Tattoos and Sexual Attraction

Do tattoos on women make them more attractive to others?

Posted Apr 13, 2016

Although I have already written a few blogs on extreme tattooing (including one of the British television show My Tattoo Addiction), I have to admit that I don’t find excessive tattoos attractive in the slightest. I don’t mind one or two discreetly placed tattoos but women that are covered in them are a complete turn off for me. Most scientific studies that I have read on women’s tattoos tend to show that I am in the majority as seeing them negatively. For instance, a 1991 study carried out by Dr. Myrna Armstrong and published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship surveyed 137 career women all of who had tattoos. The authors reported that:

“Strong support for the tattoo was expressed by the significant person in the woman's life and friends, while mild support was perceived from mothers, siblings and children. Respondents cited a lack of, or negative response from their fathers, physicians, registered nurses and the general public. Misunderstanding of what a tattoo means to the individual and stereotyping of women with tattoos continues”.

Dr. Daina Hawkes and her colleagues examined students’ attitudes towards female tattoos in a 2004 study in the journal Sex Roles. They examined both size and visibility of the tattoo. Among the sample, 23% of females and 12% of males were tattooed. The results showed that both men and women had more negative attitudes toward a woman with a visible tattoo than those without. The authors also reported that:

“The size of the tattoo was a predictor of evaluation only for men and women who did not have tattoos themselves. Finally, participants with more conservative gender attitudes evaluated all women more negatively, beyond the effects already accounted for by gender differences”.

In a 2002 issue of Psychological Reports, Dr. Douglas Degelman and Dr. Nicole Price examined what people thought about a photograph of a 24-year-old woman with a black tattoo of a dragon on her left upper arm compared to the same woman without the tattoo. Participants were asked to rate the woman on 13 different personal characteristics and results showed that the compared to the control photograph, the tattooed female was rated as less athletic, less attractive, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent, and less artistic. A similar 2005 study using the same technique – also in the journal Psychological Reports – by Dr. John Seiter and Dr. Sarah Hatch, found that a female model with a tattoo was rated as less competent and less sociable than the control photograph of the same woman without a tattoo.

Using a different methodology, Dr. Viren Swami and Dr. Adrian Furnham published a paper in a 2007 issue of the journal Body Image and asked their students to rate social and physical perceptions of blonde and brunette females with different degrees of tattooing. The students were asked to rate how physical attractive and sexual promiscuous the women were as in addition to estimating of the number of alcohol units consumed by the women on a typical night out. The authors reported that:

“Tattooed women were rated as less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers than untattooed women, with more negative ratings with increasing number of tattoos…[Additionally] blonde women in general rated more negatively than brunettes”.

This latter study interested Dr. Nicolas Guéguen who has carried out many different studies examining what makes women more attractive. In a 2013 study on the effect that female tattoos have on males published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, he made the following observation about the study by Drs. Swami and Furnham:

“On the one hand, Swami and Furnham’s (2007) results showed that such negative evaluation associated with tattooed women would probably decrease their attractiveness for men. On the other hand, if such women are perceived to be more sexually promiscuous, this could lead men to perceive them as having greater sexual intent. Thus, physical cues that inform them regarding the receptivity of a woman are important. Hence, tattoos could lead male observers to infer that a woman may have greater sexual intent, which, in turn, could lead them to approach such a woman more readily…A survey recently conducted by Guéguen (2012b) showed that tattooed and pierced French women experienced early sexual intercourse. However, the study did not show whether early sexual intercourse can be explained by the fact that women reported interest in both sex and tattoos and piercings or whether women wearing tattoos and piercings experienced more sexual solicitations from men, which, in turn, increased the probability to have sex earlier. Thus, one way of evaluating the mechanism associated with this relation is to test whether men’s behavior changes depending on the presence or absence of a tattoo on a woman’s body”.

As a consequence of these studies and observations, Dr. Guéguen carried out an interesting experimental field study on a French beach and predicted that women with tattoos would be more likely to be approached on the beach by men. To do this, Guéguen placed a temporary tattoo on a woman’s lower back (or not in the control condition), and all the women were asked to read a book while lying flat on their stomach on the beach. Guéguen carried out two experiments and reported:

“The first experiment showed that more men (N = 220) approached the tattooed [women] and that the mean latency of their approach was quicker. A second experiment showed that men (N = 440) estimated to have more chances to have a date and to have sex on the first date with tattooed [women]. However, the level of physical attractiveness attributed to the [woman] was not influenced by the tattoo condition”

Despite the significant results, Dr. Guéguen did note that his studies had a number of limitations. Firstly, the women only had one visible tattoo. The study by Swami and Furnham (outlined above) showed that women were rated as increasingly unattractive the more tattoos they had (i.e., attractiveness was negatively correlated with the number of tattoos). Guéguen also noted that the previous experimental studies involving the visible showing of a single tattoo tended to involve the women’s upper arm. Here, the tattoo was on the woman’s lower back which (according to Guéguen) could have made a difference to the men because it “is near the genital area of female bodies”. Dr. Guéguen also went on to note that:

“It would be worth testing whether a tattoo exerts the same sexual attractiveness effect regardless of the body area where it appears. Only one tattoo design was tested in our two experiments, and it would also be worth testing various designs and the height of the surface area occupied by the tattoo. Furthermore, only attractive women confederates participated in these two studies, and researchers might elect to test the effect of tattoos depending on various levels of female attractiveness. Another issue is that the women confederates were not informed about the real objective of the study and previous research on this topic. However, they may have unconsciously behaved differently when wearing a tattoo, which, in turn, influenced the men’s behavior”.

There are clearly many different avenues that research in this area can go. However, this is one area where public perception may significantly change over time (now that tattoos are in the cultural mainstream). Although my own views on tattoos are unlikely to change, that doesn’t mean others won’t.

References and further reading

Armstrong, M.L. (1991). Career-oriented women with tattoos. IMAGE: Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 23, 215–230.

Degelman, D., & Price, N.D. (2002). Tattoos and ratings of personal characteristics. Psychological Reports, 90, 507–514.

Gueguen, N. (2012). Tattoos, piercings, and alcohol consumption. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 36, 1253–1256.

Guéguen, N. (2012). Tattoos, piercings, and sexual activity. Social Behavior and Personality, 40, 1543–1547.

Guéguen, N. (2013). Effects of a tattoo on men’s behavior and attitudes towards women: An experimental field study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1517-1524.

Hawkes, D., Seen, C.Y. & Thorn, C. (2004). Factors that influence attitudes toward women with tattoos. Sex Roles, 50, 593–604.

Henss, R. (2000). Waist-to-hip ratio and female attractiveness: Evidence From photographic stimuli and methodological considerations. Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 501–513.

Seiter, J.S. & Hatch, S. (2005). Effect of tattoos on perceptions of credibility and attractiveness. Psychological Reports, 96, 1113–1120.

Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2007). Unattractive, promiscuous, and heavy drinkers: Perceptions of women with tattoos. Body Image, 4, 343–352.