Our economy is a place where the reward to a seller is proportional to the level of skill with which a desire gets exploited. As nothing but a big exercise in unravelling human motivation, it proves the phrase follow the money to be the best guidance for anyone interested in the nature of our evolutionary urges. Seeking sexual relief (with a partner or in a self-sufficient manner) is one of them, having been responsible for the dawn of an industry focused on providing erotic stimuli for men and women alike. This profit-driven quest to maximally engage the consumer offers us the most honest portrayal of the things both sexes desire in each other.
And as we’re going to see, they differ in quite interesting ways.
Data is Beautiful
Being the sum of private consumers that we are, our actions reveal the common desires by sheer scale: As individuals we might be anonymous, but by doing the same things, we reveal what we have in common. What we’re left with is a black box containing the collective desires of men and women. It’s us who shone an unapologetic light on the less discussed facets of the human brain - ‘cause the more we buy of something, the better it sells, and the less deniable it becomes that there’s a biological motive for our appreciation of it.
Enjoying any kind of erotic media in particular is an act of inconspicuous consumption, private to a degree that we tend to not openly talk about it. Without a third party observer levering any motivation to behave in a certain manner, they reveal pure, unaltered motivation. It’s feeding your soul, without judging looks that comes with eating junk food.
One such example is men’s infamously preferred way of finding company in solitude: Porn. Its overt, visual nature is particularly instructive for analyzing the psychology of mating. After all, the popularity of porn and its common motives don’t leave much room for interpretation about what turns a man on: Men enjoy watching sexual explicit imagery, with a seemingly linear relationship between level of explicitness and sexual appeal. A truism evident in the ever expanding smörgåsbord of kinks and fetishes the internet sent upon us. Similarly undeniable is porn’s economic scope, being an industry with an estimated worth of up to 97 billion dollars.
That’s one side of the coin. Little did I know that this gift that keeps on giving is rivaled by its female equivalent, at least in its ability to create similarly outrageous amounts of money. Interestingly enough, the female analogue to erotic viewing pleasure isn’t a slightly femcentric manifestation of the audio-visual. Instead, it’s of the literary kind. We know it as the romance novel. And much like porn directors, authors creating this art subscribe to the profession of stimulating the arousal center of humankind.
If you don’t read romances yourself, you probably don’t realize just how astonishingly popular they really are. According to the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2008. The romance genre has the single largest share of the fiction market. More people buy romances than detective novels, thrillers, science fiction, or science nonfiction. At least 74.8 million people read a romance novel in 2008...and more than 90 percent of these readers are women. [...] To put these numbers in perspective, about 100 million men in the United States and Canada accessed online porn in 2008—just slightly more than the number of romance readers.
As you can see, both sexes share a common interest in assisting their practices of auto-arousal with supplemental material; yet their preferred way of doing so differs in the route of delivery. We like to turn ourselves on, and, depending on your sex, you’ll tend to choose one medium over the other. The medium simultaneously being the message - as Marshall McLuhan told us so succinctly - we can try to understand why this difference in preferred route of delivery comes about. With the help of evolutionary psychology and some theorizing, we might come to some noteworthy conclusions. For if drama really is just life with the boring parts taken out, I think it’s fair to say the same thing about porn and romance.
Sexual anatomy affects each gender’s mating strategy differently. By imposing certain reproductive limitations on each sex, the way sexual desire manifests itself varies accordingly and for that matter, dramatically so. Both men and women want to mate with whom they find attractive, but what constitutes attractiveness and under which circumstances it is felt must be in accordance with these unique challenges.
Over eons of cultural and genetic evolution, mating strategies materialized, affording ourselves the behavioral patterns that got our ancestors so far into the game. The biological confines we’re servant to are per definition what the sexes separate, which is why men, with their sheer infinite capacity for reproduction, aren’t (and don’t need to be) as discriminatory when it comes to choosing a female mate. Which is of course a stark contrast to the existential condition women have to contend with: Their limited amount of eggs in a lifetime urges them to more caution. For men, on the other hand, adopting the strategy of impregnating as many women as possible is a rather cost effective way ensure a continuation of their genetic line; or rather, the men that viewed it as such became our ancestors and part of our DNA.
