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Background

In 2016, a Business Insider article by Rebecca Harrington asserted that there have been multiple studies supporting the notion that men are preferentially attracted to women who are ovulating:

Multiple studies have concluded that men find women more attractive during ovulation. Scientists have had men smell women's T-shirts and underarm patches, and men consistently rate the women who are ovulating as more attractive. It's unclear, however, how powerful this effect might be; other factors that shape our perception of attraction are likely far stronger in the real world.

This is a notion that is also asserted by Professor Janet E. Smith in the podcast Contraception: Cracking the Myths:

Males are much more attracted to women who are having fertile cycles than women who are not. Males produce much more testosterone when they are around females who are having fertile cycles. Males like that sensation, they like being around women who are fertile. They find women more attractive when they are fertile

However, given the exagerated claims from some perfume industries that pheromones can cause someone to be more attracted to them, I am wary of the assertions made in the article and podcast. The sentence "other factors that shape our perception of attraction are likely far stronger in the real world" prompted me to ask this question.

Question

Does ovulation make women more attractive to men?

  • 1
    I've also heard that women's voices are considered more attractive when ovulating. – fredsbend Oct 7 at 3:09
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    Why wouldn't this be the case? What is skeptical about it? – Weather Vane Oct 7 at 9:30
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    Alternative - Women behave in a more attractive way when they ovulating. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Oct 7 at 18:07
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    @ArcanistLupus Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus? Article in Evolution and Human Behavior 28(6) · November 2007 – Paul Johnson Oct 7 at 20:58
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    I'll try and post a real answer soon if I can find time but a quick Google Scholar search shows a lot of research done on this topic, with evidence to support many possible mechanisms including those that have been mentioned (behavior, voice, appearance, etc.). – Brian Z Oct 9 at 0:15
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Yes, although it is generally said that humans do not have estrous cycles in the way most mammals do, there are indeed multiple peer-reviewed studies suggesting that people (not just men, and in some cases other women especially) find ovulating women more attractive. The mechanisms for this are multiple, including both physical and behavioral changes. However, I should emphasize that the effect of each mechanism tested in various experiments is generally small but still enough to be considered statistically significant.

I have no particular expertise in psychology, physiology, etc. so I'm just going to dump some references and findings here without trying to analyze their methodology in depth. The articles I provide full references for are readily available on the open web.

  • Roberts, S. Craig, Jan Havlicek, Jaroslav Flegr, Martina Hruskova, Anthony C. Little, Benedict C. Jones, David I. Perrett, and Marion Petrie. "Female facial attractiveness increases during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 271, no. suppl_5 (2004): S270-S272.

This study follows up on earlier research regarding physical attractiveness.

[S]oft tissue traits, such as ears, fingers and breasts, become more symmetrical in the days leading up to ovulation (Manning et al. 1996; Scutt & Manning 1996) and skin colour becomes lighter (Van den Berghe & Frost 1986).

The authors of this particular study used pairs of images of women and had both men and women rate their attractiveness. The article provides a detailed explanation of how the experiment was controlled. Here are sample images provided in the article, in which the women on the right (column "ii") are ovulating. Although I don't personally see a noticeable difference in attractiveness here, I do think the subtle changes in skin tone and symmetry of features described above are perceptible here if you are looking for them.

sample image pairs

Here is an excerpt of the authors' conclusions:

Our results indicate that the perceived attractiveness of womens’ faces varies across the menstrual cycle and is higher in the periovulatory than in the luteal phase. This increase in facial attractiveness is clearly subtle and the mean effect size is small. [...] Our results also show that potentially additive information about the stage of the menstrual cycle is available in hairstyle and/or condition (hairstyle was usually but not always constant across the two samples). Surprisingly, this information appears to be used only by other women, suggesting that women may be more aware or better able to discriminate these subtle differences, and that men might fail to detect some available cues to fertility.

  • Haselton, Martie G., Mina Mortezaie, Elizabeth G. Pillsworth, April Bleske-Rechek, and David A. Frederick. "Ovulatory shifts in human female ornamentation: Near ovulation, women dress to impress." Hormones and behavior 51, no. 1 (2007): 40-45.

This study focuses on how women dress when they are ovulating. It suggests that these women are more likely to wear "nicer" clothes, lacy tops and short skirts that expose their legs. Male and female judges were asked to look at photos of women and to rate whether the women in the photos were "trying to look attractive". The faces of the women were concealed. Here is a plot of the data showing a correlation between this and their estimated days to ovulation.

data plot from Haselton et al.

  • Gildersleeve, Kelly A., Martie G. Haselton, Christina M. Larson, and Elizabeth G. Pillsworth. "Body odor attractiveness as a cue of impending ovulation in women: evidence from a study using hormone-confirmed ovulation." Hormones and behavior 61, no. 2 (2012): 157-166.

In this study, a blind smell test showed that men preferred the body odor of the same women when they were ovulating over when they were not at "above-chance levels" (56%). The study also looked at men's ability to discern the scents of ovulating and non-ovulating women; where that discernment was more accurate, the preference was stronger. A number of earlier studies have also supported the hypothesis that odor plays a role in the attractiveness of ovulating women.

  • Bryant, Gregory A., and Martie G. Haselton. "Vocal cues of ovulation in human females." Biology Letters 5, no. 1 (2008): 12-15.

This one documents an increase in the pitch of women's voices just before ovulation. It does not measure whether it effects the perceived attractiveness of the voice.

  • Miller, Geoffrey, Joshua M. Tybur, and Brent D. Jordan. "Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?" Evolution and Human Behavior 28, no. 6 (2007): 375-381.

This is a small-scale economic study of tip earnings by 18 lap dancers.

We found strong ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings,moderated by whether the participants were normally cycling. All women made less money during their menstrual periods, whether they were on the pill or not. However, the normally cycling women made much more money during estrus (about US$354 per shift)—about US$90 more than during the luteal phase and about US$170 more than during the menstrual phase. Estrous women made about US$70 per hour, luteal women made about US$50 per hour, and menstruating women made about US$35 per hour.

In their analysis, the authors argue that this is more likely due to "cyclic shifts in women's attractiveness are driving our tip earnings results—rather than the well-documented shifts in sexual receptivity, proceptivity, or selectivity for good genes".

  • Haselton, Martie G., and Kelly Gildersleeve. "Can men detect ovulation?." Current directions in psychological science 20, no. 2 (2011): 87-92.

This one is a small meta-study which finds "that there are discernible cues of fertility in women’s social behaviors, body scents, voices, and, possibly, aspects of physical beauty." Here is a graph comparing the results of various studies. It suggests that the effect of a change in voice is small compared to scent and behavior.

graph of effect size

  • Boldfacing “skin colour becomes lighter“ is offensive, unless there is evidence that most men find it more attractive. – DavePhD Oct 13 at 23:27
  • This whole body of research is arguably offenisive on many levels, but it is what it is. The source on that specific point cited above (Van den Berghe & Frost 1986) does claim exactly that. I'm not prepared to defend that research, but I did skim through the 1986 article. – Brian Z Oct 14 at 0:20
  • People put so much effort and money into tanning, hard to understand how lighter skin is more attractive – DavePhD Oct 14 at 0:28
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    The cultural history of skin tanning is short and specific to women of European descent. The global market for skin whitening creams is huge. Clearly culture and history influence beauty standards, but tanning is not a universal human practice. – Brian Z Oct 14 at 12:11
  • But you're only showing photos of European descent women. What ethnicity of women was studied? – DavePhD Oct 14 at 12:34

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