Sexual attraction

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The Flirtation (1904), by Eugene de Blaas Eugen de Blaas The Flirtation.jpg
The Flirtation (1904), by Eugene de Blaas

Sexual attraction is attraction on the basis of sexual desire or the quality of arousing such interest. [1] Sexual attractiveness or sex appeal is an individual's ability to attract the sexual or erotic interests of other people, and is a factor in sexual selection or mate choice. The attraction can be to the physical or other qualities or traits of a person, or to such qualities in the context where they appear. The attraction may be to a person's aesthetics or movements or to their voice or smell, besides other factors. The attraction may be enhanced by a person's adornments, clothing, perfume or style. It can be influenced by individual genetic, psychological, or cultural factors, or to other, more amorphous qualities. Sexual attraction is also a response to another person that depends on a combination of the person possessing the traits and on the criteria of the person who is attracted.


Though attempts have been made to devise objective criteria of sexual attractiveness and measure it as one of several bodily forms of capital asset (see erotic capital ), a person's sexual attractiveness is to a large extent a subjective measure dependent on another person's interest, perception, and sexual orientation. For example, a gay or lesbian person would typically find a person of the same sex to be more attractive than one of the other sex. A bisexual person would find either sex to be attractive. Asexuality refers to those who do not experience sexual attraction for either sex, though they may have romantic attraction (homoromantic, biromantic or heteroromantic) or a non-directed libido. [2] Interpersonal attraction includes factors such as physical or psychological similarity, familiarity or possessing a preponderance of common or familiar features, similarity, complementarity, reciprocal liking, and reinforcement. [3]

The ability of a person's physical and other qualities to create a sexual interest in others is the basis of their use in advertising, film, and other visual media, as well as in modeling and other occupations.

In evolutionary terms, the ovulatory shift hypothesis posits that female humans exhibit different sexual behaviours and desires at points in their menstrual cycle, as a means to ensure that they attract a high quality mate to copulate with during their most fertile time. Hormone levels throughout the menstrual cycle affect a woman's overt behaviours, influencing the way a woman presents herself to others during stages of her menstrual cycle, in attempt to attract high quality mates the closer the woman is to ovulation. [4]

Social and biological factors

Human sexuality has many aspects. In biology, sexuality describes the reproductive mechanism and the basic biological drive that exists in all sexually reproducing species and can encompass sexual intercourse and sexual contact in all its forms. There are also emotional and physical aspects of sexuality. These relate to the bond between individuals, which may be expressed through profound feelings or emotions. Sociologically, it can cover the cultural, political, and legal aspects; philosophically, it can span the moral, ethical, theological, spiritual, and religious aspects.

Which aspects of a person's sexuality attract another is influenced by cultural factors; it has varied over time as well as personal factors. Influencing factors may be determined more locally among sub-cultures, across sexual fields, or simply by the preferences of the individual. These preferences come about as a result of a complex variety of genetic, psychological, and cultural factors.

A person's physical appearance has a critical impact on their sexual attractiveness. This involves the impact one's appearance has on the senses, especially in the beginning of a relationship:

As with other animals, pheromones may have an impact, though less significantly in the case of humans. Theoretically, the "wrong" pheromone may cause someone to be disliked, even when they would otherwise appear attractive. Frequently, a pleasant-smelling perfume is used to encourage the member of the opposite sex to more deeply inhale the air surrounding its wearer,[ citation needed ] increasing the probability that the individual's pheromones will be inhaled. The importance of pheromones in human relationships is probably limited and is widely disputed,[ unreliable source? ] [5] although it appears to have some scientific basis. [6]

Some people exhibit high levels of sexual fetishism and are sexually stimulated by other stimuli not normally associated with sexual arousal. The degree to which such fetishism exists or has existed in different cultures is controversial.

