Eva Ritvo M.D.

On Vitality

Beauty Matters Part 2: The Hardware of Hunting and Porn

We may live in the modern world, but our mind's sexual wiring is not.

Posted Nov 05, 2014

In the first article of this series, I introduced you to our beauty hardware. Now, I’m going to walk you through what our beauty hardware makes us do when we’re not paying attention!

It may not be much of a surprise to learn that men visit porn sites three times more often than women. Not only that, but when women do watch porn, they watch different porn, and they watch it for different reasons and in search of different kinds of stimulation.

No matter what the modern world may look like, our designs are based on conditions from eons ago. Modern humans emerged approximately 200,000 years ago, and our hominid ancestors have been around for millions of years. The conditions that drove our hardwiring were rooted in hunter-gatherer conditions for 99% of our species history. It is only recently that we settled down into farms, villages, cities, and nation states--and perhaps even more recently that we have tried to settle down into sexually monogamous relationships.

As articulated by authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá in their thought-provoking book, Sex at Dawn, for most of our genetic history our ancestors were polyamorous (the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship with the consent or knowledge of everyone involved). It wasn’t until the introduction of agriculture-based societies that the modern concept of monogamy (loosely defined, of course; being sexually faithful to a single partner is not exactly among humanity’s strongest skills) became widespread.

Our ancestors lived in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and (surprising to some) sexual partners--and it was these conditions that gave birth to the design of our brains. It turns out that while we were designed for pairing, we are also designed for sharing.

We may live in the modern world, but our hardware is from an entirely different age!

What’s this got to do with porn and hunting?

In hunter-gather societies, as we know, the males hunt and fight; the females nurture and gather. This created an extreme need for visual acuity for males and a need to process this input very rapidly. Scientific studies have shown that men are better at judging faraway targets, while women are good at short-distance focusing, which perfectly lines up with the hunting (males) and gathering (female) functional split.

Furthermore, as males are not the bottleneck in reproduction (a male can impregnate as many women as are available), they are hardwired to not only see things as attractive, but to be rapidly attracted to the attractive object. In short, men are more visual, and sexual availability creates sexual attraction. Conditions for male sexual arousal are simple and completely straightforward.

Women’s brains react even faster to visual sexual stimuli than male brains. This may seem surprising, but here is what happens. With women, the brain reacts within 160 milliseconds to erotic images (faster than other types of images studies, including those representing danger), which means the brain has responded to the image even before the conscious mind becomes aware of seeing it. The difference between men and women came down to what their brains do after detecting the erotic visual stimuli.

Women do considerably more mental processing for both sexual arousal and sexual availability. The female sexual response is based on emotional content and is far more self-referential, meaning they are doing a complicated formulation in their head to determine who might be a suitable mate. Women need to predict into the future to select the man who will stay by her side to take care of her and her dependent young. Think bringing home the bison. Imagine how savory meat must have tasted back in the day. Men were expected to provide, and still are, although what they need to provide certainly has changed.  

By taking a chance on pregnancy, she is risking her own survival. Pregnancy and childbirth make her significantly more dependent for a long period of time, and dying during childbirth was well within possibilities. It behooves her to be very careful in her selection.

For women, the norm is sexual attraction=sexual attraction. And often times, that’s all there is. Unlike her male counterpart, there is not an automatic leap to sexual availability. The conditions for women to become aroused (and available) are far more complex. Consequently, what arouses them is also more complex, and visual input plays a far less important role. Who hasn’t heard the old joke that for women, foreplay starts at breakfast? Again, this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, but it certainly can be difficult for men in today’s overscheduled society.  

The amygdala (which functions as the emotional control center of the brain) shows much higher levels of activation in males viewing explicit sexual visual stimuli than females viewing the same images, according to a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience study. Their research validated the visual vs. mood dichotomy found between men and women. In the study, men and women were exposed two types of stimuli:

  • Type 1: Erotic film clips with story (but no direct representation of sexual intercourse or genitalia)

  • Type 2: Explicit representation of sexual intercourse and/or genitalia

The results were as expected: men are more sexually aroused by Type 2 (explicit), but women are more sexually aroused by Type 1 (concrete, auditory, olfactory, touch and emotionally relevant sexual stimulation).

male/female fMRI response to erotic images

Researchers also examined where men and women look when shown images from films and art. Women made fewer eye movements than men, but they looked at more areas of the body. It is quite interesting that this study showed that both men and women showed a preference for looking at women, and the women often did a full-body assessment when viewing other women. Think hunting, narrow focus, versus gathering, taking it all in! And again, mating is a competitive business for women, not so for men who are, by design, far less choosy.  

The Big Picture on Beauty Hardware

Over and over again we see that both men and women are hardwired with built-in archetypes for female beauty. Even in studies of heterosexual women, they show a stronger preference for images of women. Men are wired to look at women, and women are wired to look at women (even if our brains differ on what to do after looking!).

This is why women are so self-critical; when men look in the mirror, there is virtually no hardwired beauty archetype popping up in their brains making them feel inadequate, but when women gaze in the mirror, our brains begin to actively compare ourselves to our hardwired beauty archetype. It is exceedingly rare for any woman to perfectly match this ancient beauty archetype. Even Angelina Jolie has what the beauty archetype would classify as big feet.

Our brains are wired to see what doesn’t fit, not what does. Anything out of the normal comfort zone might eat us so or kill us, so that’s where our attention is directed. That’s how we, as a species, have stayed alive all this time.

However, this ancient hardware doesn’t serve us well in the modern age--and it certainly doesn’t support healthy self-acceptance. We must learn to embrace the beauty we have, rather than the ancient, individual facets we don’t!

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