The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why Women Are More Sexual in Some Societies

Competition between women raises the sexual temperature.

In some societies, female sexuality is suppressed whether by wrapping up the body and face, or restricting freedom of movement. In such restrictive societies, sexual behavior is almost impossible outside marriage. Do women have essentially the same sexual impulses there as in more liberated places?

Interest in casual sex

Definitive answers to such questions are tricky. Women in restrictive societies certainly say that they are less interested in casual sex when responding on confidential surveys (as men do). Are their responses to be taken at face value. Or are they simply giving what they feel is a socially acceptable answer for their society?

Oddly enough, a more convincing answer to this problem is obtained by looking beyond a narrow interest in sexual psychology to other areas in women’s lives. If women living in modern societies behave more like men in other ways, then it is easier to accept that their interest in casual sex might have increased also.

Large gender differences in behavior have shrunk to nothing over the past few generations. Young women today behave very differently from their grandmothers. After all, they attend college to compete in careers (actually in larger numbers currently than men). They are interested in sex and most report being sexually active before marriage. They drink alcohol and do drugs. They are active in competitive sports, including as professionals. They drive as aggressively as men.

All of these changes share a common theme. That theme is competition predicated on increased economic opportunity and independence. Competition produces changes in hormones affecting sexual desire.


Advancement of women in careers is generally interpreted positively in terms of economic progress. Yet, there is a very different perspective that begins with the observation that modern women are immersed in the economic rat race from which their grandmothers were mostly spared.

Historical parallels suggest that women are most involved in the paid workforce in societies where their marriage prospects are poor (1). In the modern world, far more married women work for another reason, namely that the cost of raising children in an urban society is so high that it is difficult to accomplish on a single salary.

Whatever the reasons for soaring female labor participation in developed countries, women are exposed to direct competition against other women in ways that were less evident in earlier generations. That increases production of testosterone and other sex hormones known to boost women’s sex drive as well as their competitiveness according to anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan of the University of Utah.(2).

Cashdan believes that increased testosterone production by women in more competitive societies increases their stamina, and strength. Of course it would also increase their sex drive and willingness to engage in risky behavior such as drinking heavily and driving dangerously..

So the subjective evidence from self-reported interest in casual sex is backed up by a variety of objective evidence that women behave more competitively, and are more sexually active, in societies where their views about sexuality are less restricted. Casual sex can be risky in any society and women’s sexuality responds to local risks (as does that of men).

Risks of casual sex

In prudish societies, just one sexual mistake can ruin a young woman’s marriage prospects and even precipitate her death at the hands of irate relatives. It can be equally dangerous for men. Casual sex is disapproved of in nations where there is a relative scarcity of women (3). Such societies emphasize marriage rather than female careers and expect young women to reserve sex until after their nuptials.

In developed countries, women (but not men) are more interested in casual sex (4). In affluent countries, marriage is delayed and there is more premarital sex possibly reflecting greater sexual competition between women

So women are more sexual in countries where they compete more intensely with other women, whether for jobs or for men. In countries where men are desperate to marry, the sexual temperature of respectable women is evidently close to freezing.

1. Guttentag, M., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

2. Cashdan, E. (2008). Waist-to-hip ratios across cultures: Trade-offs between androgen- and estrogen-dependent traits. Current Anthropology, 49, 1099-1107.

3. Schmitt, D. P. (2004). Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 215-311.

4. Barber, N. (2008). Cross-national variation in the motivation for uncommitted sex: The role of disease and social risks. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-228.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.


Subscribe to The Human Beast

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.