Are women really the fairer sex?

Posted January 6th, 2009 in Psychology. Tags: , , .

As a young boy, I was often intimidated by beautiful women. I only began to conquer this social anxiety when I concluded that the situation was symmetrical; women probably thought the same thing about handsome men. Later, I began to notice that many women don’t agree with my early conclusion. As evidence, here’s a conversation from Seinfeld:

Elaine: “Whoa! Walking around naked? Ahh… that is not a good look for a man.”
George: “Why not? It’s a good look for a woman.”
Elaine: “Well, the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
Jerry: “So you don’t think it’s attractive?”
Elaine: “It’s hideous. The hair, the… the lumpiness. It’s simian.”
George: “Well, some women like it.”
Elaine: “Hmm. Sickies.”

I’ve lost track of the number of times my straight female friends have expressed similar tastes. Why should attractiveness be asymmetrical? Here are my current hypotheses, listed in order of decreasing likelihood:

  1. It’s common for two genders of a given species to experience drastically different selection pressures. One gender’s evolution is usually influenced by sexual selection more than the other. For instance, male peacocks have experienced more sexual selection than female peacocks, which has resulted in drab females and beautiful males. The same effect occurs with cardinals. Notice that the males in both species evolved features which are actually counter-productive in terms of camouflage from predators.

    In the case of humans, women seem to be shaped by sexual selection more than men. Women have much less body hair than men, which doesn’t seem to confer any nonsexual advantage. Female humans are also the only mammal to have permanent breasts; all other mammals’ teats swell for nursing but shrink away to practically nothing afterward. These characteristics imply that women really are objectively more beautiful than men in the sense that their evolutionary fitness has been defined more by attractiveness.

  2. Our society has been male dominated for most of recorded history. As a result, advertisements for products have been aimed at men because they controlled most of the wealth (and, sadly, still do in many countries). Attractive women help to sell anything from beer to cars. Straight women aren’t the target of these advertisements, but they’re exposed to them regularly because they live in the same world that men do. As a result, even straight women tend to associate beauty with the female body.

  3. I think most people would agree that the genitals of either gender aren’t aesthetically appealing. They may elicit sexual arousal, but a woman looks more… elegant(?)… with her legs closed. So it might be more accurate to say that a woman’s less flattering features are simply better hidden.

  4. A man’s sex drive seems to be more visual than a woman’s, though it’s hard to be sure because of the current social taboo against female sexuality. If true, this probably means that a woman can detach her visual sense of beauty from her sex drive more easily than a man could. This hypothesis seems to imply that gay men would disagree with the concept of objective female beauty.

  5. More women than men could be bisexual, but evidence in this direction is skewed by the greater prejudice against gay men compared to lesbians. Does anyone have more recent, credible sources regarding these issues?

As a heterosexual male, I’m biased towards believing that women are objectively more attractive because of my sexuality. Straight women experience a different bias based on vanity. It’s flattering to believe that one’s gender is more beautiful than the other. Lesbians are biased in both ways. Gay men, on the other hand, could offer the most critical judgment because they’re not biased by sexuality or vanity.

Is the notion of objective female beauty mistaken, have I missed a hypothesis, or do you think I’ve ranked them in the wrong order?

Last modified February 6th, 2012

27 Responses to “Are women really the fairer sex?”

  1. Betty posted on 2009-01-10 at 20:43

    Wanted to throw out something I read recently:

    Women are more aroused by viewing virtually anything sexual – naked men, naked women, animals gettin’ busy, homosexual men gettin’ busy, etc. Men, however, are aroused mostly according to their orientation – hetero, homo, besteo- (okay, I made the last one up).

    From _Bonk_, by Mary Roach. Chapter 12

    “A series of studies by Meredith Chivers and colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto showed that men are more discriminating than women when it comes to how they respond to pornographic images. Women, both gay and straight, will show immediate genital arousal (as measured by a photoplethysmograph) in response to films of sexual activity, regardless of who is engaging in it – male, female, gay, straight, good hair or bad. Men, contrary to stereotype, tend to respond in a limited manner; they are aroused only by footage that fits their sexual orientation and interests. (Male arousal is usually measured with a “phallometric” device, which employs a strain gauge to detect changes in the circumference of the penis.) While straight women – and gay men – become physically aroused by footage of two men having sex, straight men generally do not. (A straight man will, however, respond to footage of women having sex, partly because he’s looking at two naked women.)