It is thus that, over time, psychological mechanism evolved for preferring certain attributes that signal fertility - like youth and a high waist to hip ratio - as well as novelty, which allowed for an even higher success rate for the men who showed such preferences. Breasts and buttocks also give off signs about potential intelligence of the child, while feet size allegedly contain clues about former pregnancies and female reproductive health in general. With a catalog of sexual fantasies made manifest, pornography offers men an out-of-this-world buffet of choices, satisfying each and every desire these cues summon. Words describing attributes of young, willing women carve out the look of any porn-themed word cloud, with a wide array of adjective describing said attributes.
Men will find their curiosity baited by entering teen, amateur and gangbang, with their own fantasy suddenly assuming a pale colour in contrast to the bright pictures illuminating one’s eyes as much as one’s reward system. A man’s nearly endless amount of reproductive resources allows him to pursue a mating strategy of multiple partners. It’s men’s evolutionary imperative at work, dictating to spread their seed as widely and efficiently as possible.
This vocabulary-expanding scale of pornography’s offerings gives a multitude of insights seemingly directly out of evopsych’s playbook. That keywords like “college girl” dominate those sites is not surprising, as they do the same things with male minds, of which these sites are simply a reflection of. Contrary to what some folks would have you believe, porn is not the perverted outburst of a misogynistic industry, but simply a play on female desirability cues. Evidence for this is revealed by a look into the collective fantasies man enjoy themselves with:
Male fantasies are heavily visual, focusing on smooth skin and body parts, notably breasts, genitals, buttocks, legs, and mouths. [...] Attractive women with lots of exposed skin who show signs of easy access and no commitment are key components of men’s fantasies. As Bruce Ellis and Donald Symons observe, “The most striking feature of [male fantasy] is that sex is sheer lust and physical gratification, devoid of encumbering relationships, emotional elaboration, complicated plot lines, flirtation, courtship, and extended foreplay.” These fantasies reveal a psychology attuned to seeking sexual access to multiple partners.
Porn does a great job at triggering a multitude of cues, since it’s broadcasting the bulk of highly useful information a man seeks when observing a woman's appearance - not to mention the huge novelty factor inherent to the interactive medium itself. Yet it’s not strictly about genetic quality. It’s about men’s fertility capacity in conjunction with trying to use every opportunity to maximize genetic profit. While no actual children will come out of this, the on-demand nature of online video fits right into the always-on mentality of men’s sexual mindset.
Given a choice, men will limit themselves to the most fertile looking female they can attract. After all, every courtship with someone below that threshold could have been invested in a woman who’s more likely to bear offspring. It best suits their interest to choose a partner where the chance of conception is high. In other words, men seek out women who appear fertile, indicated primarily by her looks, which signals fertility among other things. This makes sense, since a man’s preferred way of doing things tilts toward impregnating as fertile many women as possible. Clues of fertility are the most unforgiving of requirements, and it’s the gatekeeper that needs to be passed to be even considered as a mate. This bears certain challenges for each sex, but more so for women than men.
That being said, men can choose to either invest himself in a single partner and helping the child grow, or throwing their seeds out there until one sticks. Especially when it comes to high value men, the quite literal most bang for their buck is to be found in the promiscuous way of doing things. One might argue that monogamy only gains the upper hand in instances where a lack of options puts it in a better light. Yet even if genetic adaptations lead to a more favorable view of mating with the same women over long periods of time, this won’t stop the appeal of women who fulfill the criteria for the first mentioned strategy. While more things are taken into account for longterm mate evaluation, the sexual desire an attractive woman is able to incite in a man is independent from any such qualities. A free lunch is always a great deal, even if you just paid for one. And the tastier it looks, the more willing you are to stuff yourself just a little more.
