Evolutionary Theory of Mate Selection and Partners of Trans People: A Qualitative Study Using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

By Forde, Amanda | The Qualitative Report, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Evolutionary Theory of Mate Selection and Partners of Trans People: A Qualitative Study Using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis


Forde, Amanda, The Qualitative Report


The present study focuses on the mate selection behaviour of six people who are each in a relationship with a trans person, examining whether mate selection theory accounts for their behaviour and also investigating the experience of choosing a partner who is trans. It is important however, to understand what the theory of mate selection is, how it has been studied and what the flaws are in the extant literature. This introduction will attempt to provide relevant background material before moving on to introduce the research questions.

The evolutionary theory of mate selection is a fascinating attempt to explain attraction. From Darwin's 1871 theory of sexual selection, all the way up to Wood and Brumbaugh's (2009) study on mate preferences published a couple of years ago, aspects of this theory have intrigued psychologists and other scientists for hundreds of years. In the theory of sexual selection, adaptive characteristics are thought to include the ability to choose a mate capable of effective reproduction, thus ensuring the survival of offspring long enough for them to also reproduce and so pass on the genotype (Buss & Barnes, 1986).

Males and females typically have differing levels of parental investment, leading to different reproductive strategies being most effective. This has led to a multitude of studies into whether men and women demonstrate different mate selection behaviour. Both older papers and recent research in this area tend to support the sex differences found by Buss and Barnes (1986)--that men have a stronger preference for attractive mates than women and that women value good earning potential and education more than men do, as well as women's preference for taller men (De Sousa Campos, Otta, & de Oliveira Siqueira, 2002). It must be noted however, that many studies are not based on real relationships and as such often reduce complex feelings and relationships to a list of traits.

An interesting development in the last 10-15 years is research into sexual orientation differences. From an evolutionary perspective, non-heterosexual relationships do not appear adaptive because they reduce opportunities to reproduce. Instead of confronting this challenge to sexual selection theory, many researchers have focused on what homosexual mate selection can tell them about heterosexual mate selection. The following is the typical stance taken by researchers:

... studying the mating psychology of homosexual persons has the potential to distinguish between several broad developmental and etiological hypotheses regarding the mating psychology of heterosexual persons. (Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, & Gladue, 1994, p. 1084)

Such studies focus on sexual orientation--the sex of the partner a person prefers--rather than sexual identity, which is a much more personal and social definition of oneself.

Darwin's theory of sexual selection has been used by some theorists to back up universal stereotypes of sex differentiated behaviour, which has blinkered researchers to the fact that even among non-human animals these stereotypes are simply not universal (Roughgarden, 2004). This background has led some researchers to be biased in their treatment of non-heterosexuals in research on mate selection, as deviation from heterosexual behaviour is not easily explained by sexual selection. Lippa (2007) clearly demonstrates one of the drawbacks of the "comparing homosexual people with heterosexual people" approach, in that the only way he can attempt to understand his results is by saying that gay men are feminized and lesbian women are masculinized in some respects, but they are sex-congruent in others. Without accompanying qualitative research there can be little insight into the mate preferences of non-heterosexuals and gender variant people. Although Lippa's study initially seems inclusive thanks to its large number of participants from different countries and backing from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), closer examination of Lippa's work and that of his associates suggests that his approach may be biased. …

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