When it comes to men, do women use their gait as bait?
When a woman is ovulating, watch out. In keeping with the evolutionary aim of reproductive success, whether she likes it or not, she will be gripped by the urge to mate. Like other mammals, it seems that human females also experience sexual heat, or estrus. Unlike some of our primate relatives, however, they do not publicize their ovulation through swelling of the genital area. Rather, it has been long believed that females evolved “concealed ovulation” in order to keep a male guessing as to when she was most likely to conceive — essentially a tactic to maintain his long-term sexual interest. If a male doesn't know when a female is most fertile, the theory goes he will keep trying to impregnate one woman over time rather than stray, and then stick around to help raise the child. But as it turns out, the human version of female estrus may not be so hidden after all. A burgeoning body of research reveals that women experience an array of changes that dial up the sexual heat at mid-cycle.
As a woman succumbs to the hormonal cocktail served up by ovulation, she will experience a range of involuntary shifts that signal her sexual receptivity. Physically, she will speak in a higher pitch, smell better, and appear more flushed as a result of increased blood vessel activity. Behaviorally, she will wear more sexy and revealing clothes. Cognitively, she can delude herself into believing that an appealing cad could be a good potential dad. In other words, she's a lot more Saturday night than Monday morning.
Women also engage in nonverbal communication as a way to express sexual interest. And like any mating dance, choreography is key. Previous research has found that women — more so than men — convey sexual intent nonverbally through, for example, nodding, leaning forward, self touching, hair flipping, and hair tossing during courtship or when flirting. But what French researcher Nicolas Guéguen wanted to know, quite simply, is whether or not a woman has a sexier gait when she is ovulating. This had yet to be studied.
In order to investigate whether a woman's walk changes, Guéguen devised a clever study that involved some undercover work. The participants were comprised of 103 women and a handsome male confederate (an actor pretending to be participant). The intrigue began with a female participant's arrival at the laboratory office, where she was immediately asked by the experimenter to take a seat in the waiting area until a second participant showed up. Two minutes later, our covert male confederate entered the scene. Furthermore, in order to keep the women unaware about the purpose of the study, the experimenter told them that it was about computerized word choices.
The experimenter then requested that the pair wait until he was finished preparing the experimental room, explaining that he had to leave for two minutes to retrieve the responses of the two previous participants. This, of course, was a ruse to allow the confederate to chat up the woman. He was given explicit direction to smile, to introduce himself, and to ask trifling questions about school and leisure. Two minutes later, the experimenter returned and instructed them to walk to the laboratory at the other end of a long narrow hallway.
As part of the cabal, the experimenter informed the twosome that he had to make an urgent phone call, but that he would meet them by the laboratory when he was done. For good measure, he offered easy directions: “The red door on your left, just after the bathroom. I’ll be there in one or two minutes. Wait for me at the door.”
Consistent with the procedure, the confederate walked roughly one meter behind the female participant until they reached the laboratory door. When the woman started walking, the confederate turned on a “large-focus spy camera” which was hidden in his coat button. As he strode behind her, he recorded her walking and the time it took her to cross the hallway. Once they arrived at their mark, the confederate switched off the device. At this point, the experimenter met the pair and brought them inside the laboratory. There was one more hitch, however. The experimenter said that before starting in on the computerized tasks, he first wanted to asses the women's Luteinizing Hormone (LH) levels in their saliva, which can measure for fertility probability. Once that was completed, the participants were debriefed. The experimenter shared the real focus of the study with the women, and asked for their consent to use both the video of them and the results of their LH test. All participants granted consent.
Guéguen tested for sexier gaits by measuring two things. First, he wanted to see how long it would take in seconds for the participants to walk down the 18-meter long hallway, starting from the doorway of the waiting room and ending at the laboratory door. The logic behind this calculation is that the longer it took a woman, the sexier she walked. Second, he wanted to evaluate how sexually attractive her gait was, as rated by two male judges on a scale from one to five. Of note, age did not play a factor.
What did the investigator find? Women at peak levels of fertility took more time walking down the long hallway and their gaits were rated as sexier by males, providing additional support for heightened sexual signalling by women to men during this window. Guéguen expounds: “Our experiment confirms previous studies that found women near ovulation acted in such a way so as to appear sexier and attractive for men. It has been found that women modify their dress to appear sexier or more attractive during the fertile phase.”
Putting it all in perspective, it seems that concealed ovulation isn't as stealthy as researchers previously thought. Human females may have lost the red swellings that some of our primate relatives rely on to advertise their fertility, but as a wealth of research has now clarified, they haven't done away with estrus.
Guéguen N. Gait and menstrual cycle: ovulating women use sexier gaits and walk slowly ahead of men. Gait Posture. 2012 Apr;35(4):621-4.
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