The contribution of sexual selection to diversification remains poorly understood after decades of research. This may be in part because studies have focused predominantly on the strength of sexual selection, which offers an incomplete view of selection regimes. By contrast, students of natural selection focus on environmental differences that help compare selection regimes across populations. To ask how this disparity in focus may affect the conclusions of evolutionary research, we relate the amount of diversification in mating displays to quantitative descriptions of the strength and the amount of divergence in mate preferences across a diverse set of case studies of mate choice. We find that display diversification is better explained by preference divergence rather than preference strength; the effect of the latter is more subtle, and is best revealed as an interaction with the former. Our findings cast the action of sexual selection (and selection in general) in a novel light: the strength of selection influences the rate of evolution, and how divergent selection is determines how much diversification can occur. Adopting this view will enhance tests of the relative role of natural and sexual selection in processes such as speciation.