Sexual Attraction - What turns us on in others? cover image

Sexual Attraction - What turns us on in others?

Dorian Minors • March 20, 2018

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

Men and women do sex differently. In fact they do many things differently, and we've been wondering why for as long as we've been writing things down. Not all of our conclusions have been particularly sensible. For example, you might have heard of the Ancient Greek solution: womens' uteruses would spontaneously detach and spaghetti around their bodies. But we have found some solutions with more staying power (pun intended), and this theory is one of them.

In the early 1990's David Buss and his colleagues developed Sexual Strategies Theory, an evolutionary approach to sex and reproduction that has entrenched itself into both the academic literature, as well as spilling into popular wisdom. Evolutionary narratives are, of course, both extremely useful and deeply flawed. And while there are competing and complementary explanations (like this one, or this one), Buss' theory was groundbreaking in it's time, and holds lessons for us still. Buss argues an evolutionary lens: humans' sexuality arises from selective pressures, and this explains why men and women appear to have such different approaches to sex.

For women

Buss tells us that women have two reproductive priorities:

  1. to find strong genetics in their reproductive partners for their children's sake; and
  2. for someone to make sure they and their family is protected. Yet, these two needs (safe family and good genetics) don't always align.

In addition, the existence of studies like this famous one have been taken to start a line of thinking that women have a passive and unconscious biological sexual response. In the study, men and women were asked to watch videos of various couples having sex (heterosexual, homosexual, transexual, etc). Their bodies were measured for physical signs of arousal, and they were asked to report their arousal to each clip. Women physically responded relatively indiscriminately. Yet in self-report, women would report arousal according to their sexual orientation. The result was taken to demonstrate that womens' bodies are responding to the idea of sex.

In combination with Buss' theory, we end up in a place where women's bodies are seen as responsive to the reproductive drive to have babies, and respond accordingly to signs of strong genetics in their prospective sexual partners. High levels of testosterone and the various manifestations of that. The taste of a kiss, the shape of a brow. More arousal to masculine traits during ovulation.

But of course, high testosterone doesn't always line up with safety, and evolutionarily women required safety because pregnancy and child-rearing is a huge liability. And thus emerged idea that women have also another distinct 'mental' arousal stimulated by 'protector' qualities: status and social dominance; wealth and power; and so on.

The key, according to Buss and the various offshoots thereof, is that women's brains and bodies can respond to completely separate stimuli, but both have a role in sexual decision-making. This is a narrative that lives large in pubs and on forums across the web. Sites like the red pill repeatedly discuss the idea of women eschewing 'nice guys' in favour of assholes because of this kind of biological determinism (and then get upset that women don't change this, which isn't how determinism works I should point out). You'll notice, if you clicked, that the red pill has been quarantined by Reddit for containing 'highly offensive content', so you might know where I'm going here.

The narrative that lives on in the public consciousness is naive to the point of, well, to the point of supporting sub-reddits that get quarantined for being awful. It also promotes quite problematic motifs in movies and on TV: the widespread idea that women do (and should) choose a 'bad boy' and try and turn them good. We should note that the kinds of evidence that David Buss and his colleagues used to support his theory were ones like this famous series of studies by Clark and Hatfield in the late 80's. Women were approached by random men on campus and asked to have sex. It was about as successful as you'd imagine. This is then contrasted to men, who are far more happy to sleep with random women when approached on campus. Perhaps there's more consciousness these days about how many women are killed in encounters with strange men, or how women live lives assessing the various kinds of threat men pose to them in day to day life, but it's hard to imagine now that there's anything evolutionary going on here. Fortunately, someone did some research on the topic, so you don't have to take my word for it.

That said, there are some things we can learn by peering into the nuance here. Women do have multiple inputs to their sexual decision-making. And these evolutionary handles do seem to exist, to some extent. How much influence the testosterone content of a sex-candidate has is less obvious outside of a lab setting. There are plenty of other, likely more salient, influences on what turns women on. In fact, there are even other evolutionary handles that would similarly be present. For example, many psychobiologists believe that major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is an evolutionary deteminant of sexual preference. MHC is a cluster of genes that produces molecules related to immune function that may allow us to detect each others' genetic diversity. This was made most famous by the 'sweaty shirt study', in which women prefer the sweaty shirts of men who had more diverse MHC profiles. More genetic diversity means more robust offspring. It has been put forward as one of the reasons why we like to kiss each other.

