Sexual Attraction: A Contemporary Mystery Beyond Match by Joyce Lisbin, Ed. D.
Almost everyone has had that inexplicable rush of sexual attraction to a specific person. It is an erotically charged response that affects your heart rate, your blood pressure and your ability to focus. Your response may appear to be calm & controlled or it may be confusion and result in being flustered. Sometimes that confusion is due to the fact that you find yourself aroused by someone so unexpectedly.
You may be sexually attracted to someone who does not fit into your preconceived notion of who is ‘hot’ or good looking. You may be aroused by someone that you don’t even like or even know. Sexual attraction is different from liking or appreciating another person’s good looks.
Appearance is the least of it!
The ultimate experience is when sexual attraction involves two people and the draw or ‘electricity’ is mutual. As mentioned this attraction is not limited to the most obvious characteristics of physical appearance or the commercial concepts of beauty. Beauty does have cross-cultural standards with certain variations. Cross-cultural standards of beauty include: symmetry of the face and body. Symmetry is a significant indicator of health and being healthy is normally considered to be truly attractive. Additional traits associated with health are clear skin, glossy hair, good teeth, a toned body, freedom from visible defects & diseases, etc. These signs of health also increase one’s fertility potential. Potential reproduction is still a driving force in mating affairs. But clearly sexual attraction is a response that is more complicated than appreciating someone’s looks.
Beauty, in its most generous sense, includes certain physical features to an array of less tangible characteristics. Is it there smell (pheromones), that winning personality or signs associated with wealth, status or security? Research indicates that there is less mystery to this than one would like to imagine.
- We tend to be more attracted to those we have met several times (regular contact). I call this the “Friends” phenomena, i.e. familiarity does not breed contempt but contentment. Social scientists refer to it as the mere-exposure effect.
- We like people who are like us. We are drawn to those whose characteristics are similar to our own. Though this is changing in our diverse society, we tend to pair up with people of a like age, race or ethnicity, social class and educational level. This is called homophily. Although this might serve us well in terms of our comfort level it makes me wonder about what wonderful possibilities we have ignored because we are too nearsighted.
- Similar to homophily is the matching phenomena. This is a relatively common occurrence: choosing a partner that matches you with likes, dislikes and personal history. It is not a coincidence that Match.com chose that name and tries to pair you up with someone who matches that list of likes and dislikes.
- Environment or setting can inflame one’s attraction to another. Very often people fall in in love on a vacation if you view romance as an adventure or in the classroom if your concept of a fantastic partner is based on intelligence and intellectual stimulation. And of course there is the dance floor. That magical space and sound can alter one’s mood and self-perception let alone how you view your dance partner.
- Byrne’s Law of Attraction is that we like a person who appears to like us and provides us with positive reinforcement. What’s not to like?
- Playing hard to get: that approach of being unavailable might intrigue and inspire some but in general that does not work. A more effective approach is being selectively hard to get. Letting it be known that you have certain high standards for dating/partnering might be considered an attractive challenge to some. This seems to be a socially constructed role limited to females and in general is pretty tricky to pull off consistently.
My theory—sexual attraction is felt and acted on by men much more strongly than women. Men have the luxury of responding more viscerally and visually than women. Many men (more than women) report that they had one look at her and knew she was “the one”. Intrinsically or genetically, women seem to be much more practical when they are attracted to a man. Women tend to have more complicated criteria for having sex than men. Perhaps the gender difference is present because the consequences of acting on sexual attraction alone are STILL much more severe and long lasting for women. The most obvious consequence is pregnancy- even when contraception is relied upon. Women, I believe, still associate sex with that potential outcome- pregnancy. And of course there is the risk of disease. Women are physiologically more vulnerable to STD’s than men. There is more: even in this day of hook-ups, friends with benefits, polyamory or serial monogamy- women still have to deal with that social shadow of reputation! Men rarely have negative consequences from having many partners and enjoying indiscriminate, non-committal sex. In fact they are usual admired for that kind of reputation. That is not the case for women.
Sexual attraction is not fully understood. It is undeniably exciting when it happens. It can be a fantastic experience when it is mutual even if only a temporary rush. It is comforting that this is not fully understood and that life is still a mystery more complicated than an algorithm.
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Summary: A look at sexual attraction reveals that attraction is based on more than looks. With limited understanding of what makes someone attractive, it is best to embrace the mystery.