A meme in male dating spaces is the claim that promiscuity harms the ability of women to form pair bonds. Put another way, the meme says having many sexual partners will make a woman less able to form monogamous relationships.
In this article I will examine the meme’s loose origin in prairie vole research, as well as its limitations and generalizability to human beings. I will cover the current research on genetic contributions to pair bonding behavior, personality contributions and the heritability of both. I will also look at relationship outcomes and the relationships between promiscuity, infidelity and divorce.
What is a pair bond?
What does it mean to form a pair bond? The prairie vole, a small rodent, mates for life. This animal forms a relationship with a partner that lasts after mating. It cohabitates and raises its offspring together. Only very rarely is the vole sexually unfaithful. If its partner dies the vole might never take a new mate after the death of its partner, instead becoming depressed and lethargic. Separated from their partners in clinical settings, prairie voles become so apathetic they will let you drown them in a pool of water without a struggle (Sun et al., 2014).
This probably doesn’t remind you of humans. The vole is a mammalian exception — fewer than 3% of mammals form this kind of monogamous relationship (Young et al., 1998). Most primates additionally do not form monogamous relationships. In fact, no primates found in nature form lifelong pair bonds.
Human beings occasionally form what appear to be lifelong pair bonds. However, true lifelong pair bonding in humans is rare. Human beings practice serial monogamy. We usually form relationships, break up and then form subsequent new relationships. The normal course of human mating is to repeat this pattern over the lifespan.
We think of pair bonding and marriage as linked. However most marriages, even ones that last, are not the first relationship of the couple. Serial monogamy is still the dominant human mating pattern (Schacht & Kramer, 2019). This does not mean that the desire to have a lifelong partner is unnatural or unreasonable. What it does mean is that if you find a lifelong partner it’s unlikely that they were your first relationship. It also means that it’s unlikely your first love or sexual partner will be your only one.
Most birds are considered to be pair bonding animals, yet most birds only form seasonal bonds. Birds mate, share the care of the egg and young, then find a new partner next season. Thus pair bonding in animal mating is not necessarily a reference to the lifelong pair bonding of the prairie vole.
Yet when people claim that promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond they are usually referencing the lifelong pair bonding we see in voles. Herein pair bonding is mistakenly linked with lifelong traditional marriage, a cultural practice that has only existed for a small sliver of human history.
This gives us two questions to examine: does promiscuity harm the ability of women to form lifelong pair bonds that are naturally uncommon in human beings, or does promiscuity harm the ability of women to form the serially monogamous pair bonding that is naturally common in humans?
The first question implies a bad premise to begin with, since we should already expect the average human not to form lifelong pair bonds. The lack of a lifelong pair bond does not indicate dysfunction or the inability to pair bond in the first place. It simply reflects how humans behave.
The second question is more reasonable since we’re talking about a natural human behavior that describes most relationship outcomes. If someone is unable to form a series of healthy, serially monogamous relationships over the lifetime this may indicate a problem. For people who desire monogamous relationships for themselves it is a problem de facto.
Cause vs correlation
When we ask if promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond it implies a causal relationship. Cause-and-effect. The hypothesis is that having sex with mulitple partners comes first and that these actions have an negative effect on pair bonding outcomes.
The “promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond” meme usually presents the relationship as causal. A common form would be: sex causes neurological changes in the brain (related to oxytocin, dopamine or serotonin) that harm a woman’s ability to form an emotional connection or a relationship.
To be clear outright — no research has demonstrated this kind of causal relationship. This should not be too surprising to anyone familiar with research design. An experiment that could show a causal relationship here is methodologically prohibitive. We can’t assign women to experimental promiscuous and non-promiscuous conditions. We can’t tell a group of women to have sex with many people and a second group to abstain. We can’t enact an experimental design with methodological assignment that is able to show causality.
People select their own level of promiscuity. We choose to sleep with few or many partners.
