Sociosexual orientation reflects individual differences in sexual permissiveness or engagement in uncommitted sexual relations.
Sociosexual orientation – or sociosexuality – reflects individual differences in sexual permissiveness or willingness to engage in uncommitted sexual relations (Simpson and Gangestad 1991). Although sociosexuality is considered a trait measure that is continuous, people are often described categorically as having restricted (low) or unrestricted (high) sociosexual orientations. People with unrestricted sociosexual orientations may believe that sex without love or emotional ties is acceptable, whereas people with restricted sociosexual orientations believe that love, commitment, and emotional closeness are prerequisites for sexual activity. More sexually unrestricted people tend to have greater numbers of sexual partners, casual sexual encounters (hook-ups, one-night-stands), and more positive attitudes toward sex without commitment.
Simpson and Gangestad (1991) developed the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI) to measure individual differences in willingness to engage in casual, uncommitted sexual relationships. Although the SOI has gained considerable popularity for decades, it was often criticized for assuming a unidimensional structure and having low internal consistency (Penke and Asendorpf 2008; Webster and Bryan 2007). For example, Penke and Asendorpf (2008) argued that sociosexual orientation is not a unidimensional construct but rather a multidimensional one that consists of three related-but-distinct sociosexual facets: attitudes, behaviors, and desires; to this end, they developed the Revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI-R). Over the last decade, the SOI-R’s multifaceted approach has become widely adopted by researchers; however, the original SOI is still used, but often with differential scoring for its attitudinal and behavioral items (Webster and Bryan 2007).
Regarding the three sociosexual dimensions, sociosexual behaviors reflect people’s history of sexual behavior, such as person’s number of casual sex partners. Because of some limitations such as reproductive constraints or cultural norms, however, women may not always engage in sociosexual behavior despite their openness to – or desire for – uncommitted sex. Therefore, sociosexual attitudes often reflect people’s feelings toward uncommitted sex regardless of their behavior. People with more unrestricted sociosexual orientations have more positive attitudes toward sex without love and can imagine themselves being comfortable with and enjoying casual sex. Sociosexual desires describe people’s interest in having sex with someone with whom they are not in a committed romantic relationship. People with more unrestricted sociosexual desires often fantasize about sex with someone they just met or become sexually aroused by people with whom they lack romantic interest. Despite this multifaceted approach, the three dimensions can still be averaged together to assess global individual differences in sociosexuality.
Between- and Within-Sex Differences in Sociosexual Orientation
Men, on average, tend to be more sociosexually unrestricted than women. This sex difference is reliable across cultures (Schmitt 2005). Moreover, among the three components of sociosexuality, sociosexual desire usually shows the largest sex difference (Penke and Asendorpf 2008). From an evolutionary perspective, men have a motivation to pass their genes to as many offspring as possible. Consequently, men have more to gain – or perhaps more importantly, less to lose – from minimal reproductive investment (no gestation or lactation period). Thus, men tend to favor more promiscuous or unrestricted mating strategies because it can allow them greater access to mates, which increases their chances of passing their genes to the next generation. In contrast, women are often motivated to select the best possible mate who, besides carrying good genes, will invest in parental care of their offspring. Thus, women tend to favor a more exclusive or restricted mating strategy because it allows them to find the mate who is willing to commit resources to the burden of parenting.
Although men often show greater sexual permissiveness than women, there is much more variability in sociosexual attitudes and behaviors within each sex than between men and women (Gangestad and Simpson 1990). For example, from an evolutionary perspective, motivation for reproductive success is considered one of the factors relating to unrestricted sociosexuality in women. According to genetic approaches, female sociosexual variation reflects women’s decision to trade commitment for genetic quality. While restricted women require investment and commitment from men, unrestricted women may be reproductively competitive because they can mate with men who have favorable genotypes (e.g., high physical attractiveness) without forcing them to be committed first. Thus, although a restricted strategy can enhance paternal investment, an unrestricted strategy can enhance the chances of surviving offspring. Research has also shown that unrestricted women tend to emphasize traits likely to reflect genetic quality when evaluating potential mates (Simpson and Gangestad 1992).
Of course, reproductive success is not the sole motivation for women to engage in uncommitted sex. For instance, similar to men, the most common reason for women to have casual sex is pure pleasure, which is unrelated to female reproduction by most evolutionary accounts (Garcia and Reiber 2008). Therefore, many researchers consider social and sociocultural perspectives as more likely explanations for within-sex differences in sociosexuality among women. According to social constructionist perspectives, men and women do not innately differ in sociosexuality; instead, between-sex differences in sociosexuality likely relate to differences in how men and women fulfill their social roles. Among women, an unrestricted sociosexual orientation is associated with higher sexual dominance, perceived masculinity, and sexual liberalism. According to this perspective, one reason why women seem to be more sexually restricted than men might be because women usually face more cultural suppression for unrestricted sociosexual behavior. In cultures where women’s sexual freedom is accepted or tolerated, between-sex differences in sociosexuality may be reduced as individual differences become more apparent. Indeed, cross-cultural studies have shown that between-sex differences in sociosexuality were moderated by cultural factors such as gender equality and economic development (Schmitt 2005). In developed countries that were high in gender equality, intrasexual differences in sociosexuality emerged.
