Sexual selection is hypothesized to favour small body size,in males of scrambling species, that is, those in which males obtain matings by actively searching for females. I tested this hypothesis in a natural population of the scrambling emerald damselfly, Lestes sponsa. Mating efficiency (matings/visit to the pond) was the most important factor explaining variation in male lifetime mating success (LMS; 71%). This suggests a large potential for sexual selection. Path analysis of male LMS suggested a quality factor that positively affected both mating efficiency and life span. In contrast with the small-male mating advantage hypothesis, part of this potential for sexual selection was realized as stabilizing selection on male body size, indicating that there may also be a lower limit to body size for mating efficiency. This also illustrates that the constancy of body size may be explained by sexual selection alone. Survival explained about 20% of the variation in LMS and random processes were potentially important for determining LMS. My results show the problems of using mating efficiency as a measure for the intensity of sexual selection and the need to distinguish between. potential and realized selection pressures, especially when comparing the importance of natural and sexual selection. I discuss mechanisms that may have caused the intermediate-male mating advantage in this scrambling species. (C) 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.