Sexual Selection: How We Choose Our Partners

Updated on July 18, 2019
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes to go to university next year.

Charles Darwin is well known for his theory of evolution but his lesser-known theory, the theory of sexual selection, provides an explanation for human reproductive behaviour and partner choice in men and women.


Darwin's Theory of Sexual Selection

Darwin's theory of sexual selection explains how humans choose a mate in order to pass on their genes and why certain characteristics in men and women are considered more desirable than others. There are two types of sexual selection: intersexual and intrasexual.

  • Intrasexual selection - one gender (typically men) must outcompete each other in order to gain access to the opposite gender. The 'winners' who successfully reproduce with the females are able to pass on their genes including useful characteristics such as strength or cunning. This way human reproduction allows characteristics that help with reproduction and survival be inherited by offspring, and unwanted or 'weak' characteristics die out as individuals with them fail to reproduce.
  • Intersexual selection - the idea that certain characteristics are more desirable than others. For instance, men are likely to look for young and attractive women as this is a sign of fertility. Women will seek men who can provide resources to ensure they and their offspring are protected.

Research into Sexual Selection: Buss (1989)

Buss wished to study what males and females were looking for in a long-term partner. His study included over 10,000 participants from 37 different cultures. Participants rated 18 characteristics (i.e. attractiveness) on importance when finding a partner.

He discovered that women wanted men who could provide financial support and resources and men wanted young and attractive women. Both men and women wanted partners who are smart and kind. These findings support Darwin's theory of sexual selection.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin | Source

Criticisms of Buss and The Theory of Sexual Selection

A limitation of Buss' study is that it ignores the cultural effects on mate choices. Bernstein argues that women from more patriarchal societies are likely to want men who can provide financial support because women have limited options to earn their own money and are expected to be dependent on a husband. This is supported by research conducted by Kasser and Sharma who analysed 37 cultures and found that women who wanted financial support were mostly from cultures where women's financial and educational opportunities are limited. This could imply that partner choice isn't necessarily an evolutional choice but a societal one.

Another limitation of Buss' study is that it is criticised for lacking validity - this is because what a person says in a questionnaire may not reflect real life. However, Buss combats this criticism using an analysis of real marriages in 29 cultures. He found that men do tend to choose younger women. Some psychologists support Buss, arguing that his study is actually more valid as individuals may be more willing to open up in a questionnaire - especially if they are from cultures where arranged marriages are the norm.

A criticism of evolutionary psychologists is that female preferences for high-status men is not universal. Buller points out that the majority of studies into the theory of sexual selection are conducted on female university students. Such women have high educational aspirations and probably also expect to have successful careers. Perhaps the reason so many of these women want men who can offer financial support is because they want a partner with similar high aspirations in education and career. Buller concludes that this desire for high-status men is not universal, just a common preference in women who also have high aspirations and that there is little to no evidence for a universal desire for high-status men.

Support for The Theory of Sexual Selection

Support for the evolutionary explanation for partner preferences stems from research conducted by Penton-Voak et al who found that women's preference for men changed depending on their menstrual cycle. They found that typically, women choose men with a slightly feminised face for a long-term relationship as their appearance implies they will be good parents and will look after them. However, when women are most fertile, they often prefer more masculinised faces. This is because a masculine face implies that the man has high levels of testosterone (which suppresses the immune system) and is a valuable trait to pass on to offspring. This research shows that although female preferences for mates change, they still seek men who can protect or provide resources useful for themselves and their offspring.

Darwin argued that the inheritance of certain genes can prove to be a reproductive advantage, but not necessarily a survival one. Peacocks have large tails to attract females, the more colourful and large, the more likely they will attract the females (yet large tails can be a survival disadvantage when trying to run away from predators). Darwin argued that humans also have a metaphorical peacock tail. Nettle and Clegg found that British poets had more sexual partners than men from a non-creative profession. This shows that women are attracted to creativity and ingenuity which are valuable characteristics to pass on to offspring.


To Conclude

Darwin's theory of sexual selection proposes that men must compete against each other in order to successfully reproduce with women to pass on their genes. However, recent research has discovered that women can be equally competitive with each other as men are.

Buss discovered that men seek young and attractive women, whilst women prefer men who can protect and provide.

However, this does not mean that if you are not young, attractive or financially stable you cannot find a partner. A theory does not always reflect or predict real life. There are thousands of influences on partner choice, Darwin's theory of sexual selection is just one of many.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Angel Harper


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      • profile image


        9 months ago

        Hi, there, I agreed with Alexander. Enjoy the day.