Pheromones have been determined to play a role in sexual attraction between people. They influence gonadal hormone secretion, for example, follicle maturation in the ovaries in females and testosterone and sperm production in males. [7]

High anxiety

Research conducted by Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron in the 1970s aimed to find the relation between sexual attraction and high anxiety conditions. In doing so, 85 male participants were contacted by an attractive female interviewer at either a fear-arousing suspension bridge or a normal bridge. Conclusively, it was shown that the male participants who were asked by the female interviewer to perform the thematic apperception test (TAT) on the fear-arousing bridge, wrote more sexual content in the stories and attempted, with greater effort, to contact the interviewer after the experiment than those participants who performed the TAT on the normal bridge. In another test, a male participant, chosen from a group of 80, was given anticipated shocks. With him was an attractive female confederate, who was also being shocked. The experiment showed that the male's sexual imagery in the TAT was much higher when self shock was anticipated and not when the female confederate shock was anticipated. [8]


People consciously or subconsciously enhance their sexual attractiveness or sex appeal for a number of reasons. It may be to attract someone with whom they can form a deeper relationship, for companionship, procreation, or an intimate relationship, besides other possible purposes. It can be part of a courtship process. This can involve physical aspects or interactive processes whereby people find and attract potential partners, and maintain a relationship. These processes, which involve attracting a partner and maintaining sexual interest, can include flirting, which can be used to attract the sexual attention of another to encourage romance or sexual relations, and can involve body language, conversation, joking, or brief physical contact. [9]

Sex and sexuality differences

Men have been found to have a greater interest in uncommitted sex compared to women. [10] Some research shows this interest to be more sociological than biological. [11] Men have a greater interest in visual sexual stimuli than women. However, [12] additional trends have been found with a greater sensitivity to partner status in women choosing a sexual partner and men placing a greater emphasis on physical attractiveness in a potential mate, as well as a significantly greater tendency toward sexual jealousy in men and emotional jealousy in women. [13]

Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, and Gladue (1994) analyzed whether these results varied according to sexual orientation. In general, they found biological sex played a bigger role in the psychology of sexual attraction than orientation. However, there were some differences between homosexual and heterosexual women and men on these factors. While gay and straight men showed similar psychological interest in casual sex on markers of sociosexuality, gay men showed a larger number of partners in behaviour expressing this interest (proposed to be due to a difference in opportunity). Self-identified lesbian women showed a significantly greater interest in visual sexual stimuli than heterosexual women and judged partner status to be less important in romantic partnerships. Heterosexual men had a significantly greater preference for younger partners than homosexual men. [14] People who identify as asexual may not be sexually attracted to anyone. Gray asexuality includes those who only experience sexual attraction under certain circumstances; for example, exclusively after an emotional bond has been formed. This tends to vary from person to person.

Sexual preferences and hormones

The ovulatory shift hypothesis refers to the idea that female humans tend to exhibit different sexual behaviours and desires at points in their cycle, as an evolutionarily adaptive means to ensure that a high quality male is chosen to copulate with during the most fertile period of the cycle. [4] It is thought that, due to the length of time and the parental investment involved for a woman to reproduce, changes in female psychology during menstrual periods would help them make critical decisions in mating selection. For example, it has been suggested that women's sexual preferences shift toward more masculine physical characteristics during peak phases of fertility. In such, a symmetrical and masculine face outwardly indicates the reproductive value of a prospective mate. [15]

Ovulation and female sexual preferences

There is evidence that women's mate preferences differ across the ovarian cycle. A meta analysis, investigating 50 studies about whether women's mate preferences for good gene-related male traits changed across the ovarian cycle found that women's preferences change across their cycle: Women show the greatest preference for good gene male traits at their most fertile window. [16]

Female sexual preference for male face shapes has been shown to vary with the probability of conception. Findings showed that during a 'high conception' stage of the menstrual cycle, women were more attracted to men with less feminine/more masculine faces for short-term relationships. [17] Unlike men, women's sexual arousal has been found to be generic—it is non-specific to either men or women. [18] The aforementioned research suggests that there may be a possibility that female sexual arousal becomes more sex-specific during the most fertile points of the menstrual cycle.