The best we can do is to observe that choice. We can look at people who are promiscuous and see if promiscuous behavior correlates with poor pair bonding outcomes. We can establish a correlation by observation. We may not be able to establish a direction of the relationship (i.e. that promiscuity came first) nor can we establish cause-and-effect. We can see if promiscuity predicts something like divorce, short relationships, or perhaps even neurological differences in the brain.
This is still very valuable. We don’t need to know that promiscuity damages pair bonding ability on a practical level. It would be sufficient to know that promiscuity predicts poor outcomes in pair bonds, assuming this is the case. Nonetheless, this is a distinct question and not evidence that would support the meme. Poor longitudinal outcomes within pair bonds are not a failure to form pair bonds.
Causality and the limitations of observational methodology in humans
If humans were voles then we could conduct experiments that establish causality. Indeed, we have classic research on pair bonding in voles. The meme that promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond first became popularized by referencing research on voles.
Almost 30 years ago, Williams et al (1994) removed the ovaries and wombs of voles. His team implanted cerebrospinal pumps that delivered oxytocin and vasopressin to the brain. Voles with hormonal pumps were able to form pair bonds from the administration of exogenous vasopressin and oxytocin.
However, his team noted some fundamental differences between prairie voles and human beings.
Unaltered voles form pair bonds independently of sex. Merely cohabitating for a 24-hour period without sex is sufficient for most voles to form a lifelong pair bond. An even shorter six-hour period of copulation is sufficient for voles to form a pair bond. Voles also mate consecutively, dozens of times over a short period.
Male and female prairie voles also form pair bonds in a very similar fashion, with the same neuroendocrine correlates. Both sexes have a similar cerebro-anatomical layout in areas that respond to oxytocin and vasopressin. “Promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond” is sometimes given the addendum “but not men’s ability.” However, administration of bonding hormones to the male vole causes similar outcomes in pair bonding. Anything we generalize from the vole to the human should be expected to apply to men and women.
But how far should we generalize from voles to humans? We have seen that the vole pair bonding experience is very different from the human experience. An important finding in vole research has been that experimental manipulations of hormones do not work on the prairie vole’s closest relative, the montane vole (Young et al., 1998). Like human beings, the montane vole does not naturally form lifelong pair bonds. If prairie vole behavior can’t tell us anything about montane vole behavior, should we really expect it to inform us about human pair bonding?
In fact we could go the opposite direction with an interpretation of this research: promiscuity does not have an effect on a woman’s ability to pair bond, given that the montane vole does not respond to vasopressin and oxytocin. Is this a legit conclusion? Clearly not, but it follows the same logic of those who would form simplistic generalizations from prairie vole research.
It would even be shored up by research on vasopressin and oxytocin in human beings. These hormones have not been consistently shown to be associated with human mate pair bonding. When we look at human hormonal correlates to pair bonding, dopamine receptors seem to have a much more significant role than vasopressin and oxytocin. This is not to say that vasopressin has no role, but the results have been mixed. This is covered in the next section.
Heritability of promiscuity and pair bonding outcomes
A large portion of our personality and behavior is heritable. The nature vs nurture debate is dead, at least insofar as the two are presented as opposite positions. Similarly, the blank slate is an outdated paradigm that never generated empirical support. Moving forward we must set aside these nuggets of folk psychology.
The current paradigm is nature and nurture, or person-environment interaction. Person-environment interaction is so ubiquitous in behavioral research that it is now considered axiomatic. Your natural disposition, your genes or your biology, interacts with your environment to produce outcomes in behavior. You are the product of your DNA and your experiences.
In behavioral genetics this manifests as the 50-0-50 rule. This rule is based on a consistent observation across behavioral research: approximately 50% of the variance in behavior is heritable. This is not quite the same as saying 50% of your behavior is genetic, but it’s conceptually close. Not only are you the product of your DNA and your experiences, but you are the product of both in almost equal measures.
Knowing this, it should not surprise you that both promiscuity and relationship outcomes are heritable. The heritability of promiscuity is as close to a fact as we can get with the methodology used to establish it. We see the heritability of promiscuity across animal species and in human beings. The only question is how heritable it is, but not if it is heritable.
