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When women are pregnant they find themselves more drawn to dads than cads, according to research by Italian sexologists.
Scientists have known for some time that hormones influence our dating preferences. When straight women are in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle — when their estrogen levels are through the roof and their progesterone levels are relatively low — they become more attracted to burly, macho men. At other times of the month their ideal beau tends to be rather more feminine.
But what about during pregnancy? I’m no OB/GYN, but I’m pretty sure that brewing a sprog has something to do with hormones. A quick skim of Wikipedia (ahem) shows my hunch is correct: As pregnancy progresses, a woman’s levels of estrogen and progesterone rise at an accelerating rate, up until the 36th week when both hormones level off. If changes in hormones over the cycle influence what women women find appealing in a man, surely the even more drastic changes associated with pregnancy will have an impact too.
Erika Limoncin of the School of Sexology at the University of L’Aquila, Italy, recruited 70 nonpregnant women and 46 women in the third trimester of pregnancy. She showed the women photographs of men’s faces that had been manipulated to appear more masculine or more feminine using gtkmorph, an open source ‘morphing’ program.
Cad or dad? Women’s preferences for male traits that signify masculinity or femininity are different during the third trimester of pregnancy. Photo by Mario Izquierdo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The women’s task was to choose the man she found most attractive, both for a long-term relationship like marriage and a short-term relationship such as a fling or one-night stand. Previous research has shown that women find manly men especially alluring for casual hook ups but prefer more sensitive looking chaps for relationships that will last.
Limoncin found, as expected, that her nonpregnant volunteers preferred for a short-term relationship a man who was somewhat more masculine than average. For a long-term relationship they desired a man who was slightly more feminine than average. But pregnant women expressed a very strong preference for feminine men no matter what type of relationship they were considering. The strength of their preference for femininity was over 5x stronger than that of nonpregnant women who were judging for a long-term partner.
The scale on the vertical axis is the amount of masculinity a woman prefers in a male face. 0 = average masculinity, >0 = more masculine, <0 = more feminine. Women usually prefer slightly masculine men for a short-term relationship and feminine men for a long-term relationship. Pregnant women strongly prefer feminine men. Image from Limoncin’s paper, dx.doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12849
Further analyses indicated that the effect of pregnancy on face preferences was larger than the well-documented effect of ovulation. This makes sense when we look at the huge changes in hormone concentration associated with pregnancy, but it does make me wonder why for the last 15 years researchers have focused so closely on the menstrual cycle when there were good reasons to expect pregnancy would have more substantial effects on women’s mate preferences.
So why do women hanker after feminine men when they near their due date? Well, it could be because feminine men are more likely to invest in offspring and commit to a partner long-term. Women may have evolved to seek out a dainty but dependable chap at precisely the time when they are in most need of help. Sure, a woman can raise a child on her own, but it doesn’t hurt to have a man on standby to change the occasional nappy or nip to Mothercare for a replacement breast pump.
But if women’s predilections fluctuate with their hormones, doesn’t this mean that their desire for the father of their child-to-be will be just as changeable? An ovulating woman whose ovaries are pinging like a bingo machine may find herself drawn to a manly man like Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt. They get it together, she becomes pregnant, but eight months later finds that she is no longer interested in Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt. She’d much prefer the softer, more approachable features of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt. Then what does she do? Dump the velociraptor-wrangling studmuffin, or force-feed him pizza and ice cream until he reverts back to his natural doughy state?
I vote pizza. I always vote pizza.
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