Compared to the unambiguously aesthetic appeal of porn, romance is a riddle needing more devotion to be solved. The covert nature of text makes it more difficult to identify its focus and the cues meant to be conveyed to the reader. Yes, it’s true that their book covers are often ornamented with an image of a generic Adonis, but this also tends to stay the only source of graphic imagery. The amount of visual information for mate assessment is few and far between, with the bulk of stimuli coming in the form of profane configurations of letters and the spaces between them. This points to a low prioritization of physical attractiveness in men, at least compared to other signals. Then again, it might be the requirement to even start reading the book - in the words of associate professor Jeremy Biesanz of the University of British Columbia:
"You do judge a book by its cover, but a beautiful book leads you to read it more closely."
In order to make sense about females priorities, it’s once again helpful to take the sexes’ reproductive situation into account: As discussed beforehand, human females are severely limited in the number of offspring they can bear. Moreover, the act of conceiving a child comes with the risky and demanding task of being pregnant. This sets up the stage for an economic imbalance between the genders, thanks to the asymmetrical relationship between a woman’s reproductive resources - the egg - and male sperm (a rather cheap good in comparison).
Naturally, women would want to seek out the highest value man they can attract. It’s a different behavioral manifestation of the same most-bang-for-your buck strategy that men instinctively pursue - the difference being that high reproductive stakes lead to more exclusive mating, in turn evolving to the default, hardwired preference for females:
On average, women have more economic power in the sexual marketplace. They can and will demand a disproportionately higher standard for their male partners. Men seldom did wrong by feeling genuinely aroused by someone less attractive than what their purchasing power could get them. Women, on the other hand, paid a hefty price. It makes sense to think in terms of an arousal killswitch that gets activated if a male is found to be lacking certain crucial qualities; a psychological add-on that points out their reproductive restrictions by limiting their arousal to men who exemplify a certain, highly desirable set of traits. In other words: The fact that a man looks good does not completely eliminate a certain level of useful inhibition in a woman's brain, for there remains the visceral knowledge of the immense consequences mating carries.
The fact that men’s attractiveness is comparatively less weighted by visual appeal has at least one other explanation: Men possess hardly any cues of reproductive viability, a.k.a. fertility. This is owed to the fact that the male reproductive machinery degrades less dramatically over time - an eighty-year-old is still able to pass on his genes, albeit with less efficiency. In fact, male attractiveness doesn’t diminish until about age fifty, where their mate value is even said to peak.
Since fertility is not of concern for female selection, men can afford to compensate for their looks by gaining resources knowledge and skills related to their environment, which makes the mating criteria women impose on them much more flexible, context driven and multidimensional. Moreover, getting aroused by such qualities like conscientiousness, intelligence and creativity may have offered females who cultivated such preferences an evolutionary advantage. That’s not to say looks aren’t important, only that they aren’t a standalone criteria for genuine arousal as they are for men when seeking out a mate.
We often hear about social status as the main criteria for female mate selection, a term often equated to the amount of resources a person has. Though if it was all about wealth, romance novels would serve their audience best by just printing financial statements of the richest men in the world - or for that matter, of any poor college student: We tend to forget that a poor man of 2018 is objectively richer than most men who ever lived in the environmental context in which the female neurological blueprint evolved. Yet, said demographic is generally not understood as being part of the upper echelon of attractive men. So, while money doesn’t seem to be the defining feature of male attractiveness, it’s still a very commonplace thing to have when you’re in the male sexual elite.
To clear up some of the confusion this apparent contradiction creates, let’s first turn to the story that romance novels themselves tell. Just as we did with popular keywords on porn sites, we now may analyze the most common male professions in the Harlequin romance novels - another accomplishment by the Authors of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”:
Clichéd as the above list might seem, these archetypal male personas are imagined to be attractive for a reason. They come with certain, culturally shaped expectations of their behavior. They are united in the desirable personality traits they imply, like low levels of neuroticism (cowboy), physical strength (bodyguard), expertise (surgeon) and prestige (king), which causes them to behave in a manner that signals women high mate value.
