What is Sexual Jealousy?

Marjorie McAtee

Sexual jealousy is a type of jealousy that often occurs in romantic relationships, when one partner fears that the other partner has shared inappropriate physical or emotional intimacies with a person or persons outside of the relationship. Sexual jealousy can occur when one partner in a romantic relationship commits sexual infidelity, but it can also occur, and be just as powerful, when one partner suspects the other is guilty of emotional infidelity. This type of jealousy is considered universal to all humans, but it can also occur in certain animal populations, particularly some species of primates. Experts believe this jealousy can serve both evolutionary and sociological purposes.

Sexual jealously may occur when one partner suspects another of infidelity.
Sexual jealously may occur when one partner suspects another of infidelity.

Many consider jealousy one of the most powerful human emotions, and sexual jealousy is often considered the most powerful form of jealousy. It most often occurs when a person believes that his exclusive rights to a particular sexual or romantic partner have been threatened. Persons experiencing this type of jealousy may live in denial, unable to face the truth about an unfaithful partner. Extreme emotional pain, feelings of betrayal, outrage, fear, and inadequacy often occur along with sexual jealousy. Violent outbursts and obsessive thoughts and behaviors are considered common effects of the condition.

Sexual jealousy most often occurs when a person believes that his or her exclusive rights to a particular sexual partner have been threatened.
Sexual jealousy most often occurs when a person believes that his or her exclusive rights to a particular sexual partner have been threatened.

Experts on evolution and biology often believe that sexual jealousy is, in fact, a biological imperative. According to this theory, jealousy in romantic relationships is part of the mechanism by which humans, and some animals, ensure access to the best reproductive partners. Since males and females typically fill different roles in the reproductive process, men and women may experience or react to sexual jealousy in very different ways. Men may often be most upset by sexual infidelity in the female partner, since the male biological imperative involves reserving exclusive reproductive rights to a chosen mate. Women are often more focused on preserving the right to retain a male partner as a protector and caregiver, so they may often be more upset by emotional infidelity on the part of a male partner.

Women may be more upset by emotional infidelity than men.
Women may be more upset by emotional infidelity than men.

Others believe this kind of jealousy can have sociological roots as well. Some have advanced the theory that sexual jealousy can be used to control female members of society. Some species of primates, such as baboons or gorillas, are believed to use it in this way.

Factors of socialization can influence how partners react to jealousy in romantic relationships. Women may experience less severe jealousy when a male partner is unfaithful, because many women have been socialized to believe that men don't attach emotional importance to sexual intercourse. Many men have been socialized to believe that women always attach emotional significance to sexual intercourse, and may therefore react more strongly to romantic jealousy for this reason.

Sexual jealousy is particularly prevalent in primates.
Sexual jealousy is particularly prevalent in primates.

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Discussion Comments


After reading more about these people, it seems to me that Mosuo sexuality closely resembles the serial monogamy and promiscuity seen in Western 20-something young professionals, or even sexually active high school students. The concept of fatherhood certainly exists.

Despite living in a culture where non-monogamy is the norm, it's common for women to maintain long term relationships that, aside from living arrangements, conform to modern Western notions of a "marriage."

The Mosuo don't have a word for jealousy, which makes sense: such a notion would preclude their whole social structure.

The Mosuo seem to display the same sexual behaviors as humans around the world, only guided by a unique social structure that's heavily influenced by time, place and social position. They have sex with multiple partners, but there's also a marked tendency to prefer single partners over time.

Despite what some people would like to believe, there's no ideal of "natural" liberated human sexuality to which it is possible for us to return. Though it's possible to find odd exceptions, an examination of the relevant history will reveal both infidelity and sexual jealousy to be practically universal across time and culture. Humans form pair bonds and cheat opportunistically.


In an indiscriminately inhospitable world, having an alpha male in a patriarchal society is more beneficial. Read up on Genghis Khan.

Stop using your confirmation bias to justify being promiscuous.


Many human societies lack sexual jealousy; controlling of someone else's sex life is akin to controlling their autonomy, which is sacred to everyone. In these societies, people use sexual relationships with several people to cement social bonds.

A major difference between humans and virtually every other species is concealed ovulation. In other species, males can tell when the females are fertile, and they will only have sex at those times. However, in humans, males cannot tell when females are ovulating, so humans have sex anytime during the cycle. This also makes patriarchy effectively impossible in the species. In patriarchies, there is an obsession with paternity; in humans, males can't tell who their children are because of concealed ovulation, so the only way to figure out who their children are is to severely restrict the autonomy and sexual freedom of women, which makes for a very unhappy society, not to mention decreasing the creativity, intelligence and freedom of the entire species.

As I said, not all societies do this. In these groups, mostly matriarchies, all children are loved by all adults. No one would say, "That's my child. You don't tell it what to do!" Matriarchies are also much more male-friendly places to live in, as males aren't held to an impossible ideal. They are more relaxed, happy and peaceful than men in patriarchies, who are severely limited by what emotions they can express. People value cooperation more than competition, and see the sexes as complements to work together, not opposites to fight and triumph over each other. Neither sex is inherently better or worse than the other, because both are necessary for procreation and building societies.

The Mosuo in China lack marriage altogether. They also lack an idea of a father. Men raise their sisters' children along with them. Anyone can have sex with anyone, there is no sense of commitment, and no one gossips about anyone's sexual flings. Sexual fidelity to them is shameful because it's an attempt to control what someone else does. And their love for each other is no less than love in other societies; they don't tie love and sex together. They can have a one-time fling, have sex with more than one man a night, or have a decades-long relationship with one person; it's everyone's personal choice. They also lack war, murder, rape, theft, child abuse and violence.

So sexual jealousy is not universal, nor is violence in humans. It has to be taught and conditioned into a group.

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