Today’s post is about a rather delicate topic: the color of women’s genitalia. Before the politically correct thought police starts accusing me of being obsessed with female morphology, let me remind readers that I have written several articles about men’s penises (here, here, and here) as well as women’s breasts (here, here, here). The score is nearly even!

In my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, I discuss how the color red is at times an intersexual wooing cue (females in some species advertise their estrus via reddened genitalia; see the female chacma baboon’s engorged and brightly colored pinkish-reddish genitalia in the photo below) or an intrasexual cue of dominance (e.g., male gelada baboons use the red patch on their chest to signal their fitness; see the photo below). For these instantiations of the red effect in the human context see Niesta & Elliot (2008) and Hill and Barton (2005). Also, see the recent blog post by my fellow Psychology Today blogger Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne.

Female chacma baboon in estrus


Male gelada baboon

The general theoretical argument to explain men’s visual penchant for the color red when advertised by women is that it corresponds to the reddening of various erogenous zones during female sexual arousal. As such, it is not surprising that many beautification products meant to be maximally alluring are associated with the color red (e.g., lingerie, stilettos, lipstick, sexy dress). Here is a great quote from the 2005 British movie Kinky Boots where Lola (the sassy transvestite) is explaining the sexiness of red boots (see the clip here):

“Burgundy. Please, God, tell me I’ve not inspired something burgundy. Red. Red. Red. Red. Charlie boy. Rule one. Red…is the color of sex. Burgundy is the color of hot water bottles. Red is the color of sex and fear and danger and signs that say, ‘Do Not Enter.’ All my favorite things in life.” 

Some readers might recall that I referred to another telling quote from this charming movie in one of my early Psychology Today articles on the allure of high heels (see here).

All of this background leads us to a 2012 paper published in PLoS ONE wherein Sarah E. Johns, Lucy A. Hargrave, and Nicholas E. Newton-Fisher examined whether the red effect would manifest itself as an excitatory cue when men are rating the sexual attractiveness of women’s genitalia (on a 0-100 visual analogue scale corresponding to unattractive to attractive). Yes, scientists have actually conducted this study! The researchers obtained four photos of women’s genitalia from (beware: graphic images) and had these retouched into one of four colors: pale pink, light pink, dark pink, or red. Forty young heterosexual males saw the sixteen images (four original photos in four colors each) in a semi-randomized order, and rated the attractiveness of each. The objective was to determine whether the red images would be the most preferred (in line with the red effect). The authors found that the reddened genitalia were less preferred than each of the three other shades (all comparisons were highly statistically significant). The three lighter shades were judged as equally attractive.

I must admit that I do not find these findings that surprising. Unlike other primate species, human females do not (thankfully) advertise their genitalia when ovulating. As a bipedal species wherein women experience quasi-cryptic ovulation (I say quasi because there is some compelling research that shows that men can detect subtle cues of ovulation), such “frontally” conspicuous advertisements are unlikely to have evolved. Instead, women seem to signal their sexual receptiveness and exhibit sexual arousal using other cues (e.g., dressing more provocatively when ovulating; the reddening of less intimate erogenous zones). Also, as the authors correctly point out, the deeply reddened genitalia could be linked to an aversion toward menstrual blood, which most men do not find particularly appealing. Bottom line: That men do not exhibit a genital-based red effect does not speak to the color’s sexual allure in other contexts.

Since Valentine's Day is rapidly approaching and we are discussing the allure of the color red, I leave you off with Chris De Burgh's 1986 worldwide hit "Lady in Red."

Please consider following me on Twitter (@GadSaad).

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About the Author

Gad Saad

Gad Saad, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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