The Hidden Forces Driving Women's Sexual Attraction
Unconscious forces have a strong impact on our attraction to others.
Posted Sep 11, 2018
When we consciously think about what draws us to others, we may focus on a sexy smile, a great sense of humor, or an attractive physique. But have you ever wondered about those factors which unconsciously impact our attraction to others? Although we are unaware of their influence, unconscious factors can have a strong effect on both the initial spark and our long-term romantic interactions. Both men and women are influenced by unconscious forces; below we focus on the unconscious influences that make a potential mate attractive (or unattractive) to women.
We do not often think about the possibility that our genetic background impacts our attraction to others; however, our genes can have a significant impact on our sexual attraction to potential partners. Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes in our immune system unconsciously influence our sexual desires. Evolutionarily speaking, it is useful to mate with a partner who possesses immune genes unlike our own in order to enhance the immunity of future offspring. There is evidence that heterosexual women are likely to marry men with immune genes which are different from their own (Ober et al., 1997, as cited by Garver-Apgar et al., 2006). But even after we have chosen a mate, these genes may continue to influence our attraction to our partners. Garver-Apgar et al. (2006) found that women reported decreased sexual arousal and an increased likelihood of rejecting men's sexual advances when they shared more immune genes with their partners. In this research project, few of the couples were married, but women also reported having more affairs when their immune genes were more similar to their boyfriends' genes.
Cyclical and Hormonal Influences
Women are usually unaware of whether they are in the fertile or non-fertile portion of their menstrual cycle, yet women's attraction varies greatly across the cycle. When women are in the most fertile portion of their cycles, and their likelihood of conception is the highest, women are more attracted to men with very masculine-looking faces (Johnston et al., 2001; Little et al., 2008), a potential indicator of genetic quality. However, during the non-fertile portion of women's cycles, they prefer men with more feminine facial features. Fertile women also prefer the scent of men who are symmetrical, and thus likely to possess good genes (see Thornhill and Gangestad, 1999). Even after choosing a mate, when estrogen levels are high, women are more interested in sex with men other than their partners, while when progesterone levels are high, women are more interested in sex with their primary partners (Grebe et al., 2016). Interestingly, women also may be most interested in dating men of another ethnic background when fertile (Salvatore et al., 2017).
A variety of disturbing research shows that heterosexual women are unconsciously attracted to men who resemble their fathers, their brothers, and even themselves (Fraley and Marks, 2010; Little et al., 2003; Saxton et al., 2017). For example, in one project, respondents compared facial photographs of women's romantic partners with photographs of unrelated men and photographs of the women's brothers. Women's brothers were ranked as most similar-looking to women's romantic partners (Saxton et al., 2017). Similarly, in another study, women were most strongly sexually attracted to photographs of men which had been morphed with photographs of their fathers (Fraley and Marks, 2010). These researchers stress that women are not attracted to their relatives per se (in fact, women even avoid their fathers when fertile; see Lieberman et al., 2011); rather, these preferences may indicate that women are looking for a man who resembles their family members, because genes that are somewhat similar to their own, but still different enough, may be optimal for reproductive success (Saxton et al., 2017). To read more about this research, click here.
Although the findings reviewed in this section probably do not qualify as unconscious, they are likely subconscious, as women often don't consciously realize the sources of their objective sexual arousal. Researchers presented women with three sexual films, one showing two women, one showing a man and a women, and the last showing two men. The women then reported their feelings of sexual arousal to the films, and the researchers used objective measures of physiological and genital arousal as a comparison. The results showed that although straight women expressed more subjective arousal to the film with one man and one woman and lesbian women expressed more subjective arousal to the film involving two women, both heterosexual and lesbian women were equally physiologically aroused by all three films (Chivers et al., 2004). (This same tendency was not evident among men; heterosexual men accurately detected their objective sexual arousal to women, and gay men accurately detected their objective sexual arousal to men; read more on this topic here.) These researchers believe that women's sexual attraction is more fluid and flexible than men's (Chivers et al., 2004). Furthermore, the stronger a women's sex drive, the more they are attracted to both sexes, regardless of their self-reported sexual orientation (Lippa, 2006).
Although we do not often consider the unconscious forces which direct our attraction to others, these factors may have a major influence on women's sexual attraction. Because the research discussed above involves mainly heterosexual relationship partners, future research will be necessary to determine whether similar processes operate among women with different sexual orientations.
Chivers, M. L., Rieger, G., Latty, E., and Bailey, J. M. (2004). A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal. Psychological Science, 15(11), 736-744.
Fraley, R. C., & Marks, M. J. (2010). Westermarck, Freud, and the incest taboo: Does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(9) 1202–1212.
Garver-Apgar, C. E., Gangestad, S. W., Thornhill, R., Miller, R. D., & Olp, J. J. (2006). Major histocompatibility complex alleles, sexual responsivity, and unfaithfulness in romantic couples. Psychological science, 17(10), 830-835.
Grebe, N. M., Thompson, M. E., and Gangestad, S. W. (2016). Hormonal predictors of women's extra-pair vs. in-pair sexual attraction in natural cycles: Implications for extended sexuality. Hormones and Behavior, 78, 211-219.
Johnston, V., Hagel, R., Franklin, M., Fink, B., & Grammer, K. (2001). Male facial attractiveness: Evidence for hormone-mediated adaptive design. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(4), 251–267. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(01)00066-6
Lieberman, D., Pillsworth, E. G., & Haselton, M. G. (2011). Kin affiliation across the ovulatory cycle: Females avoid fathers when fertile. Psychological science, 22(1), 13-18.
Little, A., Jones, B., & DeBruine, L. (2008). Preferences for variation in masculinity in real male faces change across the menstrual cycle: Women prefer more masculine faces when they are more fertile. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(6), 478–482. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.024.
Little, A. C., Penton-Voak, I. S., Burt, D. M., and Perrett, D. I. (2003). Investigating an imprinting-like phenomenon in humans: Partners and opposite-sex parents have similar hair and eye colour. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24(1), 43–51. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(02)00119-8
Lippa, R. A. (2006). Is high sex drive associated with increased sexual attraction to both sexes? It depends on whether you are male or female. Psychological Science, 17(1), 46-52.
Ober, C., Weitkamp, L. R., Cox, N., Dytch, H., Kostyu, D., & Elias, S. (1997). HLA and mate choice in humans. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 61(3), 497-504.
Salvatore, J. F., Meltzer, A. L., March, D. S., & Gaertner, L. (2016). Strangers with benefits attraction to outgroup men increases as fertility increases across the menstrual cycle. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167216678860.
Saxton, T. K., Steel, C., Rowley, K., Newman, A. V., & Baguley, T. (2017). Facial resemblance between women's partners and brothers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(4), 429-433.
Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (1999). The scent of symmetry: A human sex pheromone that signals fitness? Evolution and Human Behavior, 20(3), 175-201.