In males, a masculine face has been positively correlated with fewer respiratory diseases and, as a consequence, masculine features offer a marker of health and reproductive success. [19] The preference for masculine faces is only recorded in short-term mate choices. It is therefore suggested that females are attracted to masculine faces only during ovulation as masculinity reflects a high level of fitness, used to ensure reproductive success. Whilst such preferences may be of lesser importance today, the evolutionary explanation offers reasoning as to why such effects are recorded.

As well as masculinity, females are more sensitive to the scent of males who display high levels of developmental stability. [15] An individual's developmental stability is a measurement of fluctuating asymmetry, defined as their level of deviation from perfect bilateral symmetry. In a comparison of female college students, the results indicated that those normally cycling were more receptive to the scent of shirts worn by symmetrica l men when nearing peak fertility in their ovulatory cycle. The same women reported no such preference for the scent of symmetrical men when re-tested during non-fertile stages of the menstrual cycle. Those using the contraceptive pill, and therefore not following regular cyclical patterns, reported no such preference. [15]

As with masculine faces, the ability to determine symmetry via scent was likely designed by natural selection to increase the probability of reproductive success through mating with a male offering strong genetics. This is evidenced in research focusing on traits of symmetrical males, who consistently record higher levels of IQ, coordination, social dominance, and consequently, greater reproductive fitness. [20] [21] As symmetry appears to reflect an abundance of desirable traits held by the male in question, it is self-evident that such males are more desirable to females who are seeking high quality mates. In such, during ovulation, females show a strong preference for symmetrical males as they are reaching peak fertility. As it would be advantageous for asymmetrical men to release a scent similar to that produced by symmetrical males, the female signal used to detect symmetry is presumed to be an honest one (asymmetrical males cannot fake it). [22]

In addition to this, females have different behavioural preferences towards men during stages in their cycles. It has been found that women have a preference towards more masculine voices during the late-follicular, fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. [23] They are particularly sensitive towards voice pitch and apparent vocal-tract length, which are testosterone-related traits. This effect has been found to be most significant in women who are less feminine (those with low E3G levels), in comparison to women with higher E3G levels. It has been suggested that this difference in preference is because feminine women (those with high E3G levels) are more successful at obtaining investment. It is not necessary for these women to change their mating preferences during their cycles. More masculine women may make these changes to enhance their chances of achieving investment.

Women have been found to report greater sexual attraction to men other than their own partners when near ovulation compared with the luteal phase. Women whose partners have high developmental stability have greater attraction to men other than their partners when fertile. This can be interpreted as women possessing an adaptation to be attracted to men possessing markers of genetic fitness, therefore sexual attraction depends on the qualities of her partner. [24]

Ovulation and ornamentation

Hormone levels throughout the menstrual cycle affect a woman's behaviour in preferences and in their overt behaviours. The ornamentation effect is a phenomenon influenced by a stage of the menstrual cycle which refers to the way a woman presents herself to others, in a way to attract potential sexual partners. Studies have found that the closer women were to ovulation, the more provocatively they dress and the more attractive they are rated. [25]

Similar to the function in animals, it is probable that this ornamentation is to attract potential partners and that a woman's motivations may vary across her cycle. [26] Research into this relationship has discovered that women who were to attend a discothèque and rated their clothing as 'sexy' and 'bold,' also stated that their intention for the evening was to flirt and find a partner to go home with. [27] Although direct causation cannot be stated, this research suggests that there is a direct link between a woman's ornamentation and her motivation to attract mates.

