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Sexual jealousy in humans

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Title: Sexual jealousy in humans  
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Subject: Evolutionary psychology, Violence, Adultery
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Sexual jealousy in humans

Sexual jealousy in humans is an emotion of jealousy which may be triggered in a person when a sexual partner displays sexual interest in another person.[1] It is based on a sexual partner's suspected or imminent sexual infidelity. Sexual jealousy is expressed and experienced in multiple ways depending on the personality and context of those involved. Expressions of sexual jealousy vary from anger and violent aggression to fear, grief, and depression. Manifestations of sexual jealousy differ across cultures. For example, in one culture, an “involved” woman flirting with, dancing with or kissing another man may be considered infidelity, whereas in another culture such behavior would be considered acceptable.[1] Psychologists describe various forms of sexual jealousy, including pathological jealousy, erotic jealousy, morbid jealousy, conjugal paranoia, jealous monomania, and psychotic/non-psychotic and obsessional jealousy.[2]

Emotion theorists have attempted to explain the jealous response with a social-cognitive model that distinguishes between primary and secondary appraisals of potentially threatening situations. A primary appraisal is whether a person judges an interaction as positive, negative, or of no consequence to him or herself. Secondary appraisals come later if the primary appraisal is negative and the person is trying to gauge the severity of the interaction in regards to if and how it will affect their current relationship and subsequently how they will deal with it (Harris 2004). Primary appraisals can be manifested from simple actions between a significant other and someone who is seen as a threat. These appraisals will produce a reaction in humans and non-humans alike to prevent the occurrence of positive interactions between a mate and other rival partners (Harris 2004).

Evidence from the other great apes suggests that jealousy is a mate protection strategy designed to maintain low levels of female promiscuity (see also polyandry). A mature alpha male of the polygynous Gorilla genus can protect, or control and coerce,[2] up to eight females as his own, and is thus able to gain a reproductive monopoly. As a result, gorillas do not have a great deal of sperm competition, and therefore have very small testes relative to stature. Humans on the other hand, have slightly larger testes relative to stature than do gorillas and orangutangs, but still have small testes compared to chimpanzees. This suggests that humans have somewhat more sperm competition, and therefore have more reason to be suspicious of a mate’s interest in another. Jeanette Jones suggests that jealousy likely evolved as a byproduct of this competition for mates.[3]

The evolutionary theory of sexual jealousy seeks to explain differences in jealousy between sexes from a biological/evolutionary standpoint. Responses differ in men and women because the two sexes have different needs in order to maintain fitness. For women, when a man is unfaithful in a relationship it is the emotional infidelity that is cause for concern, while for men it is physical sexual infidelity (Harris 2004). According to David Buss, this difference comes from the way men and women’s brain circuits guide their emotional reactions (Buss 1995).

Female sexual jealousy and parental investment

After choosing a mate, females bear the brunt of child production. Not only does the woman have to produce and carry the baby, in a majority of cultures she remains responsible for raising him or her. Because offspring are at such a high cost for the female, the male’s resource contribution could mean life or death for her and her child, weighing significantly on her fitness potential (Schutzwohl, 2008, 93). If a woman knows or suspects that her husband is being unfaithful, she will be more concerned that he is sharing his resources with another female, rather than making another baby (Schutzwohl, 2008, 93). As a result, for females, emotional infidelity is significantly more vexing than sexual infidelity. In a study done to determine the behavioral differences between men and women in terms of jealousy, researchers found that women were most upset when they found out, or suspected that their mate had given a gift to another woman, closely followed by spending time with another woman, and spending time thinking about another woman (de Weerth, 1993, 271). These are considered the worst offenses because the man is giving away both the monetary resources, and the time that he could be using to support his child. By giving a gift to another woman, the man may not directly take much away from the fitness of his primary mate, but he perpetuates a threat that he may shift all of his resources to another woman, which would be dramatically detrimental to the fitness of his primary mate, as well as her child. In the same study, women also self-reported more overall jealousy in relationships than men did. This is likely due to the parental investment costs that females incur – females have more to lose with an unfaithful spouse (de Weerth, 1993, 266-268).

