their investment in their offspring is heavier than that of the males, therefore females need to careful. Despite the support that Symons received, Small disputes his argument of parental investment theory to the human case. First, human male and female tend to care for their offspring at equal proportions. Furthermore, if females were being choosy, and picking males who are committed to their offspring, those males who cannot commit would not experience reproductive success. Second, “human males have extremely low sperm counts and slow sperm mobility compared with other primates,” compounded with the fact that human females do not have “external signs of estrus” make the possibility of conceiving relatively low. (Small, 1992, p. 139) Third, Symons’s statistics on polygyny fail to address that most plural marriages are due to social or cultural conditions, not to sexual desires or impulses.
Small points out to further studies that contradict the notion of human females as reluctant, and choosy, and that support the idea of human females as “naturally sexual creatures restricted by social norms” (Small, 1992, p. 139). Blaffer Hrdy studies nonhuman primates in order to draw conclusions about human female sexual behavior. According to these studies, nonhuman primates are sexually proceptive and receptive. When these primates are not being monitors by males, they tend to be interested in a variety of males, and they are not choosy.
Further studies performed on humans also proved to be confounding. According to Whyte, out of “186 cultures, 77.4 % considered the male and female sex drive equally as strong” (Small, 1992, p. 139). Conversely, Broude writes that female sexuality has been restricted more than men’s, which lead Small to conclude that women do have the same sexual interest as men, but that these interests are restricted because of societal norms.
Other, more extensive studies have also been performed. From 1938 to 1950, Kinsey and colleagues performed a study, which focused on the “physiological and psychological aspects of human female sexual response and the changes in those responses with age” (Small, 1992, p. 140). They interviewed 940 Euroamerican women who ranged from all ages, socioeconomic classes, education, and religious backgrounds. In this interview, women were required to answer questions about orgasms, sexual intercourse frequency, premarital and extramarital intercourse, and masturbation—all of which were essential to the breaking of stereotypes about human female sexual response. According to data from the Kinsey et al. study, human females reach orgasm during masturbation as quickly as males, and the difficulty in experiencing a penile-induced orgasm lies in the position of the clitoris relative to the vaginal opening.
In 1975, Tavris and Sadd performed another study for a Redbook magazine, in which they surveyed 100,000 married women from all ages, economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political positions. This study concludes that women who have more frequent sex tend to be satisfied with their sex lives. Travris and Sadd also found that 44% of women initiate sex, which is a sharp contrast to the image of the passive human female. 75% of women also thought that having sex in curious locations was exciting. (Small, 1992, p. 140)
Small questions the reliability of this study because it only interviewed married women. She also points out that it failed to interview males, thus it lacks comparative statistics, such as those found in the Kinsey study.
In 1976, Hite performed another research study on female sexuality. Her statistics are composed of 3019 women who responded to a questionnaire. This sample is similar to the Kinsey participants because neither was chosen at random, but “they are much more geographically diverse and represent numerous socioeconomic classes, levels of education, and ethnic groups” (Small, 1992, p. 141). Consequently, Small (1992) argues that the data from the Hite study is more revealing because its participants are unrestricted in their answers and they are also from a diverse population. In addition, their response was “unhampered by histograms and levels of statistical significance.” (Small, 1992, p. 141) This allows for a more accurate interpretation of human female sexuality.
Physiology and Women’s Sexuality
Due to the fact that women have menstrual cycles, they can be interested in having sex regardless of their potential for conception. Therefore, human female sexual behavior and reproduction are not as linked as in other animals. Yet both human males and females can experience an orgasm through proper stimulation, such as masturbation, which points to the already mentioned separation between sexual behavior and reproduction. In addition, an orgasm is not necessary for conception to occur for females, whereas for males it is essential that an orgasm occur because it causes an ejaculation of gametes into the female body. The ability for females to orgasm without reproducing is a form of sexual motivation. Small (1992) argues that this dispels the argument of evolutionary theorist, which states that males will be more sexually motivated than females because of their method of dispensing gametes. (p. 141)
Small (1992) speaks of human females as “having a capacity for multiple orgasms, interest in sexual interaction, and continuous attractivity to males, the ‘new sexual women’,” which requires some evolutionary explanation. (p. 141) First, it is beneficial to both males and females to engage in sexual intercourse as often as possible because ovulation is not evident to either male of female. Second, continual engagement in sexual intercourse will lead to a strengthening of intimacy between couples. Third, sexual interest and motivation needs to be present in females, otherwise they would choose not to copulate. (Small, 1992, p. 141) Further researcher performed by Goodall has shown that “females initiate most of the copulations by responding to excited males” (Small, 1992, p. 141). Consequently, the old concept of the human female as a passive and choosy mate needs to be abandoned, and the focus should be turned toward the active sexual drives of the human females, and to the societal standards that have led to there suppression.
