Sex Differences in Human Mate Preferences

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


For all organisms that sexually reproduce, mate choice is a paramount yet complicated system that depends on a myriad of variables powered by sexual selection. In humans, this is no less true as we have evolved many unique and complex mating strategies that have shaped our species over millions of years (Buss & Schmitt, 2019). Both males and females have their specific mate preferences, shaping attitudes towards short and long term relationships, child-rearing, and the strategies that can be used to attract suitable mates; having sex-specific consequences (Conroy-Beam, Buss, Pham, & Shackelford, 2015). However, it is important to note that sex differences in mating preferences is a highly contested area of study, and what I describe in this entry has been supported by evidence as the result of years of research.

This essay aims to describe sex differences in human mate preferences. Examining the fundamentals of Sexual Strategies Theory (SST); describing the specific traits that both men and women desire and aspire to acquire; and how those desires change for both short and long term relationships, highlighting their adaptive functions and evolutionary utility.

Main Text

Sexual Strategies Theory

SST aims to identify and describe the multifaceted mating strategies that humans implement, highlighting the psychological adaptations that have persisted throughout our evolutionary timeline. Throughout this timeline, humans have had to face two broad adaptive challenges that have had significant fitness consequences: (1) displaying traits and behaviours that enhance mate choice prospects throughout their mating careers – which may come at the cost of personal survivorship; and (2) participate in competitions against rivals in order to acquire desirable mates (Buss & Schmitt, 2019). Selection, both natural and sexual aim to design an optimum, reaping the benefits of efforts made enhancing their capacity to acquire a desirable mate while minimising the costs of implementing specific strategies that may fail or have been formed through false pretences such as social deception (Buss, 1989).

Multiple mating strategies have evolved in humans through the differential expectations and desires that each sex has concerning the other, causing the formation of a multitude of relationship archetypes in humans such as long and short-term relationships, serial, and extrapair mating, all of which have their unique forms and functions within the stratagem of human mating (Buss & Schmitt, 2019). Each mating strategy has different challenges for each sex, as specific distributions of desired traits can vary in their availability resulting in a tradeoff, which deviates from the optimal. SST acknowledges these differentials and realises that while each sex displays and enacts in different psychologies, both have the same ultimate goal in mind – the persistence of the species.

Female Mate Preferences

Both males and females come to the ‘mating game’ with different preconceptions, and expectations in mind for a preferential partner. As current mate selection pressures have arisen throughout our evolutionary history, research has focused significant attention to what specific characteristics constitute the desired mate (Buss, 1989).

As females have to bear the costs of greater obligatory parental investment due to their anatomical predisposition for gestation and lactation; which have a high cost to energetics and lost mating opportunities, this constitutes them to be the more demanding sex when it comes to mate preferences (Schwarz & Hassebrauck, 2012). This cost predisposes them to have a preference for mates that can acquire resources and share them, whether that be economical or social; which is beneficial for both the female and any resulting offspring from the relationship, especially if it is long-term. Resource provision and acquisition correlates with traits such as age, where being older by default gives greater opportunities to obtain resources and achieve positions of higher status, simply because more time has accrued.

Another trait that correlates with good potential mate prospect is good genes. Despite resource acquisition being a significant factor in female mate choice, maximising the fitness of offspring is still a crucial factor. Females are primed to look for factors of physical attractiveness such as the presence of masculine features such as a broad chest, defined jawline, and facial hair (Moore, Cassidy, & Perrett, 2010), especially in short-term relationships. As for long-term relationships, females are more willing to sacrifice these traits due to correlations of infidelity and commitment concerns for more caring, and less masculine males (Buss & Schmitt, 2019).

Male Mate Preferences

Males, compared to females have quite different preferences when it comes to mate choice. The value of physical attractiveness is quite high, with an emphasis on youth, fertility and fecundity (Moore et al., 2010). These are crucial traits to look out for, as a female's reproductive career ends at menopause, an event that males do not experience, highlighting the biological constraints of sex. Having greater reproductive flexibility, allows males to sire offspring for a much more extended period than females, and forgo the costs of gestation and lactation, but at the cost of uncertain paternity, which can result in males investing in offspring that are not biologically related (Lee, Dubbs, Von Hippel, Brooks, & Zietsch, 2014). Females know for sure that the child they birth is theirs, while males have to rely on their partner's honesty and other methods such as mate guarding. However, males may choose to pay the costs of raising unrelated offspring to acquire more mating opportunities with the parent of the child, especially if mating opportunities elsewhere are scarce (Schwarz & Hassebrauck, 2012).

Traits that show domesticity and a desire for children is another essential aspect in a male mate preference, especially in long-term relationships (Conroy-Beam et al., 2015). These traits can express themselves in characters such as a caring, loving nature, kindness; traits that may not necessarily be expressed phenotypically. Requiring males to engage in females beyond interacting with them beyond a physical capacity, creating opportunities for engagement (Lee et al., 2014). This notion rebuts the colloquialism that male is only ‘in it for the looks’, present in many popular cultures.


Human mate choice is a complex phenomenon, where both males and females have to cooperate, yet compete with each other to ensure that they acquire the optimal mating opportunities. SST has provided us with the framework to begin deconstructing how mate choice is operationalised in its myriad of contexts, providing further nuance to the phenomenon. Despite the differences that exist in male and female mate choice, and the different values that are placed upon specific traits; strategies continue to evolve and adapt to the biological, social and cultural frameworks of the human condition.

Literature Cited

Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 1-14. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00023992

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (2019). Mate Preferences and Their Behavioral Manifestations. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), 77-110. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-103408

Conroy-Beam, D., Buss, D. M., Pham, M. N., & Shackelford, T. K. (2015). How Sexually Dimorphic Are Human Mate Preferences? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(8), 1082-1093. doi:10.1177/0146167215590987

Lee, A. J., Dubbs, S. L., Von Hippel, W., Brooks, R. C., & Zietsch, B. P. (2014). A multivariate approach to human mate preferences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35(3), 193-203. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.01.003

Moore, F., Cassidy, C., & Perrett, D. I. (2010). The Effects of Control of Resources on Magnitudes of Sex Differences in Human Mate Preferences. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(4), 720. doi:10.1177/147470491000800412

Schwarz, S., & Hassebrauck, M. (2012). Sex and Age Differences in Mate-Selection Preferences. Human Nature, 23(4), 447-466. doi:10.1007/s12110-012-9152-x

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