It is possible that women are sensitive to the changes in their physical attractiveness throughout their cycles, such that at their most fertile stages their levels of attractiveness are increased. Consequently, they choose to display their increased levels of attractiveness through this method of ornamentation. [28]

During periods of hormonal imbalance, women exhibit a peak in sexual activity. [29] As these findings have been recorded for female-initiated sexual activity and not for male-initiated activity, the causation appears to be hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. [29] In addition, studies have found that women report themselves to be significantly more flirtatious with men, other than their partners, during the most fertile stages of their cycle, [30] as well as a greater desire to attend parties or nightclubs where there is the potential to meet male partners. [28]

Research has also found that menstrual cycles affect sexual behaviour frequency in pre-menopausal women. For example, women who had weekly sexual intercourse with men had menstrual cycles with the average duration of 29 days, while women with less frequent sexual interactions tended to have more extreme cycle lengths. [31]

Male response to ovulation

Changes in hormones during a female's cycles affect the way she behaves and the way males behave towards her. Research has found that men are a lot more attentive and loving towards their partners when they are in the most fertile phase of their cycles, in comparison to when they are in the luteal phases. [32] Men become increasingly jealous and possessive over their partners during this stage. [30] It is highly likely that these changes in male behaviour is a result of the female partner's increased desire to seek and flirt with other males. Therefore, these behavioural adaptations have developed as a form of mate guarding, which increases the male's likelihood of maintaining the relationship and increasing chances of reproductive success.

See also

Related Research Articles

Menstrual cycle A type of ovulation cycle where the endometrium is shed if pregnancy does not occur

The menstrual cycle is the regular natural change that occurs in the female reproductive system that makes pregnancy possible. The cycle is required for the production of oocytes, and for the preparation of the uterus for pregnancy. The menstrual cycle occurs due to the rise and fall of estrogen. This cycle results in the thickening of the lining of the uterus, and the growth of an egg,. The egg is released from an ovary around day fourteen in the cycle; the thickened lining of the uterus provides nutrients to an embryo after implantation. If pregnancy does not occur, the lining is released in what is known as menstruation or a "period".

Pheromone Secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species

A pheromone is a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting like hormones outside the body of the secreting individual, to impact the behavior of the receiving individuals. There are alarm pheromones, food trail pheromones, sex pheromones, and many others that affect behavior or physiology. Pheromones are used from basic unicellular prokaryotes to complex multicellular eukaryotes. Their use among insects has been particularly well documented. In addition, some vertebrates, plants and ciliates communicate by using pheromones.

Concealed ovulation or hidden estrus in a species is the lack of any perceptible change in an adult female when she is fertile and near ovulation. Some examples of perceptible changes are swelling and redness of the genitalia in baboons and bonobos, and pheromone release in the feline family. In contrast, the females of humans and a few other species that undergo hidden estrus have few external signs of fecundity, making it difficult for a mate to consciously deduce, by means of external signs only, whether or not a female is near ovulation.

Physical attractiveness Degree to which a persons physical traits are considered aesthetically pleasing or beautiful

Physical attractiveness is the degree to which a person's physical features are considered aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. The term often implies sexual attractiveness or desirability, but can also be distinct from either. There are many factors which influence one person's attraction to another, with physical aspects being one of them. Physical attraction itself includes universal perceptions common to all human cultures such as facial symmetry, sociocultural dependent attributes and personal preferences unique to a particular individual.

The estrous cycle or oestrous cycle is the set of recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian therian females. Estrous cycles start after sexual maturity in females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or by pregnancies. Typically, estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation.

Psychological adaptation

A psychological adaptation is a functional, cognitive or behavioral trait that benefits an organism in its environment. Psychological adaptations fall under the scope of evolved psychological mechanisms (EPMs), however, EPMs refer to a less restricted set. Psychological adaptations include only the functional traits that increase the fitness of an organism, while EPMs refer to any psychological mechanism that developed through the processes of evolution. These additional EPMs are the by-product traits of a species’ evolutionary development, as well as the vestigial traits that no longer benefit the species’ fitness. It can be difficult to tell whether a trait is vestigial or not, so some literature is more lenient and refers to vestigial traits as adaptations, even though they may no longer have adaptive functionality. For example, xenophobic attitudes and behaviors, some have claimed, appear to have certain EPM influences relating to disease aversion, however, in many environments these behaviors will have a detrimental effect on a person's fitness. The principles of psychological adaptation rely on Darwin's theory of evolution and are important to the fields of evolutionary psychology, biology, and cognitive science.

