A new analysis suggests that men and women have broadly similar priorities in their sexual attraction preferences but vary in degree of preference for certain traits. Preferences also appear to shift with age. Stephen Whyte of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
People’s sexual attraction preferences lead them to make decisions about sex, relationships, and reproduction that ultimately influence other facets of society, such as gender roles, gender equity, fertility rates, politics, and more. However, it is unclear how preferences for certain traits vary among men and women and at different life stages.
To shed new light on sexual attraction, Whyte and colleagues surveyed 7,325 Australian users of dating websites, who were aged 18–65. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of 0–100 the importance of nine traits of potential mates. These traits fell into three categories: aesthetics (age, attractiveness, and physical build/features), resources (intelligence, education, and income), and personality (trust, openness, and emotional connection).
Statistical analysis of the responses revealed similar priorities for men and women, with both rating physical build, attractiveness, and all three personality traits as highly important, while income was of much lower importance. However, women rated the importance of age, education, intelligence, income, trust, and emotional connection about 9–14 points higher than men. Additionally, relative to all other traits, men assigned higher priority to attractiveness and physical build than women.
The analysis also showed that differences between men’s and women’s preferences shifted with age. For instance, while men generally placed higher relative importance on aesthetics than women, that gap narrowed with age. Meanwhile, younger women placed higher relative importance than younger men on personality, but older men and women prioritised personality more similarly.
Overall, these findings align with predictions of existing theories of attraction, including those that consider mate choice in the context of parenting. The authors note the limitations of their study and highlight potential directions for future research towards an even more nuanced understanding of sexual attraction.
The authors add: ‘Both sexes tend to find the same things sexy in a potential mate, but that at different life stages from 18-80 years old, males and females can differ quite significantly in the importance they place on those same particular characteristics.’