Promiscuity As Strategy

One of the topics that kept coming up in the class I taught on non-monogamy this fall semester was slut-shaming. We had many a fruitful discussion about how rape culture and slut-shaming intersect to create an environment full of sex-negativity, virgin/whore complexes, and misogyny.

Research on female promiscuity tends to whole-heartedly condemn it or ignore it. This is not, as you might imagine, a useful approach to sexual behavior that often happens regardless of whether it is stigmatized. Hence I’m a big fan of evolutionary anthropologist Eric M. Johnson‘s new Slate post on female promiscuity in humans and other primates.

Johnson reminds us that “Ever since Darwin there had been an assumption among evolutionary biologists that females were coy and choosy in their sexual behavior while males were the ardent, promiscuous sex.” Most researchers tended to uphold this mistaken assumption until fairly recently. Now, however, scholars are beginning to view sexually promiscuous female primates not as a fluke, or as deviants, but rather as rational creatures making pragmatic decisions in complex social and natural environments. There are multiple examples within both human and other primate societies of females benefiting from extra-pair matings, leading researchers to believe that non-monogamous behavior might be adaptive rather than aberrant.

It’s a lengthy, richly detailed article that I recommend reading yourself, but here are a few intriguing tidbits:

  • Environmental contexts that allow women to pursue simultaneous relationships with multiple partners tend to be more gender-egalitarian, ranging from the matrifocal Mosuo of China to contemporary Iceland (which has the highest number of children born out of wedlock in the Western world, but is also ranked highest in terms of gender equality).
  • Most primates are not entirely monogamous, ranging from lemurs to capuchin moneys to bonobos.
  • Consensual marital non-monogamy isn’t just found in the West with swingers and polyamorous practitioners; it’s found in indigenous groups of Africa and Australia among others.

Love it or hate it, female promiscuity is an established practice among many primate cultures, human and non-human, the world over. I’m excited to see more research on this topic!

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.