Sexual Conflict

William Costello
8 min readMay 7, 2022

“Critically review evolutionary literature which addresses sex differences in both the perpetuation of and defence against antagonistic mating strategies. First, describe what sex differences (if any) exist, and then critique the representation of women in this body of literature.”

This essay critically reviews evolutionary literature around sex differences in the perpetuation and defence against antagonistic mating strategies. A critique of women’s representation will then be offered, which this paper argues is somewhat benevolently sexist. Some evidence suggests that women are more agentic in their exploitative mating strategies than typically depicted, and that exploitative female mating strategies may be underexplored due to a combination of moral typecasting and an asymmetry in the capacity to inflict harm that exists between the sexes.

“Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently” (Crenshaw, 1997).

Human mating is primarily viewed as a cooperative reproductive endeavour between the sexes, and contrary to much feminist theory, men are not united to compete intersexually against women. Instead, both men and women compete primarily intra-sexually (Buss, 2017). However, intrasexual competition for access to, and control of, the most valuable reproductive resource, often leads to restrictions on female sexual freedoms, ranging from vigilance to violence (Buss, 1988). Despite shared interdependent reproductive goals, the evolutionary interests of the sexes are asymmetrical, with sexual conflict stemming from this biological asymmetry, specifically around internal fertilization/gestation, leading to greater obligatory parental investment for females, and paternal uncertainty in males. As such, sex is a potentially more costly risk for women (Trivers, 1972; Parker, 1979).

Sexual conflict theory suggests that the sexes often have conflicting, optimal sexual strategies and find themselves in an antagonistic ‘’co-evolutionary arms-race’’ (Buss, 2021).

Strategic-interference theory (Buss, 1989; Haselton et al., 2005) posits that both sexes cannot simultaneously fulfil their conflicting sexual strategies. As such, each sex develops adaptations to influence the other toward their optimal strategy, through psychological mechanisms producing emotions and behaviour, such as greater sexual jealousy in men (Bendixen et al., 2015; Miller & Maner, 2008).

William Costello

Psychology PhD Student University of Texas at Austin. MSc Psychology, Culture and Evolution from Brunel University London 2020/21. Bylines: Areo and Quillette.