Will the Coronavirus Threat Lead to Female Infidelity?

An evolutionary perspective

Posted May 28, 2020

 Golubovystock/Shutterstock
Source: Golubovystock/Shutterstock

The coronavirus has impacted on society and affected our behaviour in many ways from an increase in our use of social media keep connected to friends and loved ones, to keeping socially distant when we venture out.  However, what effect could the virus have on our sexual behaviour?  More specifically what affect will it have on our likelihood of seeking out additional sexual partners outside of our current relationships?  In order to understand the possibility of this happening, we need to outline the evolutionary advantages of pursuing such sexual strategies.

There is an imbalance between the sexes in the amount of effort expended in reproduction.  For example, male reproduction requires relatively little effort over and above a few minutes of sexual contact, whereas female reproductive investment requires nine months or longer.  Given this imbalance, men are potentially able to increase the number of offspring they sire by mating with a large number of women.  For women, because of a reproduction period of nine months, an increase in number of sexual partners would not, therefore, result in an increase in the number of offspring over and above the number they could have by staying with just one partner.  However, women do engage in extra-relationship affairs for a variety of reasons.  For example, ensuring reproductive success in their offspring from mating with men with superior genes to their current partner, or acquiring extra benefits such as gifts or status by liaising with more resourceful men.

The threat of disease

However, in a time of threat from disease, female infidelity may be driven by an additional factor. Genetic immunity from disease is obviously necessary for the wellbeing of a women’s offspring, yet because there are no real obvious visual indications of genetic immune functioning in men, beyond perhaps appearing to be in good health, it may be difficult for women to select men on this criterion.  The only way in which women can attempt to increase the probability of strong immunity in their offspring in a time of infection in the environment, is to engage in a multi-male mating strategy, which would provide the genetic diversity afforded when their children are fathered by different men, and make it more likely that at least some offspring will possess the necessary genetic immunity to protect them.  Therefore, the threat of disease in the environment may increase the likelihood of women seeking sexually diverse mating strategies driven by such bet-hedging behaviour.  

However, it is also important to point out that such a mating strategy is not without its risks—for example, it could result in loss of reputation and disapproval, rejection by a present partner or in some cases physical attack.  

The evidence

The question of whether women who have a history of susceptibility to illness respond to this threat by seeking genetic variability in their offspring and report a desire for a higher number of different sexual and dating partners was investigated by Sarah Hill and her colleagues, who examined the effects of the threat of disease on women’s desire for greater variety and diversity in sexual partners (Hill, Prokosch, and DelPriore, 2015).

The researchers performed five different experiments, and in each of these their female participants were presented with information describing an environment with a heightened threat of disease, while the researchers measured their perceived vulnerability to disease, and other questions which sought to assess their preference for a sexual strategy characterised by pursuit of a diverse array of sexual partners.

The first experiment assessed female participants’ ideal number of sexual partners both now and at other occasions in the future.  The second experiment investigated female desire for sexual novelty and whether this was related to certain threats from disease.  Experiment three looked at the impact of the threat of disease on the number of partners chosen by women in a typical dating situation, with experiment 4 assessing the extent to which the findings might also be similar in men.  The fifth experiment attempted to employ a measure of immunocompetence (history of illness in childhood) and examined whether this could also be related to women’s desire for different sexual partners, and furthermore if it was related to a greater need for appearance enhancing products such as makeup.

In all of the experiments, the researchers found that perception of disease had an effect on women’s desire for variety in their sexual partners.  In other words, they found that those who indicated a vulnerability to illness reported an increased desire for a greater number of diverse sexual partners.  More specifically, the findings indicated that these responses only emerged when the threats of disease posed a serious threat to their survivability and that of their offspring.  These effects were not observed in response to other emergencies such as sudden notices of increases in academic standards expected.  Furthermore, they also found that the same results were not observed in situations of non-sexual context such as the purchase of makeup.  Such effects were applicable only to women and were not evident in male responses.  


The evidence from this study does seem to imply that women’s sexual behaviour varies in situations of perceived threat of disease, in as much as women report a greater desire for sexual diversity, which in some cases may result in infidelity, which may be applicable today during the current pandemic.  However, it is also important to note that there are a few factors which might limit the findings of this study.  Firstly, the researchers measured vulnerability to disease more by perceived infectability as opposed to germ aversion.  Women who score high on germ aversion scales indicate rather more cautious and orthodox attitudes and behaviour when faced with the threat of disease (Murray et al, 2013). Secondly, the researchers also note that in their studies, the descriptions of the scenarios suggested that the level of a disease was expected to rise, although did not suggest that there was an immediate risk of contagion, which are clearly two very different situations.  Furthermore, such sexual strategies may be more likely to be employed by women who are or who perceive themselves to be especially vulnerable to disease.  Clearly, more research is required to address these issues. 

References

Hill, S. E., Prokosch, M. L., & DelPriore, D. J. (2015). ‘The Impact of Perceived Disease Threat on Women’s Desire for Novel Dating and Sexual Partners: Is Variety the Best Medicine?’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 109. (2), 244–261.

Murray, D. R., Jones, D. N., & Schaller, M. (2013). ‘Perceived threat of infectious disease and its implications for sexual attitudes.’ Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 103–108.