The Evolution of Men’s and Women’s Desires

The four universal conflicts that undermine men’s and women’s relationships.

by Jed Diamond Ph.D.


  • Human sexual psychology evolved to cope with ancestral adaptive problems over millions of years.
  • Males and females face different evolutionary challenges that impact our love lives.
  • Conflicts between the sexes tie to different evolutionary-based desires of males and females.

Biologists have a very simple and useful definition of what is male and what is female. It is the same whether we are fish, ferns, or human beings. An individual can either make many small gametes (sex cells) or fewer but larger gametes. The individuals that produce smaller gametes are called “males,” and those that produce larger ones are called “females.”

Steve Jones is a professor of genetics and head of the prestigious Galton Laboratory at the University College of London. “The cellular imbalance is at the center of maleness,” he said. “It confers on males a simpler sex life than their partners, together with a host of incidental idiosyncrasies, from more suicide, cancer, and billionaires to rather less hair on the top of the head.”

According to David Buss, author of the textbook Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,

Human sexual psychology evolved over millions of years. It formed to cope with ancestral adaptive problems before the advent of modern contraceptive technology. Humans still possess this underlying sexual psychology, even though the current environment has changed.

In a TED talk on “Sexuality Conflict in Human Mating,” Buss begins with a thought experiment: I’d like you to imagine an attractive person of the opposite sex walking up to you and saying, “Hi, I’ve noticed you lately and find you very attractive.” And they ask you one of three questions:

  • Would you go out on a date with me?
  • Would you come back to my apartment with me?
  • Would you have sex with me?

These experiments were carried out numerous times in a variety of settings. And, as you might expect, the answers given were different depending on whether those being asked were male or female. Here are the results:

Of the women approached by the attractive male experimenter, 56 percent agreed to go on a date with him. 6 percent agreed to go back to his apartment. And 0 percent of the women agreed to have sex with the attractive male stranger.

Of the men approached by the female experimenter, about 50 percent agreed to go out on a date with her. 69 percent agreed to go back to her apartment. And 75 percent of the men said they would be happy to have sex with the attractive female stranger. And of the 25 percent who declined, many were apologetic, citing a girlfriend or fiancé and asked for a raincheck in case things changed.

This evolutionary-based difference between men and women is at the root of many of our sexual conflicts.

Conflicts Between the Sexes Are Tied to Different Evolutionary-Based Desires of Males and Females

Conflict 1: Desire for Sexual Variety

In experiments with males and females, they were asked, if given a choice, how many sexual partners would you like to have over a lifetime. Buss reported that females, on average, said they would like to have four to five sexual partners over a lifespan, while males said they would like to have 18. Buss noted this after eliminating three male outliers who wanted 1,000 sex partners over the lifespan.

Conflict 2: Sexual Over-Perception Bias

In this experiment, males and females were shown a video of a man and woman sitting across from each other and interacting. At a certain point, the woman smiled at the man. The video was stopped, and subjects were asked, “Why did the woman smile? What was she thinking? What signals was she sending?”

Men were more likely to say, “It was obvious. She was sending sexual signals.”

Women seeing exactly the same film said, “She was just being friendly, being polite.”

This over-perception bias is a source of conflict with men assuming sexual interest that isn’t there. It is most prevalent with attractive women, who are most often hit on by men and the least likely to reciprocate an advance.

Men who are high on narcissism are particularly prone to this bias, assuming, mistakenly, that they are God’s gift to women. They think they’re hot, but they’re not.

Conflict 3. Mate Value Discrepancies

I was asked by a female colleague, “Why is it that all the guys that I’m interested in don’t show interest in me, but I’m pursued by all these guys who are interested in trying to ‘chat me up,’ but I have no interest in them?”

I told her honestly, “On the mating market, you are an eight seeking 10s, being lusted after by guys who are sixes.”

This is one of the most common and misunderstood sources of conflict I see as a clinician specializing in sex, love, and relationship issues. One of the greatest services I offer clients looking for a great partner is to be realistic about our evolutionary-based mate value and the value of those who may be interested in us.

We might tell ourselves that it shouldn’t matter, that we should see the whole person below the external indicators of desire, but we can’t ignore evolution.

Take home bits of wisdom:

  1. We can’t ignore the forces of evolution.
  2. Evolution has little interest in our happiness, just in our reproductive success.
  3. We have to explore outside the evolutionary box of what drives our initial attraction.
  4. We need to take our time before we get too involved with Mr. or Ms. Right or exclude someone where there are lots of Mr. or Ms. Right signs, but the “chemistry” is not there initially.
  5. If we want to be happy for the rest of our lives, we need to listen to our evolutionary-driven desires but decide for ourselves who would be the best mate for us.

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