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The Science Of Sexual Attraction: Why You Can't Force Chemistry

W Dish logo W Dish 2015-09-16 JESSICA O'REILLY
The Science Of Sexual Attraction: Why You Can't Force Chemistry © SHUTTERSTOCK The Science Of Sexual Attraction: Why You Can't Force Chemistry

Do you believe in soul mates? How about love at first sight? Do you think you’re destined to find that one-in-six-billion diamond in the rough or is happily-ever-after a matter of compromise, hard work and compatibility?

You may think you’ve selected your paramour based on similar interests or that witty sense of humour, but science suggests that there are biological forces at play as well. Sexual chemistry involves a balance of both behavioural and chemical elements and we still have lots to learn about their complex interplay. The following summarizes some of the most interesting research findings that help to explain the mystery of sexual chemistry.

Which Personality Type Are You?

If the success of algorithm-based dating sites like E-Harmony and is any indication of popular belief, it would seem that there is an overwhelming consensus that happily-ever-after is firmly rooted in personality-based matching. Dr. Helen Fisher, the anthropologist behind the brand divides daters into four personality styles or temperament dimensions that shape our thoughts and behaviours:

Explorers are drawn to risk, optimism, creativity and impulsivity.

Builders are more cautious, calm, traditional and persistent.

Directors are analytical, decisive and sometimes aggressive.

Negotiators are imaginative, compassionate, intuitive and idealistic.

Though none of us falls exclusively into a distinct category, one’s primary style is based on the body’s reactions to dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen. Accordingly, chemistry depends on how your personality matches or conflicts with a potential partner’s and is rooted in the interaction between behaviour and hormonal response.

How Our Hormones Play A Role

Hormonal activity underlies sexual attraction, desire and arousal as a flurry of chemicals react to external stimuli. It only makes sense, therefore, that hormones play a significant role in determining sexual chemistry. Estrogen and testosterone tend to take centre-stage as pheromones offer a subconscious whiff of fertility resulting in lustful attraction. Sexual chemistry, however, is further developed as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin promote attraction, and oxytocin and vasopressin promote bonding with a partner.

If we apply Fisher’s model of personality styles to the role of hormones in determining sexual chemistry, we see more specific ways in which biology may determine behaviour and partner selection: For example, Explorers tend to be curious, energetic and prone to boredom. Fisher links these elements to variations in dopamine that lead to a desire for novelty, excitement and adventure. On the other hand, elevated serotonin activity is associated with the behaviours common to Builders including respect for authority, self-control and conscientiousness. Interestingly, Builders and Explorers tend to be attracted to their own kind while Directors (whose behaviours are rooted in higher testosterone levels) and Negotiators (who may exhibit higher levels of estrogen and oxytocin) tend to be drawn to one another.

How We Look (And Why Our Parents’ Appearance Affects Our Choices)

Whether you’re into blondes, brunettes, gingers or all of the above, physical attraction lays the groundwork for sexual chemistry. Though attraction and chemistry are not necessarily one and the same, as the former can exist without the latter, science suggests that physical attraction may be biological in nature. I suggest you take these interesting (generalized) findings with a grain of salt and remember that sexual chemistry is as unique as your fingerprint:

-Facial symmetry matters. According to Kendra Schmid, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the ideal length to width ratio is 1.6 and a division into three equal thirds (forehead, bottom of forehead to nose, bottom of nose to chin) is ideal. I wouldn’t waste my energy pulling out a ruler for this one…

  • Men rate women as more attractive when they’re ovulating; scientists believe this may be related to a natural flush or glow in the skin.
  • Men and women whose parents were over the age of thirty when they gave birth are less attracted to youthful looks and more attracted to facial age cues.
  • We’re attracted to partners who have a similar hair and eye colour as our opposite-sex parent.
  • It’s in your eyes! People with darker limbal rings (the circle around the iris of the eye) are rated as more attractive.
  • Your clothing colour matters. Studies suggest that wearing red increases your sexual attractiveness.

What Are Genes Are Seeking

Dating may no longer be about finding a soul mate with whom to produce offspring, but evolutionary researchers still believe that sexual chemistry boils down to survival of the fittest. A study of ninety married couples found stark differences in their 'major histocompatibility complex' (MHC), which plays a role in both reproduction and the immune system. The scientists believe that we subconsciously seek out partners with different strengths (MHC is detectable in sweat) due to our innate drive to produce strong offspring with greater genetic variability and heightened immune systems. 

When Chemistry Fades (It Can Be Cultivated)

Many of us are concerned that we simply don’t share “chemistry” with the person we love. Some describe it as loving their partner, but not being “in love.” The shift from passionate to companionate love is often attributed to the time itself, but it seems that practical elements can also impact chemistry. When you first connect with a love interest, you tend to discuss a wide range of topics and reveal a good number of personal details over the course of a short period of time. The excitement, intimacy and anxiety of learning about your a lover coupled with the anticipation and experience of new physical intimacy creates a cascade of chemical reactions in the body which many of interpret as passion or chemistryThis passion, however, inevitably fades with time as you become more comfortable, secure and familiar with your partner.

You can, however, cultivate passion by reproducing some of the environmental, emotional and experiential components of your early meetings. Spending time apart (i.e. having your own life away from your partner) can help to create more opportunities for revealing conversations and physical longing for one another. Taking part in adrenaline boosting activities (e.g. rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, hiking) as a couple can also help to recreate some of the chemistry you experienced in the beginning. And maintaining some degree of mystery (does she really need to watch you trim those hairs?) can breed curiosity and keep your partner guessing even after the initial passion fades.


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