Beliefs about sexual morality are a powerful cultural force in many societies. In the U.S., for example, diverging views on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and sex education seem influenced by differing beliefs, often religion-related, about sexual morality. Research on the link between religion and sexual morality has viewed religiosity as an extension of a long-term monogamous mating strategy (Weeden, Cohen, & Kenrick, 2008) or as an effort to promote paternity certainty (Strassman et al., 2012). Much remains to be investigated, however, about whether particular forms of sexual morality are likely to emerge in some environments more than others, perhaps as solutions to specific adaptive problems faced by individuals in those environments. In this article, we report two studies which tested predictions about U.S. residents’ moral views on promiscuous mating, using a theory which regards these views as facultative solutions to adaptive problems related to promoting paternity certainty and conforming to local social norms. Previous researchers have attempted to explain why different types of mating systems/behaviors (e.g., monogamy versus polygyny or promiscuity) have emerged in different human societies, often with an emphasis on the role of environment and parental investment (Fortunato & Archetti, 2010; Gavrilets, 2012; Henrich, Boyd, & Richerson, 2012; Schmitt, 2005a) and our research was, in general, complementary to these approaches. However, our work is unique in many of its predictions and in its focus on moral attitudes about promiscuity.
Short-Term and Long-Term Mating Across Species and Cultures
A variety of different mating strategies exist across animal species and human cultures. The terms most commonly used by biologists and anthropologists (e.g., Clutton-Brock, 1989; Murdock, 1967; Schmitt, 2005b) to classify mating strategies include monogamous (one male mates with one female over an extended period, such as over one or more breeding seasons), polygynous (one male mates with multiple females over an extended period), polyandrous (one female mates with multiple males over an extended period), and promiscuous (or “multimale-multifemale”; multiple females engage in short-term, non-exclusive relationships with multiple males). However, the mating behaviors of a given species, culture, or individual may be complex and “strategically pluralistic” (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000), that is, characterized by more than one strategy. For example, consider the mating systems of humans’ closest evolutionary relatives, the greater and lesser apes. Although most commonly chimpanzees and bonobos are classified as promiscuous, gorillas and orangutans as polygynous, and gibbons as monogamous (Schmitt, 2005b; Smuts & Smuts, 1993), these categories may mask considerable strategic pluralism. For example, monogamous gibbons sometimes engage in short-term extrapair copulations and polygynous orangutans are often also considered promiscuous (Beaudrot, Kahlenberg, & Marshall, 2009; Plavcan, 2012).
Human mating systems can also exhibit considerable levels of strategic pluralism. Anthropologists have classified more than 80 % of preindustrial societies as polygynous, 16 % as monogamous, and less than 1 % as polyandrous (Murdock, 1967; Schmitt, 2005b). Yet, within most “polygynous” societies, most long-term relationships are, in fact, monogamous; the polygynous label indicates only that polygyny is permitted and commonly observed (Stewart-Williams & Thomas, 2013). Further, although these categories focus on long-term mating, short-term strategies are also frequently observed in these societies. For example, anthropologists estimate that extramarital sex occurs at least “occasionally” among males in 80 % and among females in 73 % of preindustrial cultures and that comparable rates for premarital sex are 88 % for males and 80 % for females. Further, wife sharing is estimated to occur in 39 % of these cultures (Broude & Greene, 1976; Schmitt, 2005b). Such within-culture co-existence of long-term and short-term mating strategies is also evident in industrialized societies. In the U.S. and other wealthy democracies, for instance, although long-term monogamy is common, so are short-term sexual relationships (Chandra, Mosher, Copen, & Sionean, 2011). However, many Americans—particularly those who are strongly religious and/or politically conservative—object morally to short-term mating and believe that promiscuity is wrong (Klein, 2012).
