By Eric Jaffe, published on March 13, 2012 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
The study of male sexuality really should have ended in 1989. That year psychologists Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield reported the results of a social experiment conducted on the campus of Florida State University. For the study they recruited young women to approach male students at random and have a brief conversation. Average-looking women, mind you—"moderately attractive," even "slightly unattractive"—in casual clothes. No supermodels; no stilettos; no bare midriffs. It was important that the young man remain coherent. The ladies all told their guy they'd seen him around campus. They said they found him very attractive. Then some asked their man on a date. Some asked him to come over that night. And some asked him, point blank, to go to bed.
Cue the incoherence. Nearly 70 percent of men agreed to visit the lady's apartment, and 75 percent accepted the sexual proposition. At least one man asked why wait until the night. Another checked his mental calendar and said he couldn't today but what about tomorrow. Another who refused on account of being married apologized for having to refuse on account of being married. Meanwhile just half the men agreed to go out sometime. Extrapolating the finding to the real world means that on any given first date, the man would sooner sleep with the hostess than dine with his companion.
The study seemed to confirm every stereotype anyone ever held about what men want (for the purposes of this article, what heterosexual men want). We want women. Now, please—although tonight will do. At worst tomorrow. We want them like that old Army poster with the finger pointing outward. We want you. We want you like we're all Uncle Sam, and dammit if the Germans aren't at it again. Pack up the lab equipment, please, shut off the lights, and move on to more important behavioral studies. Like finding out who drinks "lots of pulp" Tropicana.
But the research did not stop there. What psychologists discovered is that underneath the simplicity, we men can be surprisingly complicated. We want women, yes, and we want sex. But we don't always want a slender frame and sharp curves. Sometimes we want a good personality. And a good romantic comedy. And to cuddle. This is laboratory science talking—not Hallmark or four martinis.
And our motives for sex have diversified (as have women's)—a reality Hatfield now calls "one of our planet's most important new developments." We want sex, but sometimes we want it to enhance the emotional relationship. We want to say "I love you" before you do, some of us; we want to race you to love, and win. We want to love you so much that when we see a pretty face we think it's less pretty than we would if we didn't love you.
It doesn't take a psychologist to know what men want. But give a whole lot of them a whole lot of time and you begin to understand the considerable nuance that governs what men want. Some people like pulp in their orange juice, after all.
Often while walking the streets of Manhattan I adjust both the pace and position of my stride so as to follow close behind, but not illegally close behind, an attractive woman. I must stress here to my girlfriend and mother that I do not do this to admire the view. All right, so partly I do this to admire the view. But another part of me likes to observe the reactions we—we're a caravan, now—receive from the menfolk we pass. To walk this way is to witness the spasmodic necks and detoured eyes and high-pitched whistled salutes and deep, perfumed inhalations and even, at times, affected indifference that together form the grand choreography of male desire. The performance is a haphazard one, and far creepier to the audience than to the actors, but it remains sincere as instinct.
When evolutionary psychologists review this show, they find evidence for a universal male urge to reproduce. A woman's figure is a hallmark of her fertility, they argue, and men subconsciously know it. Researchers have documented a widespread, magnetic male attraction to a waist-to-hip ratio of .7—the classic hourglass. An eye-tracking study last year found that men start to evaluate a woman's hourglassness within the first 200 milliseconds of viewing, which, based on my pedestrian observations, seems slow.
But to call this desire universal is to ignore a great deal of competing information. While men in developed societies go numb for sinuous curves, those in many developing countries surrender to a larger, more parallel contour. Plumpness may be a sign of poor health in the West, but elsewhere it's a sign that a woman has access to money and food. Some cultures even prefer a body type that health experts consider clinically overweight. And when a man changes culture, he adjusts his preferred measurements accordingly.
"I think one of the biggest myths that has been perpetuated by some evolutionary psychologists—though not all—is that there is one 'man,' or 'men,' with universal behaviors," says psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London. "In most socioeconomically developed societies, there is—not surprisingly—a preference for relatively slender women. In many developing societies, on the other hand, the ideal female body size is heavier." That may be little solace to some Western women, but as Swami has found, even Western males demonstrate malleability in figure preference.
