Greater arousal in response to expansive female pubic hair is linked to more positive reactions to female sterility among heterosexual men.
KEY WORDS: Sexual arousal, pubic hair, sterility, infertility, sociosexuality
Pubic hair removal appears to be a popular practice in Western cultural contexts, especially among younger women (e.g., DeMaria & Berenson, 2013; Herbenick, Schick, Reece, Sanders, & Fortenberry, 2010; Herbenick et al., 2013; Smolak & Murnen, 2011), and there is some evidence that its prevalence has increased over time, e.g., the predominance of untrimmed/ natural (1980s), shaped/trimmed (1990s), and absent (2000s) pubic hair expanses observable in North American Playboy centerfolds (Schick, Rima, & Calabrese, 2011). To the extent that Playboy models exemplify cultural ideals for the female body, the current majority preference among North American men may be a hairless female pubic region, although we are not aware of any peer-reviewed research that speaks to this. Neither are we aware of research concerning whether variations in female pubic hair preferences are linked to men's reactions to other sex-related female characteristics (see Ramsey, Sweeney, Fraser, & Oades, 2009).
With this in mind, we sought in the present research to test a possible link between heterosexual men's self-reported arousal in response to differing expanses of female pubic hair and their affective reactions to the prospect of an infertile female partner. Our logic stems from evolutionary perspectives concerning secondary sex characteristics' apparent capacity to function as visual heuristics of a human female's capacity to produce and/or nurture offspring. For example, comparatively large breasts and a comparatively small waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) have been linked to higher daily levels of reproduction-related hormones such as estradiol and progesterone (Jasienska, Ziomkiewicz, Ellison, Lipson, & Thune, 2004; see Singh & Singh, 2011, for a review of additional research linking lower WHR to higher reproductive potential). In turn, Burris and Munteanu (2012) found that greater reluctance to reproduce in a sample of young heterosexual men predicted erotic preference for women displaying a combination of comparatively small breasts and a comparatively large WHR, suggestive of lower fertility.
In a similar fashion, we suggest that men may utilize female pubic hair expanse as a visual fertility heuristic. Of course, pubic hairlessness is typical of premenarche (e.g., Courant et al., 2010; Ebling, 1987) and pubic hair loss can occur post menopause, although age-related body hair loss among women appears too gradual to map closely onto hormone-related changes that co-occur with loss of fertility due to menopause (Ali & Wojnarowska, 2011). Consequently, prepubertal and post-menopausal females manifest less pubic hair on average compared to healthy women in their reproductive prime. Thus, across the lifespan, readily visible (versus sparse/absent) pubic hair corresponds with the greater likelihood of fertility.
Within the span of female reproductive viability, however, the relationship may be reversed due to the joint impact of testosterone on fertility and body hair growth. That is, in addition to increasing muscle mass and redistributing fat--which can shift the female body away from a "reproductively fit" (i.e., curvaceous) shape (e.g., Azziz et al., 2004)--greater testosterone has also been linked to decreased fertility and more extensive body hair (including pubic hair). For example, prenatal exposure to testosterone (via a male co-twin) has been linked to women's decreased lifetime likelihood of reproducing (Lummaa, Pettay, & Russell, 2007). Moreover, in a "partly longitudinal" study designed to track hormonal changes over time in 200 normal girls aged 7-17, Apter (1980) noted that higher testosterone increased the likelihood of anovulatory menstrual cycles beyond the first postmenarcheal year, a pattern that "could be described as a physiological variant of the pattern seen in polycystic ovary syndrome [PCOS]" (p. 119). Indeed, elevated testosterone levels, ovulatory dysfunction, and hirsutism are common clinical manifestations of PCOS proper (e.g., Azziz et al., 2009; Dumesic, Abbott, & Padmanabhan, 2007). Finally, compared to asymptomatic controls, Lunde and Grottum (1984) showed that a group of over 100 women referred for clinical treatment of hirsutism evidenced higher serum testosterone, reported more menstrual irregularity, and--importantly--were most clearly differentiated (out of 19 regions assessed) based on hair growth in the lip, chin, and pubic regions (see also Eliakim et al., 2011; Ibanez et al., 2003). Thus, the impact of higher testosterone on women of reproductive age may serve as the biological basis for greater female pubic hair expanse to function as a visual infertility heuristic among male perceivers.