The Evolution of Sexual Strategic Pluralism in Humans
Cross-culturally and on average, men exhibit greater motivation than women to engage in short-term mating (Schmitt, 2005a), which is consistent with the fact that they, as the sex with lower obligatory parental investment, can generally derive more reproductive benefits from having many mates (Trivers, 1972). However, although men can benefit from short-term mating under a wider range of circumstances than can women, in ancestral environments, a willingness to mate with multiple males under certain circumstances (i.e., facultative polyandry) could potentially have benefited females in several ways (Greiling & Buss, 2000; Smith, 1984). For example, multiple matings could have facilitated resource acquisition, either in direct exchange for sex (Symons, 1979) or by eliciting paternal investment from multiple men via paternity confusion (Hrdy, 1981). Additionally, indirect benefits may have been derived by ancestral women who accepted resources and parental effort from a primary mate while engaging in extra-pair copulations with men of superior genetic quality (Gangestad & Thornhill, 2008; Greiling & Buss, 2000; Smith, 1984). Extra-pair sex may also have served as a useful “insurance” against the possibility of infertility in a primary mate or as a means to promote genetic diversity in offspring as a “hedge” against environmental unpredictability (Smith, 1984). Potential genetic benefits of multiple mating for females are reviewed comprehensively by Jennions and Petrie (2000).
Women vary substantially in their willingness to engage in short-term mating (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991) and evidence suggests that some of this variation reflects females making trade-offs between producing offspring of “high genetic quality” and securing male parental investment (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). Across species, in those where male parental investment is very low, relationships tend to be short-term and female mate choice tends to reflect “good genes” sexual selection; that is, females choose males based more on signals of heritable qualities than on “good provider” criteria (i.e., value as a source of investment). In species where male parental investment is more vital, however, female choice tends to be based more on good provider criteria (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000; Schmitt, 2005a). Some species exhibit a mix of both strategies (Gangestad, 2000) and human mating behavior appears to be an example of such strategic pluralism: females base mate choices flexibly on both good genes and good provider criteria, with the importance of each kind of criteria varying facultatively according to female characteristics and context (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). As such, women are expected to pursue some kinds of short-term mating opportunities; for example, in some contexts to mate with a man whose genetic quality is high enough to sufficiently offset the risk that he would be a poor provider. However, when dependence on male parental investment is greater, females should be less inclined to choose males based solely on short-term, good genes criteria.
If short-term mating is less common when females depend more on male parental investment and if females depend more on male parental investment in harsher environments, then short-term mating should be less common in those environments (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). Schmitt (2005a), drawing on data collected from a cross-national sample (Ns ranging from 20 to 48), provided evidence to support this hypothesis: national indicators of ecological/economic hardship (e.g., child malnutrition, life expectancy, gross domestic product) correlated moderately-to-strongly negatively with male and, especially, female interest in short-term mating, i.e., national mean sociosexuality scores (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). Schmitt (2005a) also found national sociosexuality scores to be strongly negatively related to national operational sex ratio (ratio of males to females of reproductive age), a result consistent with sex ratio theory (Pedersen, 1991). According to this theory, short-term strategies should be more common in countries with lower operational sex ratio, because, as noted above, men are relatively interested in short-term mating. When men are relatively scarce, their bargaining power on the mating market increases, which should help them pursue short-term relationships.
Female Economic Dependence on a Male Mate as a Predictor of Anti-Promiscuity Morality
In order for a man’s parental investment to benefit his offspring, he must know who his offspring are and establishing paternity was probably a major adaptive problem for ancestral humans (Daly, Wilson, & Weghorst, 1982; Symons, 1979). An ancestral male could have benefited by facultatively adjusting his level of investment in a woman and her offspring according to the probability that her offspring were also his own (Gray & Anderson, 2010), by investing more in a mate when he had greater confidence in her sexual fidelity. Accordingly, evidence suggests that men have evolved emotional and behavioral responses to female infidelity that ancestrally would have reduced both the risk and the costs of cuckoldry (Daly et al., 1982).
