Choosing a Mate: Does Sex Really Matter?

Sex differences in mating preferences are examined.

Posted Aug 14, 2020

Source: 1475341/Pixabay

According to an article by Schwarz and colleagues, published in the June 2020 issue of Evolutionary Psychological Science, men and women have significantly different mating preferences.1

To understand the significance of the paper’s findings, let me briefly review sex differences in mate selection.

Male and Female Mating

Men generally put greater emphasis on certain characteristics in their potential romantic mates—characteristics like looks, housekeeping abilities (and interest), and desire for children. Women, in contrast, put greater value on the likes of wealth, generosity, resourcefulness, dominance, ambition, intelligence, education, sociability, reliability, kindness, and a good sense of humor.

If women appear choosier than men, it is because they are—and from an evolutionary perspective, they need to be. Why? Because women are more invested in their potential offspring, so they must choose reliable long-term romantic partners who can and will protect them and provide for them and their offspring.

Men, in contrast, are much less invested as parents. They are more likely to have reproductive success if they produce more offspring by having numerous short-term relationships.

Perhaps you already knew about these sex differences, but what you might not have known is that recently some research has begun to question the significance of such sex differences in mate selection, calling them “overrated,” and suggesting we need to pay more attention to non-sex-related differences.2

After all, not all women desire sex only in the context of an intimate, romantic, and committed long-term relationship; some prefer uncommitted casual sex.

Indeed, according to the strategic pluralism model of mating, mating strategies are much more dynamic, and prone to change based on circumstances. Such circumstances influence the trade-offs an individual is willing to make. For example, if diseases are prevalent in a certain environment, women may put greater value on physical attractiveness (as indicative of having good genes and being healthy) in their partners than on dependability or maturity.3

And men do not always pursue short-term relationships, just as women do not always pursue long-term relationships. Women may engage in short-term relationships for a variety of reasons, such as to gain economic resources immediately, evaluate a potential long-term mate, and have the opportunity to switch mates. Men might engage in long-term relationships as a strategy to reduce paternity uncertainty or increase the likelihood that the offspring will survive.1

The Current Investigation: Between-Sex or Within-Sex Differences?

Now we are ready to look at the paper by Schwarz and colleagues. The authors investigated whether between-sex differences (i.e. men vs. women) or within-sex differences (variations among individuals of the same sex) in mating are more important. Two studies were conducted.

The sample for Study 1 consisted of 21,245 single individuals from Germany, of average age 41 years (range of 18 to 65 years). For Study 2, the sample comprised 283 individuals (ages 18 to 53 years; average age 26 years). Half were in a romantic relationship, while the other half were in a casual relationship or single.

Participants rated potential mate characteristics for short- and long-term relationship, and answered questions regarding relationship orientation, which refers to a preference for short-term or long-term relationships. For instance, a desire to have sex with as many individuals as possible indicates a short-term relationship orientation, while valuing security would indicate a long-term relationship orientation.

In the first study, the principal component analysis supported the extraction of 12 factors: kind/understanding, dominant, pleasant, intellectual, wealthy/generous, physically attractive, cultivated, humorous, sociable, creative/domestic, reliable, and similar. In the second study, it supported five factors: attractiveness, aggressive/stingy, family orientation, pleasantness, and resources (e.g., wealth, generosity).

Analysis of the data showed both sex and relationship orientation predicted mate-selection preferences. For instance, in the first study, the sex of participants was a significant predictor for nearly half the mate characteristics, like wealth and generosity in a long-term partner. This agrees with previous research that shows women are much more likely than men to value earning prospects.

At the same time, for half the factors, long-term relationship orientation (instead of participants’ sex) explained more variance in mate preferences. Long-term orientation predicted preference for characteristics like kindness, pleasantness, similarity, creativity, etc. And for a quarter of the factors examined (e.g., humor, sociability), both the participants’ sex and preference for long-term relationships were nearly equally predictive.

What mattered in short-term relationships? The second study, which examined the effect of the time frame of relationships, found participants’ sex and short-term relationship orientation were much more predictive of variance in mate selection.

Nevertheless, independent of the time frame of the relationship, the strongest predictor for choosing family-related characteristics in a partner (e.g., being kind, creative, domestic) was a preference for long-term relationships; and the strongest predictor for choosing physical attractiveness was a preference for short-term relationships.

What Do Men and Women Want?

How do we make sense of the above data? What do men and women want in a potential mate? The data might appear confusing, but it is telling us that the answer is not black and white: Mating choices are not just based on the person’s sex—relationship length and relationship orientation are predictive—but sex appears to be important, too. Knowing whether a man or woman is seeking mates can be informative, despite variations in what men or women want.

In short, not every man is looking for a physically attractive short-term mate, and not every woman is seeking a financially successful long-term romantic partner... but many are.

Facebook image: Roman Voloshyn/Shutterstock


1. Schwarz, S., Klümper, L., & Hassebrauck, M. (2020). Are sex differences in mating preferences really “overrated”? The effects of sex and relationship orientation on long-term and short-term mate preferences. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 6, 174-187.

2. Hallam, L., De Backer, C. J. S., Fisher, M. L., & Walrave, M. (2018). Are sex differences in mating strategies overrated? Sociosexual orientation as a dominant predictor in online dating strategies. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 4, 456–465.

3. Gangestad, S. W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23(4), 573-587.