Importantly, heuristics are "good enough" decision rules for appraising environmental stimuli. As such, they need not be 100% accurate to have adaptive utility--especially when used combinatorially (see Gigerenzer & Brighton, 2009). To illustrate the "good enough" nature of the proposed pubic hair/female infertility heuristic, it is worth noting that genetic syndromes such as Turner's (e.g., Brook, Mtirset, Zachmann, & Prader, 1974) and endocrine syndromes such as Sheehan's (e.g., Gei-Guardia, Soto-Herrera, Gei-Brealey, & Chen-Ku, 2011) may result in the co-occurrence of sparse/absent pubic hair and infertility among women of reproductive age. Although this runs counter to the proposed heuristic, it seems highly unlikely that the combined prevalence of such disorders would match the 6-8% prevalence of PCOS among women worldwide that make it "one of the most common disorders of humans" (Azziz et al., 2009, p. 454). Consequently, among women of reproductive age, greater pubic hair expanse is arguably a more reliable heuristic indicative of possible infertility than is sparse/absent pubic hair.
Based on this reasoning, we expected men's relative comfort with the prospect of a female partner's infertility to covary with their self-reported arousal in response to more expansive female pubic hair: Essentially, arousal in response to more expansive female pubic hair may serve as a signal of a prospective sexual partner who is at comparatively lower risk for pregnancy. To test this, heterosexual, age-traditional university men rated how arousing they regarded each of a series of female pubic hair patterns (from completely hairless to extending beyond the pubic mound). They also rated their reactions to learning (hypothetically) that: (1) their committed female intimate partner was sterile; or (2) they themselves were sterile. Although we anticipated the greatest arousal overall in response to absent/restricted female pubic hair based on current cultural ideals (e.g., Schick et al, 2011), we also predicted that higher self-reported arousal in response to the more expansive pubic hair patterns would be linked to more positive reactions to the prospect of a female partner's sterility. Importantly, because female pubic hair expanse is posited to function as a visual heuristic of the likelihood that a heterosexual male perceiver's partner is infertile, we did not expect the male perceiver's relative comfort with the prospect of his own sterility to predict pubic hair arousal ratings.
To demonstrate further the specificity of the predicted relationship, participants also completed a self-report measure of sociosexual orientation, i.e., preference for sexual activity that does not presuppose emotional or relational connection with a partner (Penke & Asendorpf, 2008). In Burris and Munteanu (2012), higher sociosexuality predicted preference for larger breasts and narrower hips--features of the "Barbie Doll ideal" for women identified by Schick et al. (2011) as ubiquitous in contemporary male-oriented pornography. An additional feature of this ideal is a hairless pubic region, so we expected higher (versus lower) sociosexuality to predict higher arousal in response to the hairless pubic representation.
Participants were the same as Burris and Munteanu (2012): These undergraduate men gave electronic consent to participate in an IRB-approved online study described as an exploration of "sexual attractiveness and attitudes toward fatherhood" among heterosexual men. We assumed that participants self-selected based on the sexual orientation criterion. Listwise case deletion based on the variables reported here yielded N = 63 (mean age = 20.06 years; SD = 2.71 years). Based on responses to an initial demographic questionnaire, 55% self-identified as Euro-Canadian; the remainder were East Asian, South Asian, or other. Forty-four percent claimed to be sexually active. All participants indicated that, to the best of their knowledge, they were not sterile but had not fathered children. Following the demographic questionnaire, participants completed the following in fixed order (for a description of other measures completed but not pertinent to the present study, see Burris & Munteanu, 2012).
Participants completed Penke and Asendorpf's (2008) 9-item Sociosexual Orientation Inventory--Revised (e.g., "I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying 'casual' sex with different partners"; M = 34.77; SD = 13.81; Cronbach's alpha = .83). They subsequently reacted (1 = extremely negative; 9 = extremely positive) to two single-item scenarios: (1) "Finding out that your committed sexual partner is sterile and can never give birth to your biological children" (M = 3.21; SD = 1.61); (2) "Learning from a doctor that you are in good health overall, but that you are sterile and therefore can never father children of your own" (M = 1.90; SD = 1.44). Sociosexuality was not significantly correlated with reactions to the prospect of one's own sterility, r (61) = - .15, p = .24, or the sterility of one's female partner, r (61) = .07, p = .58. The two sterility ratings were moderately positively correlated, r (61) = .50, p < .001.