One major factor in the shifting role of sexual jealousy between men and women is the widespread presence of contraception in the western world. If there is no risk that a long term mate is getting pregnant, the male no longer needs to worry about who will father his child. The woman, however, frequently still relies on the male for resources. Even if she does not have a child, society, to some degree, still dictates that a man must support his wife financially. Females on birth control must still be wary of the other women her husband is seeing for fear that he will abandon her, and she will not be able to support herself, or have children at all. This is not as much of a concern for men (Geary et al., 2001, 300).

Jealousy as a function of self-esteem

Bram Buunke’s research on the correlations between sexual jealousy, self-esteem and past participation in extramarital affairs found that women who are less sure of themselves experience or anticipate more jealousy, unless they have participated in extramarital affairs themselves. If a woman has had an extramarital affair, it is likely that she is more aware of the loss-risk, and is therefore less jealous when her partner is unfaithful. Meanwhile, women who experience low self-esteem are much more afraid that their partner is dissatisfied and being unfaithful (Buunke, 1982). These findings are supported by Khanchandani’s research on the effects of situational and personality variables on jealousy in college-aged women. She found that women who tested for lower self-esteem on the Rosenberg Self-Description Scale reported a higher coefficient of jealousy than women with higher self-esteem (Khanchandani et al., 2009).

Aggression, targets and induced jealousy in females

Contrary to statistics on spousal abuse in which men are the abusers (de Weerth, 1993, 274), women are more likely to report that their hypothetical sexual jealousy would manifest itself as anger and physical aggression. While both sexes reported experiencing sexual jealousy in relationships, as well as an interest in discussing the reasons for the infidelity, significantly more surveyed females claimed that they would cry, and then act aggressively toward their unfaithful spouse. Women also claimed that they would feign indifference as well as attempt to make themselves more physically attractive to their mate (de Weerth, 1993, 272).

There are some conflicting theories on who becomes the target of female sexual jealousy. One theory suggests that women are generally more inclined to feel Empathy, so they empathize with “the other woman,” and target all of their aggression and anger at the unfaithful male (de Weerth 1993, 274). On the other hand, however, one study has suggested that because in a sexual relationship females are the discriminating one (the one choosing the mate), the female lends herself as a primary target for sexual jealousy. Therefore, a woman will preferentially direct her jealousy toward her rival female, even though it is her husband who is the unfaithful one. As a result, when a woman is around a suspected rival female, she is more likely than a male counterpart to announce that her companion is “taken,” and go out of her way to enhance her appearance to her spouse (Schutzwohl, 2008, 98).

In that same vein, Gregory White found that women are more likely to attempt to induce jealousy in their partner for some type of gain. Women who considered themselves to be in “low-power” positions in their relationships reported inducing jealousy in hopes that their partner would spend more time with them, or pay more attention to them (White, 1980). White believes that the inducement of jealousy is a manipulation of power on the female’s part, using the partner’s jealousy to gain influence in the relationship (White 1980).


The consequences of sexual jealousy among partners vary. Jealousy is one of the top three reasons for non-accidental homicides (Harris 2004). Sexual jealousy can lead to male aggression and possessiveness, but female physical aggression, such as kicking, slapping, or shoving a mate in anger, has also been observed after jealousy manifests (Denisiuk 2004). Men who are responsible for homicides due to sexual jealousy normally lash out against their wives, and sometimes their children too, after the woman tries to end the relationship (Wilson and Daly 1993). A common quote from jealous homicide killers that has been said is, “If I can’t have her nobody can.” Other frequent expressions husbands will use, proclaim that they will find their wives if they leave and kill them (Wilson and Daly 1993). Morbid jealously is another way to describe a jealous man who commits murders of his wife, and sometimes others, along with constant physical assault and/or abuse occurrences. Most morbidly jealous individuals require psychiatric help (Daly, Wilson, Weghorst 1982). Jealousy is also reported to produce other emotional responses such as fear, grief, depression, anger, and violent aggressions (Buunk and Hupka 1987).


