A Life History Approach to the Female Sexual Orientation Spectrum: Evolution, Development, Causal Mechanisms, and Health

  • Severi LuotoEmail author
  • Indrikis Krams
  • Markus J. Rantala
Target Article


Women’s capacity for sexual fluidity is at least as interesting a phenomenon from the point of view of evolutionary biology and behavioral endocrinology as exclusively homosexual orientation. Evolutionary hypotheses for female nonheterosexuality have failed to fully account for the existence of these different categories of nonheterosexual women, while also overlooking broader data on the causal mechanisms, physiology, ontogeny, and phylogeny of female nonheterosexuality. We review the evolutionary-developmental origins of various phenotypes in the female sexual orientation spectrum using the synergistic approach of Tinbergen’s four questions. We also present femme-specific and butch-specific hypotheses at proximate and ultimate levels of analysis. This review article indicates that various nonheterosexual female phenotypes emerge from and contribute to hormonally mediated fast life history strategies. Life history theory provides a biobehavioral explanatory framework for nonheterosexual women’s masculinized body morphology, psychological dispositions, and their elevated likelihood of experiencing violence, substance use, obesity, teenage pregnancy, and lower general health. This pattern of life outcomes can create a feedback loop of environmental unpredictability and harshness which destabilizes intrauterine hormonal conditions in mothers, leading to a greater likelihood of fast life history strategies, global health problems, and nonheterosexual preferences in female offspring. We further explore the potential of female nonheterosexuality to function as an alloparental buffer that enables masculinizing alleles to execute their characteristic fast life history strategies as they appear in the female and the male phenotype. Synthesizing life history theory with the female sexual orientation spectrum enriches existing scientific knowledge on the evolutionary-developmental mechanisms of human sex differences.


Female sexual orientation Homosexuality Neurodevelopment Evolutionary-developmental psychology Behavioral endocrinology Life history evolution Women’s health 



Parts of this article were presented at the 46th Annual Behavior Genetics Meeting, Brisbane, Australia in 2016. The authors wish to thank the members of the University of Auckland Language, Cognition and Culture Lab for valuable comments on earlier drafts. Constructive inputs from anonymous reviewers helped us improve this article. The authors are particularly thankful to Paul Vasey for his thoughtful editorial contributions.


A travel grant (S.L.) was provided by the Behavior Genetics Association to present this research at 46th Annual Behavior Genetics Meeting, Brisbane, Australia.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

The material contained in this article is a review of previously published or presented data. This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by the authors.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.English, Drama and Writing StudiesUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand
  3. 3.Department of Zoology and Animal EcologyUniversity of LatviaRigaLatvia
  4. 4.Institute of Ecology and Earth SciencesUniversity of TartuTartuEstonia
  5. 5.Department of Biology & Turku Brain and Mind CenterUniversity of TurkuTurkuFinland

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