Sexual attraction is a strange phenomenon, and we are often unaware of the factors which play a part. Men, faced by photographs of ostensibly identical twins, tend to choose the one whose eyes have the larger pupils, without knowing why. The women who used belladonna to enlarge their pupils knew what they were doing.
More sophisticated scientific methods enable us to delve deeper, and in particular we have begun to understand the effects of the monthly cycle both on the woman herself and on the men she meets.
Many married women, particularly Catholics and those investigating sub-fertility, are likely to be aware of the stages of their cycle, as measured through the tracing of symptoms as commonly used in natural family planning. But there are other signs of ovulation which are less well-known but nevertheless significant in their effects. The examples which I give are all from reputable and recent scientific studies. They are not old (or young) wives’ tales. They will not occur with every woman, but they are likely to occur to many more than those who recognise them.
Women are more likely to fantasise about men other than their husbands as they approach ovulation. In a complementary fashion husbands are more likely to be attentive to their wives, watching their behaviour and telephoning them more frequently. The more a woman secretly fantasises, the more watchful their husbands tend to be.
There may be an evolutionary advantage in women grabbing genes for their children from attractive, if unreliable, casual partners. For short-term relationships they prefer “rugged” faces – preferably enhanced by facial scars. These characteristics are seen as associated with high testosterone. For long-term relationships gentler faces may be preferred. Meanwhile steady old hubby will provide the security they need. Up to 30 per cent of children are not the offspring of their purported father, although this varies in different societies. So hubby’s careful oversight may be prudent. Women are more likely to be unfaithful in their early 30s; typically they are at their peak of sexual response, but on the eve of declining fertility.
Much has been made of smell in choosing a mate. The theory behind this is that it is genetically desirable to bear children with someone who has a different immune system, thus giving the child a potentially broader spread of resistance to disease. But the evidence here is not one way because, on a visual basis, women prefer the faces of men with similar immune systems. It seems that a balancing of both factors is needed. However, women on the Pill become less likely to choose the right mate through their sense of smell. And this fits the finding that the discriminatory activity in the female brain, particularly the part associated with risk and reward, is measurably more active when, at the time of ovulation, she is reviewing a mate.
Women raise the pitch and femininity of their voices, at least in their initial remarks, around ovulation. The effect is stronger as they approach ovulation, and more marked in younger women – especially if they are highly fertile. These last are also important factors in the way that women dress and groom. The care which they take in their appearance and clothes is typically raised as they approach ovulation.
Beware a woman wearing red, I say to my brothers. Unconsciously you will find her more attractive than in, say, blue – and, if you take her out, you will spend more money on her. Then reflect that this corresponds with males among the higher apes who respond to the reddening of females as they approach ovulation.
While this evidence all seems to point one way, we must remember that it only addresses average phenomena, so it does not apply to any particular woman. Nor, of course, does it say anything about the ability of a woman to exercise control over instinct, particularly when she recognises how her instincts may work. So I conducted a rather small survey among the women of my sufficiently close acquaintance to pose the question: are you aware of any difference in your behaviour and feelings at the time of ovulation?
Predictably, many were aware of discomfort, and one friend who was having infertility scans had been able to confirm that she could accurately identify which fallopian tube was involved. But the evidence for mood change was mainly of a negative nature. That is, they might be aware of feeling low immediately after the menses, and all reported pre-menstrual tension at different levels. So their awareness of mood change at ovulation lay in their comparative brightness between these two events. I had not given them any clues about the research, and they did not volunteer any such phenomena. This at least suggests that they are unaware of their changes in mood or behaviour, unless they chose not to tell me. Tiresias (the seer of Greek myth) who had spent seven years as a woman, was struck blind by Hera because he revealed to Zeus that women enjoyed sexual activity more than men. It is dangerous knowledge
Women have evolved over the generations to be both physically and psychologically inclined to sexual partnership at the time of maximum fertility. It is a trait developed when infant mortality was very high and it was necessary to bear several children in order to sustain and gently increase the population. Because evolution is essentially mindless, the trait remains even when, in the developed world at least, it no longer synchronises with current conditions. And it is a trait for which in many countries, including our own, we have over-compensated, and will pay the price.
Plenty of opportunity for comment here. Are women really as devious as my column suggests? And how about men’s sexual strategies? And there is always the difficult question raised by a rate of fertility which developed under much more primitive conditions. If you have problems logging to make a comment, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But remember to change “green” to “blue”. (anti-spamming device)