A few years ago, Swami and an international group of psychologists led by Martin Tovée of Newcastle University surveyed the female body preferences of men (and women) in the United Kingdom and among the Zulu of South Africa. Participants flipped through a photo booklet of real but blurry-faced women wearing tight gray leotards and rated each one. The Britons gave high marks to slender curves, while the Zulu enjoyed heavier bodies. Then Zulu migrants living in Britain had their turn with the booklets—and chose bodies right in between.
As their social networks changed, so did male preferences. Maybe men don't lock their eyes onto 36-24-36 like some broken slot machine after all, but instead possess a "flexible behavioral repertoire" that adapts sexual preferences to changing environments, the researchers conclude in Evolution and Human Behavior. A subsequent study corroborated the shortcomings of a global thin ideal, as well as the role of Western media in propagating it.
Women need not move to Mpolweni to find such flexibility in action. Even among developed societies, shape preferences vary sharply. In countries like Britain or Denmark, where women have achieved social and economic independence, a low waist-to-hip ratio is less important to men than it is in places where women rely more heavily on men for resource acquisition, such as Greece or Portugal, Swami and other researchers find. The more resources a woman can gather on her own, the less men care whether or not her figure conforms to the supposed ideal.
Time and chance can change a man's physical ideals as much as place. One research team recently compared the measurements of Playboy Playmates of the Year from 1960 to 2000 to economic conditions in the United States over the same period and found that tougher times called for larger playmates. A 2005 study in Psychological Science reported that men who were manipulated to feel either hungry or poor preferred heavier female figures—a sign that, according to the researchers, resource availability can "influence preferences for potential mates" even among Western males in a wealthy culture. In other words, we can live in New York but possess a Zulu state of mind.
Just as our bodily ideals aren't stuck on the hourglass, neither is our general desire stuck on the body. A survey conducted around the time of the Clark-Hatfield study reported that about a third of men have imagined sexual encounters with more than 1,000 different women. In our minds, at our best, we are not Einstein but Warren Beatty. Swami's studies support the concept of dynamic attractiveness—the idea that no matter our age or body preference, looks are but a single line of code in a complex algorithm of attraction, alongside others defining sense of humor, core beliefs, personality, and more.
"There is an urgent need to expand what we mean by 'attractiveness' to include a much broader array of factors than physical traits alone," says Swami. Studies indicate that a majority of people are concerned with their appearance, "but studies also indicate that attraction and relationship formation are often more strongly predicted by factors other than physical appearance. Physical attractiveness might matter in the absence of social interaction, but once social interaction takes place, the importance of appearance diminishes rapidly."
Swami and colleagues recently showed a couple thousand young men in London pictures of young women accompanied by brief personality vignettes. The guys rated each image and also indicated the largest and smallest female figures they found appealing, effectively producing a range of acceptable attractiveness. Men who looked at the images while reading positive personality briefs expanded their ranges, while men who read negative bios shrunk theirs, the team reports in the Journal of Social Psychology. The greatest range change occurred with heavier women, judged much more physically attractive when paired with an appealing character trait like openness or emotional stability.
Of course, it's easy for men to say on paper that they care about personality. What really matters is how things unfold when they're two feet from a push-up bra and nice-smelling, fruit-conditioned hair.
Northwestern University psychologists Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel recently arranged a speed-dating event for 163 university guys and gals and had them indicate beforehand what they wanted in a mate: attractiveness, earning potential, or personality qualities. The men—no surprise—overwhelmingly said they wanted looks. But when they got to the table something changed. Eastwick and Finkel discovered that pre-event ideals failed to predict a person's true romantic interests.
In other words, saying you value physical attractiveness doesn't make you more likely to feel a spark with those you consider physically attractive, the researchers report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "When men say they care about physical attractiveness more than women, what that should mean is that attractiveness buys you more romantic desirability if you're a woman than if you're a man," says Eastwick, now at Texas A&M University. "Our study showed that in fact that wasn't the case."
A subsequent study led by Eastwick confirmed that men don't always recognize what they want in a woman. The researchers asked male participants to list a few traits they like in a lady. Then some of them had a brief, live interaction with a female who matched these interests, while others had a similar interaction with someone who didn't.
