Strategic Intervention Model: Theory of Sexual Conflict

Human conflict is ubiquitous in social interaction and manifests itself in various ways. Evolutionary psychologists expected sex conflict, but not because men and women compete for the same reproductive resources. Instead, many types of sex conflict may be traced back to evolutionary variations in sexual tactics. Short-term and long-term mating techniques have developed in both sexes.

However, the nature of these techniques varies between the sexes—one of the most significant distinctions concerns short-term mating strategy. Men have acquired a stronger craving for sexual diversity than women. This need presents itself in various ways, including desiring sexual contact earlier, more persistently, and more forcefully than most women desire. Conversely, women have become more selective in short-term mating, frequently delaying sexual intercourse beyond what men ordinarily prefer. The sexes cannot gratify these opposing sexual impulses at the same time. This is an example of what is known as strategic interference.

Conflict between Sexes

Bisexual conflict is a psychological struggle, often unconscious, resulting from the opposition or simultaneous functioning of impulses, desires, or tendencies to be mutually exclusive. Sexual conflict occurs for the following reasons −

  • Disagreement between actors regarding goals and means of achieving them

  • It does not serve itself. a direct purpose

The interests of men and women differ significantly in many areas of life – and when interests clash, there is a danger of conflict. From an evolutionary point of view, the interests of individuals are almost exclusively related to reproduction. Therefore, conflicts between males and females are expected to arise when there is an asymmetry of reproductive interests, and the two sexes pursue different mating strategies.

Intersex Conflict

Sex conflict is an evolutionary theory of sex selection based on the observation that a trait favouring the reproductive success of sex can reduce a sex's ability to adapt to the response of the other gender. This new theory has changed our interpretation of male-female interactions. Historically, procreation was seen as a purely cooperative act; instead, the idea of sexual conflict emphasizes that cooperation is only one extreme along a possible gradient from primary cooperation to primary conflict between the sexes.

Sexual conflict can arise when the evolutionary interests of the sexes do not align, leading to opposing selection pressures on men and women. These conditions are met because men and women differ in their reproductive investments, resulting in distinct roles with different fitness optimums for each sex. Two optimal cannot be achieved simultaneously, leading to the natural selection of each gender to maximize its fit at the expense of moving the other gender away from its optimum.

The perpetual confrontation between the sexes creates new opportunities for male and female co-evolution. This is expected to lead to the rapid evolution of sex characteristics that may eventually lead to diversification and contribute to reproductive isolation and, thus, speciation.

Types of Sexual Conflict

Sexual conflict has two primary forms −

Interspecific Sexual Conflict

This is the interaction of a set of antagonist alleles at one or more loci in males and females. An example is a conflict over mating rates. Males generally have higher optimal mating rates than females because most animals invest fewer resources in females than females. Therefore, males have many adaptive ways to entice females to mate with them.

Internal Sexual Conflict

This type of conflict represents the confrontation between natural selection for the two sexes and sexual selection for one sex. An example would be the beak colour in zebra finches. Decorations can be expensive to produce but are essential in mate selection. However, it also makes an individual more vulnerable to predation. Accordingly, alleles for such phenotypic traits exist in antagonistic selection. This conflict is resolved through complex sexual dimorphism, thereby maintaining sex antagonist alleles in the population.

Strategic Intervention Theory

The Strategic Intervention Theory (SIT) is an evolutionary theory proposed by Buss. The theory is that feeling distress is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved to signal when someone or something gets in the way of our preferred behavioural strategies, desires, or goals. Negative emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy, depression, and anxiety are thought to perform four adaptive functions −

  • Focuses our attention on the source of interference while filtering out less relevant information

  • It reminds us to store relevant information in memory for future reference

  • Motivates us to reduce or eliminate sources of interference

  • Stimulates recall and subsequent action to avoid or prevent further interference

Although negative emotions are unpleasant, SIT asserts they are necessary and appropriately suspected and have been selected by evolutionary processes to increase our ancestors' chances of survival. They can be compared to a red flag that helps individuals quickly recognize that a problem exists and prompts them to take action to fix the problem.

A significant source of strategic interference noted by Buss is the difference in mating strategies between males and females. As stated above, women seek long-term relationships with committed partners, while men pursue short-term relationships and casual sex. These two preferred strategies simultaneously interfere with each other, leading to feelings of distress. Since males and females often have different mating goals, strategic interference of these targets leads to different patterns of emotional responses. For example, women show more distress than men when their partners −

  • Desire sex faster and more often than they want.

  • Become emotionally invested in others. On the other hand, men become more distressed than women when their partners delay intercourse and commit sexual infidelity.

The desires of one sex can lead to deceptive exploitation by the other. Strategic intervention theory proposes that certain "negative" emotions have developed or are generated by choice to protect against deception and reduce its negative consequences. According to this theory, men and women have repeatedly faced different adjustment problems. Some of these differences stem from the fact that fertilization takes place inside the female. Women carry the burden and the joy of their parent's forced investment for nine months to give birth to a child that a man can produce from a single sexual act. These differences led to the development of different sexual strategies between the sexes.

For example, evidence suggests that women have evolved to desire men with status and resources, while men worldwide value these qualities less. Since status and resources are particularly important for women to secure a father's long-term investment in their children, women tend to impose longer courtship than men usually want first agreeing to have sex. Women are looking for men with status and resources, and men are willing to commit those resources to the long term.

Men desire more sex partners than women over different periods, are more likely to agree to sex with an attractive stranger, have twice as many sexual fantasies, are more likely to be prostitutes and loosen their standards for sexual partners more in life. According to the theory of strategic intervention, conflict arises when strategies one person adopts interfere with another's desire, goal, or successful implementation of the strategies.


Propose a model of strategic conflict between men and women based on evolution. Conflict is predicted whenever the reproductive strategy adopted by one sex interferes with the strategy adopted by the opposite sex. Conflict patterns and association with negative emotions of anger and irritability as primary mechanisms alerting men and women to strategic intervention.

Updated on: 20-Apr-2023


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