Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Observed Mating Behavior and Women’s Long-Term Mating

  • Natalie V. Motta-MenaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3657-1



Women’s mating behavior includes human female sexual development, mate preferences, and strategies to optimize reproduction and long-term mating. Each of these components of mating behavior has been shaped by selection to produce adaptive outcomes.


A life history approach to evaluating human behavior can be fruitful for understanding the fundamentally unique nature of women’s mating behavior (Luoto et al. 2018; Motta-Mena and Puts 2017). For example, early in development, puberty in humans marks a formative time during which changes in the visuoperceptual system can influence the ability to detect facial cues related to mating behavior and sexual relationships (e.g., sexual interest; Garcia and Scherf 2015; Motta-Mena and Scherf 2017), a crucial developmental transition that, thus far, appears to be exclusive to humans. As young women undergo puberty and begin menstruation, they begin to exhibit relatively cryptic fertile windows in their ovulatory cycle, report experiencing sexual desire and behavior outside of the fertile window, and engage in higher levels of mating competition compared to most female primates.

Following puberty, women compete for, choose, and engage in both short- and long-term relationships with mates during their reproductive lives. To do so, women must learn to navigate complex sexual relationships in adolescence (Motta-Mena and Scherf 2017), compete with other females for mates (Fink et al. 2014), and learn to provide reliable cues to their availability to potential mates, such as sexual ornaments that signal women’s residual reproductive viability (Thornhill and Gangestad 2015). Importantly, women’s sexual behavior is not constrained to the fertile phase (e.g., as in most primates; Thornhill and Gangestad 2015) and suggests that perhaps women’s copulatory patterns across the cycle may reflect a mixed-mating strategy.

In what follows, this entry will discuss women’s mating behavior from pubertal development through adulthood, as well as the evolutionary processes that have shaped women’s modern mating behavior. While not exhaustive, this entry provides a broad overview of the emergence and development of women’s mating behavior and mating strategies.

Pubertal Development

As a crucial life history transition, pubertal development involves the orchestration of anatomical as well as psychological changes associated with sexual maturation. Girls tend to enter puberty sooner than boys (Marshall and Tanner 1969, 1970) and experience a cascade of physical changes that include the emergence of secondary sex characteristics such as breasts, fat deposition on the buttocks and hips, and pubic hair growth, particularly as girls approach the onset of menarche (Grumbach and Styne 1998; Marshall and Tanner 1969, 1970). Estrogen inhibits the accumulation of fat in the abdominal region and stimulates fat deposits in the lower half of the body (Singh 1993), thereby producing a gynoid body shape (Singh 1993).

Fat around the midsection can be quantified with the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), which is the ratio of the narrowest part of the waist relative to the widest part of the hips (Singh 1993). Before puberty, lower estrogen levels result in more even fat distribution across the hips and abdomen, resulting in a WHR closer to 1 (for review, see Singh 1993). Beginning in puberty and through the reproductive years, the typical range of WHR is 0.67–0.80 (Lanska et al. 1984). While some work suggests that WHR is related to levels of estradiol and progesterone (Jasieńska et al. 2004; Zaadstra et al. 1993), other work has found no such association (Jones et al. 2017). The relationship between women’s physical attractiveness and the underlying endocrinology thus remains ambiguous.

In addition to these complex physical changes, puberty also spurs profound changes in adolescent psychology (Dahl 2004; Motta-Mena and Scherf 2017). The transition from puberty into the autonomy of adulthood necessitates that typically developing adolescents learn to navigate increasingly complex social relationships in order to succeed in the competitive reproductive sphere. The complex interplay of hormones is simultaneously influenced by neuroendocrine feedback loops from the brain, which are believed to facilitate sexual behavior in adolescence (Schulz et al. 2004).

Further evidence suggests that adolescents are unable to detect facial expressions related to sexual interest until they have undergone puberty (Garcia and Scherf 2015; Motta-Mena and Scherf 2017), suggesting that perhaps puberty is fundamental for the development or onset of adult-like mating preferences. In short, the unique physical and psychological changes adolescents must undergo during puberty raises compelling questions about changing social behavior, and how puberty impacts sex-typical social behaviors in adulthood.

Mate Preferences

Women experience greater levels of sexual desire and interest when fertile (Arslan et al. 2017; Jones et al. 2018a), but it remains unclear if shifts in mate preference also track with menstrual phase. Recent work has failed to find evidence in support of cycle shifts in preferences for masculine faces, bodies, and behavioral displays (Jones et al. 2018b; Jünger et al. 2018b) as well as for masculine voices (Junger et al. 2018.

Further inconsistencies in the literature are reflected in the results of two meta-analyses that reached opposite conclusions about whether women’s judgments of men’s attractiveness track with changes in women’s cycle phase (Gildersleeve et al. 2014; Wood et al. 2014). On the one hand, Wood et al. (2014) reported little support, and on the other hand, Gildersleeve et al. (2014) concluded that cycle effects are robust and influence women’s judgments of men’s attractiveness in a systematic way. Critically, Wood et al. coded multiple studies for which effect sizes were unknown as “0.00” rather than as missing data, thereby categorizing them as potentially “null effects” and ultimately biasing the estimated overall effect toward zero. Gildersleeve et al. employed multilevel models to account for the nested nature of effects and aggregated across male traits in overall analyses. Differences in the statistical approaches for each meta-analyses may thus have contributed to the uniquely different conclusions.