As the team concludes in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, male hearts don't seem to care what type of preconceived romantic preferences reside in male heads. (Interestingly, the same effect occurs in female participants.) "There's something about getting that live impression of another person that seems to get in the way of people's use of their ideals," says Eastwick. That something may be the malleability of attraction: A girl with the pretty picture can be too cookie-cutter in person, while one with an average photo can be endearingly cute. "Attractiveness just seems like attractiveness in the abstract," he says.
So we males articulate our desires with the precision of a leaf-blower. That may not help our Match.com profiles, but it does support the legend of male complexity. Sociologist Rebecca Plante of Ithaca College says it's a massive oversimplification to think that a man's sexual desire is "as plain as the erection in his pants." Plante has been leading part of a national, multi-campus, quantitative, and qualitative study of some 14,000 college students, organized by sociologist Paula England at Stanford, on the culture of hooking up. What Plante has found so far defies all simple expectations: While some guys do view sex and desire as one and the same, many others—even those in the early stages of a casual engagement—want someone they know and trust on a deeper level.
"We haven't done a good job giving men an emotional language, culturally speaking, to say 'hooking up doesn't work,'" says Plante. "To say, 'I actually like to know my partner. I like to be in a relationship with her. I like to be connected to her. That's what turns me on, more so than that she's attractive.'"
Male stereotypes fail to take into account the importance of what might be called a commitment continuum. At one end are married men, at the other are gigolos, with all shades of monogamous and polygamous moderation in between. The oversight helps perpetuate misunderstandings of what men want.
Yes, physical attractiveness is very important to men, but it's much more important to men prowling for a fling—who, studies show, tend to be younger men—than those after a steady mate. Yes, many men want younger women, but most of those reside on the short-term half of the spectrum; long-term guys tend to prefer women around their own age. Yes, men like the hourglass figure, but while they focus on the body over the face when looking for sex, the reverse is true for men looking for a relationship, studies report. (Women focus on the face either way.)
Take one recent finding that runs entirely counter to popular wisdom. As the undisputed emotional champion of any relationship, women are supposed to profess their love first. But a group of researchers led by psychologist Joshua Ackerman of MIT found the axiom to be dead wrong. Their surveys of twenty- and thirtysomethings revealed that men say "I love you" first 60 to 70 percent of the time. They even thought about saying it a full six weeks before their mate did. It took about as much time for women to catch up to their men emotionally, in other words, as it took Hemingway to complete The Sun Also Rises.
The meaning of the finding, Ackerman and colleagues report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, turns on the commitment continuum. In subsequent tests, the researchers discovered that short-term guys felt a decrease in happiness when women declared "I love you" after sex. They'd said it first to score quickly, the finding suggests, and then, having scored, began to realize what they'd done.
But men of the long-term persuasion were as happy to hear the words after sex as women were; when they said "I love you," they meant what women meant. Mark Twain once said the difference between the right and wrong word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug; the difference between the right and wrong commitment context appears to be the difference between love and lover.
"It was interesting to see that it wasn't all men who were conflating love with sex—it was just the short-term-oriented men," says Ackerman. "There are different kinds of men and they mean different kinds of things when they're communicating love."
The longer a man stays long-term, the more in touch with his emotional side he may get. The Kinsey Institute recently conducted an international survey of more than 1,000 middle-age couples who had, on average, been together 25 years. The researchers measured each partner's relationship and sexual satisfaction on a number of variables. Some of the findings were obvious—sexual functioning, for instance, was strongly related to male sexual satisfaction—but others were highly unexpected.
One "striking" finding, to borrow the report's own word, was a very strong connection between a man's relationship satisfaction and his frequency of physical intimacy. Not physical intimacy as in sex, but physical intimacy as in kissing, cuddling, and general, not necessarily sexual, caressing. The odds of a man being happy in his relationship increased by a factor of three if he snuggled up regularly.
The researchers were floored and expect the finding to prompt full "reconsideration of the role of physical affection and its meaning for each gender in longer-term relationships." Says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute and the study leader, "People really are so willing to accept stereotypes of male promiscuity and inability to commit. That is the problem with stereotyping: It tends not to be 'men in their early 20s'; it tends to be 'all men.' It's just that men are more complicated than that."
Something about being in a relationship even seems to change instinctual male desires. A good deal of evidence suggests that men sense when a woman is primed for reproduction; they can tell she's ovulating, for instance, just by sniffing a T-shirt she wore, and they rate her as more attractive—and, in one classic study of strippers, give her better tips—at these times of the month than at others.
