TBLA (10): the nature of heterosexual attraction (i)

Image taken from – and this post prompted by – this post at one of my favourite film sites.

I want to sketch out a simple understanding of the nature of heterosexual attraction, in order to explain why I disagree with the line of argument expressed in the picture. It is an understanding which has only developed in me recently, and is still a ‘work in progress’, but the main lines of it seem to me to be very plausible.

The starting idea is this: the fundamental building block for what counts as sexy in a member of the opposite sex is “whatever makes for healthy babies” (and I owe that formulation to Athol Kay, whose writings I recommend). However, what counts as ‘making healthy babies’ is different in men and women.

For men, any particular act of sexual intercourse is ‘cheap’. It requires very little investment of biological “currency”, ie time and resources. For men, therefore, the question of what will make for a healthy baby is first and foremost a question of fertility, and therefore whatever indicates fertility is seen as sexy.

For women, however, the situation is directly opposite. However brief an act of sexual intercourse might be, the consequence, at least potentially, is immensely costly in terms of time and resources. Whilst there is undoubtedly an element of purely physical attraction (ie a purely ‘biological’ assessment of health and fertility) there is also a significant social element. That is, one of the key markers that trigger attraction for a man is ‘social status’, which is a proxy for the ability to command resources – and therefore ensure that any child born has a better chance of being raised to a healthy age.

So having said all that, what is my disagreement with people like MaryAnn? Well, that motorbike image is not comparing like with like. It is comparing an image developed to appeal to the biological instincts of heterosexual men – in other words, an image of a woman emphasising all the cues of healthy fertility – with a pastiche. The picture of the man by the motorcycle is not an image designed to appeal to the biological instincts of heterosexual women. What would such an image look like? Well, how about this:


In other words, not just that here is a handsome man, but that here is a man with significant social status and dominance.

What the objections to such images seem to me to be based on is a repudiation of the fundamental basis of male heterosexual attraction. Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps male heterosexual attraction is so inherently destructive to the social order that it really does need to be corralled and controlled. In many ways, traditional Christian sexual ethics is about just that.

Yet if we are not to be irredeemably sexist about this, we need to also acknowledge the fundamental basis of female heterosexual attraction, and the possibility that an unrestrained female desire can be just as destructive as the equivalent in the male. In other words, if we are not to be completely prejudiced, we need to ensure that those things which might turn women on are kept as far from them as possible, in just the same way that those things which might turn men on must be kept away from them.

We would end up with, among other things, a ban on images and a rigid segregation of the sexes. Something, perhaps, that looked a lot like Saudi Arabia.

Alternatively, we could just become a lot more relaxed about both sides of the equation, accept that men respond sexually in the way that they do, women respond sexually in the way that they do, and delight in our differences.

9 thoughts on “TBLA (10): the nature of heterosexual attraction (i)

  1. There’s still enormous debate between those who hold the biological determinant position and those who hold a cultural determinant position. The latter argues, with some justification, that culture clearly influences our sexual preferences. They can point towards widely varying attractiveness ideals among different cultures and varying ideals within our own culture where preferences can shift between skinny athletic people to ‘voluminous’ bodies within the course of a lifetime. Those who hold this cultural determinant view believe unrealistic and sexist images of the female form can be altered by such images in your post.

    Those who hold the biological determinist position can argue the basic evolutionary function of human beings is to pass along their genes so we should expect widely different sexual ideals among different environments. African men for example tend to prefer a larger lady due to the severe environmental conditions in Africa. Extra pounds translate into a higher chance at reproduction. Culturalists can counter by saying if sexual ideals change according to our environment, then we should expect changes in the 21st century where our human environments, including our artefacts, culture and expectations, are radically different from the ancient African savannah or the living conditions of near eastern tribesmen.

    Neither of these two positions can capture the full picture of human sexuality because we also need to add a psychological component such as eg Freuds Oedipus complex. It also seems true that different age groups have different preferences that cannot be entirely captured by either the culturalist or biological positions.

    Humans are an infuriating mixture of cultural, biological and individual influences and we have yet to devise any sound epistemological means of distinguishing between them.
    The closest we came was during the 18th and 19th centauries when European explorers began encountering non-European tribes. Here at last was an opportunity to settle the debate over human nature. Here at last we could observe humans in a state of uncivilized nature. Unfortunately such hopes were groundless because each tribe encountered by the explorers differed widely in their sexual and social habits. This led to what Rousseau called ‘radical honesty’: because we lack any sound epistemological, we should simply admit our views are based upon political preferences. The idea did not catch on.

    The romantic in me likes the fact that we can’t classify the nature of human attraction as easy as other species.

  2. What I was trying to get at with my words ‘fundamental basis’ was leaving room for all the cultural stuff to then interact with it. I think any one person’s desire is incredibly complex.

  3. I’m probably not the right person to be commenting on this (!), but: I don’t think 007 fits your criteria at all. Women, according to your scheme here, would be attracted to men for characteristics such as fidelity, character, strength, fatherhood, etc. 007 is promiscuity personified, and would hardly be considered a reliable provider/mate/father!

    In fact, I think 007 is a male idea about what’s attractive to women – but that women are not generally interested in such a person. I could of course be wrong.

    This all would explain, too, why women find “cheesecake” photos like this one bizarre and sometimes offensive (this one seems more offensive than some others of the genre). Women – according to your scheme – are looking at men in terms of overall character traits; men are looking at women – according to your scheme – as pieces of meat; as a collection of “parts.” One has to do with experience, and how men develop character through living; the other is to do with physical characteristics about which one can usually do nothing.

    Men should actually be quite happy about this, because their attractiveness lies in things that can be developed over time. Women, on the other hand, need to appeal to men on the basis of something not usually under their control.

    Again, I could be wrong; I’m extrapolating from your scheme given here, and also going by my own feelings about men and what makes them attractive or not. 007 definitely ain’t it! (Although I do like the early movies.)

  4. (Anyway, I think you’re leaving out a really important aspect of sexual attraction: the psychological.

    I mean, it may be true that our biological programming is about “making healthy babies” – but our psychological programming is awfully powerful, and could have the ability to easily cross the biological wires. This might explain why some people are always “falling in love with the wrong person,” for instance….)

  5. OK – additional post obviously needed, and now put up. bls, I chose the Connery partly because he was fully dressed, but also because Bond is a dominant man – it is that which I see as the equivalent ‘turn-on’ for women, not the softer virtues you mention.

    • Don’t forget, though: the issue here in the photo spread was the poses themselves, not male v..female sexual attractiveness per se. And posing men that way was, to me, really effective; it’s a visual description of how bizarre these poses appear to women. (I find it hard to imagine that they really appeal to many men, either, I have to say – but they must, since they’re trying to see motorcycles!)

      I think they could easily have left out the female attire – the heels, etc. – and been as effective though. ( I should add I found both the original and the parody repellant, in almost every case.)

      I guess I couldn’t get past the 007 allusion and just see Sean Connery as some random guy with a car. Sorry.

      Will read and respond to your new post, too….

  6. Well colour me shocked. I mostly agree with your post taking into the caveats you mention above though I was reasonably sure they were intended to taken as writ in the inital post. Adding the observers comments, this would mostly mirror my view on the impetus of desires of the two genders.

  7. Re the link : Why are we hearing so much about the alleged harmful effect of porn on men, but nothing about the possible harmful effects of sex toys on women? It seems to me that the same arguments apply.

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