We may see low heritability, for example in the generally promiscuous red squirrel (McFarlane et al., 2011) or high heritability, for example in the pair bonding zebra finch (Forstmeier et al., 2011). In human beings the heritability for promiscuity is moderate at around 40% (Cherkas et al., 2004; Zietsch et al. 2014), and as high as 60% for men (Zietsch et al., 2014). Again we see the 50-0-50 rule at play.
Here is a table from Harden’s (2014) review of the literature on the heritability of promiscuous sexual behaviors. The second column gives some measures of promiscuity like risky sexual behavior and number of sexual partners, while the third column tells you the heritability. All of the correlations are moderate, ranging from approximately 30% to 60%. 50-0-50.
Genes associated with human promiscuity have been identified. A vasopressin receptor gene (AVPR1A) predicted promiscuity in women (Cherkas et al. 2004; Zietsch et al., 2014) as well as poor pair bonding outcomes for men (Walum et al., 2008). A dopamine receptor gene (DRD4) has consistently predicted promiscuity in both men and women with no sex differences (Hamer et al., 2002; Ben Zion et al., 2006; Guo & Tong, 2006; Eisenberg et al., 2007; Garcia et al., 2010). The DAT1 dopamine receptor gene has been linked to promiscuity in men, but not in women (Guo et al., 2007).
Heritable personality traits, promiscuity and infidelity
The five-factor, or “Big Five,” personality framework is one of the most widely used and well supported personality models in psychology. The Big Five breaks personality into five broad traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Research has consistently shown that Big Five traits predict relationship outcomes and sexual behavior, including promiscuity (Schmitt & Shackelford, 2008). High extraversion predicts promiscuity, mate-poaching behavior and low relationship exclusivity. Low conscientiousness and low agreeableness predict greater short-term mating and greater extra-pair (infidelity) mating. We see the 50-0-50 rule at play here again — the heritability of Big Five dimensions range from 40% to 60% (Jang et al., 1996).
Although representing a small percentage of the population, diagnosable Cluster B personality disorders predict both promiscuity and poor relationship outcomes. Borderline personality disorder predicts more frequent casual sexual relationships, greater promiscuity and more impulsive sexual behavior (Sansone & Wiederman, 2009). Primary psychopathy traits also predict mate poaching and low sexual exclusivitiy (Khan et al., 2017). Heritability again follows the 50-0-50 rule, at 46% for borderline personality disorder and 49% for psychopathy (Skoglund et al., 2021; Tuvblad et al., 2014).
Adult attachment theory describes four attachment styles. Approximately 43% of the variance in the fearful or avoidant attachment style, which could be interpreted as a pair bonding impairment, is genetic (Brussoni et al., 2000). The remaining variance is explained by the non-shared environment in childhood.
The Dark Triad describes a cluster of three maladaptive and antisocial personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. These traits have heritability estimates ranging from .31 to .72. The Dark Triad also predicts promiscuity and infidelity in men and women (Alavi et al., 2018; Burtăverdea et al., 2021).
The Big Five, Cluster B disorders, attachment theory and the Dark Triad are just some examples from popular and widely researched personality constructs. The full list of personality correlates to relationship outcomes could fill many articles by itself. It is, itself, an entire domain in personality psychology. The point is that both promiscuity and pair bonding are largely determined well before a person’s first sexual encounter. Approximately half of the variance is genetic, while the remaining half is formed from early nonshared experiences.
Promiscuity, divorce and poor pair bond outcomes
Up to this point we have examined what explains promiscuity. We have seen that promiscuous behavior is heritable and genetic. We have also seen that heritable personality traits explain promiscuity. The question remains: is promiscuity actually bad for pair bonding?
More specifically, we will look at two separate issues: does promiscuity prevent the formation of monogamous relationships or pair bonds, and/or does promiscuity predict undesirable outcomes once a pair bond has been formed. Only the former would support the pair bond meme, but the latter is still relevant to relationships in general.
