Psychology: Men and Women

Girls just Want to have Fun….

[…or the Outfit, the Dancing and the Cottonbud! 🙂 ]

Coy sex my foot!: Lots of nonsense has been written over the centuries about women [W] – and mostly by men! [M] In poem after poem ardent lovers portray the objects of their desire as ‘coy damsels’ and ‘shy mistresses’ * and no doubt the latter were… Yet we now know this is hardly the true nature of W! ** It’s not easy to argue with science, and science has shown that W are far more active in pursuing their sexual agenda than many a sexist M would like to imagine – oh, and they DO have an agenda too!!

The research: For those of you without access to the internet, here is what the clip shows:  Austrian researcher K. Grammer and his team set up a mobile lab at a club in Vienna. As soon as a group of girls on a ‘girls’ night out’ came in, they would ask their permission to photograph them (one by one) and then to film each of them dancing on a special platform. The researchers would then ask the girls some questions about themselves (e.g. ‘Are you in a steady relationship?’) and finally they would give them a cotton bud to stick into their mouth. The pictures were used to determine how much flesh the girls had exposed, while the videos showed how wildly they moved on the dance floor. Would the data reveal any patterns? And what was this cottonbud thing in aid of?

When do W flirt most? The results were unambiguous: there was one group of W who were clearly flashing more sexual signals than others – the ones who were ovulating (remember the cotton bud? J ) The fertile window within each month is the time when nature tells W ‘Go out and make babies!’ Research has discovered amazing changes in W during that time: they become more attractive, their skin glows and certain asymmetries (e.g. breasts!) are reduced (Saad 2011) Not only that; their senses become keener too! They can tell more attractive (symmetrical) M just by smelling T-shirts they have slept in (and unsurprisingly they prefer that smell! J [Burnham & Phellan 2001]) More generally, their preferences shift from nice-looking guys with soft features (e.g. Di Caprio) to more ‘dangerous-looking’ / dominant M like Banderas or Swarzenegger! (Barett, Dunbar & Lycett 2005) So W in their fertile days are out to get a guy – and not just any guy will do!

Why is ovulation concealed?  Think about it – in almost all other mammals, males can tell immediately whether a female is in estrus (the fertile phase – Barash & Lipton 1997). Not so with W! Why? Well, remember what we said about W having their own agenda? The thing is that if a W’s regular partner knows her fertile window he can engage in what scientists call ‘mate guarding’ – which can be both annoying and (more importantly) inconvenient! If on the other hand he doesn’t know, well, he cannot be around her all the time, can he? (Symons 1979) Now here is another question: why don’t even the W themselves know when their fertile period is? Why do we need the cotton bud? Well, as the great Trivers has shown, we can deceive others best, if we first deceive ourselves! (Trivers 2011) We will come to that point again at the very end….

Why are W sexually active during the rest of the month?  This is a bit of a mystery… Almost all other female mammals are only sexually active when they can conceive – the exceptions (e.g. bonobos) show that nature can often take a body part or a behaviour which evolved for a particular purpose and use it for a different one as well! In the case of W their sexual receptivity and proceptivity during the luteal phase (the non-fertile days) has led to much speculation. One theory holds that it evolved to reinforce the pair-bond by keeping the male happy and thus prevent him from straying (Barber 2002). Another was that in this way W could mate with many partners which would confuse paternity and thus lessen the likelihood of infanticide as sometimes happens among primates (cf Hrdy 1999) And then of course there is the other theory (Thornhill & Gangestad 2008), namely that W evolved this ability so they can, well… sell their sexual favours! And if this sounds provocative, just read Catherine Hakim 2011. (NB: No male chauvinist; Hakim is a woman, an academic and a militant feminist to boot!)

So how do W flirt?  Well, as Grammer showed, one way is to signal availability through exposing more skin and through ‘wild dancing’ that makes them stand out from the crowd. But of course these signals are simply meant to advertise ‘I am here, I am female, I am available’ to all and sundry. When it comes to flirting, W have a vast array of techniques at their disposal and they are past masters at deploying them. By comparison M are left standing (Pease 1992). The most potent weapon W wield is gaze. A W will catch a M’s eye, hold it for slightly longer than would be expected, then look away (alas, as Reiman points out, most M are so dim she has to do it three times before they get the hint! J ) Incredibly, research shows that while it is M who ‘take the first step’ in such encounters and they honestly believe they are the initiators, careful examination of video recordings shows that it is W who flash out ‘come hither’ looks which the M comply with, blithely thinking all the while that they are the ‘hunters’… J  (Givens 2005)

Which W flirt the most?  Well, have a guess! Is it the singletons or the ones who already have boyfriends? You would expect the former, right? Wrong! It was the ones who said they were in committed relationships!! But why? The answer is – ‘good genes’! Quite simply a W (subconsciously) reasons ‘If I am going to have a baby, it had better be with the best-looking guy I can get hold of! And I don’t have much time – it’s not every day I get to go out with my girlfriends…’ Who is going to take care of the kid? Why, the guy back home of course!! J (Please bear in mind that when such behaviours were ‘coded into’ our ancestors’ software, there was no contraception nor were there any DNA paternity tests…) But why shouldn’t single W be just as flirtatious? Because their first priority is to get a guy to commit to them – and while dressing provocatively may get a girl more admirers, they may only consider her as a short-term partner. This smacks a bit of the old ‘double standard’ but M throughout the ages have steered clear of long-term relationships with W whom they deemed to be ‘too flirtatious’ because of something called ‘paternity uncertainty’… (Buss 2009)

Your own, personal secretary: If you are a W reading this, you should know that inside you there dwells another W – she is your secretary (Fine 2005). Your secretary knows what is best for your body – for your immortal genes. Sometimes your agenda and hers coincide but at other times they are in conflict. But although your secretary is supposed to be taking orders from you, she certainly has a mind of her own. Like Sir Humphrey Appleby in ‘Yes Minister’ she will present you with a pile of documents to sign – and place the important one at the bottom! And if you ever accuse her of manipulating you, she can always point to your signature! J  So next time you wake up next to a handsome stranger and you wonder horrified how this could possibly have happened, think of your secretary. Unlike you, she knows….

* e.g. Andrew Marvell’s otherwise excellent ‘To my Coy Mistress’

** Kate Chopin naturally had a better grasp of female psychology – cf for instance ‘The Awakening’




Barash, D & Lipton, J.E. “Making Sense of Sex” Island Press 1997

Barber, N. “The Science of Romance” Prometheus Books 2002

Barett, L., Dunbar, R., Lycett, J. “Evolutionary Psychology – A Beginner’s Guide” Oxford 2005

Burnham, T. & Phelan, J. “Mean Genes”  Simon & Schuster 2001

Buss, D. “Evolutionary Psychology – The New Science of the Mind”  Pearson 2009

Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own” Icon Books 2005

Givens, D. “Love Signals”  St. Martin’s Griffin 2005

Hakim, C. “Honey Money” Allen Lane 2011

Hrdy, S. B. “The Woman That Never Evolved” Harvard University Press 1999

Pease, A “Body Language” Sheldon Press 1992

Reiman, T. “The Power of Body Language” Pocket Books 2008

Saad, G. “The Consuming Instinct” Prometheus Books 2011

Symons, D. “The Evolution of Human Sexuality” Oxford 1979

The Science of Sex Appeal – Flirting Females (YouTube)

Thornhill, R. & Gangestad, S. “The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality”  Oxford 2008

Trivers, R. “Deceit and Self-Deception” Allen Lane 2011


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