A sociological analysis of 128 nonindustrial societies has found that female premarital sex is more restricted in societies that are intolerant of extramarital sex, where men transfer property to their children, and where marriages are arranged by parents. Paternity uncertainty and parent-offspring conflict were identified as possible mechanisms of female premarital sex restrictions. The study was published in Human Nature.
Regulation of sexual behavior is an important part of social customs and rules in all human societies. While these rules and customs vary greatly between cultures, they are almost universally different for males and females. These rules particularly regulate premarital and extramarital sex. While often being very lax for males, many societies regulate female premarital sex very strictly. The way in which this is done varies greatly across societies.
Study author Gabriel Šafa and his colleagues wanted to test various competing theories about who benefits most from restricting female premarital sexuality. “This work is part of my PhD thesis, which is devoted to the study of cultural adaptations to sexual conflict in human societies,” explained Šafa, a PhD student from the Department of Zoology at the University of South Bohemia in Czech Republic. “More specifically, we are interested in the evolution of social norms that regulate sexual behavior.”
The researchers noted that different societies have different attitudes towards female premarital sexuality. In some ancient societies, such as the Romans and some Middle Eastern societies, girls were married off at pre-pubertal age to ensure their virginity. In contrast, Southern Bantu and Haitians allowed premarital sex but punished girls who became pregnant with beatings and public humiliation. However, some societies, such as the Hadza, Icelandic, or Tibetan societies, placed no restrictions on female premarital sexuality.
An important question that arises is that of who benefits from the regulation of female premarital sexual behavior. It can be argued that these norms benefit men. Since men can be uncertain about their paternity over children, they consider sexual promiscuity highly undesirable in their long-term mates.
On the other hand, these restrictions can be seen as benefiting women. A male can conceive a child through just a single sexual act, but a woman needs to carry the pregnancy to its full term. This makes the minimal cost of reproduction much higher for women than for men. Females are thus a scarce reproductive resource and this gives them an upper hand in the mating market.
In this context, promiscuous women can be seen by other women as a threat because they reduce the price of sex. An argument can also be made that it is parents of females who benefit from restricting their sexuality as it gives them a level of control over their daughters’ sexual choice and choice of mate. This then allows marriage transactions and prevents their daughters from being seduced by low-status males.
“People around the world have come up with – often very bizzare and very strict – means of how to ensure their reproductive success,” Šafa explained. “For human behavioral ecologists, such behaviors (or norms of behavior) are puzzling because they are often costly for individuals that these norms are imposed on. However, they primarily benefit those that impose such norms. There are several, some quite obscure, theories explaining who might benefit from restricting female premarital sex. We wanted to find out how these theories perform when formally compared with each other.”
The researchers analyzed data from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, norms for premarital sexual behavior of girls in particular. They also studied social norms related to extramarital affairs of married women, paternal investment in children (the roles of father in infancy and early childhood of his children), inheritance of movable property and real estate, female contribution to subsistence of the family, marriage arrangements for female children (as a measure of parental control), differences between father and mother in their control of daughter’s mating choice, and marriage transactions (what types of wealth transfers occur in the scope of marriage).
Results showed that female premarital sexual behavior is more likely to be restricted in societies that do not allow extramarital sex. Female premarital sex is also more restricted in societies where females had lower contribution to family subsistence, where there are more men than women, and where mate choice was under parental control. Furthermore, female premarital sexual behavior was more restricted in societies where fathers, rather than mothers, were the main decision makers over a daughters’ mate choice.
The custom to give dowry was not associated with female premarital sex restrictions and the same was the case for the custom of negotiating bride-price in the scope of marriage negotiations.
“The way we interpret our results is that it is naive to reduce explanations of why female premarital sex is restricted to simple sexual dichotomy of whether it is men or (other) women who benefit,” Šafa told PsyPost. “We found that it is actually parents who benefit most. The take-home message is that it is more about the social roles both men and women have than about the sexes. Regardless of sex, your interests in restricting female sexuality will be strikingly different if you are a parent, a partner, a friend, or a lover.”
The study sheds light on the relationship between various social norms regulating family and sexual behavior. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, it solely used data aggregated at the society level. Analyses used were thus unable to capture variability within society, even though the studied restrictions are known to vary by class and depend on different individual or group factors.
The study, “Paternity Uncertainty and Parent–Offspring Conflict Explain Restrictions on Female Premarital Sex across Societies”, was authored by Gabriel Šafa, Pavel Duda, Jan Zrzavý.