Marital violence and fertility in a relatively egalitarian high-fertility population


Ultimate and proximate explanations of men’s physical intimate partner violence (IPV) against women have been proposed. An ultimate explanation posits that IPV is used to achieve a selfish fitness-relevant outcome, and predicts that IPV is associated with greater marital fertility. Proximate IPV explanations contain either complementary strategic components (for example, men’s desire for partner control), non-strategic components (for example, men’s self-regulatory failure), or both strategic and non-strategic components involving social learning. Consistent with an expectation from an ultimate IPV explanation, we find that IPV predicts greater marital fertility among Tsimané forager-horticulturalists of Bolivia (n = 133 marriages, 105 women). This result is robust to using between- versus within-subject comparisons, and considering secular changes, reverse causality, recall bias and other factors (for example, women’s preference for high-status men who may be more aggressive than lower-status men). Consistent with a complementary expectation from a strategic proximate IPV explanation, greater IPV rate is associated with men’s attitudes favouring intersexual control. Neither men’s propensity for intrasexual physical aggression, nor men’s or women’s childhood exposure to family violence predict IPV rate. Our results suggest a psychological and behavioural mechanism through which men exert direct influence over marital fertility, which may manifest when spouses differ in preferred family sizes.

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Fig. 1: Cumulative relative frequency of IPV and number of joint dependents by year of marriage.
Fig. 2: Predicted probability of birth within a year versus a wife’s age and whether she reports IPV that year.
Fig. 3: Annual fertility within marriage for the 26 wives who remarried by whether a wife experienced IPV with each husband (H).
Fig. 4: Effects of a husband's attitudes regarding intersexual control, intrasexual physical aggression, and childhood exposure to family violence (husband's and wife's) on the probability of IPV.


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We thank the study participants for sharing personal stories, and THLHP personnel for assistance with logistics, data collection and coding. We also thank P. Seabright and participants in the ‘Harmful Practices’ workshop at UCSB in March 2018 for useful discussions that improved the quality of this manuscript. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0721237 and BCS-0422690), National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Aging (R01AG024119), and Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. J.S. also acknowledges financial support from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche—Labex IAST. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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The conception, design and implementation of the study were developed by J.S. and H.K. J.S. collected the data. M.G. assisted in the collection of the demography data. J.S. analysed the data. All authors contributed to the interpretation of data analysis and drafting of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Jonathan Stieglitz.

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