Thursday, October 2, 2014

What do people find sexually attractive?

 Sexual Attraction

In my previous post, I wrote about sexual orientation. This week I take a look at factors that influence sexual attraction. I'll take a look at recent research and consider how the findings might relate to the concerns of people working to integrate their religious faith with beliefs about sexuality.

Over the years I have consulted with organizations. Not surprisingly, Christians who supervise housing (e.g., colleges, group homes, residential treatment programs) express concern about appropriate sexuality. They focus most on keeping men and women apart. Despite a common occurrence, it is rare for a Christian organization to discuss same sex activity within their residences or among coworkers. It does not seem to occur to many that two persons of the same sex may find each other sexually attractive. The leaders would not think of assigning a man and a woman to the same room but they do not consider the assignment of two same-sex oriented persons to the same room.

What have psychologists learned about sexual attraction? How is it similar or different for heterosexuals and homosexuals? Research is ongoing but recent findings were summarized by Jon Maner, Saul Miller, and Jennifer Leo in 2012. I'll draw on their summary for this post and encourage you to read their work for details.


Attention is a key component in the overall process of sexual attraction. The brain’s attentional system is located in the posterior part of the parietal lobe. Normally functioning attentional processes focus on a salient stimulus, end that targeted focus, and subsequently orient toward another stimulus. For example, if you are planning on picking up a guest at an airport and have a picture of the person, you intentionally scan the crowd for faces similar to the one in your picture. You naturally orient from one face to another in search of a match. And you screen out other faces. Motivational processes guide the attentional system through the orienting processes by identifying key characteristics in the environment. So what do people attend to when it comes to sexuality?


Both women and men search for mates who appear physically fit. In general, people with highly symmetrical characteristics are more attractive and symmetry is linked to a strong immune system and overall genetic fitness. Women tend to select men who are socially dominant. Social dominance is linked to high levels of testosterone. The brain-linked bias toward attractiveness is not just based on what people say. Laboratory studies using eye-tracking technology identify how long men and women look at attractive faces. The bias is strongest for people who are single and interested in a sexual relationship

A difference between the sexes exists. Men tend to look longer at physically attractive women and women tend to prefer men who displayed evidence of high social status. Both gay men and heterosexual men prefer sexual partners who are relatively younger than themselves and they place an emphasis on physical attractiveness.

Influential factors

Researchers find that an almost magnetic property exists for attractive faces when people have a mating mindset. Here’s an example of how the mindset is studied. A mindset can be created by giving people a short story to read or words about loving and kissing. Then a series of faces are presented and attention measured. In the blink of an eye (milliseconds), people who were primed by the mating mindset focused more on the attractive faces and sustained their attention on those faces longer than those who were not primed.
For women, psychological changes are linked to different points in the menstrual cycle. On days before and the day of ovulation, when the probability of conception is most likely, women show higher interest in their partners compared to other days. The biological measure of interest is an increase in the diameter of the pupil. Also, using eye-tracking methodology, researchers find that women who were ovulating attended to more highly attractive men.

Because of the variations in the menstrual cycle and the obvious importance of timing to successful reproduction, researchers have focused attention on the time surrounding ovulation. Several findings describe commonly occurring behavior patterns linked to this time when fertility is optimal. Women report increases in self-stimulation, sexual desire, and sexual fantasies. They are more interested in social gatherings and wear more sexually provocative clothes. And they show a greater interest in men who appear fit.
Scent of a...

Men appear biologically adapted to recognize the scent of a woman who nears her peak period of fertility. When men are presented with clothes worn by women at different points in their menstrual cycle, they preferred the clothes worn by ovulating women. And men biologically responded to the clothes as measured by higher testosterone levels compared to the men in a control condition who smelled similar clothes, which were not worn by ovulating women. The men were unaware of a woman’s ovulation status when they were exposed to the scents in women’s clothes. Also of interest, the men who smelled the clothes of an ovulating woman increased their responding to sexual words and ideas more than did men in other conditions. Other research, based on women’s descriptions of their mates’ behavior, indicates increased guarding behavior. An example of guarding behavior is actively becoming more possessive of her time when she is ovulating. In experimental conditions, men displayed more risk taking when an ovulating woman was present suggesting an unaware effect of a woman’s fertility status on how men behaved.

Women are also responsive to the scent of men. Women prefer men whose scents indicate genetic differences related to immune system functioning. They prefer the scent of men who appear highly symmetrical, especially when the women were ovulating. Women also prefer the scent of men with high levels of testosterone as do gay men. But heterosexual men do not show a preference for the scent of testosterone.


Most of the research has focused on heterosexual attraction. There's more to learn about sexual attraction especially among people who identify as a sexual minority. The above summary offers some information about persons who experience same sex attraction. Whether for personal reasons or reasons related to employment, supervision, or residential services, learning more about sexual attraction is important. And thinking broadly about sexual attraction and the automaticity of human biopsychological systems may help plan ways to limit unwanted relationships as well as enhance desirable relationships.

The importance of faces in sexual attraction seems to be well known as some religious groups require a veiled face and others require no make up, which presumably makes a face more attractive.

The importance of faces also can be seen in Facebook's popularity and the ubiquitous selfie.

Recognizing one's degree of sexual attractiveness may offer some control over attracting or repelling interest from potential romantic partners.

Understanding the contribution of biology to sexual attraction can help appreciate the rapid pre-awareness brain activity that invites attention and triggers sex-related thoughts before thoughts and feelings fully enter awareness.  In fact, many entertaining stories include the funny situation in which the audience sees the attraction before the focal couple recognizes what others see.

The findings suggest some hypotheses related to religious groups concerned about the sexual behavior of their members.
 * Girls and women will find male religious leaders attractive based on their social role-- even more so if the leaders are fit and have a handsome face.
 * A modest appearance may decrease unwanted attention compared to a highly sexualized appearance.

Assuming individual students agree with a religious organization's policies limiting sexual activity to married persons, the college or other organization has a role in promoting same sex relationships among singles when two same-sex attracted persons share living space.  Clinicians are no stranger to stories of young Christians anxiously reporting their same-sex relationship with roommates which can be very confusing. And very threatening when they wish to complete their education in a setting where such relationships are unacceptable.

And a corollary to the above, if it is not safe for college students or others to speak about same sex attraction then they remain alone in attempting to cope with powerful feelings as they are surrounded by potential partners unlike their heterosexual peers who are physically separated-- at least they have different living arrangements. 

Of course, despite the best intentions of students and staff, people will have sexual relations. And in conservative religious communities, discovered relationships have negative consequences that take on greater significance when sexual purity is glorified and contrastingly, sex outside of marriage is repeatedly condemned.

Read more about Christianity, Sexuality, and Christian Morality in A House Divided


How might information about sexual attraction assist people working to make campuses safe from sexual assault?

Do you think people can stimulate sexual interest by their appearance? If so, what might this mean for living or working closely with people interested in finding a romantic partner?

What facts might make a difference in how Christian schools revise or enforce their sexual conduct policies? See the Gordon college news story for example


Maner, J. K., Miller, S. L., & Leo, J. (2012). Adaptive relationship cognition: The sights and smells of sexual attraction. In O. Gillath, G. Adams, & A. Kunkel (Eds.). New directions in close relationships: Integrating across disciplines and theoretical approaches (pp. 153-168). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

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