In many long-lived vertebrates (including humans), adult males have shorter lifespans than adult females, partly as a result of higher annual rates of mortality in males and partly owing to sex differences in the rate of ageing. A probable explanation of the evolution of sex differences in ageing is that, in polygynous species, intense intrasexual competition between males restricts the number of seasons for which individual males are able to breed successfully, weakening selection pressures favouring adult longevity in males relative to females. If this is the case, sex differences in adult longevity and in the onset and rate of senescence should be greater in polygynous species than in monogamous ones and their magnitude should be related to the duration of effective breeding males compared with females. Here, we use data from longitudinal studies of vertebrates to show that reduced longevity in adult males (relative to females) is commonly associated with a more rapid decline in male than female survival with increasing age and is largely confined to polygynous species. The magnitude of sex differences in adult longevity in different species is consistently related to the magnitude of sex differences in the duration of effective breeding, calculated across surviving adults. Our results are consistent with the suggestion that sex differences in senescence in polygynous species are a consequence of weaker selection for longevity in males than females.