“Female Choice” was a phrase
Along with choosing a mate, female mating strategies and their use of sexuality also may play a role on “shaping the evolution of human mating and family systems” (Small). Alexander, Noonan and others suggest concealed ovulation and continuous receptivity are two important components of how females use their sexuality. “They hypothesize that somewhere along the human lineage, selection operated against external displays of estrus” (Small, 1992, p. 143). But, as Blaffer Hrdy and Burley point out, “concealed ovulation” might have been a primitive characteristic, and we do not have enough evidence to know that humans even have completely concealed ovulation. They do however back up the idea that “our hominid ancestral females became continuously available for sex, and they used their sexual flexibility in trade for faithful mates, paternal care, and reciprocal goods and services” (Small, 1992, p. 143). Some of the flaws that are pointed out about this is (1) monagomy goes against evolutionary basis for male’s mating strategies therefore this could not easily have been evolved from male’s sexual satisfaction alone; (2) males are not proven to have higher sex drives then females; (3) humans are not very sexual creatures; and (4) males do not need to be fooled into helping raise an offspring generally because males want to ensure reproduction just like females.
Perhaps the most reasonable scenario for human mate choice and family structure is one that has little to do with sexuality. According to Irons (1983) and Lancaster and Lancaster (1983), the human mating system probably evolved as one of reciprocity, but without the element of sex. Both parties cooperated to make and raise dependent offspring. Both parties gained sexual satisfaction either within or outside the bond. The data on extramarital affairs in western and other cultures suggest that humans today usually see marriage and sex, spouses and mates, and sex and reproduction as different entities. Is it unreasonable to suggest that our hominid forebears maintained the same dichotomies? (Small, 1992, p. 144)
Female Sexuality and Mate Choice in Western Societies
Data from a study done by Kinsey at al (1953) backed the idea that females are actively interested in sex and will engage in sex with multiple partners. They found in their study of female sexual behavior in the
Another study done by Buss (1985) showed some differences about how males and females choose mates. “[He] found that people positively assort for age race, religion, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, and geographic location” (Small 145). Buss also gave the individuals a questionnaire to rate, in order of importance, certain characteristics that they looked for in mates. He found some differences between the two sexes, but both males and females in a slightly mixed up order shared the top 7 choices. (Small 145-146)
“Clearly, females do not mate at random. In sexual relations and in marriage, females have both reproductive and personal reasons for choosing a mate” (Small, 1992, p. 146). She goes on to say that when females have a higher chance of pregnancy they or more choosy. They look for males with resources that will aid with their offspring. Females also disconnect can disconnect sex, as males do, when they are not ovulating. When females choose mates and have no intention of reproduction, the variables for choosing a sexual partner have not yet been investigated. (Small, 1992, p. 146)
Female Sexuality and Mate Choice in Other Cultures
As Gebhard (1971) discovered, “almost universally, social and physical restrictions are harsher on females than on males” (Small, 1992, p. 146). Small found though, despite this fact, females still have influence on arranged marriages and still engaged in sex outside of marriage. By using the Human Relations Area File (HRAF) and the Standard Cross-Culture Sample (Murdock and White 1969), she evaluated 186 societies, which gave her a basis for rejecting the idea that females have no choices in marriage and mating (Small, 1992, p. 147).
Small found that out of 133 cultures, 80% have arranged marriages either exclusively or along with unarranged marriages. Whyte (1978) reported that if the couple to be married in these arrangements had any say, 57.5% of the time males and females had equal opportunity to voice their opinions. It was also reported that males had more say in 38.8% of the arrangements and females had more influence in 3.8%. It is also pointed out though that most of the females’ families have the best intentions in mind for the female. “According to evolutionary theory (Betzig 1988; Trivers 1972), brides ‘should’ be interested in gaining mates of high status and resources, and the family is interested in the same” (Small 148). If females are not allowed to voice their opinions, they often can escape arranged marriages by elopement and divorce, which often occur (Small, 1992, p. 148).
