We describe three alternative theories that attempt to explain the causes of female sexual attraction to a male. The theories may explain overlapping sets of phenomena. They may simultaneously hold although they are at a tension in several respects. Scientific experimental evidence is scarce at this point as far as I know. If you know of studies that may help evaluate these theories, please let me know.
The female sex module contains a social judgment mechanism that recognizes a subset of the males it responds to as “assholes” (a term that currently awaits precise definition). The female automatically and involuntarily becomes sexually attracted to any man thus classified by her sex module.
This does not mean that she, as a person, likes the asshole male or approves of his behavior. She may dislike him and decide to avoid him. And she may succeed to avoid him if this personal judgment of hers dominates her sexual attraction to the male.
Causal-source/proactive-agent theory claims that females are sexually attracted to what they perceive as the causal sources or proactive agents in the (social) system. This is closely related to the idea that social power is attractive, but generalizes the element of influence beyond the social domain.
In order to cope with our complex environments, we perceive the world as a causal network of events and perceived influences. People’s actions are events and can be perceived as either reactive or proactive. Proactive actions are actions that appear as first causes or causal sources in the network because they are unpredictable to us. (In fact, of course, the world may be continuous, rather than composed of discrete events; and deterministic, thus void of any true causal sources – the theory refers to our perception of first causes, which results from our inability to completely predict the dynamics we are observing.)
Causal-source/proactive-agent theory suggests that males are attractive when their actions appear as first causes and have considerable consequences – either positive or negative. The theory explains a variety of phenomena frequently discussed in connection with female attraction. In particular, it explains why females appear to be attracted by:
- social power
Note that this list includes phenomena generally considered as socially undesirable (e.g. violence) as well as phenomena generally considered as desirable (fame, fortune, genius, humor), and also phenomena that are ambiguous in this respect (dominance, social power). All these phenomena share a property: they make the male appear to be the causal source or proactive agent of the dynamic he is a part of.
One possible evolutionary explanation for such an attraction mechanism in females is as follows: Male desire for sex with females gives females considerable social power over males. The female must harness this power in order to ensure the security and prosperity of herself and her offspring. Males who have more power, confer more power to her. Moreover, to the extent that a male is dangerous to her, seeking a bond may avert such danger.
The female sex module does not contain a judgment mechanism (as suggested by the previous two theories). Instead it relies on social judgments from other people to determine the level of sexual attraction. These judgments can be sexual or nonsexual; in either case a positive judgment about him perceived by her increases her sexual attraction. The social judgments copied can come from any person other than herself: Her own negative or positive judgments of the male will not affect her attraction to him. Any other person’s judgment of him, including his own projected self-judgment, will be copied by her sex module.
This theory explains the effect of both social status and confidence on the sexual attractiveness of a male. (For a more detailed articulation of this theory, see the separate post on judgment-copying theory.)
Which theory is true? Are they simultaneously true? Does one subsume the others?
Each of these theories explains a lot of observational evidence. Although aspects of each could simultaneously be true, there are some tensions:
- Judgment-copying theory (in its strong version) claims that the female sex module is not in the business of judging, but only copies social judgments. Asshole-detector and causal-source/proactive-agent theory claim that the female sex module does judge, but by criteria radically different from those by which the male sex module judges: While males are attracted to females with good looks, females are attracted to males with bad personalities (asshole detector) or males whose actions are unpredictable and of considerable consequence (causal-source/proactive-agent).
- Assholes are often unfavorably judged by others. Are those judgments exempt from judgment copying?
Judgment-copying theory can explain the confidence-related appeal of the asshole: The callous disregard for other people’s feelings at the core of the asshole personality may project a self-judgment of superiority. Moreover, to have no need to be nice may be taken to indicate high-social status because only the well-accepted can afford to be assholes.
We need to understand exactly what aspects of the asshole personality cause female attraction.
- Is a male displaying callous disregard for others’ feelings, but also low self-confidence and negative self-evaluations sexually attractive to females?
- Are non-confidence-related aspects of the asshole personality relevant to female attraction? (Such aspects could include physical and psychological violence, independence of social judgments from others.)