WHAT kind of man attracts women? Gyms are full of men working very hard to create a look they think women find hot — deeply defined six-packs, pecs, abs, Popeye arms. Some gym guys end up shaped like Brutus the dog from Tom & Jerry, stuffed full of steroids and perhaps dealing with athletica nervosa, a kind of body dysmorphia brought on by reading too many men’s fitness magazines.
The myth of the six-pack is popped in a new book by New York-based cultural historian Betsy Prioleau. Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them looks at what really attracts women. Referring to a 2004 cross-cultural DNA study at the University of Arizona, Prioleau cuts through what she terms the mildewed myths and caricatures, to tell us that: “Ladykillers come with a PG warning. They’re not moral guardians, straight arrows or docile house cats. They take us into X-rated territory and the dark corners of our psyche, and they aren’t always politically correct. But they’re a select fraternity who love women and enchant them.”
So forget pin-ups, real women like men who wear their character on their face. Benicio del Toro rather than Brad Pitt, John Malkovich over George Clooney. Brains win over beauty every time (although both are nice — but too much can lead to machismo, and as Zsa Zsa Gabor put it, macho ain’t mucho).
Mick Jagger, despite his craggy looks, says Prioleau, has “been bathed in adoration by a long line of superior women”: Marianne Faithfull, Marsha Hunt, Carly Simon, Jerry Hall, Carla Bruni, L’Wren Scott. The late painter Lucien Freud had “intense sexual charisma”, painting his nude lover in 2005 when he was 79 and she was 29. To sit for him, said another ex, “felt like being an apple in the Garden of Eden”. Mmmmm. Golden delicious.
So what do women love about seducers? Prioleau dismisses myths such as the self-interested seducer, the pathological woman-pleaser, the Darwinian alpha-male and the “therapy heart-throb” (one who is meticulously PC and emotionally literate and has done too much couples’ counselling). Instead, she replaces them with men we really want — those who really can seduce and please while remaining alpha. They include charisma, elan, intensity, sex drive, a love of women, and – somewhat counter intuitively – a touch of androgyny.
According to The Economist: “The more feminine the man, the higher the hit rate with the opposite sex.” Or as feminist writer Camille Paglia puts it, the androgynous person “is the charismatic personality”. In other words, blunt masculinity is dull.
Also, says Prioleau, a man’s positive relationship with his mother is more appealing to women than the width of his chest. Ashton Kutcher’s mother, to whom he is close, always told him to “treat women right, to take care of them, to respect them”. He is in good company. Mythology’s main ladies’ man Dionysius grew up surrounded by women, and adored his mother.
The men in Prioleau’s book are neither telegenic nor fit for magazine covers, yet all had an appeal for women that worked on an intellectual and pheremonal level. One example is Desmond McCarthy, a member of the 1920s Bloomsbury literary group. Teeth missing, and with a face like “a bald, battered Roman emperor”, he nevertheless enchanted women with his charm and articulacy, and was known as Delectable Desmond. Yet not a six pack in sight.
But while we all know men are visual creatures — and how this impacts on women’s sense of self — how does this preoccupation with the visual affect men’s view of themselves? A lot of men like a lot of porn, but porn neuters men by creating synaptic pathways that bypass actual intimacy, while reinforcing unrealistic expectations around prowess and performance.
Men’s fitness magazines then compound feelings of inadequacy in the looks department by promising rippling six packs, bulging muscles and sexual superiority — in ten minutes flat.
This might sound preposterous until you remember that Men’s Health is the world’s leading magazine for men, selling more than GQ and Esquire combined, with a global 2012 circulation of 1,918,387 (which translates to 20m global readers of 39 editions worldwide) and 38 million views a month on its website.
That’s a lot of men buying into the promise of quick physical perfection and its resultant sexual rewards. Add to this any residual inadequacy created by porn and you have ordinary men wondering if, perhaps, they should not be something extraordinary.
The answer is yes — just not in the way they think. What women find attractive in men is a series of qualities less quantifiable than anything as blank as size, strength and beauty. These are all very nice of course, but what is really attractive is character, culture, caring, and charisma.
Intelligence and creativity are far more of a turn-on than height, shape or wealth. The non-handsome Albert Camus had three lovers and a wife when he died. “I don’t seduce,” he said. “I surrender.” Voltaire, another non-pin-up, famously said: “Give me ten minutes to talk away my ugly face and I will bed the Queen of France.”
Confidence, too, is a significant turn-on. In Swoon, money does not feature highly at all – even in pre feminist times, women still swooned for men who genuinely loved them, rather than those with cash.
Perhaps the most crucial element of attraction is a genuine connectivity with women, rather than the tired old misogyny of conquest. Casanova said that “the professional seducer is an abominable man, a true criminal”.
Instead, Casanova admired and respected women, and, writes Prioleau, “made their happiness his life’s work”. And although Freud’s contemporary the Austrian psychiatrist Otto Rank thought Casanova had a “mother complex”, and later analysts dismissed him as a narcissist, women still loved him because he loved them. Today he would probably be called a serial monogamist.
Folklore is littered with evidence of women loving men for their character rather than their external beauty – the most obvious example is the 1757 French fairytale ‘La Belle et La Bete’, where the clever beautiful girl falls in love with a big ugly beast because on the inside, he is a goody.
The Frog Prince, a German fairytale from around the same time, requires a princess to kiss a frog in return for a golden ball; a real life equivalent may have been Jackie and Aristotle Onassis. Jean Paul Sartre’s American lover described him “ugly as sin”, yet he wore this ugliness with pride, and recognised its affects.
In the 21st century, the attraction of men’s money and status continues to decline, because women have their own. Academic studies show that the more intelligent the woman, the less important the earnings of her partner. What counts is his character intelligence and how he makes her feel. The fact remains that women love men who love women.
A real seducer, writes poet Molly Peacock: “can be downright ugly, but if he’s lovely, trim, and expresses something vulnerable about himself, it’s simply a knockout recipe for falling in love.
“You’re hooked, you’re sunk, you have to struggle for your last bit of social sanity before you plunge.”
What women truly, deeply find attractive in men:
¦ Vulnerability: much is made of strength, but it takes a strong man to admit weakness.
¦ Empathy: being close to his mother and sisters is always a good sign, as is having lots of female friends and not hating his exes.
¦ Creativity: displays open mindedness and an ability to think outside the box.
¦ Social skills: being at ease with all he encounters, without having to assert dominance.
¦ Kindness: emotional availability and caring demonstrate his humanity. How he treats others will be how he treats himself — kindness is all.
¦ Culture: intelligence is a must, but an appreciation of the arts is even better.
¦ Style: It’s not about fashion or expense — you can’t buy style. It’s innate.