Straight Men Say They’re Less Likely to Use Condoms with Attractive Women

A heterosexual man’s interest in using condoms depends upon a lot of things, including his overall attitudes toward condoms, his perceived ability to use them effectively, and whether or not his partner is on the pill or using another form of birth control. Interestingly, another factor that seems to affect men’s willingness to use condoms is the perceived attractiveness of their partners. According to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open, the better-looking straight men perceive a female partner to be, the less likely they are to want to use condoms with her.

In this study, 51 heterosexual men in England (who were aged 26 on average) were shown photographs of twenty women’s faces [1]. They were asked to imagine they were single and to rate their interest in having unprotected sex with each woman. In addition, participants rated the women’s attractiveness, they estimated the odds that each woman had an STI, and they guessed how many other men like them would be willing to have unprotected sex with each woman.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the more attractive a woman was perceived to be, the more likely men were to want to have sex with her. However, as women’s attractiveness ratings increased, men’s intentions to use condoms with them declined. Participants thought that other men like themselves would want to have unprotected sex with more attractive women, too.

Interestingly, there was no overall link between perceived attractiveness and perceived odds of having an STI. In other words, women who were judged as better looking were not seen as being any more or less of an STI risk than other women. Thus, it did not appear to be the case that sexier women were seen as “safer” and that this is what accounted for men’s lower interest in using condoms with them.

However, I should point out that one previous study found that men perceived better-looking women as less risky [2], whereas a different study found that men perceived attractive women as more risky [3]. What accounts for these discrepant findings? Perhaps they reflect the fact that not all men think about the link between attractiveness and STI risk in the same way.

As some support for this idea, the authors of the BMJ Open study conducted additional analyses to see whether there were distinct subgroups of men in their sample. What they found was that some men tended to rate “safe” women (i.e., those at low risk of having an STI) as more attractive, whereas other men rated “risky” women (i.e., those at a higher risk of having an STI) as more attractive.

Intriguingly, both of these groups of men were more willing to have condomless sex with women they rated as more attractive. Thus, straight men in general seem to want to have unprotected sex with attractive women—but the thing that makes a woman attractive is something that varies a lot across men.

One other interesting set of findings from this study is that the better-looking men perceived themselves as being, the less likely they were to want to use condoms. In addition, men who thought of themselves as more attractive also tended to think they were better judges of who had an STI. The latter finding could potentially help to explain the former—if guys who are more confident in how they look are also more confident in their judgments of risk, then they probably won't feel as much need to use condoms consistently. Put another way, overly-confident guys might feel that they can get away with using condoms more selectively because their confidence leads them to perceive certain situations as safer than they really are. 

Of course, these findings are limited due to the fact that they are based on a very small sample; however, they have important implications. They suggest that men’s willingness to use condoms depends, to some extent, on their partners' looks.

The big question therefore becomes why—why do men seem less inclined to use condoms with sexier women? We can’t say for sure, but one possibility is evolutionary: maybe this stems from a deep-seated drive to reproduce with attractive women. Another is cultural: maybe there’s a certain social status men derive from condomless sex with a really attractive partner.

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[1] Eleftheriou, A., Bullock, S., Graham, C.A., Stone, N., & Ingham, R. Does Attractiveness Influence Condom Use Intentions In Heterosexual Men: An Experimental Study. BMJ Open.

[2] Agocha, V.B., & Cooper, M.L. (1999). Risk perceptions and safer-sex intentions: Does a partner’s physical attractiveness undermine the use of risk-relevant information? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin25(6), 751-765.

[3] Dijkstra, P., Buunk, B. P., & Blanton, H. (2000). The Effect of Target's Physical Attractiveness and Dominance on STD‐Risk Perceptions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology30(8), 1738-1755.

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