But heightened sensitivity to a woman's sex drive can be dulled by the mere existence of commitment. Florida State psychologists Saul Miller and Jon Maner report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that while single men rate a woman as particularly attractive at her peak fertility, men in a long-term relationship consider her less appealing.
"There's an interesting and complex relationship between how committed a man is and how actively he'll try to avoid tempting sexual alternatives," says Maner. "As one example: Men sometimes automatically avert their gaze from tempting alternatives, and they do so without even having to think about it." Maybe that indifference some men show in the presence of attractive women on New York City sidewalks isn't affected at all. Maybe it's affection remembered.
If we are complex—still admittedly if—we don't like to show it. Sometimes our emotional side is so hidden researchers can't find it. A notable mid-'90s study by evolutionary psychologists found that when you ask people what type of infidelity will upset them, men say a sexual tryst more than women, and women an emotional affair more than men. That's Mars and Venus in galactic alignment.
Only problem is, we're on Earth. What the research revealed to those on this planet is that within the male gender the question is far from settled. Envisioning a mate having acrobatic sex with a stranger made only about a quarter of Dutch and German men more upset than picturing her in love with the fellow, and about half of Americans responded the same way.
A recent study of romantic comedies unearthed another emotional surprise. Sure, men reported enjoying sappy movies less than women do—the term chick flicks is not on trial here—but that's very different from concluding that men don't like them at all. Psychologist Richard Jackson Harris of Kansas State University found that actual men liked seeing a romantic comedy on a date much more than women thought "most men" would.
And when men were asked to choose which of the film's scenes they'd like to enact, 40 percent chose a romantic encounter (read: kissing or caressing without intercourse) while another 15 percent chose an intimate conversation. Only 20 percent chose a full-on sex scene. We may have 1,000 or so sexual fantasies, but only in some of them are we the cable guy who arrives just as you're getting out of the shower. In others we're Paul Rudd.
To some degree, notions of male simplicity persist, despite growing evidence to the contrary, due to the very nature of masculinity. A recent series of experiments described in Current Directions in Psychological Science conclude that manhood is both elusive and tenuous. In one experiment, test participants associated the loss of manhood with social, impermanent things, like letting someone down, as opposed to physical things, like growing weak with age. So manhood must be earned by demonstration, and it must be demonstrated repeatedly, until we've shielded our vulnerability behind a haze of one-dimensional sexuality.
"Men seemed to have a heightened sense of the precariousness of the male gender role," says University of South Florida psychologist Jennifer Bosson, the paper's lead author. "We haven't found many men willing to admit that my manhood is often in question, but when you ask men in general if manhood is something that's easy to lose and hard to attain, they agree that's the case." Or, as the Kinsey Institute's Julia Heiman puts it: "Heterosexual men have a little trouble saying they really like kissing and cuddling."
When the roles were reversed in the 1989 Clark-Hatfield study and men were doing the sexual offering, about half the women accepted the date. Very, very few agreed to come over that night. Not a single one agreed to go to bed. "You've got to be kidding," was a common reply. "What is wrong with you?" was another. Some things haven't changed much in the recent past, and aren't likely to: In replications of the experiment, albeit on paper, researchers have consistently found that men are far more likely than women to accept the casual sexual offer.
But some things have changed. One re-creation of the classic study, which was conducted by an international group of researchers and published in Human Nature, found that men are much more likely to date a woman than they had been in 1989. Although the updated study was conducted on paper, not in person, it included a larger and more diverse population of men, and it varied the attractiveness of the sex solicitor. More men were willing to date a "slightly unattractive" woman than were willing to sleep with an "exceptionally attractive" woman, 87 percent to about 82.
The researchers also found that women were willing to hop into bed too—a full 24 percent—if the man was good-looking enough. Another re-creation of the original experiment, conducted by Michigan psychologist Terri Conley, discovered similar behavioral shifts. She reports in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that two in five women accept a proposition if they think the man will be good enough in bed.
"Social commentators tend to be extremists. They view the world as, one, men and women are identical, or two, we are different species. There is little sense of nuance," says Elaine Hatfield now, looking back on why her findings produced such a strong response. "I think both men and women want love and sex. Some men pretend to be macho. But under the right conditions both men and women admit to being more complex than the stereotypes would have it."