Sexual selection in humans Evolutionary effects of sexual selection on humans

Sexual selection in humans concerns the concept of sexual selection, introduced by Charles Darwin as an element of his theory of natural selection, as it affects humans. Sexual selection is a biological way one sex chooses a mate for the best reproductive success. Most compete with others of the same sex for the best mate to contribute their genome for future generations. This has shaped our evolution for many years, but reasons why humans choose their mates are hardly understood. Sexual selection is quite different in non-human animals than humans as they feel more of the evolutionary pressures to reproduce and can easily reject a mate. The role of sexual selection in human evolution has not been firmly established although neoteny has been cited as being caused by human sexual selection. It has been suggested that sexual selection played a part in the evolution of the anatomically modern human brain, i.e. the structures responsible for social intelligence underwent positive selection as a sexual ornamentation to be used in courtship rather than for survival itself, and that it has developed in ways outlined by Ronald Fisher in the Fisherian runaway model. Fisher also stated that the development of sexual selection was "more favourable" in humans.

Odor Volatilized chemical compounds that humans and animals can perceive by their sense of smell

An odor or odour is caused by one or more volatilized chemical compounds that are generally found in low concentrations that humans and animals can perceive by their sense of smell. An odor is also called a "smell" or a "scent", which can refer to either a pleasant or an unpleasant odor.

Odour is sensory stimulation of the olfactory membrane of the nose by a group of molecules. Certain body odours are connected to human sexual attraction. Humans can make use of body odour subconsciously to identify whether a potential mate will pass on favourable traits to their offspring. Body odour may provide significant cues about the genetic quality, health and reproductive success of a potential mate. Body odour affects sexual attraction in a number of ways including through human biology, the menstrual cycle and fluctuating asymmetry. The olfactory membrane plays a role in smelling and subconsciously assessing another human's pheromones. It also affects the sexual attraction of insects and mammals. The major histocompatibility complex genes are important for the immune system, and appear to play a role in sexual attraction via body odour. Studies have shown that body odor is strongly connected with attraction in heterosexual females. The women in the study ranked body odor as more important for attraction than “looks”. Humans may not simply depend on visual and verbal senses to be attracted to a possible partner/mate.

Menstruation is the shedding of the uterine lining (endometrium). It occurs on a regular basis in uninseminated sexually reproductive-age females of certain mammal species.

Mate preferences in humans refers to why one human chooses or chooses not to mate with another human and their reasoning why. Men and women have been observed having different criteria as what makes a good or ideal mate. A potential mate's socioeconomic status has also been seen as having a noticeable effect, especially in developing areas where social status is more emphasized.

Sexual motivation is influenced by hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin, and vasopressin. In most mammalian species, sex hormones control the ability to engage in on the motivation to engage in sexual behaviours.

Sexual swelling

Sexual swellings are enlarged areas of genital and perineal skin occurring in some female primates that vary in size over the course of the menstrual cycle. Thought to be an honest signal of fertility, male primates are attracted to these swellings; preferring, and competing for, females with the largest swellings.

Human mating strategies Courtship behavior of humans

In evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology, human mating strategies are a set of behaviors used by individuals to select, attract, and retain mates. Mating strategies overlap with reproductive strategies, which encompass a broader set of behaviors involving the timing of reproduction and the trade-off between quantity and quality of offspring.

