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What drives desire?

Our roving reporter Rose explores sex at London’s Science Museum.

#sexpositive from Ooh by Je Joue

Some people have a “type”. To try to figure out mine, I just wrote a list of everyone I’ve fancied over the past thirty years – boys, girls, celebrity crushes, classmates, one night stands and full blown relationships.


I can’t see any patterns. I was going to say they are all smiley, confident people, but Joe from Eastenders (1996) was hot in a deeply troubled way.

Can science explain what links these people together? I looked into it and here are some possible explanations for sexual attraction, from sweat to symmetry to self-adoration:

#1 We dig their B.O.

A new dating site just launched that will match you up with someone based one of your sweaty T-Shirts.  And this might just work, because we each give off a subtly unique whiff. Think fingerprints, but for how we smell. We fancy people if their “smell print” is chemically very different to ours.

That’s because lying behind our “smell prints” are specific genes controlling our immune systems. We’re wired to hook up with someone with a very different immune system, because that way our offspring would be better equipped to fight off diseases.

In one experiment, women were asked to sniff a bunch of different sweaty T-shirts and rate how hot they thought their owners were. They much preferred the men with different immune genes to them.

#2 We like the maths behind their face

The exact geometry of our faces impacts how sexy people find us. We’re attracted to symmetry. And on top of that, we like nose length and the gap between the eyes to be in proportion.

Mathematicians have even drawn up an exact formula for these beautiful proportions, known as the “Golden Ratio”. The same ratio has historically been used to make beautiful paintings, architecture and sculptures, as well as occurring naturally in the patterns of pine cones and sunflowers.

One study evaluated Hollywood stars against the formula, giving them a mark out of ten for how perfect their face is. Brad Pitt scored a 9.6 out of 10.

#3 We’ve had sex with them already

Ever wondered whether sleeping with someone on the first date was a good idea? Well it could make you fancy each other more, and make you more likely to end up in a relationship.

How does having sex do this? Well, having an orgasm kick starts a surge in the special hormones that we get when we’re in love. The head-spinning initial love has one pattern of hormones, which shifts to another once we move into a calmer longer-term love. First-date sex actually triggers both sets of hormones.

#4 We’ve been with someone like them before

Having an awful ex with brown hair could make you give brunettes a wide berth for ever. Or having a lovely first partner with dimples might make you dimple-crazy for the rest of your life.

Researchers showed pictures of faces to hundreds of identical and non-identical twins and figured out that life experience has even more of an impact than genetics on which people they found most attractive.

The researches say that this explains why famous hotties have general universal appeal, but within that, friends can still endlessly debate who is the most attractive.

#5 We were doing something awesome at the moment we met them

As our brain tries to decide whether we like someone, it’s processing signals from all of our sensations – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.  But we’re not just reacting to the person, we’re taking into account of all our other sensations at that moment.

This was demonstrated in one study in which people were asked to read a story and say what they thought of the main character. At the start, they were given a cup of coffee to hold. Half were given hot coffee and half iced coffee. Those who held the hot cup of coffee judged the character to be warm and generous, whereas the iced coffee group perceived them as cold and unaffectionate.

#6 We like people who look just like us

We’re not all narcissists, but we are attracted to people who look like us.

Studies have shown that there is a correlation between couples across a range of physical characteristics, from lung volume, middle finger length, ear size and neck circumference. People can also reliably pick out the couples from a collection of individual photos.

In one study, heterosexual men and women were shown photos of people of the opposite gender and asked to rate their attractiveness. Each time, the researchers sneaked in a fake photo, that was actually a photo of the participant, digitally morphed to be someone of the opposite gender. Participants consistently preferred the morphed version of their own face.

Why is this so? It’s most likely because most of us had our first ever intimate relationships with our parents, who look like us.  We trust familiarity, and our brains processes familiar images more quickly.

I’m looking back at my list to see whether these reasons ring true for me. Some of those people did smell bloody good. But since I couldn’t sniff him through the TV, it must have been the Golden Ratio that drew me to Eastenders Joe back in 1996. I do admit that I was drawn to a couple of these people at music festivals, while enjoying the sun on my face, beer on my lips and great tunes in my ears. And my lovely partner has a spookily similar face to mine.

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