Hey Australians, what do you find sexy? That is a question researchers asked in a study on sexual attraction preferences, published in PLOS ONE.
A team of researchers, led by Stephen Whyte from the Queensland University of Technology, surveyed 7000 Australians between 18 and 65 who used dating sites, asking how important three factors are in a potential partner: aesthetics, resources and personality.
Each of these factors were further split into categories.
“We asked participants to rate the importance of nine characteristics associated with sexual attraction – age, attractiveness, physical build/features; intelligence, education, income; trust, openness and emotional connection,” says Whyte.
The results were different between men and women of different ages.
For men both young and old, it was all about looks, baby. Or at least, men of all ages deemed aesthetic appeal highly important, though older men did at least regard personality more highly than their younger counterparts.
In fact, older men actually thought personality was more important than older women did.
“Firstly, we found males regard both attractiveness and physical build as more important characteristics for sexual attraction relative to all other traits compared to women,” says Whyte.
“Both sexes, meanwhile, regard income as the least important factor but females do place a higher importance than men on education and intelligence, although men regard openness as slightly more important than the females surveyed.”
Come on young women – we’re strong and independent, so do we really need to rank a partner’s resources more highly than men do?
Well, that’s exactly what young women did – and older women deemed resources even more important again.
“Numerous scientific disciplines have long demonstrated the human preference for attractive mates and the ability to quickly identify attractiveness in others reflect a preference to reproduce what are considered good genes,” says Wyatt. “And while both sexes prefer a physically attractive mate or potential partner, males have been shown to report stronger such preferences for attractiveness.
“Females are more selective about other characteristics, because their time for reproduction is more limited so they can’t risk choosing poorly.”
Ah right – good to know there’s a reason.
So how much does age matter?
“Most studies on sexual attractiveness rely on limited age distribution skewed to the younger population,” says Whyte. “We have taken data from a much larger age range to judge how the pattern of sexual preferences may differ with age.
“As men and women age, their preferences come closer together, with both sexes placing greater importance on openness and trust while the relative importance of emotional connection is as important for males and females across all age groups.”
Aw, that’s sweet. But young people seem to have high expectations.
“Interestingly, for both men and women across the years of peak fertility and income earnings (18-50 years) participants who stated extremely high preference for one trait [also] likely stated extremely high preference for multiple traits,” says Whyte.
“Sexual attraction is a key driver of human mate choice and reproduction. Our results indicate distinct variations within sex at key life stages which is consistent with theories of selection pressure.”
So – it’s all about babies?
Not entirely, according to the study:
“Micro-level decision-making on sex, reproduction and relationship formation influences a wide variety of macro trends and social norms, including gender roles and equity, labour market dynamics, fertility rates, wider sexual liberalism, politics, religion and the broader institution of marriage,” says Whyte.
Surely context is a big thing – I wonder what people thought fifty years ago? They didn’t even have online dating back then!
“Well, the study took theories and previous research across the previous 4-5 decades and compared it with whether or not we see differences in preference now that we can use the internet,” says Whyte.
“And basically we found that all of the previous research show that males and females preferences are still the same, even though the internet is now the “new normal” in how we choose to find a mate.”
Hmm… Intelligence is considered a resource in this study – I hope that means I am ‘resourceful’!
“’Intelligence’ is considered a resource in the context that more intelligent males and females are hypothetically able to access more resources to support offspring, or also that “intelligence” might possibly be a proxy for greater investment in commitment to relationship and support for offspring on an ongoing basis,” says Whyte.
Aaand we are back to babies again!
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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