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Sexual Attraction

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Have you ever wondered why you are attracted to the people you are attracted to? Despite surface guesses, there are common generalizations of sexual preferences that seem to make sense, or are at least exhibited by the average human male or female.

Have you ever noticed that your preferences have changed or change constantly?  Well, there’s an answer to that too. “Female preferences are especially interesting because they are dynamic and influenced by the individual menstrual cycle,” said Dr. Simon Lailxaux, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the Virginia Kock/Audubon Nature Institute Chair in Species Preservation.  “Women prefer different things when they are ovulating to when they are not, and women using hormonal contraceptives also show different preferences to those who are not.  Additionally, both men and women appear to look for different things in a short-term vs a long term partner.” 

Despite the social connotations of sexual preferences in the modern world (e.g., the growing acceptance and understanding that gender, sex and sexuality are all different aspects of the human self), many preferences men and women have for each other come from biological occurrences.  

Evolutionary explanations for human sexual attractiveness have long fallen under the purview of ‘evolutionary psychology,’” said Lailvaux.  Though it gained a controversial reputation, “The rigor of evolutionary psychology has improved over the last 20 years, but there is still a lot of misinformation surrounding questions of the evolution of human sexual attraction largely as a result of this period where evolutionary psychologists weren’t really evolutionary biologists and were still figuring out how to approach this topic.”

“Our genetic legacy predisposes us to certain behaviors and preferences but it does not condemn us to them. Culture can play a large role in sexual attractiveness as well, and it’s important to bear that in mind,” mentioned Lailvaux.

That being said, below are some common aspects of sexual selection.

 

HIP-TO-WAIST RATIO (HTWR)

“The ‘traditional’ explanation for this has to do with childbirth; the reasoning goes that childbirth is traditionally dangerous for both the mother and baby. Women with large hips relative to their waists have a wider pelvic girdle, which means they will have an easier time when giving birth relative to someone with smaller hips,” said Lailvaux.  

“It is an innate, honest signal to men about a woman’s age and reproductive status across all human cultures and ethnicities,” said Dr. Jerome Howard, UNO Associate Professor of Biological Sciences.  “The male brain has receptors that evaluate HTWR in females, and MRI studies have measured maximum responses to female silhouettes that display a HTWR of about 0.7 compared to lower values or higher values.”

Thinner waists could signify poor nutrition, which lowers fertility, and the HTWR of a woman generally increases as a woman ages and become less fertile.   

“Large breasts tend to elevate attractiveness only in combination with narrower waists, and eye-tracking studies have found that men tend to look at either the bust or the waist region first, as opposed to the facial or pubic region,” said Lailvaux.

Nutrition varies due to cultural differences, and larger bodies that indicate more fat storage are sometimes more attractive in non-Western cultures where food availability is a problem.

 

HEIGHT AND STATURE

Height and shoulder width are signals to women about male health and nutritional status.  “Women do prefer men with the traditional ‘triangle’ shape: broad shoulders, narrow waists.  Women also tend to prefer men with broad faces; this is interesting because facial broadness in men is linked to high levels of testosterone,” added Lailvaux. 

Women also tend to prefer men who are taller than they are, but the reason for this has not been thoroughly researched.

 

SYMMETRY

Both sexes generally find symmetrical facial features more attractive.  There are plenty of studies to show this, but the significance of that attraction has yet to be established.  

“The best supported and most widely accepted explanation is that symmetry is a measure of developmental stability, which is related to how well suited an individual’s genes are for the environment in which it lives,” said Howard.  “An individual that is well-suited to his or her environment is likely to produce children that are also well-suited, and able to respond robustly to any environmental challenges they might experience in that environment.”

 

SMELL

Body odor is produced by Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes, which mainly work in the immune system.  “We strongly prefer mates with different MHC alleles, because the more similar they are, the more likely that you are genetically related, and we avoid mating with relatives to avoid inbreeding,” said Howard.

 

HEAD AND FACIAL HAIR

Hair length preference is more culturally influenced than other signals, but in Western cultures, young women have a tendency to wear their hair longer on average than older women.  This is less labile than HTWR for mate preference among men; it is not an honest signal of age or quality as a mate.  

However, a recent study examined why beards became so popular among men in recent years. “They linked beards to male facial attractiveness and to negative frequency-dependent selection, where things that are uncommon are considered attractive, until they become too common and are no longer considered so.” said Lailvaux.

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Sexual Attraction