Broude and Greene (1976) found that females engaged in extramarital sex in 76% of the cultures and males in 80% of the cultures. We thought this was a relatively close number considering the double standard that Whyte (1978) found in 42.7% of these societies. Boude (1980) explains that the double standard often punished females, where as they would ignore the affairs the married males engaged in. She also says that females are just as interested in sex as males are they are just restricted. Boude (1980) goes on to point out that husbands, who usually receive some kind of compensation for “wife trading”, control most females’ affairs. Interestingly enough though, females are usually asked for their approval before this type of affair takes place. “Regardless of approval of disapproval, the rate of extramarital sex was almost equal for males and females” (Small, 1992, p. 150).
A. Human Female Sexual Response
i. Females are “mentruall” not “estrous;” therefore they
1. Copulate during any time of hormonal cycle
2. Ovulate regardless of sexual intercourse
ii. Clitoris is organ of arousal
1. Comparable to male penis
2. Not direct evolutionary adaptation
a. Because orgasm, or pleasure are not necessary for reproduction
b. The opposite is true for men; therefore penis has strong selection pressure.
3. Others argue that orgasm has tremendous value, thus…
a. Selection of clitoris is equal to penis
iii. According to Lovejoy, females are “Continuously Receptive”
1. Attractivity: whether females appear attractive to men
2. Proceptivity: female’s interest in intercourse
3. Receptivity: Positive response to interested males
a. Smalls disagrees because…
i. Lovejoy compared primates to human females
1. Humans females are mentruall, not estrous
ii. Men might always find women attractive, but they will not always respond to them.
B. Women’s Interest in Sex (misconception that females are less interested in sex)
i. Evolutionary theory
ii. Today we know that females are the limiting reproductive resource, therefore they must be choosy.
iii. A shift toward biological hypotheses
C. Simons: males want variety of partner
i. Maximize productivity
1. expendable gametes
ii. Women are choosy
1. limited supply of gametes
2. heavier investment, maternal assurance
iii. Small disputes Simon
1. Human males and females investment tend to be equal
2. If females are choosy, and selecting committed males, natural selection would have eliminated men who want varied partners
3. “human males have extremely low sperm counts and slow sperm mobility with other primates,” and females have no “external signs of estrous”è low conceiving possibility
4. fails to address why most polygyny marriages are due to social and cultural conditions, not sexual
D. Females are “naturally sexual creatures restricted by social norms”
i. Whyte: out of 186 cultures, 77.4% considered male and female sex drives to be the same
ii. Kinsey: 940 Euroamerican women
1. human females reach orgasm during masturbation as quickly as males, and difficulty in achieving a penile-induced orgasm lies in the position of the clitoris relative to the vaginal opening.
a. Therefore, women do have the same drive, but they may become disinterested in sex is not satisfied by partner.
iii. Tavris and Sadd: Redbook magazine: 100,000 married women
1. Women with have frequent sex (11x’s a month or more) are happy with their sex lives
2. 44% of women initiate sex
a. Smalls questions the reliability of this
i. interviewed only married women
ii. failed to interview men
no comparative data
E. Physiology and Women’s Sexuality
i. Due to menstrual cycles-interested in having sex regardless of potential for conception
1. Both male and female can experience orgasm with the proper stimulation, such as masturbation
2. Orgasm in females is not necessary for conception to occur
a. Sexual motivation, not reproductive
3. Orgasm in males is necessary for conception to occur
a. Essential that they ejaculate gametes
i. Smalls points to these things to disprove the evolutionary argument that males will be more active because of their method of dispensing gametes
ii. Small speaks of The “new sexual woman”
1. Human females have a capacity for…
a. Multiple orgasms,
b. Interest in sexual interaction
c. Continuous attractivity to males
2. Evolutionary explanation
a. Beneficial to both males and females to engage in sexual intercourse as often as possible because ovulation is not evident
b. Continual sexual intercourse increases intimacy
c. Sexual motivation need to be present in females in order for them to have sex
d. “females initiate most of the copulations by responding to excited males”
The old concept of the human female as a passive and choosy mate need to be abandoned, and the focus should be turned toward the active sexual drives of the human females, and to the societal standards that have led to there suppression.
