Understanding the Nature of Male Attraction

November 9, 2010

In an era where casual sex is perhaps more commonplace than relationship sex, at least among young people, intrasexual competition is fierce. This is particularly true for women, who prefer to mate with high status males. Because the number of such males is necessarily limited, there is a fixed percentage of men (15-20%) who are likely to attract the attention of many females.

However, male preferences are at odds with female priorities, and vary according to relationship goals. Men select for very different traits depending on whether they seek short-term sex or a long-term commitment. It is essential for women to understand the nature of male attraction, so that they can maximize their chances of success in attracting the kind of relationship they want, from a man with compatible objectives.

Not surprisingly, men are much choosier in selecting a woman for a relationship than for a one-night stand. For the random hookup, the prevailing philosophy is “beauty is only a lightswitch away” as men pursue the objective of “getting it in.” This means that they are willing to have sex with most women. To enter into commitment, men have a very different set of criteria.

A “mate preferences” study published last year from the University of Iowa looked at what men want in a partner. The researchers surveyed 1,100 college students and asked them to rank various traits in order of importance. This was a continuation of annual mate-preference studies since the 1930s, when, according to study author Christine Whelan:

Marriage used to be a practical arrangement. Getting married for love or attraction was considered foolish and perhaps even dangerous.

Today, Americans don’t even contemplate marrying without those things. In fact, priorities have changed significantly in 75 years:

What Men Want (2008)

Essential characteristics:

  • Mutual attraction and love.
  • Dependable character.
  • Emotional stability.

Important characteristics:

  • Education and intelligence.
  • Good looks.
  • Ambition.

Desirable characteristics:

  • Good financial prospect.
  • Good cook and housekeeper.

Unimportant characteristics:

  • Similar political background.
  • Chastity.

I find the finding about chastity interesting. In 1939 it ranked tenth, but came in dead last in the 2008 survey. Chastity is defined “abstaining from sexual intercourse before or outside of marriage.” Apparently, very few men prioritize virginity in a marriage partner, perhaps because it is rare today.

“When we administered the survey, several female students snickered at the idea that we even included the chastity item,” Whelan said. “This is consistent with the widespread hook-up culture on college campuses.”

This study looked at what men want in committed relationships. But how can women trigger initial attraction? What makes a man decide to go for a hookup? Is it strictly a matter of proximity and convenience? How might that kind of attraction differ from a man’s interest in wanting to get to know a woman better, possibly with the intent of becoming a couple?

Pamela Paul wrote For Long Term, Men Favor Face Over Figure for the New York Times on Sunday. She reported on a study: “More Than Just a Pretty Face: Men’s Priority Shifts Toward Bodily Attractiveness in Short-Term Versus Long-Term Mating Contexts” by Jaime C. Confer, Carin Perilloux and David M. Buss, Evolution and Human Behavior.

“To determine how men and women rank the relative importance of face versus body, the authors showed 375 heterosexual college students an image of a person with head [or] body covered up, and described the person as either a potential short- or long-term mate.

Women treated bodies and faces alike, independent of short- or long-term interest. Men, however, made a distinction between face and figure, depending on their intent…

Here is how the authors explain it: a woman’s face and body signify different things, they say. To put it in clinical terms, facial features are cues of youth and health, and features like large eyes are feminine because “they are sensitive to the rise in estrogen levels that accompanies puberty and persists through a woman’s reproductive lifespan.” This would indicate long-term reproductive value; that is, the time a woman has left to reproduce.

The body, meanwhile, signifies fertility in the here and now…Evolutionary psychology theory holds that men value current fertility (body) more in a short-term mate and reproductive value (face) in the long term.”

Roy Baumeister, another evolutionary psychology expert, said “The face is a signifier of emotion and character. Men who want a long-term relationship aren’t just interested in reproductive value; they’re also looking for emotional intimacy.”

David Buss, in his book The Evolution of Desire, devotes a chapter to what men want, and how it differs from what women want. The differences are critical, and women who project their own priorities onto men are likely to experience missteps and confusion as they display traits they’re looking for instead of traits that men seek. Buss explains that men evolved mechanisms to sense cues to a woman’s reproductive value. Cues for youth imply a long, fertile period ahead:

  • Full lips
  • Clear, smooth skin
  • Clear eyes
  • Lustrous hair
  • Good muscle tone
  • Behavior:  bouncy, youthful gait; animated facial expression, high energy level.