Strategic pluralism is a theory in evolutionary biology that suggests that women have evolved to evaluate men in two categories: whether they are reliable long term providers, and whether they contain high quality genes. The theory of strategic pluralism was proposed by Steven Gangestad and Jeffry Simpson, two professors of psychology at the University of New Mexico and Texas A&M University, respectively. As humans evolved, several trade-offs were prevalent, especially involving spending time and energy on child-rearing and mating. Gangestad and Simpson noted that even in species where male mammals offer little or no paternal investment, females still prefer some males over others for mating purposes. Ideally, a woman would attract and pair-bond with a mate that has both long-term providing benefits, while also carrying quality genes that are inheritable by her offspring. But since men that excel in both categories are very rare to come by, not all women will be able to secure such a man. The female preferences exhibited in situations where males are lacking parental investment can be attributed to good-gene sexual selection. Females observed in such conditions exhibited parallel behaviors as they revealed the tendency to select partners who were deemed genetically fit and reliable providers. Ultimately, as females evaluated males in this manner, it was evident that males who were on the positive side of the genetic fitness and reliability spectrums were favored as opposed to those who could not be such favorable mates for procreation. As a result, women evolved to prefer the men who exhibit viability and good condition, since such traits will likely be passed on to their offspring. This leads to most women facing trade-offs in their mating choice. Women often find themselves needing to compromise due to the unlikeliness of finding a male who is both genetically fit and willing to help in child-rearing. To solve the problem of these trade-offs, the theory of strategic pluralism says that women may have evolved to pursue a dual-mating strategy, whereby they secure long-term investments from one mate, while securing high quality genes from another mate when they are ovulating.

Extended female sexuality

Extended female sexuality is where the female of a species mates despite being infertile. In most species, the female only engages in copulation when she is fertile. However, extended sexuality has been documented in old world primates, pair bonded birds and some insects. Extended sexuality is most prominent in human females who exhibit no change in copulation rate across the ovarian cycle.

Female intrasexual competition Competition between women over a potential mate

Female intrasexual competition is competition between women over a potential mate. Such competition might include self-promotion, derogation of other women, and direct and indirect aggression toward other women. Factors that influence female intrasexual competition include the genetic quality of available mates, hormone levels, and interpersonal dynamics.

Mate guarding in humans

Human mate guarding refers to behaviours employed by both males and females with the aim of maintaining reproductive opportunities and sexual access to a mate. It involves discouraging the current mate from abandoning the relationship whilst also warding off intrasexual rivals. It has been observed in many non-human animals, as well as humans. Sexual jealousy is one of the main causes of mate guarding behaviour. Both males and females use different strategies to retain a mate and there is evidence that suggests resistance to mate guarding also exists.

No study has led to the isolation of true human sex pheromones, though various researchers have investigated the possibility of their existence. Sex pheromones are chemical (olfactory) signals, pheromones, released by an organism to attract an individual of the opposite sex, encourage them to mate with them, or perform some other function closely related with sexual reproduction. While humans are highly dependent upon visual cues, when in proximity, smells also play a role in sociosexual behaviors. An inherent difficulty in studying human pheromones is the need for cleanliness and odorlessness in human participants. Experiments have focused on three classes of putative human pheromones: axillary steroids, vaginal aliphatic acids, and stimulators of the vomeronasal organ.

The ovulatory shift hypothesis is the scientific hypothesis that women experience evolutionarily adaptive changes in subconscious thoughts and behaviors related to mating across the ovulatory cycle. It proposes that hormonal changes across the cycle cause women, when they are most likely to get pregnant, to be more attracted to traits in potential short-term male sexual partners that indicate high genetic quality, leading to greater reproductive success. Some of these proposed traits are physical features like symmetry and masculinity, while others are personality traits like dominance and creativity, and others are genetic traits like compatible major histocompatibility complex gene profiles. The theory also proposes that women's behavior may change during the most fertile time in their ovulatory cycle. At high fertility, women may experience increased sexual desire, consume fewer calories, become more physically active, avoid risky situations, avoid male relatives, dress more provocatively, become more competitive with other women, flirt with men more frequently, and experience decreased satisfaction with their current romantic partner. The theory is based on the principles of evolutionary psychology and has been extensively researched by scientists in the fields of psychology, biological anthropology, and evolutionary biology.


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