For women, the expression of these features are the actual arousal cues. Women value the behavior of men more than their looks, because it is most telling of sign for sensing a man’s mate value. Observing his behavior is a shortcut to get the gist of the knowledge needed to make a judgement about him as a mate. No wonder, since behavior displays the accumulated metrics compounding his value: His health, his genetic quality and his place in the male status hierarchy - which in turn is often based around skill and resources. Things much more important for the female reproductive strategy of quality over quantity.
If you’re a billionaire, sheriff or surgeon - preferably all three - it’s very likely that you possess certain qualities that are inherently attractive to the female psyche. For it’s not the profession per se, but your capacity to act in a certain manner that it points to. Same with resources: Men who had them were likely to exemplify behaviors that are inherently found attractive. Whenever a status hierarchy is erected - be it through the simplest of games - men with the most attractive traits will rise to the top. In the case of our economy, money is simply the indicator for one’s ability to act successfully in this world. It’s the byproduct, rather than the cause for attraction.
So, there’s a bitter-sweet pill for you: You don’t need to be rich to be attractive; but if you possess the physical and psychological traits that are attractive to women, it’s likely that you are or going to be, for it’s the same attributes responsible for your wealth. The broke rebel is not any less attractive - just a product of circumstances that occur less often together. That's not to say that resources themselves do not create attraction. But when they do, I'd wager that they are more likely lead to certain attractive behaviors rather than being the source of attraction themselves - like reduced stress and better living standards.
It’s for this reason that women don’t like men to have inherited their money, and explains other seemingly paradoxical occurrence, like this brilliant piece of mating science:
Participants (41 heterosexual female college students) read vignettes about potential male mates in both art and business, and each participant’s fertility was estimated based on menstrual cycle information collected. One vignette depicted a man who had high creative talent but who was poor, owing to bad luck and circumstances. The other vignette depicted a man average in creative intelligence but wealthy owing to good luck and circumstances. In each vignette, it was clear that each man’s level of creativity reflected raw, natural talent but that his level of wealth was largely accidental, not associated with merit.
For instance, in one vignette, the male artist enjoys the accolades of his art professors, who agree that he is their most talented student. However, his paintings do not earn him much money. In another vignette, the art student enters the art world by chance after just “fooling around” with paint and canvas. He accidentally spills paint on the canvas, and the result wins him a $100,000 commission. Both these artists are considered highly desirable by other women on campus, and friends say they are dependable, kind, and generous. Which fictional man do you think women in their most fertile phase chose for a short-term liaison: the poor, struggling artist or the rich abstract painter without much skill?
At the fertility peak of their menstrual cycle - where her mating choices are most relevant - women tended to pick the poor artist, for he reveals something about his capacity to act in a creative manner - which is exactly what the female mind is attuned to identifying as of high genetic quality.
What a romance novel accomplishes is allowing the female reader to assess a man’s mate value on multiple levels of analysis. The narrative exposes the man in different situations, thereby serving the purpose of showcasing his ability to deal with any situation. Thereby, the book spins a web of a highly attractive male person, by making him behave in a manner that communicates high status - which women find intrinsically arousin. His looks being only a footnote, the most valuable information to a woman is how he acts and reacts when confronted with all kinds of situations. Women carefully observe situations to learn about a man’s character. Moreover, they can project themselves into the female persona that plays it all out for them, including applying strategies to getting to know him.
In a way, a story serves itself perfectly for a woman’s sexual strategy: It gives the reader the opportunity to engross one’s imagination in the fantasy. It’s no coincidence that one page of a romance novel often approaches the same amount of text the script to a two hour porn movie contains. The informational content of a book resonates better with the female mate-seeking system, since the many more aspects a man has to prove himself in can only come about in this careful world building. A great looking guy will certainly do a good job convincing her of his genetic value. But the ability to have the appeal of optically appealing features overwritten by contextually more useful traits in a man offered women who cherished them an advantage.