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        9 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        Sexual selection is a fascinating topic.

      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        15 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        Hey, Angel, you are always welcomed. I appreciated your comments. I was thinking along the OC line, and you hit the nail right on. I am not a psychologist but I had study some aspects of Frauds theory, including the Oedipus Complex OC. Many thanks for writing such an educative and interesting story. Have a nice time.

      • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

        Angel Harper 

        15 months ago

        Miebakagh Fiberesima, that is a very interesting example. Of course, we will never know exactly why they are a couple, although I'm sure Freud would apply his Oedipus complex to them. I know very little about Freud's work but I do know that most of his theories were based on case studies - his research is barely representative of the entire western world let alone other cultures, but I certainly agree that relationships are defined differently in different cultures.

        Thanks for your insight into the topic : )

      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        15 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        Hello, Angel, yes I agreed. Now, take another unique and do I say bizarre affair I recently noted. The man is poor and young. It is said he is an exercise enthusiast. The woman is a widow, and also poor. But she is the elder by 20 years. Now, where is the question for the money? In the community where this occurs, they say the relation is only for sexual gratifications. What does Fraud say about this? I think is theory relates more to the western European world? Thank you, and enjoy the day.

      • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

        Angel Harper 

        15 months ago

        Miebakagh Fiberesima, it is common for men to want young women and for women to want men with the finance to support them. Evolutionarily speaking it makes sense. But as you said, exceptions exist. I'd like to think these exceptions are proof that not all relationships are decided on youth or money.

      • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

        Angel Harper 

        15 months ago

        dashingscorpio Thank you for your comment, you're right "wife hunting" isn't something people do in this era so much, I find Darwin's theory of sexual selection is perhaps a closer reflection to his own time period rather than ours. I'd also like to think that as our society changes and evolves, relationships will become more emotionally significant than just about physical attractiveness (but maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic in that sense!)

        There is a very unfair system of double standards in our society, it's great that men can admire each other and want to learn from others, but it's a terrible shame that both men and women will criticise promiscuous women.

        I believe that women can be extremely competitive and brutal to each other... but I wonder how much of that is just how Hollywood movies present them...

      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        15 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        Hello, Angel, thanks for sharing. In my society, men prefer girls for marriage especially those that have no income venture. But these husbands provide the money for trading or other attractive money-spinning ventures.

        The girls likewise will like to marry a man that has some financial stability in order to provide for her and the children. The issue is too complex with some tribes.

        Rich girls likewise will only marry a very or super rich guy. The best it is opinionated can only come from the men no matter how rich a woman or girl is. But exceptions exist. A barren woman can be sent packing. She can marry a poor man, even a slave, where she found him very resourceful. The Fruadian system hardly works in my community except among the educated. Thank you.

      • profile image


        15 months ago


      • dashingscorpio profile image


        15 months ago

        "He discovered that women wanted men who could provide financial support and resources and men wanted young and attractive women." Generally speaking this (usually) the case!

        Very few men want to invest time and money taking out unattractive women. Most women also want to go out with a guy who has something going for himself especially once they get beyond their early 20s.

        However I don't believe men "look for relationships".

        Men are more likely to "fall into serious relationships" over time. Essentially they allow dating to gradually (evolve) into something serious without actually having a (plan) to "find a wife".

        It's more often an "epiphany moment" in which guys look at the women they've been with for awhile and (suddenly realize) they want to spend the rest of their lives with them.

        Very few men ever start off "wife hunting" especially in this era. Physical attributes grab our attention and everything else is icing on the cake. If man is not attracted to a woman he's not likely to pursue her. Most guys would rather date a "hot looking" cocktail waitress over a "plain Jane" woman who is a heart surgeon.

        Hugh Hefner founder of Playboy Magazine was (86) when he married Crystal Harris age (26) former centerfold model.

        Odds or you're not going to find many 20 something year old hunky guys chasing after an 86 year old woman no matter how famous or financially successful she is.

        As for "competing" most men don't feel like there is a "shortage" of "good women". This explains why men are rarely threatened by associating with other men who are known to be "players" or promiscuous. In fact many men admire those guys and want to learn from them. They want to emulate them!

        On the other hand if a woman is know for being promiscuous (other women) will be the first to call her a slut and avoid befriending her.

        They're scared she might seduce their men!

        Women are far more competitive with one another when it comes to finding boyfriends and husbands in my opinion. Most guys during their youth will swear: "I'm never ever going to get married!" LOL!


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