    “Chivers was struck by what seemed to be ‘fundamentally different processes’ underlying the sexual arousal systems of women and men. To test the limits of the phenomenon, Chivers gamely ran a follow-up study in which men and women viewed, in addition to the usual gamut of human sexual scenarios, footage of bonobos mating. Here again, the women’s genitals responded – though not as strongly as they did to images of human beings – and the men’s did not.

    “And it happens remarkably fast. ‘Automatic,’ is how one researcher put it….

    “Women’s genitals may respond indiscriminately to images of sex, but the women themselves will often report being totally unaffected by what they’ve viewed. Based upon how they *feel*, women are quite picky about pornography.”

    By the way, here’s a list of fascinating books you may want to look into:

    _Bonk_ by Mary Roach

    _Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters_ by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa

    _Survival of the Sickest_ by Dr. Sharon Moalem

    _Survival of the Prettiest_ by Nancy Etcoff

    _Nature Via Nurture_ (later published as _The Agile Gene_, I believe) by Matt Ridley

    • I found an article describing this fascinating research. By directly measuring arousal, these studies avoid any complications caused by the dishonesty of the participants.

      The device used to measure female arousal– the photoplethysmograph— seems to give ambiguous results. As noted by Levin (1992), in some tissues an increase in VPA may represent a restriction of venous drainage rather than vasodilation per se. In addition, VBV and VPA signals provide no information as to whether the vasodilation is occurring in the arteries, arterioles, capillaries, venules or veins (Levin, 1992).

      Because of this ambiguity, the authors in the Chivers study were concerned that the gender variations they discovered were caused by the different measuring devices used on each gender. Their validation technique was ingenious. A third group was studied, post-operative male-to-female transsexuals. The photoplethysmograph indicated that these individuals were all “male” in the sense that their arousal patterns were tightly correlated with their orientation rather than characteristically bisexual as with genetic females. Therefore, the gender variations described previously are more likely to be due to differences in the brain rather than differences in testing methodology.

      This is certainly strong evidence, thanks! I think I was wrong to rank “women are more bisexual” and “the male sex drive is more visual” at the bottom of my list. Although a more correct phrase might be “the male sex drive is more visually selective,” which isn’t at all what I’d have expected…

    • Corsair posted on 2012-03-04 at 19:02

      Most women usually don’t mean what they say so when they say things like “Men don’t look good naked!”, “A man’s body isn’t attractive!” or “No way I’m gonna look at a naked man!” they don’t mean it most of the time. If women really are not attracted to men, then why are the girls scream “Kyaa!!” most of the time when they see men like Tom Cruise, Bi Rain, Will Smith etc.?

      The population of women is higher compared to men, so logic dictates that there are more attractive women than attractive men but that doesn’t mean that women are the fairer sex, because men (straight ones) aren’t attracted to good looking men and women (again, straight ones not bisexual or homosexual) aren’t attracted to good looking women so you can’t really compare them.

      Usually, women can say “Oh! your body looks amazing and your face is so beautiful.” and not be labeled as lesbian but when men say “You’ve got some nice muscles there pretty boy!”, there’s a high possiblity that you will be labeled as gay so most men don’t say things like that but most women do. Also, most men hate to be called “gay”, they get so irritated they say things like “Who’s gay? I’ll prove to you that I’m a man!”, being called “gay” doesn’t mean you’re really gay.

      Most men hate popular men, “Justin Beiber is so gay!”, “Zac Efron is gay!” I’ve heard that a lot. Sometimes women do this too but most of the time it’s men who do it and you will rarely hear a girl say “Beyonce is lesbian!”, “Selena Gomez is a lesbian!”. Most women appreciate their own beauty but most men don’t.

      I wouldn’t say women are the fairer sex but I will say that women’s specialty is love, sex and love are two related things so women are better seducers and you don’t have to be fairer to be able to do that.