Mate Selection and Dating Behavior
Sexually restricted people show greater attraction to and are more likely to date partners who are more responsible, loyal, and affectionate. In contrast, sexually unrestricted people tend to prefer partners who are more attractive and have higher social visibility (Simpson and Gangestad 1992). When first interacting with potential partners, sexually unrestricted (vs. restricted) men display more laughter, smiling, and flirtatious glances. In the same context, unrestricted (vs. restricted) women are more likely to lean forward toward potential partners and to cant their heads than restricted women.
People with sexually unrestricted orientations are more likely to have avoidant attachment styles, and consequently, less likely to form secure attachments. Specifically, they are more inclined to feel greater ambivalence toward their partners, greater frustration with their partners, and are less likely to ask for help or comfort in times of need from their partners. Moreover, they are less likely to seek closeness with their partners and have less trust in their partners.
Research has found that people with sexually unrestricted (vs. restricted) orientations are more likely to have lower levels of romantic relationship quality and functioning. People who are more sexually unrestricted also tend to have more negative interactions with their romantic partners, report lower sexual interest in them, and rate them as less physically attractive. Furthermore, more sexually unrestricted people tend to be in relationships characterized by less love, commitment, and investment (Simpson and Gangestad 1991).
Sexually unrestricted people show increased likeliness to engage in infidelity and are particularly likely to report a sexual motivation for being unfaithful versus an emotional one. Whereas sexually unrestricted people tend to be more distressed by partners’ sexual infidelity than their emotional infidelity, the opposite pattern occurs in more restricted people, who tend to be more distressed by partners’ emotional infidelity.
It may be that the negative association between unrestricted sociosexuality and relationship quality is unique to monogamous relationships. One study found that while unrestricted sociosexuality was associated with more negative relationship quality for monogamous individuals, there was no relationship between sociosexuality and relationship quality for consensually non-monogamous individuals (Rodrigues et al. 2017). It should be noted that people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships report a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation than those in monogamous ones (Mogilski et al. 2017).
As a key individual difference, sociosexuality has been studied alongside several other personality traits, including the Big Five and the Dark Triad. Other personality or trait-based correlates of sociosexuality include self-esteem, aggression, and impulsivity.
The Big Five
Sociosexuality is often studied in the context of other personality traits such as the Big Five: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. Prior research has suggested that sociosexuality correlates positively with extraversion and openness, but negatively with agreeableness and conscientiousness (Bourdage et al. 2007; Schmitt and Shackelford 2008).
The Dark Triad
The Dark Triad – subclinical individual differences in narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – can facilitate short-term mating strategies, particularly in men (Jonason et al. 2009). In general, unrestricted sociosexuality correlates positively with all three Dark Triad traits (Jonason et al. 2009; McDonald et al. 2012). Nevertheless, in multiple regressions predicting unrestricted sociosexuality, Machiavellianism emerges as the only significant positive correlate among the Dark Triad traits.
Self-Esteem, Impulsivity, and Aggression
Global self-esteem is generally unrelated to sociosexuality or prior sociosexual behavior. Regarding impulsivity research, some has shown sociosexual attitudes (but not behaviors) relate positively to impulsivity (but not sensation seeking), whereas other research has shown positive links between global sociosexuality and risk impulsivity in both sexes. Regarding aggression, some research has shown that the aggression–sociosexuality link is moderately positive in men, but nearly null in women, whereas other research has shown small-but-significant links for both sexes. Additionally, sociosexual attitudes – but not behaviors – relate positively to hostility (Webster and Bryan 2007).
Individual differences in sociosexuality likely have implications for both social and health psychology as well as the psychology of well-being. As personality and social psychology increasingly focus on person-situation interactions (vs. person-situation debates), individual differences are often moderators of social psychological phenomena, and sociosexuality is no exception. For example, differences in women’s sociosexuality can moderate their mate preferences in theoretically consistent ways. Sociosexuality may also moderate relations linking individual differences in hormones to social behavior. For example, being single (vs. partnered) positively related to testosterone levels, but only in men and women with more unrestricted sociosexual orientations (Edelstein et al. 2011). Regarding health, accounting for individual differences in sociosexuality may be key to identifying people at high risk for sexually-transmitted diseases and infections, or for understanding people’s condom use. For example, studies have shown both positive and negative links between unrestricted sociosexuality and condom-use intentions or behaviors. Well-being also shares links with sociosexuality. Specifically, both longitudinal and weekly diary methods have suggested that the link between casual sex and well-being is more positive among students with more unrestricted sociosexual orientations.
Future research on sociosexuality should consider expanding on at least three fronts. First, as predictions regarding sociosexuality increase in specificity, more research should focus on its three facets – attitudes, behaviors, and desires – than its aggregate score; doing so should provide more diagnostic insights. Second, because much of sociosexuality is inherently dyadic and interpersonal, researchers should begin adopting dyadic approaches to sociosexuality by collecting data from both people and their sex partners (Webster et al. 2015). Third, although we know a great deal about how sociosexuality correlates with other traits, its relation to actual behaviors remains comparatively unexplored. Future researchers should continue to explore and expand sociosexuality’s links with relevant health outcomes (e.g., risk behaviors, condom use).
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