People magazine recently named Magic Mike star Channing Tatum “The Sexiest Man Alive.” Tatum joins the ranks of Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney, all of whom were awarded the title in previous years. So what is it that makes all of these guys so darn sexy? Evolutionary psychologists would argue that their faces and physiques indicate good genetic fitness and, therefore, would make them the ideal candidates for a one-night stand, but not necessarily a long-term relationship. Let me explain.
Tatum and his fellow sexy men have square jaws, lots of muscles, deep voices, and a number of other highly masculine characteristics, all of which are a product of exposure to high levels of testosterone. What you may not know is that higher levels of this hormone are also linked to having very good, disease-resisting genes. This is why “manly” men are thought to be desirable sexual partners for heterosexual women—they will likely father children who inherit their strong immune systems.
In countries with higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy rates, these masculine characteristics are thought to be even more desirable to women because they will help to ensure the survival of her offspring. Consistent with this idea, a recent study asked women around the world to rate the attractiveness of men’s faces.1 Faces were always presented in pairs, and participants had to select which one was more attractive. In reality, each pair of faces depicted the same man—it’s just that one image was digitally altered to look more masculine and the other to look more feminine by changing the hairline, arch of the eyebrows, shape of the jaw, etc.
Results indicated that in countries with higher mortality rates and lower life expectancies, the preference for masculinized faces increased, suggesting that it’s more adaptive to pursue guys with good genes in environments that are less healthy. What does this have to do with Channing Tatum? Out of the 30 countries included in the study, the United States ranked 20th in terms of health (i.e., it was one of the least healthy countries considered). At the same time, U.S. women had one of the highest preferences for masculinity (they were the 5th highest). Thus, Tatum and the other men who have graced the cover of People may have achieved their titles at least partly as a function of their country’s health status subtly pushing women toward men with the best genes. Had these guys been from healthier countries like Belgium or Denmark (i.e., the countries that topped the health index), perhaps they would not have been named the ultimate sex symbols.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, men with superior genes are thought to be better sex partners, but they do not necessarily make better relationship partners. Why? The reason is because masculine men are perceived as being more likely to cheat2 and, indeed, higher levels of testosterone are linked to engaging in more extra-marital affairs.3 As a result, manly men may not be good long-term prospects—but in terms of short-term sex appeal, they usually win hands down and that’s why you can see them on the cover of almost every magazine in the supermarket checkout line.
1DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., Crawford, J. R., Welling, L. L. M., & Little, A. C. (2010). The health of a nation predicts their mate preferences: Cross-cultural variation in women’s preferences for masculinized male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2184
2O’Connor, J. J. M., Re, D. E., & Feinberg, D. R. (2011). Voice pitch influences perceptions of sexual infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology, 9, 64-78.
3Fisher, A. D., Corona, G., Bandini, E., Mannucci, E., Lotti, F., Boddi, V., Forti, G., and Maggi, M. (2009). Psychobiological correlates of extramarital affairs and differences between stable and occasional infidelity among men with sexual dysfunctions. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 866-875.
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