Mate Preference and the Ovulatory Cycle

This entry was written by Claire Sheridan as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


"Recent evolutionary models have proposed that women’s mating psychology is sensitive to fertility status and the approach of ovulation should shift women’s social motives and behaviours in adaptive ways" (Durante, Li and Haselton 2008, p. 1452).

Human reproduction, particularly for the woman, is extremely taxing. Due to this, there is strong selective pressure to ensure that the offspring if of high genetic quality (Pillsworth, Haselton and Buss, 2004). To assist with the selection of high-quality mates, women have evolved several mating behaviours which can be affected by the phase of the ovulation cycle the woman is currently in (Durante, Li and Haselton 2008; Gangestad et al, 2014). This essay will examine the effects of ovulation on female sexual desire and mate choice, as well as the effects of ovulation on female ornamentation.

Main Text

The effects of ovulation on female sexual desire and mate choice

A female’s sexual desire and consequently, their preference in mate, may vary depending on the phase of ovulation the women is in. It is likely that sexual desire evolved to allow females to identify “the presence or absence of an investing mate who can assist in rearing offspring and the availability of superior, additional or alternative mates” (Pillsworth, Haselton and Buss, 2004, p. 62). The strength of a female’s sexual desire will be adjusted based on high-fertility and low-fertility periods of the ovulation cycle, causing women to seek different ‘types’ of mates (Gangestad et al, 2014). For example, during high-fertility periods of the cycle, females are more likely to preference mates with indicators of good genes (such as facial masculinity and symmetry) and it is also more likely for partnered women to strongly desire extra-mate pairs (Durante, Li and Haselton, 2004).

However, this is not as simple as it seems. Sexual desire, mate selection and the mating strategy (short-term, long-term or dual mating) employed by the female at any given time can be strongly influenced by a range of factors including if the female already has a mate, the quality of that mate, her ability to access other high-quality mates and the total number of mates she has access to (Pillsworth, Haselton and Buss, 2004). Due to the taxing nature of human reproduction for women, there is a strong reliance on the male partner’s ability to provide resources and time to the rearing of the offspring (Buss 1989; Durante, Li and Haselton, 2008). Indicators of good genes (such as strong facial masculinity and symmetry, body masculinity, physical attractiveness, as well as social indicators of success such as dress sense, social dominance and involvement in ‘masculine activities’) are also highly sought-after traits in a male partner (Gangestad et al, 2014).

Sexual desire has evolved to help females manage the cost-benefit analysis of two, often competing preferences: a sexually-desirable partner with high quality genes versus a partner who will commit resources to the women and the offspring (Larson et al, 2013). For example, women with low quality, long-term partners may take part in extra-mate pairings if the extra mate shows indicators of higher quality genes (Pillsworth, Haselton and Buss, 2004). Alternatively, women who are highly satisfied by their partners are less likely to consider extra-mate pairings as a mating strategy. However, a high-quality male who is highly attractive would be sought after and is more likely to pursue multiple relationships rather than committing resources to one relationship (Pillsworth, Haselton and Buss, 2004). This is problematic for the female, as a male’s investment in the rearing of the offspring can make a significant difference to the likelihood of that offspring’s success. Thus, there is a very careful balancing act between the selection of high- and low-quality partners, the mating strategy used by women and the role of the ovulatory cycle within this. The relationship between ovulation, mate choice and mating strategy can be further supported and explored through other indicators of female ovulation, such as ornamentation.

The effects of ovulation on female ornamentation and grooming

One clear indicator of female ovulation is self-ornamentation and grooming (Haselton et al, 2007). There are several theories as to why female’s clothing choice may change across her cycle, and these do not necessarily work in isolation from each other:

  1. Ovulation causes women to feel more attractive or sexy, so they put in more effort when getting ready;
  2. Based on shifts in sexual desire, women are under increased selective pressure to attract extra-mate pairings, so they dress more attractively to be successful and to convey their genetic fitness to prospective mates; and
  3. Dressing up is a form of intrasexual competition for women during periods of high-fertility (Durante, Li and Haselton, 2008).

A study by Durante, Li and Haselton (2008) investigated the choice of outfits made by partnered and unpartnered women across their ovulation cycle. The study included women who had previously had sexual partners and women who had not experienced sexual intercourse, as well as factors like sexuality and for partnered women, their current satisfaction with their relationship (Durante, Li and Haselton, 2008). Sexier, more revealing or more fashionable clothing seems to be preferred by women in high-fertility phases of their ovulatory cycle (Haselton et al, 2007; Miller, Tybur and Jordan, 2007). Women who had previously had sexual partners were more likely to preference ‘sexier’ clothing at high fertility phases of their cycle more so than women who previously had not had sexual intercourse. This is particularly strong for women seeking casual or extra-mate pairs, rather than those looking for a long-term partner (Durante, Li and Haselton, 2008). This correlates with the above findings about the timing and influence of high fertility and low fertility windows in the cycle on female sexual desire.

However, this is not to say that partnered women did not experience changes in clothing choice during high-fertility phases of their cycle. Some results in the study indicated that women who were highly satisfied in their committed relationship still preferred ‘sexier’ clothing closer to ovulation (Durante, Li and Haselton, 2008). This is potentially due to those women attempting to keep the interests of their partner, however Durante, Li and Haselton (2008) also note that these results were not strong and further studies should be conducted. The study also demonstrated that women of ‘low attractiveness’ had a stronger preference for revealing or sexier outfits, then did women of ‘high attractiveness’. In this instance, social perceptions may play into how ‘sexy’ a female’s clothing should be, with a delicate balance existing between the benefit of attracting a high-quality mate and the cost of attracting undesirable attention and gaining an unfavourable reputation. In this instance, Durante, Li and Haselton (2008) found that their results strongly indicated that female ornamentation is linked to intrasexual competition.


The human ovulatory cycle may not be as concealed as was once thought, with ovulation affecting female behaviour in adaptive ways (Haselton and Gildersleeve, 2011). This essay examines how the phase of a female’s ovulatory cycle strongly influences sexual desire and ornamentation (Durante, Li and Haselton 2008). It also helps women with complicated cost-benefit analyses for the type of mate sought after and the mating strategy and behaviour used (Durante, Li and Haselton, 2008; Pillsworth, Haselton and Buss, 2004).

Reference List

Buss, D.M. (1989). Sex Differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary Hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

Durante, K.M., Li, N.P. and Haselton, M.G. (2008). Changes in Women’s Choice of Dress Across the Ovulatory Cycle: Naturalistic and Laboratory Task-Based Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1451-1460.

Gangestad, S.W., Garver-Apgar, C.E., Cousins, A.J. and Thornhill, R. (2014) Intersexual conflict across women’s ovulatory cycle. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 35, 302-308.

Haselton, M.G. and Gildersleeve, K. (2011). Can Men Detect Ovulation? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 87-92.

Haselton, M.G., Mortezaie, M., Pillsworth, E.G., Bleske-Rechek, A. and Frederick, D.A. (2007). Ovulatory shifts in human female ornamentation: Near ovulation, women dress to impress. Hormones and Human Behaviour, 51, 40-45.

Larson, C.M., Haselton, M.G., Gildersleeve, K.A and Pillsworth, E.G. (2013). Changes in women’s feelings about their romantic relationships across the ovulatory cycle. Hormones and Behaviours, 63, 128-135.

Miller, G., Tybur, J.M. and Jordan, B.D. (2007) Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behaviour, 28, 375-381.

Pillsworth, E.G., Haselton, M.G. and Buss, D.M. (2004). Ovulatory Shifts in Female Sexual Desire. The Journal of Sex Research, 41, 55-65.

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