But what about movies? Aren’t they the ultimate fusion of female arousal cues?
Well, first of all, the rom-com fills this apparent place. But second of all, considering the generic media critic’s observation that anything audio-visual takes away some of the enjoyment imagination can provide (“The book was better.”), we might take them serious for a moment: Maybe a book offers more opportunity to place oneself in the protagonist’s role. Often, the female hero, (see: Bella), is as bland as she can be, perhaps to make it as easy as possible for the female audience to project her thoughts into this blank human canvas. Drawing a line to pornography, the soulless female protagonist in nearly all romance novels might be considered the equivalent to the headless dick observable in much of pornography. Men don’t like seeing the males faces in porn movies, because it robs them of the immersiveness. Women want to be desired, and inserting themselves in the female character gives them the opportunity to do so.
Another erroneous instance showing us how the different priorities of the sexes manifest themselves is the fact that women allegedly tend to skip sex sections in romance, while men would be quick to skip any story-laden section in porn - a.k.a. the boring parts. It’s no wonder that the gender-specific enjoyment of these two kinds of media is reflected in the sexual fantasies of both, as David Buss explained to us in his excellent book “The Evolution of Desire”:
Fifty-nine percent of American women but only 28 percent of American men reported that their sexual fantasies typically focused on someone with whom they were already romantically and sexually involved. Emotions and personality are crucial for women. Forty-one percent of the women but only 16 percent of the men reported that they focused most heavily on the personal and emotional characteristics of the fantasized partner. And 57 percent of women but only 19 percent of men reported that they focused on feelings as opposed to visual images. As one woman observed: “I usually think about the guy I am with. Sometimes I realize that the feelings will overwhelm me, envelop me, sweep me away.” Women emphasize tenderness, romance, and personal involvement in their sexual fantasies. They also pay more attention to how their partner responds to them than to visual images of the partner.
Sexual Selection & Relative wealth
We’ve got twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors - arguably the single most underappreciated fact of all - because women want to mate with high status men. However, since status is not defined by absolutes, the man with the most advantageous traits in any group at any given time gets pushed to the top by his fellow men. This ascend in the social rank order has certain biochemical implications as a consequence and subsequently, changes in a man’s behavioral patterns.
For example, in vervet monkeys, occupying the higher social ranks results in high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (compared to other members of the group). Serotonin, a “feel good chemical” leads to many behaviors typically associated with social dominance: It relaxes your muscles, makes you gaze and behave prosocial and fearless. While one might argue that it’s the monkeys with these traits that rise to the top, it astonishingly works the other way too: Artificially increasing the serotonin in the second highest ranking vervet monkey in a group leads him to take on the position of the alpha monkey. Apparently, the reason this happens is our brain reacting to the display of submission by others and us behaving submissive when faced with the perception of a high status individual.
The reason this is important is because - if women really were to base most of their mate evaluation around behavioral cues - a mechanism like the above makes for an absolute genius way of female sexual selection: It allows women to base their evaluation on a network of people who assess a person’s rank by virtue of adaptive properties. In a way, a women can profit from using these status cues, for it allows her to assess a potential mate with the knowledge of the whole group, without having to know all the facts about him. Capacity for high social status triggers an ancestral system in a woman to feel a sort of magical attraction to the men exhibiting it, and acquired status does the same through a different route.
Of course, this is just a more complicated retelling of the truism that women find confident men attractive. Confidence, after all, means knowing that what you’re doing is going to work, thus presenting an opportunity to the people around you for deducing your overall capabilities. The fact that it’s also hard to fake makes it a shortcut to reading your value as a potential friend, ally or mate. Confidence is only attractive insofar it points to evolutionary beneficial abilities, not to different from height and muscularity. Just like with cues of fertility, the human brain runs on hardware that reacts to the things pointing to a reality, not reality itself. Knowing that a woman is infertile is not a turn-off, just like knowing that a man is poor isn’t. It’s just very likely that they’ll occur together.