These are the physical cues to youth and health, which comprise the ingredients of male standards for female beauty. These cues are critically important to male reproduction, which explains why men prefer women 2.5 years younger than themselves on average, who display the above fertility traits. Buss found in his research, however, that for long-term relationships American men consider faithfulness and sexual loyalty the most important of 67 desirability traits.

Men worldwide want physically attractive, young, and sexually loyal wives who will remain faithful to them until death. These preferences are universal across all cultures and absent in none.  Beauty is not skin deep, it reflects internal reproductive capabilities.

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel is unhappy with the “culture of lookism” that forces women to focus on their appearance in order to attract men. She takes umbrage at an Amy Alkon essay published at Psychology Today:

“The gist of it is that men care about packaging. Your heart and mind matter, but won’t get you anywhere without some Pilates, eyebrow tweezing and lipgloss. And: “While we wish things were different, we’d best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.”

…Alkon basically supports every negative message ever sent by a woman’s magazine — and most sent by men’s magazines. You’re not good enough just the way you are. Alkon clearly chafes against the idea that lookism is wrong, stating: “Looks matter a great deal. The more attractive the woman is, the wider her pool of romantic partners and range of opportunities in her work and day-to-day life. We all know this, and numerous studies confirm it — it’s just heresy to say so.”

You know a little heresy never stopped me, so I’ll just remark that of course looks matter! They matter for both sexes, though more for men, and researchers say they have come to matter a very great deal more in the 20th century. We have embraced a “culture of lookism” and once again, I doubt the ability of feminists to reeducate men to find large, hairy women sexually appealing.

Dodai continues:

“None of those surface enhancements can make a person happy, and none of those things guarantee a fulfilling life. Plenty of beautiful people live sad, confused and lonely existences. Furthermore, the culture of lookism thrives on competition and exclusion. It creates an atmosphere in which things a young woman has no control over — acne, a big nose, a non-hourglass figure — trump the things she does have a say in: Sense of humor, book smarts, kindness. We’re left with a system in which those who luck out in the genetic lottery win at life, hard work and merit be damned.”

Her logic is faulty here, in the classic feminist manner – instead of addressing the role looks may play in mating strategies, Stewart points out that beauty doesn’t guarantee happiness, which is an entirely different point.

She is correct to say that mating involves competition and exclusion – that’s biology. In fact, many women embracing a steady diet of casual sex are doing so as a form of competition for desirable men. According to Buss:

Most women can obtain a more desirable temp. mate if they are willing to forgo commitment.  Men of high status typically insist on more stringent standards for a spouse than most women are able to meet.

It’s true that all human beings have “design flaws” over which they have no control. The good news is that for each one of us, there are many others of the opposite sex of similar attractiveness, and studies have shown conclusively that marriages are most likely to succeed between people who match up physically. Additionally, Stewart is wrong about some facets of appearance – in each of the cases she gave a woman can take action if she wishes to improve her appearance and make herself more desirable to men. She is not required to, but blaming men for not liking her “as is” will not be an effective strategy.

What strategy should you follow? Easy peasy!

A. Short-term Relationship

If you are looking for a short-term fling, pile on the makeup and go light on clothing. Display your sexual assets aggressively. When communicating with men face to face, animate your features with sexually explicit gestures such as lip licking, pursing your mouth, flipping your hair, and tilting your head to expose your neck. This will ensure that you are sending a clear sexual invitation. There are no “barriers to entry.”

But remember: You are in the short-term box, and movement to the long-term box is unlikely.

B. Long-term Relationship

If you are seeking a long-term relationship, dress modestly. No need to go the Amish route – you can follow the 1 of 3 Rule. Use your choice of outfit to signal that your physical assets are not for public display, but are reserved for an exclusive partner. Animate your features through conversation. Display friendliness, curiosity and generosity. Use your eyes to say CCMU (Come Chat Me Up) instead of CFM (Come F*ck Me). This will ensure that you are sending a clear message of selectivity and approachability to a particular male.

But remember: You are in the long-term box. Men interested in a quick hit are unlikely to target you for attention.

The choice is yours. Pursue a strategy compatible with your objectives.