  2. Reythia posted on 2009-01-11 at 15:07

    AH, good. I was about to comment that I suspected that your Hypothesis 4 was most relevant, but I see I was beaten to the punch.

    I think, also, that this is relevant (copied from above):
    “Women’s genitals may respond indiscriminately to images of sex, but the women themselves will often report being totally unaffected by what they’ve viewed. Based upon how they *feel*, women are quite picky about pornography.”

    I realize that you might argue that this is a matter of women lying. And probably that would sometimes be true. But I would argue it’s not the only thing. Men may simply be more aware of their bodies’ response to visual, sexual stimulation than women are. If, in fact, women are more often vaguely stimulated than men are (ie whether there are men OR women — or monkeys! — around), it makes sense that the brain would have more blockers to keep that stimulation from the conscious or emotional self, just from the practical perspective of needing to get things DONE without distraction.

    The discussion of the visual attractiveness of men came up yesterday when I was talking to a group of two married couples. All three of us girls had to admit that the male genetalia, while pleasant for non-visual reasons, was not attractive to look at. On the other hand, we very much like to look at our guys when they DO have their boxers on. So perhaps it’s not fair to say that women pay less attention to men’s bodies, as much as to say that women don’t think specifically of SEX as often when they see a handsome man.

    Evolutionarily (is that a word?) this makes some sense, since the man was required to not just “seed” the women (which most men can manage), but also was required to protect the woman and child while she was pregnant and while the child was young. As such, we girls tend to focus more on things like strong, soft arms (manly muscles are good for physical defense as well as the emotional “defense” of snuggling!), sweet faces and attractive eyes (capable of showing the emotional attachment that signifies long-term safety and protection), and nice legs and buttocks (again useful for protection).

    None of the visually attractive attributes on this list directly have anything to do with sex. So while the female body may still respond, evolution may have routed those signals through different areas of the brain than it does when a man looks on a naked woman. Speaking from experience and regardless of what various muscles “down there” might be doing, the woman’s visual and emotional attention is much more focused on non-sexual targets. So basically, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that women claim not to be sexually stimulated, even if a strain tests suggests otherwise.

    Besides, seriously, you guys’ manhood sticks out like like a gaudy skyscraper in a beautiful woodland paradise. It’s just not visually attractive, I’m telling you! Turn around, since your nice smooth, muscled buttocks are much more likely to be enticing!

    • I realize that you might argue that this is a matter of women lying. And probably that would sometimes be true. But I would argue it’s not the only thing. Men may simply be more aware of their bodies’ response to visual, sexual stimulation than women are.

      Actually, I only think the other study is good proof that women lie in response to social taboos (to be fair, I’d expect men to lie more often than women in response to the question “are you bisexual?”). I agree that the inconsistency in this new experiment can be explained by a larger disconnect between a woman’s physical arousal and her mind. Dishonesty might also play a role, but I can’t tell how big that role is. (A female friend recently pointed out that this disconnect may be purely mechanical in nature; male arousal is much more obvious to other people, but she suggested that it’s also more obvious to the man himself than a woman’s arousal is to her.)

      If, in fact, women are more often vaguely stimulated than men are (ie whether there are men OR women — or monkeys! — around), it makes sense that the brain would have more blockers to keep that stimulation from the conscious or emotional self, just from the practical perspective of needing to get things DONE without distraction.

      That’s certainly one explanation. I think there’s another possible explanation, based on the fact that 1 in 6 women in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. This might be an underestimate because not all assaults are reported, and it’s produced using U.S. data where law enforcement and DNA testing are ubiquitous in an attempt to discourage such attacks. It’s also likely that the historical rate was higher more than a millennium ago, which is when most of human evolution occurred.

      So I have to ask the question: “Is it possible that women are more easily physically aroused, and less ‘mentally connected’ to this arousal, as the result of an evolutionary defense against injuries sustained during rape?”

      It’s a disturbing question, certainly. Your explanation is plausible, and may play a larger role. But in my experience people shy away from disturbing questions, and this tendency is detrimental to science.

