My mission in watching Discovery Channel's Science of Sex Appeal was to understand the scientific take on what's up with the sexual and emotional cheating I see in my therapy practice. People say they want a forever relationship — so what is happening?
Briefly, the science says we are predisposed chemically away from long-term monogamy and pair bonding, but we can choose to use the tremendous power of our gigantic human brains to maintain our relationships. Okay… then how do we choose our partners and how do we stay happily together long-term?
The feature began by explaining that the sexual attraction game consists of three parts: choosing a partner, keeping a partner, and building a nest together to raise children. From the start of the show, the rapid-fire polysyllabic banter of Science of Sex Appeal was difficult to follow. But I was determined to get my questions answered and apply the information in my professional practice.
One research study illustrated that women tend to choose partners based on status or resources as a priority. Groups of women, selected at random, were shown photos of similarly dressed men of relatively equal attractiveness. Following a baseline numerical rating of attractiveness, later groups were shown the same pictures, but with an indication of social and economic status — five- or six-figure incomes. The attractiveness ratings rose or fell significantly in direct correlation to perceived income level.
And the science of partner selection continues with human odor as a factor. Couples can discern the special smell of their partner. Every man has a unique smell — 'eau de man.' Research has demonstrated that odor affects us at a subconscious level. We can't control it. No two people smell the same or have the same ‘HMC’, as it is called. There is an optimum match for HMC.
Women are generally repelled by men’s scent (except when they are within a day or two of ovulation); but men, when exposed to vaginal secretions, are consistently attracted. In experiments where men inhale imperceptible low doses of artificial copulants, the attractiveness rating of women shown in pictures is higher. Copulants impair men’s ability to discriminate whether a woman is attractive. The scent of copulants prevents them from thinking clearly. (Odor also helps us steer clear of relatives and has performed the evolutionary role of "incest avoidance.")
With chemistry-inspired flirting, lust, and love all continuously active below our level of consciousness, can we maintain attraction to one partner? Attraction has many stages, beginning with a single biochemical jolt resulting in a change reaction. Anecdotal reports indicate the ‘first kiss’ is highly memorable in the attraction that builds (or fails to build). The abundant testosterone in saliva increases the sex drive.
Even more sex appeal chemistry influences occur through the dopamine triggered in our brains. Dopamine is the brain’s pleasure chemical that produces a high that can be addictive, energy producing, and exhilarating. Biochemistry shows the link between dopamine and testosterone with exhilaration and lust. But dopamine is not uniquely linked to sex appeal. The thrill of sports, bungee jumping for instance, can produce a dopamine rush. What about love?
Researchers set out to find the ‘brain in love’ through MRI scans of people viewing photos of a significant other and strangers. And they did. Brain activity rose and fell according to the attachment. But science confirms that it is having sex (not being in love) that makes us want more sex. We can be in love, and never have sex. Professionally, I understand that loving a spouse (partner) does not (necessarily) include sexual attraction or the desire to engage in sex.
According to Science of Sex Appeal, chemistry brings us together and drives us apart. We are biologically programmed to mate for life and most religions and cultures urge us to do so. Still, there are two primary paths of choice — stay together or have an unrestricted strategy and remain noncommittal. Newer research shows that women also seek sexual variety similarly to how we have stereotyped men as wanting to play the field.