To evaluate this ongoing question regarding cycle shifts in women’s preferences for masculine features, a recent study employed masculine voices as the stimuli of interest in two large within-subjects experiments from different labs, using natural as well as manipulated voice recordings as stimuli, and also examined hormone concentrations and possible moderator variables (Junger et al. 2018). The results failed to support cycle shifts in women’s preferences for masculine voices.

Critically, while some researchers in this line of research argue that null results for cyclic shifts in mate preferences are likely specific to face preferences, this evidence as well as other recent studies evaluating cycle shifts for body or behavior preferences (Junger et al. 2018; Jünger et al. 2018a, b; Marcinkowska et al. 2016) indicate that it no longer appears to be the case that null results are peculiar to face preferences (Jones et al. 2018b; Muñoz-Reyes et al. 2014; Peters et al. 2009). Therefore, there is a strong need for continued work to elucidate the role (if any) of hormonal influences on cycle shifts in women’s preferences across categories of stimuli (e.g., voices, faces, bodies).

Cognitively, several lines of research suggest that women in committed and satisfied relationships reportedly have poorer memory for attractive men’s faces than women in low-commitment relationships (Wang et al. 2016; Watkins et al. 2017), presumably in the service of maintaining their current relationship by devaluing potential alternatives. Notably, however, partnered women were not significantly different from unpartnered women in memory for attractive male faces in the Wang et al. (2016) study. In a related study evaluating recognition memory for more and less attractive versions of male and female identities, Watkins et al. 2017 found that women in better quality relationships had greater false memories for attractive men. These findings suggest that women’s memory for facial cues may vary systematically according to the factors that influence female mating competition and relationship maintenance (i.e., relationship status and male attractiveness).

Strategies to Optimize Mating and Reproduction

Female mate choice is a behavior that systematically biases a female’s probability of mating with males having particular characteristics. Thus, female mate choice occurs when females exhibit behaviors such as selectively moving toward and/or maintaining proximity to certain males, selectively soliciting copulation or attention from certain males, or selectively cooperating with certain males’ solicitations, if these behaviors influence the probability of mating with these males (Puts 2010). Thus, differential acceptance of – or resistance to – male attempts at copulation appears to represent at least one form of female mate choice.

Evolutionary theories suggest that men and women are evolutionarily designed to solve different mating-related strategies (Trivers 1972), which lead to differences in mate preferences and competition. Such differences in mate preferences and competition are explained, at least in part, by sexual selection theory. Specifically, due to the relative asymmetry in parental investment between men and women, heterosexual women should theoretically compete with other women for mates that provide resources, while heterosexual men should compete with other men for mates that appear attractive, fertile, and healthy (Buss 1989; Conroy-Beam et al. 2015; Trivers 1972).

Women tend to compete with other women for mates by advertising qualities that are valued by men (e.g., beauty, clothing choice, and sexual exclusiveness; Durante et al. 2008) and by derogating rivals (e.g., through gossip and devaluing other women; Fisher 2004) rather than via direct displays of dominance, as in men. In addition, women tend to be influenced more by peer evaluations (i.e., from other women) than men are (Graziano et al. 1993), suggesting that intrasexual competition in women may elicit a uniquely different dynamic among women than intrasexual competition in men. Men tend to value those physical features in women that are related to fertility and fecundability, such as youthfulness, vitality, and an ideal body-shape (Conroy-Beam et al. 2015). In addition, when asked to spontaneously mention relevant characteristics about a rival that might attract their partner, women tend to report more jealousy when a rival is high in physical attractiveness (Dijkstra and Buunk 2002).

In most mammals, including primates (Nadler et al. 1983), female sexual activity is heightened during the fertile period of the reproductive cycle (Thornhill and Gangestad 2015). In contrast, women’s frequency of intercourse varies inconsistently (if at all) across the ovulatory cycle (Arslan et al. 2017). Nevertheless, there is a fertile phase increase in sexual motivation and desire, such that women report more in-pair and extra-pair desire as well as self-perceived desirability (Arslan et al. 2017). In addition, women have also reported more flirtation (Haselton and Gangestad 2006) as well as feeling less close to and more critical of their primary partner, particularly if the partner is less sexually attractive (Larson et al. 2013).

In short, women’s sexual behavior and libido both appear to shift across the cycle, and evidence suggests that this shift tracks with ovarian hormones (for review, see Motta-Mena and Puts 2017). This raises intriguing questions about evolutionary causes and hints at roles of pair-bonding and extra-pair mating. If ovulation is concealed and copulation occurs throughout the cycle, then a mid-cycle rise in libido could promote extra-pair copulation in order to recruit good genes, while also being able to retain nongenetic benefits conferred by the pair-bond partner (Thornhill and Gangestad 2015). Ultimately, however, more work is necessary to evaluate and understand how women’s sexual behavior throughout the cycle has evolved to produce adaptive outcomes.


Using a life history approach, this entry highlights the unique nature of women’s mating behavior and cognition from puberty to young adulthood. While a clearer picture is emerging, many questions remain regarding how women select their mates throughout the lifespan, and particularly how they select and maintain long-term partners. While more fieldwork is ultimately necessary to understand the magnitude of effects outside of the laboratory in more naturalistic settings, recent work employing hormonal assays (Junger et al. 2018; Kordsmeyer et al. 2018; Shirazi et al. 2018a), large datasets with behavioral recordings (Arslan et al. 2017), as well as international samples (Shirazi et al. 2018b) provide robust evidence and methodological rigor for elucidating women’s mating behavior.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tara DeLecce
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA