CONDOM STUDY: Men say they’re less inclined to use condoms
if a female partner is attractive

By Ben Guarino

Men who whine about wearing condoms — villains of sex ed videos,
defiers of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports and
common sense — might protest even louder if they think their partners are

    When faced with the proposition
    of casually sleeping with a pretty
    woman, men are more eager to
    forgo condoms, according to a
    new scientific survey, than if they
    think their fling is less attractive.

    Researchers at the University of
    Southampton and the University of
    Bristol asked heterosexual men to
    report their desire to have unprotected
    sex with 20 women, based on
    photographs of the women’s faces.

The scientists discovered men were much less apt to wear a condom if they believed
a hypothetical partner had a prettier face, as the researchers wrote recently in the
British Medical Journal Open. The study was small, just 51 subjects, but it adds to a
growing body of evidence that both men and women want to relax safe-sex standards
for good-looking partners.

“Men are more willing to have condomless sex with attractive women,” wrote lead
author and University of Southampton public health researcher Anastasia Eleftheriou,
in an email to The Washington Post. That holds true “even though they might believe
that those women are more likely” to have a sexually transmitted disease, she said.

Study Demographics
The male subjects were not hugely varied in their demographics: The 51 heterosexual
men who made up the survey ranged in age from 19 to 61 years old, and all spoke
English. Most men had lost their virginity at an average age of 18; the youngest was
13 and the oldest, 30. But there was quite a bit of variance in reported number of
sexual partners — the average was 10, though four responders had never had sexual
intercourse and one man said he had had sex with 60 women.

While looking at a black-and-white portrait of a woman’s face, each man used a
sliding scale, from of 0 to 100, to rate:
  1. The woman’s attractiveness
  2. How likely he would be to sleep with her, if he were single
  3. How likely he would be to use a condom
  4. How many men like him, out a group of 100, would have unprotected sex with the
    woman, and
  5. The odds he thought this woman had a sexually transmitted disease.

Not surprisingly, the closer a man rated a woman to 100, the higher his willingness
was to have sex with her. But the study subjects were split on whether or not the
attractive women were more likely to have a sexually transmitted disease.

Perceptions and Incongruities
Previous studies on perceived health and looks reflect this division, too. Some
researchers have found that men view attractive women as more promiscuous, and
therefore more likely to have been exposed to sexually transmitted disease; others
indicate humans broadly link good looks to good health. (One evolutionary psychology
theory argues that facial symmetry, a significant factor in attractiveness, indicates a
high resistance to parasites. Because we want our mates to be parasite-free,
symmetry becomes pretty.)

Humans make a lot of assumptions about attractiveness, and many of them do not
quite hit the mark. (Beauty is not skin deep, for instance, as bone structure has a
dramatic influence on what we find attractive.)

In this study, the scientists reported a few surprising incongruities: Some men who
rated the women at high risks for sexually transmitted diseases — the men who
believed many other men would have unprotected sex with a woman — also rated
themselves as likely to have unprotected sex. In other words, even though the men
thought having sex with a particular woman was apt to be risky, they would not take
any additional measures to protect themselves.

To explain the apparent incongruity, Eleftheriou’s co-author Roger Ingham, a sexual
health expert at the University of Southampton, offered two possible reasons.
  • First, it is lack of contraception as an evolutionary holdover, he wrote to The
    Washington Post in an email. That is, “men want to reproduce with women they
    find to be more attractive,” he said.
  • Or it could be that young men attach high status to having sex with attractive
    women, “and so are willing to take more risk to acquire this status.”
  • Or, perhaps, it is a mixture of both motivations.

When asked if the reverse would seem to hold true — are men more likely to use
condoms with women whom they find less desirable? — Eleftheriou replied, “Yes. We
found a strong correlation between the two variables that works both ways.”

Eleftheriou and Ingham want to use this information to create better sex education.
Ingham points out that sex ed traditionally assumes people are rational actors, but
studies like this one show that is not the case when a man thinks about having sex
with an attractive woman. Eleftheriou is exploring ways to create computer games to
promote sexual health, targeted at young populations.

As mentioned, the sample size was small — though Eleftheriou pointed out it could still
detect trends. In the paper, the scientists note that the survey was taken in the
presence of a female researcher, which previous studies have shown to affect male
responses. Likewise, this study did not take into account alcohol or arousal, both
factors when making decisions about condoms.

And, finally, Ingham acknowledged that the study was limited to heterosexual males.
“It would indeed be of great interest to repeat the study using men who have sex with
men,” he said, “to explore if similar patterns of results are obtained.”

This article first appeared in print on June 24, 2016, and is available online.
Reprinted with permission