Polymorphisms of the AVPR1A vasopressin receptor gene, noted above in a study by Walum et al. (2008), predict poor relationship outcomes for men. Men with this polymorphism score lower on the Partner Bonding Scale. Men who have this also are more likely to have experienced marital crisis and divorce, while women married to men who carry this polymorphism are more likely to report being unsatisfied with their partner (Walum & Westberg, 2011).
A recent pre-published study by Wolfinger & Perry (2021) is the first to test if promiscuity predicts marriage using two longitudinal, nationally representative datasets. In a preliminary study, they found that number of sexual partners predicted a lower liklihood of marriage for women. In a follow-up using the full sample of men and women, they found that the recent number of sexual partners, but not lifetime sexual partners, predicted a lower liklihood of getting married. Promiscuity did not impact the odds of marriage in the long term, so the authors concluded: “Our findings cast doubt on the premises supporting the controversial notion that more readily available sexual activity with numerous partners will reduce men’s and women’s desire or desirability, and ultimately, likelihood of marrying.”
The ability to form a relationship that lasts long enough to get married is a good indicator of pair bonding, particularly when we remember that humans are serially monogamous. At the very least we must concede that a pair bond has been formed. The authors are correct to interpret the results as showing that “sexual activity of single women does not appear to make them “undesirable” as marriage partners” and that “our analyses suggest that this does not manifest itself in long-term singleness.”
Nonetheless we must also consider relationship outcomes, such as relationship duration or divorce. We might also consider relationship quality — the “bond” in the pair bond — as well as infidelity. Wolfinger & Perry (2021) additionally review the research showing that, yes, men and women with more sexual partners are indeed more likely to divorce and more likely to report lower relationship happiness (citing Kahn and London 1991; Kelly and Conley 1987; Larson and Holman 1994; Janus and Janus 1993; Kahn and London 1991; Teachman 2003).
Khan & London (1991) used a bivariate probit model, which can be described as a quasi experimental methodology, intended to estimate the probability of the outcome of a correlation being due either to a causal effect of a given variable or to another variable. While they found that virgins were less likely to divorce than non-virgins, the probit model showed that when third variables accounting for divorce were included, there was no longer a difference in divorce rates between virgins and non-virgins.
This is another piece of evidence indicating that sex is not a cause of poor pair bonding outcomes, but that pair bonding outcomes are a predisposition. Women more likely to get divorced were also more likely to have premarital sex, but premarital sex was not the cause of divorce.
Promiscuity and infidelity
Past sexual history and number of sexual partners predicts future infidelity in a relationship (Pinto, 2015; McNulty et al., 2018; Treas et al., 2000). The more partners one has had, the more likely one is to cheat. This applies to both men and women. This association is cited as evidence for the pair-bonding meme.
Does infidelity really indicate the absence of a pair bond? In animals, no. Birds that form pair bonds have a very high rate of extra-pair parenting — about 20% (Wang et al., 2021). This means that 20% of male birds are raising offspring that are not their own, or that 20% of female birds “cheated.” We regularly see infidelity in pair bonding animals. Humans in contrast only have an extra-pair rate of about 3-4%. We are remarkably faithful when compared to other pair bonding animals.
Indeed, infidelity almost by definition only occurs in the context of a pair bond. You can’t cheat on a partner if you are not in a relationship.
This does not mean we should dismiss the association between promiscuity and infidelity. It may be a misunderstanding of what pair bonding is to believe that infidelity nullifies pair bonds, but infidelity is still an undesirable relationship outcome. Framing infidelity as damaged pair bonding is pseudoscientific, but this does not mean it is unreasonable to want a partner who is unlikely to cheat on you.
A hypothetical mechanism of pair bond impairment
The male dating communities that have memed “promiscuity damages a woman’s ability to pair bond” into existence consist mostly of men who struggle to form relationships and men who are not having very much sex. Sex for these men is scarce. They believe that a strong emotional connection is made during intercourse in part because they lack both the emotional connection and sexual regularity of a relationship.