All of this gives the male-female dynamic a tragic, almost mythological flavour: Women made men self conscious since the dawn of time. A man’s self-perception might dictate his psychology. Yet bound by his existential conditions, a man is seldom unaware of his own shortcomings. He might be able to ignore them, but in the presence of the woman he desires, they become apparent. The female summons any of his hidden insecurities, exerting a power on him that makes him question his own abilities. She is the ideal that judges him by making him aware of what he isn’t. The female urges him to actualize his potential, or else he will be disregarded by nature herself. Women are the propellant that accelerates the species success, urging men to become better than their fellow competitors through equipping them with the burden of performance.
In our search for what is responsible for sexual arousal, we found that - generally speaking - men value women’s looks more than information signaled by her behavior. We observed that a man’s primary way of mate evaluation functions across a visual dimension and that novelty intensifies sexual arousal. Women, on the other hand, pay more attention to a man’s aptitude in social situations, personality and confidence, for it’s these attributes that signal the highest mate value for their respective sex.
Fertility is for men what status is for women, since each factor has the largest impact on how well one’s anatomically imposed off spring strategy can be executed and was thus shaped by evolution to become instinctive and emotional behavior. The looks/status clichés thus remain a useful representation of each gender’s priorities. Both of them stem from a mixture of factors that are the evolutionary reason for these traits to be attractive, and they are in accordance with the sexual strategy the sex imposes on them. They are the messages of interactive, on-demand pornography and expansive romantic novels.
That being said, the looks/status dichotomy is not a perfect concept: While the levels of physical attractiveness in a man certainly have a profound impact on his perceived attractiveness, it’s not best practice separating these two things. There’s an intricate relationship between the way somebody looks and how he behaves. Someone looking sick will look less attractive, but also won’t feel like being the most charming person there is. Yet both effects can be traced back to the same source, that is, being sick.
Another good example is testosterone: It’s heavily involved in you potential to grow muscles, but at the same time has a multitude of other effects on you behavior, like motivating you to do anything necessary to achieve a higher rank in the hierarchy. Point being, the way a person looks has many of its roots in the same thing make up their personality, be it acutely through levels of health levels or chronically, by virtue of genetic properties.
There’s no way to reduce male and female arousal cues to singular dimensions without being disingenuous about the complexity that underlie our mating system. Neither men nor women stay unaffected when it comes to any of the things that define a person. The tight relationship between behavior, personality and appearance are very much interconnected, which makes the whole affair causally opaque enough to continue confusing us. But as a useful abstraction, it might suffice for improving our understanding of the sexual world.
Another complicating matter is our tendency to rationalize after the fact, predisposing us to misattribute our feelings to the most prominent perception in our mind: You might think it’s her big eyes and full lips, or his self-assured conduct in the midst of chaos - but it might just be you having smelled a complementary immune system thanks to the omnipresence of pheromones. Females ovulatory cycle alone make a man’s heart flutter in excitement during her menstrual peak, potentially causing a self reported, a posteriori conclusion for what caused his attraction. Or her’s, for that matter.
I want to end this article with a piece of statistics that I found particularly telling. Once again, it's taken from "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" (which I wholeheartedly recommend if you want to dive deeper into the topic.) The following table compares the romance novels female enjoy with one’s that homosexual men like to read. Gay romance novels stay in the domain of the literal, while maintaining the hallmark principles of male priorities. In the end, they still have their reading pleasure tailor-cut to the same preference of visual stimuli:
|Most Common Words in Gay Male Erotica||Most Common Words in Women’s Erotica|
|his hole||his gaze|
|his shorts||his lover|
|his butt||his teeth|
|his dad||his heart|
|his dick||he sighed|
|his big||his mind|
|his ass||his skin|
|his balls||he watched|
|his cock||he heard|
|his hard||his neck|