Since a man can adjust his investment in a mate and/or her offspring based on his likelihood of being (or becoming) the father of her offspring, men and women should be more averse to promiscuity when females depend more on male parental investment. This increased aversion should occur, in part, because the costs of promiscuity—to both mated females who seek male parental investment and mated males who seek to provide it—will increase with female dependence on male parental investment. When a female and her offspring depend more on male investment, this investment is more valuable to her, her offspring, and the male providing it (if the offspring are also his own). Further, when females depend more on this investment, it should also be costlier for males to provide, because its increased value should motivate men to expend more time and energy to produce it. Due to the increased value and cost of male parental investment under conditions of greater female dependence, actions which undermine paternity certainty (and which thus reduce male motivation to produce parental investment), such as promiscuity, will become more threatening to both mated men and mated women. As outlined in Table 1, this includes promiscuity by one’s self, by one’s mate, and by one’s same-sex reproductive competitors. Moreover, when female dependence is higher, not only do the costs of promiscuity go up, but the benefits of promiscuity go down, for both sexes. This is true because when male parental investment is more valuable (1) females are less able to reproduce successfully with “good genes” but low-investing males and (2) males are less able to reproduce successfully via low-investment strategies.
The theory presented here, then, predicts that both sexes should be more averse to promiscuity in environments characterized by greater female economic dependence on a male mate. We will refer to this theory as the female economic dependence theory of promiscuity aversion and expect this aversion to manifest itself as greater willingness to express moral disapproval of promiscuity. Through moralizing, individuals can promote behavior which serves their own personal and coalitional interests and, when more (powerful) people in a society have an interest in discouraging a behavior, their moral system will more likely proscribe that behavior (Alexander, 1987; Price, Kang, Dunn, & Hopkins, 2011).
The Current Studies
Using U.S. samples, we tested predictions of the female economic dependence theory at both the individual and state levels. Specifically, we tested whether opposition to promiscuity was higher among (1) individuals who perceived female economic dependence on a male mate to be relatively high in their social network and (2) individuals who were themselves currently (or likely to someday be) in a heterosexual relationship involving relatively high female economic dependence. We also examined state-level economic indicators (e.g., female income, availability of welfare benefits) related to female economic dependence in order to test (3) whether indicators of greater female dependence relate positively to anti-promiscuity morality and (4) whether any such relationships are mediated by the extent of perceived female economic dependence in one’s social network. Finally, we tested the predictions that opposition to promiscuity would be higher (5) among females than among males, as predicted by the sex differences theory and (6) in states with higher male–female sex ratios, as predicted by the sex ratio theory.
We expected that environments characterized by greater female economic dependence would tend to generate anti-promiscuity moral systems which, like all moral systems, impose social costs on norm violators (Ostrom, 2000; Price, 2005, 2006). Such costs should incentivize group members to adopt the norms about promiscuity which prevail in their social network, regardless of personal economic circumstances. Therefore, the predictor of anti-promiscuity morality of primary interest was perceived female economic dependence among females in one’s social network. However, in Study 2, we examined the role of personal circumstances as well, considering the predictive utility of extent of one’s personal involvement, or likelihood of being involved, in a relationship involving high female economic dependence (based on reported income of one’s self and of one’s relationship partner).
We also examined the effects of several control variables on anti-promiscuity morality, including age, which could correlate with sexual conservatism and also with other predictors (e.g., income), as well as religiosity and political conservatism, which were expected to correlate positively with anti-promiscuity morality. We also controlled for the anti-promiscuity views of each participant’s nearest geographical neighbors. It is important to measure neighbors’ traits in cross-cultural comparative research, due to issues with non-independence that can arise from spatial proximity (spatial autocorrelation). Cultural traits may be transmitted, via common (cultural) ancestry, copying or borrowing, in “packages”. The dispersal of such packages can lead to a false impression of a causal or structural relationship between pairs of traits (Eff, 2008; Pagel & Mace, 2004) with associations between traits arising due to the dispersion of a single founding culture whose members shared those traits.