      • Jenna posted on 2015-01-25 at 17:30

        Well then, you’d think that the phenomenon would only take place when seeing nude men. Why would women’s bodies waste its energy on becoming aroused at the sight of other women? The vast majority of people who rape women, are men.

      • True, but how selective can evolved responses be? For instance, motion sickness might be a misfired response that originally evolved as a defense against narcotic plants. Since my body can’t tell the difference between a moving boat and a peyote trip, my body wastes energy by throwing up.

        Maybe something similar is happening here. Even though the original defense would only work against (overwhelmingly male, as you say) rapists, the evolved response can’t tell the difference, so it happens in any vaguely sexual situation.

        Your comment does raise the question of how falsifiable this notion is, which is a common criticism of explanations offered by evolutionary psychology. It’s worth thinking about; thanks for pointing it out.

        By the way, these comments by Taylor17387 further down are also relevant and insightful.

  3. a posted on 2009-02-02 at 21:01

    A related article you might find interesting.

    • Thanks! That was fascinating– anyone who wants to read it without registering can get a username and password here.

      One new piece of information in the NYT article is that the Chivers study tested subjects’ responses to a video of a nude man walking along a beach and another video of a nude woman performing calisthenics. This seems like an odd choice because it changes two variables at once; a better idea might be to show the man performing the exact same calisthenics routine as the woman in order to simplify the analysis.

      Also, Dr. Meana points out that “The female body looks the same whether aroused or not. The male, without an erection, is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion of sex.” This hadn’t occurred to me; the man walking along the beach must have seemed like he was rejecting the viewer. I have to point out that this hypothesis could be tested quite easily in a future study modeled after the Chivers study but using a slightly… different… video.

      Dr. Meana’s experiments are also insightful: “Wearing goggles that track eye movement, her subjects looked at pictures of heterosexual foreplay. The men stared far more at the females, their faces and bodies, than at the males. The women gazed equally at the two genders, their eyes drawn to the faces of the men and to the bodies of the women — to the facial expressions, perhaps, of men in states of wanting, and to the sexual allure embodied in the female figures.”

      I was especially intrigued to see Chivers say “[Genital lubrication is necessary] to reduce discomfort, and the possibility of injury, during vaginal penetration … Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries during unwanted vaginal penetration that resulted in illness, infertility or even death, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring.”

      • Betty posted on 2009-03-06 at 10:04

        One new piece of information in the NYT article is that the Chivers study tested subjects’ responses to a video of a nude man walking along a beach and another video of a nude woman performing calisthenics. This seems like an odd choice because it changes two variables at once; a better idea might be to show the man performing the exact same calisthenics routine as the woman in order to simplify the analysis.

        Yeah, that.

        Something else occurred to me today.

        I’ve always thought I had a high sex drive, although I was on hormonal contraceptives (initially for medical reasons, later for birth control) for virtually all of my fertile (ovulatory) life. I became pregnant the very first month after going off the Pill, but since I haven’t returned to hormonal birth control I’ve had an opportunity to see how differently I respond without it.

        On the Pill, I never looked at a man and felt arousal unless I already knew him and was attracted to him for non-physical reasons such as intelligence. It was virtually impossible for a man to catch my eye based on his looks alone, although the same could not be said of women.

        Once ovulation resumed following my child’s birth, I was shocked by how different my responses were. For a week or so prior to ovulation, virtually every non-overweight man between the ages of twenty and forty became a person of interest. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say, I think I know now why adolescent males find it virtually impossible to concentrate around attractive females.

        Since the use of hormonal birth control (and to a lesser extent, other non-ovulatory states such as lactational amenorrhea or pregnancy) is very common among pre-menopausal women, perhaps that skews the results against attraction to the male form.

      • Wow, I never realized the pill had such serious psychological side effects. I think most heterosexual men would agree that these side effects are very bad and they need to be eliminated immediately.

        I guess this entire topic may be a transient phenomenon: it emerges after the invention of hormonal birth control, and disappears once birth control is perfected.

