When women face lower physiological parenting costs or have greater economic access, they tend to exhibit more sexual unrestrictedness, according to new cross-cultural research published in Evolutionary Psychological Science. The study provides crucial insights into the complex interplay between biology and culture in shaping human sexual behavior.
Understanding human sexuality is a complex endeavor that has intrigued scientists for generations. One of the key questions in this field has been whether sociocultural factors influence how men and women behave sexually, and if so, to what extent. Previous research has suggested that biological and evolutionary factors play a role in shaping sexual behaviors.
For instance, evolutionary theories propose that women, due to their higher physiological parenting costs, tend to be more selective when it comes to choosing sexual partners, while men, with lower parenting costs, may be more inclined towards short-term and less selective mating strategies.
“There has been a long-standing debate between evolutionary psychologists and sociocultural psychologists about the origins of sex or gender differences in sociosexuality, or the willingness and interest in casual sex,” explained study author Angela Pirlott, an associate professor of psychology and interim director of the Social Sciences Division at Saint Xavier University.
“What I find compelling is, if you compare humans, who have cultural and social processes, to other animals who don’t necessarily have cultural processes, but share similar sex differences in parental investment, very similar behaviors emerge in terms of sex differences in mating strategies, in what humans would describe as “sociosexuality.” That in and of itself suggests that the originating drivers of human sex differences in sociosexuality predates modern humans and thus is likely evolved.”
“However, an examination of the broader animal literature would suggest that one contributing factor to “sex” differences in sociosexuality is parental investment, in that whichever sex contributes more to parenting also tends to be more sexually ‘restricted.’ This is consistent even for species in which there are “sex-role reversals” of parental investment, i.e., males make substantial or more contributions to parenting than females and the females are more ‘sociosexually unrestricted.'”
“Of course, in humans, women are the sex that becomes pregnant, not men, and so we cannot test a ‘sex-role reversal’ of pregnancy in humans,” Pirlott said. “However, we nonetheless have other sociocultural factors that can lessen women’s parenting investment. For example, in addition to pregnancy, a large physiological component of parental investment is lactation, but the invention of formula has negated the requirement of women to breastfeed.”
“And other sociocultural factors can also lessen women’s required parental investment, such as access to contraceptives, which can allow women to choose how many offspring to bear. Additionally, women’s economic access, such as paid employment and wages, relative to men’s access, can also mitigate the economic burden of parenting, e.g., by paying for outsourced caregiving or sustenance like formula.”
“This elicited our research question: If we examine differences, cross-culturally, in the physiological costs of parenting and women’s economic access, do we similarly see differences in sociosexuality? In other words, as sociocultural factors can lessen women’s parental investment costs, do we similarly see a lessening in women’s hesitancy to engage in casual sex?”
To investigate these intriguing hypotheses, the researchers conducted an extensive analysis of a previously published dataset, involving 14,059 individuals from a diverse set of 48 countries. Sociosexuality was assessed using the Sociosexuality Orientation Inventory, which measures the willingness to engage in casual sex and desires for novel partners.
To measure women’s physiological parenting costs, the researchers considered various factors. These included fertility rates, breastfeeding prevalence, contraceptive use, emergency contraceptive usage, abortion accessibility, and maternal mortality rates. Each of these factors contributed to understanding the physical demands and risks associated with childbearing. For example, fertility rates indicated the average number of births per woman in each culture, while maternal mortality rates represented the potential risk of maternal death due to childbirth.
Economic empowerment was assessed by examining women’s relative participation in the labor force and their relative earned income compared to men in their respective cultures. This allowed the researchers to gauge the economic access and independence of women in different societies.
The researchers found evidence that both physiological costs and economic circumstances influenced women’s sexual behavior and attitudes across cultures.
When women faced lower physiological parenting costs, such as lower fertility rates and higher access to contraceptives, they were more likely to exhibit greater sexual unrestrictedness. In simple terms, they were more open to casual sex and having multiple partners.
Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference between men and women in this regard, suggesting that both genders might respond similarly to some extent. “Thus, it appears as though, on the cultural level, men’s mating psychologies are also in sync with, albeit to a lesser extent, women’s physiological parenting costs,” the researchers said.
Additionally, the researchers found that as women’s economic access increased, their sexual unrestrictedness also increased. In other words, economic empowerment was linked to a greater willingness among women to engage in casual sex and have multiple partners.
In contrast, men’s sexual behavior did not significantly change with variations in women’s economic access. The differences in sexual behavior between men and women became less pronounced as women gained more economic access. This suggests that economic factors play a significant role in shaping women’s sexual behavior, potentially reducing the traditional differences in sexual behavior between men and women.
“Our research demonstrated, using cross-cultural data, that as women’s parenting costs decreased via reduced physiological costs (indicated by fertility rates, breastfeeding prevalence, contraceptive use and availability, and maternal mortality rates) and increased economic access (to offset parenting costs, indicated by income and workforce participation), women’s sexual unrestrictedness increased,” Pirlott told PsyPost.
“This research contributes to the cross-species literature suggesting that the costs associated with parenting selectively restrict sexual unrestrictedness and that sex differences in sexual restrictedness emerged as sex-specific adaptations to these costs.”
While this study provides valuable insights into the relationship between parenting costs, economic access, and sexual behavior, it is essential to acknowledge its limitations. The research was based on existing data, and as such, it cannot establish causality definitively. The findings are correlational, meaning that while they suggest associations between variables, they do not prove that one factor directly causes the other.
“This research is cross-cultural and correlational and complements the larger body of evolutionary and animal research suggesting that sex differences in parenting costs contribute to sex differences in sociosexuality,” Pirlott explained. “However, the research is not experimental, so additional experimental research is warranted to determine if lessening parenting costs can lessen women’s hesitancy to engage in casual sex, as a more immediate cognitive reaction.”
“As in all correlational research, it is also important to examine other variables that could contribute to cultural differences in both parenting costs and sociosexuality.”
The study, “Cross‑Cultural Evidence for the Role of Parenting Costs Limiting Women’s Sexual Unrestrictedness“, was authored by Angela G. Pirlott and Matthew M. Foley.