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Under the Covers: Sexual Attitudes, Fertility, and Romantic Relationships

The average woman will have 500 menstrual cycles throughout her lifetime.1 Although menstruation typically doesn’t win the “favorite days of the month award,” the actual purpose of a woman’s cycle is to prepare her body for conception and procreation. Yet, the irony in Mother Nature’s plan is that the actual window of potential conception only lasts for roughly 2-4 days throughout the 28 day cycle. Among researchers, we call these few days the “period of high fertility,” or the time when women are most likely to conceive.

Many women (and probably even some men!) may have noticed that the days leading up to menstruation can be accompanied by mood swings (you’ve heard of PMS – right?). Yet, there’s a bundle of evidence showing that women’s moods, behaviors, and interpersonal styles actually change during that small window of high fertility as well. For example, during those few days (compared to other days in the cycle) women are more likely to dress sexy,2 they are more accepting of men’s advances,3 they prefer the scent of symmetrical4 and dominant men,5 and they’re even more likely to fantasize about someone other than their current boyfriend or spouse!6

In our lab at Rutgers University, we’ve been trying to extend these findings to understand how women’s relationship experiences (i.e., whether or not they are in a committed relationship or not) may be relevant to understanding their sexual attitudes during these high fertility days. In one study, we had women come into the lab and take ovulation tests (to determine if they were in their window of high fertility) and complete a number of questionnaires. Specifically, we asked women to rate their general attitudes about sex. These attitudes could range from liberal/permissive attitudes to traditional/prudish attitudes. Women scoring as having liberal or permissive attitudes rated high on questions such as “sex without love is OK” and “sex is a pleasurable and purely physical act.” Our study found that just being in a relationship or just being “fertile” didn’t seem to lead to sexually permissive attitudes among women in our study. However, it turns out that women who were in romantic relationships and likely to be fertile when they participated in our study had the most overall permissive or liberal attitudes toward sex.  

So what does this tell us? Well, evolutionary psychologists argue that all of these behavioral and preferential changes women experience when they are fertile are “adaptive,” or historically conducive to survival.7 In other words, it may be advantageous for women who are fertile and in a relationship to think more permissively about sex. Why? Because having a romantic partner tends to make it easier when raising a child (and perpetuating the species). After all, it makes evolutionary sense that women would have more lax views of sex knowing that, if they were to get pregnant, they’re not in it alone. However, this isn’t to say that women actually think through all of this during their fertile period. Nor does it mean that women are consciously considering how helpful their significant other will be with diaper changes as they slip into the covers with their boyfriend or husband. The brain is not always involved in what the body wants – and yet women’s attitudes and behaviors when they are “fertile” and partnered are different than when they aren’t!

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1Bech, C. (2005). The menstrual cycle. Netdoctor. Retrieved from http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/health_advice/facts/menstruation_cycle.htm

2Durante, K.M., Li, N.P., & Hasleton, M.G. (2008). Changes in women’s choice of dress across the ovulatory cycle: Naturalistic and laboratory task-based evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1451-1460.

3Gueguen, N. (2009). Menstural cycle phases and female receptivity to a courtship solicitation: an evaluation in a nightclub. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30, 351-355.

4Gangestad, S.W., & Thornhill, R. (1998). Menstrual cycle variation in women’s preference for the scent of symmetrical men. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B265, 927-933.

5Havlicek, J., Roberts, S.C., & Flegr, J. (2005). Women’s preference for dominant male odour: Effects of menstrual cycle and relationship status. Biology Letters, 1, 256-259.

6Gangestad, S.W., Thornhill, R., & Garver-Apgar, C.E. (2005). Women’s sexual interests across the ovulatory cycle depend on primary partner developmental stability. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 272, 2023-2027.

7Gangestad, S.W., & Thornhill, R. (1998). Menstrual cycle variation in women’s preference for the scent of symmetrical men. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B265, 927-933.

Gianna Bowler
Gianna's research interests broadly examine romantic relationships and the development of gender. Specifically she looks at how the sociaization of gender and the development of our sexuality impacts our adult relationships. She also examines interpersonal relationships within the family context and how our development and familiar relationships influence our growth and maturation.

Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.

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