        But I’m concerned about the single data point, and the multiple variables changed at once (the new baby might play some peripheral role by altering your hormone levels), and the fact that the test wasn’t even single-blind. To start with, I’d be interested to see a repeat of Dr. Chivers’ and Dr. Meana’s experiments, but controlling for hormonal birth control and time until ovulation.

      • Eivind Eklund posted on 2009-03-31 at 04:20

        I have read about this as a general phenomena before (loss of libido after use of hormonal contraception). I believe it was in one of Michael Colgan’s books, possibly “Hormonal Health”. That’s dated and not a really serious reference anyway; but if you’re interested and you can’t find information through a web search, it might be a place to start.

      • Thanks for the reference. I mentioned your comment to Betty and her response was “decreased sex drive/libido is listed as one of the possible side effects in the package insert.”

        Personally, I think they should put it in a more prominent part of the package. In big, bold, red letters. With a skull behind it. You know, like the warnings on cigarette packs.

        Only, this time it’s more important. For the love of all that’s holy, we’ve been dosing women with chemicals that we knew artificially lowers their libidos?

        Uncool. Very, very uncool.

  4. I found another interesting conversation regarding this subject here.

    Recently, researchers placed people in an MRI scanner to observe their brain activity while they evaluated photos of landscapes to decide if they were beautiful or not.

    Surprisingly, men only used the right side of their parietal lobe, while women used both halves.

  5. Another recent experiment had men look at images of women in bikinis while hooked up to an MRI. Apparently, the area of the brain responsible for tool use lit up when men looked at the images.

    Here’s an interesting discussion about the experiment.

    I’d really like to see the results of a similar experiment where women look at men in speedos…

  6. Sharn posted on 2009-04-16 at 10:31

    I just came across this which could contribute to the conversation.

    Most of the women identified themselves as non-heterosexual, but several reported falling in love with, and developing sexual desire for, individual men in their lives, says Diamond, a University of Utah psychology professor.

    Talking to them, Diamond at first thought the women were mistaken about what they were feeling or were confused about their own sexual orientation.

    “The more I started listening to their voices, the more I started to think I was wrong,” Diamond says.

    While she thinks sexual desire is a key ingredient to passionate love, Regan says there’s a difference between what people find sexually attractive and what they find romantically attractive.

    “What turns you on physically is not necessarily what turns you on romantically,” she says.

    • Very interesting article; thanks for the link. Here’s a passage that caught my attention:

      …her model argues that while the goal of sexual desire is sexual union for the purpose of reproduction, romantic love is governed by the attachment or pair-bonding system, with its goal of maintaining an enduring bond between two individuals.

      Sexual desire is driven by the gonadal hormones of estrogens and androgens. Animal research indicates that attachment is mediated by the neuropeptide oxytocin, with a more robust oxytocin-receptor network present in the female brain.

      And since romantic love, she hypothesizes, is an outgrowth of infant/caregiver attachment, there’s no way to “code” romantic love for gender.

      My first reaction was that she’s clearly wrong; in my experience romantic love has much more in common with sexual desire than caregiver bonding. Then I realized that she might be right to say that about women. Perhaps women experience romantic love as a gender-neutral pair-bond moreso than men do, which feeds back into their sexual desires as the article notes.

  7. Tara Stoinski’s research shows that female gorillas solicit unproductive sex after watching a male gorilla have sex with another female.

    This behavior seems similar to the studies performed on humans, so the (subconscious) motives listed in the article might also play a role in humans. Perhaps women are driven to compete with other women– even if they’re only images on a screen. Men don’t experience this kind of competitive urge because sexual competition between males is usually “settled” by violence.

    • Ari posted on 2012-02-01 at 02:21

      Romantic love isn’t reserved for pair-bonding, which is more of modern invention either way.

  8. I just found a reference to an older study by Meredith Chivers et. al. which casts doubt on the existence of male bisexuality, supporting my fifth hypothesis.

    • Taylor17387 posted on 2012-09-07 at 09:24

      Yeah, but that study was later invalidated by the same researchers, who found evidence of male bisexuality in a study which used the same methodology.