Rather, most people naturally abstain from sex with people they don’t already have a pair bond with. People who are highly promiscuous fail to make these emotional connections from the beginning. The recent 2021 GSS data on sexual partner count that I have run shows that a super-majority of both men and women are not very promiscuous. Additionally, the GSS data shows that most sex occurs in relationships. Just like we have seen how “promiscuity damages pair bonding” is backwards — the evidence points to a predisposition to promiscuity preceding pair bonding outcomes — the emotional and chemical connection made in a relationship does not come from sex, but also precedes it.
Men with little sexual and dating experience also don’t realize how bad sex is for many women. Most women don’t even have orgasms during casual sex. Only 11% of women report having an orgasm during a casual sexual event with one partner, while 67% of women in relationships report orgasms (Armstrong et al., 2021).
The belief that women develop a bond with a one-night-stand who couldn’t even make them cum can only come from the perspective of a man completely on the outside looking in. As men we will have good experiences in most of our sexual encounters. For women that is not the case.
It would be more reasonable to believe that a woman’s pair bonding ability has been damaged by being in a single, high-quality and long-term relationship. Imagine a woman who committed to a man, built an actual emotional connection and who developed a satisfying sexual relationship. The bonding hormones released by the female orgasm were triggered repeatedly, over and over, by one man. At least 52 times per year for an average relationship; even more for 50% of the population. If a man was afraid he would never match up with a woman’s ex, nor build the kind of bond she had with him, that would be a more reasonable fear. Not being able to live up to your partner’s ex is a real thing that may happen. You don’t even need a hormonal theory to explain it. This would be more consistent with the vole research I previously described as well (Williams et al., 1994), which relies on the fact of voles experiencing multiple subsequent orgasms to form pair bonds.
This is also more consistent with the mate-choice hypothesis of the female orgasm, which has some limited and recent preliminary support (Nebl & Gordon, 2022). The orgasm, but not sex, is said to promote long term pair bonding and the selection of mates for long term relationships.
In essence, the biological-hormonal paradigm for pair bonding relies on the female orgasm.
I am not saying you should be afraid of your partner’s ex. In fact it’s the opposite. A person who was able to establish a healthy, committed and monogamous relationship in the past will be more likely to establish one in the future. The kind of person who enters into this healthy relationship pattern will be more likely to find someone else similar to them who does as well — a manifestation of assortative mating, or the tendency to select partners who behave similar to us. Your partner’s past relationships will tell you what you can expect from them.
The point is that a sensible hypothetical mechanism for “pair bonding damage” from frequent casual sex is absent. A person who has sex with ten people in a month did not form a bond with each of those people. The mere fact that they had sex with so many people in a short period of time shows the opposite: they did not form a bond with any of them. It’s even possible that this person may have never formed a lasting long term relationship in their entire life. Extreme promiscuity is a symptom of the inability to bond, not a cause of it.
Revenge fantasies and sour grapes
I would also like to add some informed speculation of my own here. There is motivated reasoning behind the belief that “promiscuity damages a woman’s ability to pair bond.” It is fundamentally a mixture of sour grapes and a revenge fantasy.
This is a narrative passed around unsuccessful male dating communities where men express their frustrations over being excluded from sexual access. In its most extreme form incels label any non-virgins, not only the highly promiscuous, as unacceptable partners. As the likelihood of an adult incel having a relationship with an attractive promiscuous woman is next to nil, rationalizing away the desirability of it easies cognitive dissonance. It returns agency to the man. The man has not made a decision; he has had the decision made for him by women in general. It is the sour grapes fable; “I can’t get the grapes, but they look sour and I didn’t really want them anyways.”
The revenge fantasy is the depiction of failed pair bonding as a consequence for the woman’s promiscuity. It is not sufficient to state that promiscuity and pair bonding may be related. Instead, impaired pair bonding becomes a consequence and a punishment for the woman’s promiscuity. Most women did not desire the man, so one day soon they will also be undesired. The man was unable to form a relationship with any of these women, therefore those women too will be cursed with the inability to form relationships.
