Diving beyond the show and into attraction
The why behind who we’re attracted to has stumped humankind for centuries. Ask anyone what their type is and chances are they’ll have to think for a minute before giving an answer. When an answer is given it’s normally a little jumbled, with lots of additions and exceptions given as the conversation progresses.. The Netflix series Explained has a a docu-series on sex with an episode on attraction, attempting to deconstruct some of the mysteries around our types. Here’s what they got right, as well as the telling areas they skipped over.
The episode starts with a very scientific approach, outlining the hormones your body releases when you’re truly attracted to someone. Dopamine is one of the most commonly known and can create the drug-like cravings that leave people lovesick, or create the serial-honeymooners (as I like to call them) who date people until the relationship gets to a stage where it takes work they’re not willing to put in. They leave to chase the high you get from a crush or new-found love.
The episode put a fairly heavy emphasis on the evolutionary theory of attraction: the idea that we fall for people due to their reproductive potential and their potential as a long-term financial provider or baby-maker/childcare-provider. There’s a common idea that men are attracted to women with wide hips, or “birthing hips,” as those women are perceived to have an easier time carrying and birthing children. The same belief extends to large breasts and pretty faces, with the assumption that men only really care about looks for the purpose of reproduction (which is honestly degrading to men both in the sense of basic intelligence and emotional maturity, but that’s a spiel for another article).
Psychologist Lisa Diamond puts that view in perspective as part of the show.
“There is no evidence of any link between large breasts and a pretty face and fertility. If that were true our planet would only be inhabited by beautiful, large-breasted women and that is not true.” Diamond addresses genetics with this point, outlining that if those women were the only women men were attracted to then eventually those would be the only genes passed down as the others would hypothetically be bred out of our species.
The evolutionary/reproductive theory of attraction also leaves out a massive percentage of the human species, those attracted to individuals they’re unable to reproduce with: homosexuals. While many gay and lesbian couples seek out adoption or foster-care as a way to raise a family, there are many who have never and will never want children. How do you explain their attraction to their partners? Additionally, there’s a large percentage of straight individuals who either have no desire to reproduce or are infertile; how do you explain their attractions and types?
The episode didn’t cover those questions to any degree, which I found disappointing. According to Statistics Canada there were 64,575 same-sex couples reported in the 2011 census (that’s 129,150 people, assuming all those couples are monogamous), a number 42.4 per cent higher than that found on the 2006 census just one year after same-sex marriage was legalized. If that number rose by nearly fifty per cent in just five years, can you imagine how much higher it must be now, nearly a decade later? This data also only accounted for those reported as couples, leaving out individuals not currently in relationships or people who didn’t feel safe having their sexuality on government record.
As someone who’s a part of the queer community, I don’t appreciate the community in general being left out of scientific study and reports as often as we are. It’s not just cherry-picking information to further one’s ignorance and confirmation bias, it’s making a conscious choice to not measure a large part of our species, yet data gathered from straight individuals is generalized to our population. It’s treating us as lesser-than humans, and I think I speak for the community as a whole when I say we’re more than done with that attitude.
A point made later in the episode was that gender could simply be considered a “type,” much like being attracted to people with toned arms or red hair. Everyone has a slightly different preference, and some people couldn’t care less about your gender as long as you meet their personal wants and needs.
One of the most interesting bits of information used to challenge genetic theories of attraction were two twin studies. The first surveyed the sexual orientation of both twins in monozygotic (identical) pairs, and found that not every pair had an identical orientation. To take it a step further, if one twin was queer there was a higher probability of the other being straight compared to twin pairs where both were straight or queer.
One part of this episode that held the most value for me was a cultural/societal experiment done on Zulu men. There were two groups, one living in a community with a high HIV infection rate and one of people who’d immigrated to the UK and lived there for at least 18 months. Both groups were given ten photos of women ranging from quite thin to quite overweight and were told to rate the level of attraction to each weight. Those in the community with a large population living with HIV rated higher-weighing women as more attractive because a low weight is considered an obvious sign of HIV there, the study argued. The UK group rated thinner women as more attractive after only 18 months of exposure to European society and ideals. The reason behind this rating wasn’t much explained in cultural or sociological terms, but it’s easy to see that culture and historical context play a large part in what we as humans are attracted to.