So Buss' two priorities may indeed have some bearing on who women like to have sex with. And if it does, it encourages women to be attracted to sexy people and attracted in a different way to successful people. It's not particularly jaw-dropping, but it is interesting. Womens' sexuality is not well understood, having only been a topic for study in the last few decades in any serious manner. It may play a role in explaining a not uncommon trend reported in counselling psychology circles: that women can sometimes feel excited by people they aren't particularly enthusiastic about otherwise. But it is important to always keep in mind how these priorities, to whatever extent they do play a role, would change according to culture. While genetically derived arousal may remain stable, any kind of interest in these so-called 'protector' qualities would be entirely socially-derived, with social implications. An excellent example here is the common description in conventional wisdom: while men are turned on by 'anything', women need an emotional attachment. This idea comes from literature that to this day reports a similar finding: "men are more prone to physical attraction, while women are more affected by the environment and emotions related to the sexual partner".

For men

As for men, Buss also outlines two reproductive priorities, although they differ from those of women:

  1. a competitive urge to spread one's genes far and wide; and
  2. a drive to settle down with at least one sexual partner to guarantee an offspring lives into the future.

The first has been supported by the research mentioned earlier that men are more prone to physical attraction. Indeed, men are typically found to be particularly attracted to things that signal a woman's fertility like the "waist-to-hip ratio". This idea has spread to become a generally accepted notion that men are sexually sensation-seeking. This is perhaps best formalised in Bancroft and Janssen's Dual Control Theory, which describes an interaction between a 'sexual excitation system' and a 'sexual inhibition system' characterising our sexual arousal. In research exploring this model, men are described as scoring higher on excitation and lower on inhibition than females. Other research concentrates on the kinds of things that turn men on, which appear to be widely varied even when those things are illegal or deviant.

Yet, while it's true to say that men are sexually sensation seeking, it may not be true to say that they are more-so than women. Consider earlier, when we discussed women appear to experience physical arousal in a somewhat indiscriminate way, when watching sexual movies. Or this study, noticing that women spend more time looking at genitalia than men. As mentioned, research on womens' sexuality is still in its infancy. It's not entirely clear that this reproductive priority in men is fundamentally different to Buss' genetic priority in women. Both invoke biological drivers that relate to successful reproduction, and thus both imply that men and women want to have sex with sexy people.

So perhaps the difference in men and women's sexual approaches comes to this second priority of each. The idea that men have a drive to settle down for the future of their offspring is one contributed to by a line of enquiry related to what's known as paternity certainty. The notion is that biological females can be sure of whether their children belong to them, being the ones who build them. Biological males never have that security. Thus the idea that men are not only driven to protect offspring, but to ensure that they aren't protecting someone else's offspring. The implication is that where women settle to seek protection, men settle to protect.

But this too does not seem like it would manifest in different sexual strategies. According to Buss, women want to sleep around to get the best baby, then settle to protect the child; men want to sleep around to get babies, then settle down to protect a child. There is not much explanation made in the way of those things men would seek in their settling partners to support the raising of healthy offspring and one wonders why that would result in such different sexual strategies. If men wanted children that were theirs, and the longevity of a relationship that supported them through the child's infancy, would they not seek partners with resources to support that effort? And would those resources not be similarly socially-determined?

I think so

Buss' theory really set the stage for an evolutionary wave of research that concentrated on these ideas almost to the exclusion of others (although other evolutionary sexual theories are starting to emerge). That research does seem to support these ideas in a very general way. Men really do seem to have a sexual seeking bias. And women really do seem to respond differently to both these kind of conceptual ideas (like status and intelligence) as well as more physical stimuli.

However, this social aspect that feeds into Buss' sexual strategies theory seems to me to be the most important differentiator between the two strategies, not the evolutionary origins themselves. More modern research has similar ideas. This is a reminder that the evolutionary 'standard' narrative cannot be the only thing, and perhaps not even the most important thing that drives us. It follows that alongside any 'nature' explanation, there is a 'nurture' one that is often as strong. Consider the decades of research on attachment theory exploring how we are raised and how that determines who we are attracted to. Or consider that the top characteristics of partners that both men and women seek are trust, intelligence, and warmth, far before they seek attractiveness or status and resources. We also mustn't forget that not only are women subject to different sexual expectations than men, but they are also subject to different (and more) sexual risks. Buss would have us be animals, and that may very well be true. But we aren't stupid animals.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.