If promiscuity, infidelity and pair bonding outcomes are all heritable, or if the “consequences” of promiscuity are not actually consequences but third variables that precede promiscuity, it becomes less easy to turn into a karmic narrative. Impaired pair bonding can no longer be presented as a consequential outcome out of the woman’s immoral behavior. It was just a fact of her personality from the beginning. There is no karma or justice at play. Some people just get dealt a bad hand that predisposes them to dysfunctional or unfortunate behavior.
This is why the narrative is presented as gendered as well: promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond. It was never based on research on promiscuity, infidelity or relationship dissolution — nor on the genetic and hormonal effects on pair bonding. As we have seen up to this point, the research shows similar pair bonding outcomes for men and women. Promiscuous men suffer the same poor relationship outcomes that promiscuous women do. The men who created this meme, mostly men who failed to succeed in forming pair bonds themselves, are (mostly) not dating other men. They are mad at the women who won’t date them and the and women who are having sex with other people.
No direct support for the causal effect of promiscuity on pair bonding ability
When I did my literature search I did not find a single paper advancing the hypothesis that sex harms a woman’s ability to pair bond. I have not found a citation for any such paper in any of the forum posts I have read that spread the meme. If I have missed a paper please leave a comment with a reference and I will make an addendum.
Pair bonding is not random; assortative selection for pair bonding behavior
Despite the folk wisdom of “opposites attract,” we consistently observe assortative mating in relationships. Assortative mating is the tendency to select partners similar to yourself. This is generally true for a wide range of traits and behaviors: physical appearance, social status, education level, and personality traits. It is no surprise then that we see assortative mating in pair bonding behavior.
Eisenberg et al. (2010) identified assortative mating for the 7R allele of the dopamine receptor D4 gene. As I covered in an earlier section, this is a gene that predicts (and is likely causal for) pair bonding behavior and outcomes in both men and women. Eisenberg’s genetic research showed that the ancestors of people with this gene selected others who shared the same genetic polymorphism — assortative mating. People with a greater genetic predisposition to pair bond selected others with that same predisposition. Good pair bonders enter relationships with other good pair bonders.
Horwitz et al. (2016) used the Sweden twin database (a national database of monozygotic and dizygotic twins often used for heritability research) to examine the phenotypic similarity of pair bonded couples. Again loosely aligning with the 50-0-50 rule, genetic heritability explained around 50% of the phenotypic variance in pair bonding behavior. Couples who were similar, not only behaviorally but genetically, shared similar pair bonding behavior.
This is the section that may have the most relevance for your own dating life. If you have consistently paired up with women (or men) who can’t form pair bonds, part of the explanation is you. Every person you have dated who has failed to bond with you is also a failed pair bonding on your part. You have consistently selected this type of person. They likely share a large degree of genetic and behavioral similarity to you. If no one will pair bond with you, you may be the common variable.
I have not found any research that supports the meme that promiscuity harms a woman’s ability to pair bond. However, promiscuity does co-vary with poor relationship outcomes. This is not specific or unique to women. Both the genetic polymorphisms and the personality traits predicting poor relationship outcomes are fairly consistent for men and women. Additionally, pair bonding outcomes are not random. People predisposed to poor pair bonding outcomes are more likely to select others with the same predispositions.
- Pair bonding is not a lifelong endeavor in humans (nor most mammals), but describes a series of serially monogamous relationships over the lifetime.
- Pair bonding behavior and poor relationship outcomes are strongly linked with genetic polymorphisms you are born with.
- Pair bonding behavior and poor relationship outcomes are strongly linked with personality traits that are largely heritable.
- No research has demonstrated a causal link between sexual behavior and poor pair bonding outcomes; promiscuity is most likely a symptom, not a cause, of poor outcomes.
- Pair bonding behavior is assortatively selected for. The pair bonding behavior and genetic dispositions of your partners will likely reflect your own dispositions.
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