As one means of gauging the age ranges that participants had in mind when making their ratings, we assessed the perceived sexual maturity of participants' ideal (i.e., most arousing) female sexual partner by asking them to: (1) select her age from 1+ of 8 categories (16-17, 18-19, 20-25, 26-30, 3135, 36-40, 41-45, over 45); and (2) respond to the stem "She looks--than her age" using a 1 (much younger) to 4 (about the same as) to 7 (much older) format. (Note that we opted for this approach to sidestep issues related to admission of attraction to females below the local age of consent, although the second-item qualifier potentially allows for attraction to someone who appears prepubertal.) We coded the former item from 1 to 8, and we recoded the latter item so that the anchors were -3, 0, and +3, respectively. The two items were then summed to create an "ideal perceived age" index: The sample mean was 2.69 (SD = .72, or between 19 and 20 years of age, given the coding metric). Scores ranged from -1 (under 16 years: one participant) to +5 (31-35: one participant). The ideal perceived age index was not significantly correlated with either fertility item or the sociosexuality index (all ps > .65).
Finally, participants also rated (1 = not at all arousing; 7 = extremely arousing) seven schematic depictions of female pubic hair (see Table 1) ranging from hairless to relatively expansive (i.e., extending above the pubic triangle and onto the thighs). It should be noted that all pubic patterns appeared against the same schematic midsection evidencing a relatively low WHR, suggestive of a sexually mature female, i.e., a target for whom pubic hair expanse is presumed to function as a visual heuristic of the likelihood of (in)fertility. Given that, as noted just above, participants selected an ideal perceived partner age arguably within the developmental span of female fertility (unrelated to their comfort with a female partner's infertility), these findings seemed to offer reasonable assurance that participants focused on females of reproductive age as they made their ratings, and so our conceptual analysis of pubic hair expanse as a visual heuristic of (in)fertility seemed testable.
Congruent with the cultural normativity of pubic hair removal among especially younger women (e.g., DeMaria & Berenson, 2013), a repeated-measures ANOVA demonstrated a nearly stairstep inverse pattern of men's self-reported arousal favouring no/minimal female pubic hair, P (6, 372) = 85.26, p < .001, [[eta].sup.2.sub.p] = .58 (see Table 1). Notwithstanding this overall pattern, meaningful individual variation emerged: Separate repeated-measures ANOVAs that respectively included the three continuous predictor variables yielded a significant pubic expanse x female sterility interaction, F (6, 366) = 2.62, p = .012, [[eta].sup.2.sub.p] = .04, a nonsignificant pubic expanse x self sterility interaction, F (6, 366) = .69, p = .662, [[eta].sup.2.sub.p] = .01, and a significant pubic expanse x sociosexuality interaction, F (6, 366) = 3.31, p = .004, [[eta].sup.2.sub.p] = .05. Thus, as shown in Table 2, men's reaction to the hypothetical prospect of their own sterility was not significantly correlated with any of the pubic hair ratings. In contrast, the relationship between men's reaction to the prospect of a sterile female partner and arousal was near zero toward the hairless end, but positive and significant for three most expansive pubic hair patterns. Different still was the pattern for sociosexuality: Although trending negative as a predictor of arousal at the hirsute end, it was a significant positive predictor of arousal for (only) the completely hairless pubic pattern. All significant correlations remained so when controlling for overlap among the two sterility reaction ratings and sociosexuality.
To aid interpretation of Table 2's significant correlations, we performed quartile splits on both the female sterility item (low = 1, n = 11; high [greater than or equal to] 5, n = 15) and the sociosexuality index (low [less than or equal to] 23, n = 15; high [greater than or equal to] 45, n = 16). Mean arousal ratings for pubic patterns #4, #5, and #6 were low-moderate (4.33, 3.20, and 2.47, respectively) for high scorers on the female sterility item, and very low (2.09, 1.45, and 1.09, respectively) for low scorers on this item. Mean arousal ratings for pubic pattern #0 for high versus low scorers on the sociosexuality index were high (6.25) and moderate (4.80), respectively.