  1. ^ a b Buunk, Bram and Hupka, Ralph B. (1987). Cross-Cultural Differences in the Elicitation of Sexual Jealousy. The Journal of Sexual Research. 23: 12-22
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Jones, Jeanette. (2006) Gorilla Trails in Paradise: Carl Akely, Miranda Bradley, and the American Search for the Missing Link. Journal of American Culture. 29(3). 321-336.

Further reading

  • Barett, Louise, Robin Dunbar, and John Lycett (2002) Human Evolutionary Psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Begley, Sharon. 28 Jan 2010. Of Sex and ‘Soulmates’. Newsweek.
  • Buunke, Bram (1982). “Anticipated Sexual Jealousy: Its Relationship to Self-Esteem, Dependency, and Reciprocity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 8: 310-316
  • Buss, D. M., R. J. Larsen, D. Westen and J. Semmelroth (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological Science 3:251–255.
  • Buss, D. M. (1995). Evolutionary psychology: a new paradigm for psychological science. Psychological Inquiry 6:1–30.
  • Buss, David M. (1998). Jealousy on Mars and Venus. Volume 3.
  • Daly, Martin, Margo Wilson, and Suzanne Weghorst (1982). “Male Sexual Jealousy.” Ethology and Sociobiology 3:11-27
  • Daly, M. and Wilson, M. (1982). ‘Whom are newborn babies said to resemble?’ Ethology and Sociobiology 3:69-78.
  • Denisiuk, Jennifer S. (2004). Evolutionary Versus Social Structural Explanations for Sex Differences in Mate Preferences, Jealousy, and Aggression. Rochester Institute of Technology.
  • Deweerth, C, Kalma, AP (1993). “Female Aggression as a Response to Sexual Jealousy.” Aggressive Behavior. 19: 265-279
  • Dickeman, M. (1979). ‘Female infanticide, reproductive strategies, and social stratification: a preliminary model’, in: N.A. Chagnon and W. Irons (eds) Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior pp. 321–67. North Scituate (MA): Duxbury Press
  • Gaulin, S. and Schlegel, A (1980). Paternal confidence and paternal investment: A cross-cultural test of a sociobiological hypothesis. Ethology and Sociobiology 1: 301-309
  • Geary, David, DeSoto, M., Hoard, Mary, Sheldon, Melanie, Cooper M (2001). “Estrogens and Relationship Jealousy.” Human Nature. 12: 299-320
  • Harris, Christine R. 2004. The Evolution of Jealousy. American Scientist. 92: 62-71.
  • Hart, S., T. Field, C. del Valle and M. Letourneau (1998). Infants protest their mothers’ attending to an infantsize doll. Social Development 7:54–61.
  • Kanchandani, Laveena, Durham, Thomas (2009). “Jealousy During Dating Among Female College Students.” College Student Journal. 43: 1272-1278
  • Margo Wilson, Martin Daly. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel.” (1992, New York). Oxford University Press.
  • R. D. Alexander and K. N. Noonan (1979), Concealment of ovulation, parental care and human social evolution. In: N. A. Chagnon and W. G. Irons, Editors, Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: an Anthropological Perspective, North Duxbury Press, Sciuate, pp. 436–453.
  • Strassman, B.I. (1981). Sexual selection, paternal care and concealed ovulation in humans. Ethol. Sociobiol. 2: 31–40.
  • Strassman, B.I. (1992) ‘The function of menstrual taboos among the Dogon: defense against cuckoldry?’ Human Nature 2: 89-131
  • Strassman, B. I. (1996). Menstrual hut visits by Dogon women: A hormonal test distinguishes deceit from honest signaling. Behavioral Ecology, 7, 304–315.
  • Schutzwohl, Achim (2008). “The Intentional Object of Romantic Jealousy.” Evolution and Human Behavior. 29: 92-99
  • White, Gregory (1980). “Inducing Jealousy: A Power Perspective.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 6: 222-227
  • Wilson, Margo and Daly, Martin (1993). Spousal Homicide Risk and Estrangement. Violence and Victims. 8: 3-13.
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