What drives our sexual preferences; babies or people?

by Dorian Minors

July 3, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Some psychologists are all about sex. One in particular is famous for his approach to figuring out what turns us on from an evolutionary perspective (something we discuss in detail here). His name is David Buss, and he is responsible for ’sexual…

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Some psychologists are all about sex. One in particular is famous for his approach to figuring out what turns us on from an evolutionary perspective (something we discuss in detail here). His name is David Buss, and he is responsible for ‘sexual strategies theory’ which is pretty simple at it’s core.

Women want babies and men want lots of sex

It’s an entirely sexist understanding of human mate selection. Literally, the thing discriminates between sexes. He proposes that men and woman are looking for quantitatively (as in, you can measure it) different things when it comes to sex. For the sake of brevity, the theory is summarised here, which misses the nuance, as well as the devlopments since (you can find those here). But the core is useful to outline to some degree. Essentially it comes down to four (very rough) principles.

The four principles of evolutionary attraction, according to Buss

  • Our sexual behaviour is motivated by evolved, primal instinct.
  • Men want to reproduce, so they want to impregnate as many fertile females as possible.
  • Women want genetically strong babies, so seek sex with genetically strong males, but are super vulnerable while pregnant, so seek long-term protection from someone with status and resources (which aren’t necessarily the same thing).
  • Men want to see some of their offspring survive, so will settle down with someone and will be extra attentive to make sure the baby their spending their resources on is theirs (i.e. worth their time).

These four things have been used to explain why guys prefer attractiveness over lots of other characteristics (attractiveness is linked to health and thus fertility); to explain why women tend to value characteristics like wealth and status (or age, which is thought to be attractive because it implies those things); to explain why we cheat. It’s used by nefarious dudes to slimily pick up women. It’s used to controvert the social norm of monogamy, for better or for worse. So the theory is useful, but also problematic. But most importantly:

It’s not the full story…

We’ve talked before about how overwhelmingly, both men and women prefer characteristics that relate to intelligence, warmth and trustworthiness over all other things before, with physical attractiveness and status/resources coming second and third. So Buss’ theory has merit, but obviously isn’t the only thing going on. In 2000, Cynthia Hazan and Lisa Diamond realised that another, hugely influential theory, was probably equally (if not more) important. It’s called attachment theory. Another complex theory that we explain a bit about here, but I’ll summarise again for the purposes of this article. If as an infant, your parent responded to your cries;

  1. Inconsistently and unpredictably, you grew up to be an anxiously attached person, meaning that you are always a little afraid people aren’t going to be there for you when you need them and are thus a bit ‘clingy’ (or a lot as the case may be);
  2. Not at all, you grew up to be an avoidantly attached person, meaning that you feel like you can never rely on others and so you always take care of yourself and are thus a little ‘cold’;
  3. Consistently and predictably, you grew up to be a securely attached person, meaning that you are neither cold, nor clingy very often because you know when to rely on others and when to take care of yourself; or
  4. Randomly, interspersed with violence and drug use and other terrible things, you grew up to be disorganised in your attachment, and chances are, if you’re reading this instead of struggling through an incredibly tough life, that’s not you so I won’t go into detail here.

You seek in your parents and romantic partners a ‘safe base’ (although this search manifests differently for each of the above types). A support you know you can turn to when things are tough and thus feel confident to step out in life.

The role of attachment in sex

Hazan and Diamond looked at this theory and drew the obvious conclusions. They thought that really, our ‘clingyness’ and ‘coldness’ and search for a secure base would surely influence who we want to get intimate with. Buss’ theory really focuses on sex as a strategy, but Hazan and Diamond suggested that our sexual preferences are more of a product of the relationships that we are seeking based on our attachment needs. Not only that but the research supports it. We’ve found that:

  • Anxiously attached individuals tend to seek out partners who can provide them with constant reassurance and attention, often leading to more frequent and intense sexual encounters.
  • Avoidantly attached individuals tend to prefer casual and non-committal sexual relationships, as they are less likely to form strong emotional bonds with their partners.
  • Securely attached individuals tend to have more balanced and fulfilling sexual relationships, as they are able to communicate their needs and desires effectively and establish a strong emotional connection with their partners.
  • Higher levels of anxious and avoidant attachment are related to fewer dates;
  • People who are more avoidant are less likely to have more than one date with the same person;
  • Both anxious and avoidant attachment styles present a stumbling block to relationship formation; and
  • Gender, when considered alongside attachment style, is not the most important predictor of the kind of relationships we look for (and the sexual preferences we have).

So, while women probably are looking for healthy babies and someone to support them while they go through the shittier aspects of building a person, and while men probably are looking to create a legacy and to make sure their partner isn’t creating a legacy with a different person, relationships aren’t all about sex. They aren’t all about the babies. It’s also about the bond you have between you and your partner. Obvious in hindsight, but at least you have facts to fight off those cynical friends of ours. As Hazan and Diamond put it:

The bond is central, sexual strategy secondary

There are actually quite a few reasons we have sex. Learn about them here. Does all the above seem obvious in hindsight? Learn why hindsight is often wrong, a bias that leads you to give awful advice. Learn your attachment style and how it infiltrates so many areas of psychology by reading our articles on it here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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