Informed by an evolutionary perspective suggesting that secondary sex characteristics can function as visual heuristics pertinent to a woman's relative capacity to produce/nurture offspring, and mindful of the dual impact of testosterone on body hair growth and infertility among women of reproductive age (Apter, 1980; Azziz et al., 2009; Lummaa et al., 2007; Lunde & Grottum, 1984), we reasoned that greater female pubic hair expanse might function as a visual heuristic indicative of possible female infertility among male perceivers. We therefore hypothesized that greater comfort with the prospect of a female partner's sterility would predict men's greater self-reported arousal in response to more expansive female pubic hair patterns.
To test this hypothesis, a sample of heterosexual, undergraduate Canadian men rated their affective reactions to the hypothetical discovery of their own sterility, or the sterility of an intimate female partner, as well as how arousing they deemed each of a range of female pubic hair expanses. Participants also completed a measure of sociosexuality, which tapped preference for sexual activity that does not presuppose emotional or relational connection with a partner.
Overall, men in this sample reported greater arousal in response to absent/restricted versus expansive female pubic hair, suggesting congruence between their preferences and the prevalence of pubic hair grooming/removal among women (DeMaria & Berenson, 2013; Herbenick et al., 2010; Herbenick et al., 2013; Smolak & Murnen, 2011). As predicted, greater comfort with the hypothetical prospect of a female partner's infertility was linked to greater arousal ratings for the three most expansive pubic hair patterns, suggesting that men with a more positive attitude toward the former bucked the trend of cultural normativity by admitting at least some degree of arousal in response to greater pubic hair expanse. Importantly, these relationships were specific to female sterility (versus self-sterility or sociosexuality, confirmed by partial correlations that controlled for overlap among the predictors).
Although we have made a case for an evolutionary framing of these findings, one could perhaps argue that the above relationships are simply an artifact of individual differences in partner selectivity, such that a subset of men are simply less choosy when it comes to mate selection. We cannot definitively rule out such a possibility, but we think it unlikely for several reasons. First, the outcome centred on (self-reported) arousal in response to a specific physical feature (i.e., pubic hair expanse) rather than a target's global perceived attractiveness or desirability. Second, the predictor presupposed a committed relationship with a female partner as the context in which her infertility was discovered: Thus, the mate had already been selected, hypothetically speaking, and so the focus was specifically on her infertility. (Indeed, recall that the self and partner sterility items were moderately positively correlated, suggesting that participants were attending to the import of infertility per se, be it their own or their partner's.) Third, even though Patterns #1-#3 were rated as less arousing on average than was the bare (#0) pattern, men who were more comfortable with the prospect of a female partner's infertility did not report greater arousal in response to these midrange pubic expanses compared to their less comfortable peers: Such a disparity of arousal ratings was restricted to the more expansive pubic patterns.
For sociosexuality, the results were quite different: There emerged only a significant positive correlation with arousal in response to the hairless pubic pattern. Along with the preference for larger breasts and narrower hips reported by Burris and Munteanu (2012), this suggests that men with higher (versus lower) sociosexuality scores are particularly aroused by the "Barbie Doll" female body aesthetic that currently predominates mainstream, male-oriented pornography (Schick et al., 2011). Combined with the nonsignificant relationships with both sterility items and arousal responses to the remaining pubic patterns, this suggests that higher sociosexuality scorers' arousal triggers may be more influenced by cultural factors (such as exposure to pornography) than by the potential reproductive relevance of female appearance characteristics. Indeed, higher sociosexual orientation and higher exposure to pornography have been linked empirically (e.g., Kennair & Bendixen, 2012).
That being said, one limitation of the present research (see Burris & Munteanu, 2012, for a discussion of sample-related limitations) concerns our use of schematic depictions of pubic expanses. For example, the well-defined edges of the more restricted expanses could quite reasonably be seen as the result of culturally normative grooming rather than natural growth, and therefore not indicative of a female target's true pubic expanse. At the other end, one could argue that even our most expansive pubic hair pattern (#6) is not expansive enough to portray clinically significant hirsutism. Thus, even if one were to accept the plausibility of a biologically-based link between greater female pubic hair expanse and possible infertility, one might argue that the pubic schematics did not allow for a valid test of our hypothesis. A contrary position (and our preferred one) is that heuristics often sacrifice precision for speed and efficiency (see Gigerenzer & Brighton, 2009), and so there is no reason to expect that our men's responses to the various pubic expanses were diagnostically accurate judgments informed by cosmetological or medical knowledge. Indeed, our results suggest that men employing a pubic hair/fertility heuristic can be "tricked" by pubic grooming in a similar way that shaping undergarments could plausibly influence application of a WHR/fertility heuristic (see Singh & Singh, 2011).