I. Female choice
1. This theory was hard to back up and these type of choices probably don’t have an evolutionary effect via sexual selection
B. Second type of “female choice”: females choose for their own benefit.
1. Look for male’s resources
C. Females use their sexuality to help shape human mating and family systems.
1. Concealed Ovulation
a. Primitive or derived characteristic?
b. May not completely be concealed
2. Continuously available for sex.
a. Females were able to trade their sex for something they wanted from males. (ex. faithful mates, paternal care, and reciprocal goods and serves.)
i. Flaw 1: Monogamy goes against evolutionary basis for male’s mating strategies hence could not easily evolve.
ii. Flaw 2: Males do not naturally have higher sex drives then females.
iii. Flaw 3: Human’s are not very sexual creatures
iv. Flaw 4: Males do not need to be fooled into helping raise an offspring generally because males also want to ensure reproductive success.
D. Human mate choice and family structure might actually have little to do with sex.
1. Mutual exchange between males and females without sex is what evolved our human mating system.
a. Both help raise children
b. Both gain sexual gratification
II. Female Sexuality and Mate Choice in Western societies
A. Females are actively interested in sex and will engage in sex with multiple partners.
1. 50% of females engage in sex before marriage.
2. 17-25% of females engage in extramarital affairs (23-56% of males).
a. Females would be at the same rate as males if they had the same opportunities.
b. Most affairs happen in the first 4 years of marriage and only 1-2% of this cases end in divorce.
B. Buss (1985): Survey of Mate Choices
1. People positively assort for age, race, religion, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.
2. Rating scale of important characteristics looked for in a mate varied slightly with males and females.
a. Top 7 choices are shared by both males and females but in a slightly different order.
C. Females do not mate at random.
1. Choose mate for reproductive and personal reasons.
a. Females more choosy when chance of pregnancy is high.
i. Females should look for males with resources that will aid with offspring.
b. Females disconnect sex from reproduction when not ovulating.
i. Variables for choosing non reproductive sexual partner not yet investigated.
III. Female Sexuality and Mate Choice in other Cultures
A. Across cultures males dominate and females have harsher social and physical restrictions.
1. Females still have influence on arranged marriages and still engage in sex outside of marriage.
B. A study of 186 societies gives Small a basis for rejecting the idea that females have no choices in marriage and mating.
1. 80% of cultures have arranged marriages. (out of 133)
a. If allowed to voice opinions, females and males have equal say in 57.5% of these arrangements.
i. 38.8%- males have stronger say
ii. 3.8%-females have more influence
b. If not allowed to voice opinion, females often can escape arranged marriages.
i. Elopement and divorce often occur.
2. Females in 73% of the cultures and males in 80% of the cultures engage in extramarital affairs.
a. Double standard in 42.7% of societies.
i. Male’s affairs ignored.
ii. Female’s punished.
1. Although condemned, females are just as interested as males are.
b. Most females’ affairs are controlled by husband, but females usually asked for approval.
i. Males usually “wife trade” for some type of compensation.
c. “Regardless of approval or disapproval, the rate of extramarital sex was almost equal for males and females” (Small 150).
a) Identify up to three points made by the author that the panel found especially interesting or informative.
1. Females ability to have multiple orgasms leads to interest in sex. (p142)
2. When males give their wives to other men, the females are usually asked for consent. (p150)
3. The rate of cheating was 23-56% of males and 17-25% of females and only 1-2% resulted in divorce. (p145)
b) Identify up to three arguments made by the author that the panel either
disagreed with and/or for which you think the author made a weak case. Why?
1. The notion that families want what is best for their daughters in arranged marriages was not supported. We think that the families probably don’t really know exactly what they wanted.
2. The author states that males shared their wives in order to create reciprocal altruism and alliances among men. We disagrees with this argument, maybe the author explain how this occurs.
c) Identify up to three concepts that, even after reading the material, the panel
still had questions about, or that the panel would have liked the author to have
1. In the study that Buss conducted, what characteristics did males look for in females, and vice versa.
2. The author should explain how women came to be sexually restricted through societal norms, or because of male’s dominance and suppression of female sexual expression.
3. The author fails to mention why human male and female copulation tend to lead to an increase of intimacy. She should give an evolutionary explanation, or hypothesis as to why things are this way. (142)