      Another similar study (found here: shows also that straight men can be aroused by gay male pornography.
      A total of 34% of non-homophobic men and 80% of homophobic ones became aroused. The researchers concluded that the homophobic men were closeted gays and not straight, but the fact is that they became as aroused as non-homophobes upon viewing straight and lesbian porn. So probably their homophobia was a result of discomfort caused by the unwanted arousal, rather than an indication of hidden homosexuality.

      In any case, it’s no secret that lots of straight men like to watch at gay porn; there are tons of personal testimonies about this issue.
      And you find quite often women worrying about the gay magazines they found among their husband’s stuff. It’s almost a cliché now.

  9. Men perform worse on tests after talking to attractive women, while this isn’t true in reverse for women.

  10. Women react more aggressively to female strangers who are dressed provocatively.

  11. vomm posted on 2012-01-09 at 15:13

    something i remember reading a while back. apologies, no reference.

    something about historical (evolutionary) rape had a very high occurrence. females have traditional been the victims of such acts (being typically smaller that the male). The acts of rape could have inflicted damage to the females body to the point that death may occur. the female body has likely evolved to facilitate intercourse regardless of inclination to the specific act (the vagina in particular readies itself).

    the ‘prepared’ vagina probably wouldn’t save the females life, but would save the reproductive tract for having babies later in life, therefore ensuring through survival of the fittest, that the females’ body be aroused by acts not particularly to the individuals preference

  12. Taylor17387 posted on 2012-09-06 at 19:14

    This double-standard regarding men & women attractiveness is purely a cultural thing. We’re taught from childhood that women are beautiful while men are rude and strong. Artistic nudes are almost always female and depictions of naked women in media are always pleasant, while on the other hand, we see a lot of unattractive naked men for comedic purposes.

    Do you think that the Greeks, who absolutely adored the male body, would have thought the same about this subject? Would we still think that women are the fairer sex if most depictions of women in media were of fat, old and ugly women with flaccid breasts?

    Also, the standards for male and female actors are different. Actresses are usually required to look much prettier and younger than actors.

    As for women being more bisexual than men, it’s purely a myth generated by the double-standard of “girl on girl = hot” while “man on man = ewww”. This gives more visibility to bisexual women, while keeps bi-men in the shadows.

    In fact, accounts of bisexuality through history are far more prevalent for men than for women. Same-sex experimentation has always been more common in men, in all times and cultures (in fact, accounts of lesbianism are extremely scarce, even when other female “deviations” like adultery or prostitution are widely known since ancient times). The Kinsey studies show also this prevalence of male homosexual behaviours over female’s, as well as most statistics worldwide.

    Chivers’ study is usually cited as one of the few studies that support the idea that “there are more bisexual women than men”. But this is a distortion of the research data. What Chivers found is that vaginal blood flow is not related to reported sexual arousal, and happens in any sexual situation: viewing men, women or even monkeys having sex. Other study found that vaginal blood flow happened also in violent rape situations (and this has been witnessed by the police in some rape cases, I recall).

    A suggested explanation for this is that vaginal moisture happens automatically in any sexual situation as protection against injury, and has little to do with real arousal. Clitoral blood flow would be a better correlate of a male erection.

  13. RD posted on 2015-09-16 at 13:08

    I think that women are the more ornate sex in the context of clothing and jewellery. Why should women be so considering that in most animals males have been selected for ornate ness. Unlike other primates in general, female heat remains hidden to males perhaps to encourage monogamy. Women are potentially constantly in heat and clothing can advertise heat availability sometimes subconsciously. Does this contribute?

  14. Dean parker posted on 2017-10-04 at 05:56

    Taboo against female sexuality? That’s neurotic. Dumb scientist? How about we just go with dumb. Sorry to interrupt someone’s need to be a victim., but the few people who still think the world is flat do not make this a nation of people who think the world is flat.we are no longer a nation of people who want to lynch blacks, beat gays or rape women. I am a white heat male and I haven’t done any of those things in months. And their is no longer any taboo against female sexuality except in the minds of women who see brains are addicted to victimhood. Slut shaming is also dead – or would be if not for women doing it to each other – so Don’t blame it on me.

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