Research by Dixson, Grimshaw, Linklater, and Dixson (2011) is interesting in this regard: Using an eye-tracking paradigm and nude female images as stimuli, these researchers showed that men attended initially and primarily to breasts and waist when making attractiveness judgments, with the pubic region commanding comparatively less visual attention. They also showed that the visual scanning that drives attractiveness judgments was rather rapid, taking only a few seconds. This suggests that men may attend initially to figural cues such as WHR, and then secondarily to pubic hair expanse, when making heuristic appraisals of a female target's fertility.
Additional research would be needed to flesh out the specifics of this hypothesized sequence. The mechanism question is especially intriguing, given that aversion to producing offspring among men (which is entirely compatible with a positive response to a female partner's sterility) seems to be at least partly acquired rather than inherited (see Lunneborg, 1999). Moreover, given the rapidity with which attractiveness judgments are made (Dixson et al., 2011), men with a comparatively lower desire to produce offspring may be not only attending to reproductively-relevant secondary sex characteristics, but also overriding the presumably adaptive (evolutionary) preference for cues indicative of female fertility. It is therefore possible that female attractiveness judgments among these men may be slower than among their more reproduction-friendly peers. Future research testing such hypotheses would undoubtedly benefit from the incorporation of (possibly digitally altered) naturalistic images that depict a greater variety of pubic hair growth patterns (including clinically significant hirsutism), as well as images of other body regions--such as the axillae--for which hair growth is affected by hormonal factors (e.g., Ebling, 1987). Physiologic measures of arousal would also nicely complement the self-report approach used in the present research.
Given the circumscribed nature of our sample (i.e., age-traditional Canadian university students), it would be reckless to assume outright that the present findings would generalize to a more representative sample of heterosexual North American men. That being said, our results do offer preliminary evidence of men's overall preference for female pubic hairlessness that is congruent with cultural trends concerning both the prevalence of both pubic hair removal among (especially younger) women and the display of bare pubic regions by pornographic models and actresses (Schick et al., 2011). Moreover, although mean arousal ratings in response to the various pubic hair expanses may have been affected by idiosyncratic sample characteristics, making a case for the impact of the latter on observed relationships between arousal ratings and reactions to female (versus male) sterility seems much less straightforward. With that in mind, the present study is the first to offer empirical evidence that men's greater self-reported arousal in response to greater female pubic hair expanse is linked to a more positive reaction to the prospect of a sterile female intimate partner. As such, female pubic hair expanse may be a secondary sex characteristic--along with breast size and WHR (see Burris & Munteanu, 2012) that can function as a visual heuristic of female (in)fertility among heterosexual men.
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Christopher T. Burris (1) and Armand R. Munteanu (2)
(1) Department of Psychology, St. Jerome's University, Waterloo, ON
(2) Portland Hotel Society, Vancouver, BC
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christopher T. Burris, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, St. Jerome's University, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3G3. Email: email@example.com
Table 1. Overall Arousal Ratings in Response to Female Pubic Flair Expanse M 5.62 (a) 5.19 (b) 5.10 (b) 4.29 (c) SD 1.84 1.54 1.85 1.63 Pubic Flair Expanse #0 #1 #2 #3 M 3.30 (d) 2.51 (e) 1.90 (f) SD 1.69 1.58 1.48 Pubic Flair Expanse #4 #5 #6 Note: Means not sharing a superscript differ at p < .001, except a versus b, which differ at p < .03. Table 2. Correlations between Comfort with Self and Partner Sterility, Sociosexuality, and Arousal Ratings in Response to Female Pubic Hair Expanse Sterile Self -.04 -.02 -.12 -.08 .11 .05 -.06 Sterile (Female) .03 .02 .09 .18 .34 ** .29 * Partner Sociosexuality .27 * .14 .17 .05 -.11 -.12 -.17 Pubic Hair Expanse #0 #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 Note: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.
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|Author:||Burris, Christopher T.; Munteanu, Armand R.|
|Publication:||The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2015|
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