Sexual infidelity and jealousy: deciphering the gender difference

Males and females have previously been shown to react differently to emotional and sexual infidelity, which has been linked to evolutionary sexual psychology. However, recent research suggests that perceived sex-specific differences in jealousy may be due to a difference in the capacity for sexual imagination between the sexes.

Several previous studies have implied that whereas males have demonstrated higher levels of distress when imagining sexual infidelity in a partner, women are more upset by emotional infidelity. This behaviour, or the ‘sex-specific evolved jealousy mechanism’ (EJM), can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. Due to internal fertilization, there is a possibility that a male could be unwittingly cuckolded, with the result that his partner produces offspring that are not genetically related to him. Therefore sexual infidelity by a partner may cause more distress in a male than a female, who is certain that her offspring are related to her. For females, the emotional investment of her partner in another may be more upsetting, as he could divert his resources (protection, food and shelter) away from her young.



However, this sex-specific difference may in fact be influenced by the fact that men have more graphic sexual mental imagery than women (an unexplained phenomenon supported by previous research). A recent Japanese study investigated this factor by exposing men and women to ‘vivid’ and ‘non-vivid’ scenarios, while following the basic method used in previous studies.

Participants were individually exposed to two consecutive scenarios in which they were asked to imagine their partner engaged alternately in a sexual and emotional infidelity. The scenarios were presented in a vivid condition using multiple images and a loudspeaker, and in a non-vivid condition in which a single photo of a celebrity was displayed and the subject asked to imagine their partner in sexual or emotional relations with that celebrity. After the exposure period, participants chose which scenario had upset them more.

The results were clear: 67% of females were more upset by sexual than emotional infidelity in the vivid condition, compared to only 47% in the non-vivid condition. This was a similar trend to the male cohort (73% vs 61%).  When both sexes were able to imagine sexual infidelity explicitly in the vivid condition, there was no significant difference between them.

Although Kato’s research does not directly contradict the EJM hypothesis, it suggests there could be an additional dimension to the evolutionary psychology behind male and female jealousy, with interesting sociocultural implications.



Easton, J.A., Schipper, L.D. and Shackelford T.K. (2007) Morbid jealousy from an evolutionary psychological perspective. Evolution and Human Behaviour 28399-402

Kato, T. (2014) A reconsideration of sex differences in response to sexual and emotional infidelity. Archives of Sexual Behaviour 43 1281-1288

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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