Many of us know this intuitively, but now there is a lot of science to back that up.
Researchers have studied red in other mammals for a while, but as far as humans go, it all started back in 2008 at University of Rochester. In a series of 5 experiments, Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta established the following fun facts about the link between red and sex:
– a red background in a woman’s photograph led men to view her as more attractive and sexually desirable than if the background was in other chromatic (blue, green) or achromatic (e.g., white, grey) colors;
– men were completely unaware of this red effect;
– red did not alter perceptions of women’s other positive characteristics, such as likeability, kindness, or intelligence;
– red did not influence women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other women.
Since then, several studies have found that men prefer women in red in real life situations: Men (but not other women!) sit closer to women in red, ask them more intimate questions, tip them more in restaurants, and are more likely to offer them a car ride when the women are hitchhiking.
Then last year, experiments by two independent groups of researchers, one from France and one from Austria and the USA, elucidated why this may be the case. Apparently, men rate women who wear red as more sexually receptive (i.e., more interested in having sex) than women who wear other colors. And since sexual receptiveness is perceived as more physically attractive and sexually desirable (it means the men might get laid!), so are women in red.
In other words, women in red = more sexually receptive = more physically attractive and sexually desirable.
And now, two new studies from the Austrian/American research team find that women kinda know the power of red (consciously or unconsciously) and use it to their advantage to attract mates.
In the first, correlational, study, women on the web who explicitly stated they were looking for casual sex were more likely to display red in the photos of themselves on their anticipated on-line profiles (Study 1) and on their actual on-line profiles (Study 2). Moreover, women who had profiles on casual sex-finding websites were more likely to display red in their photos than women with profiles on marriage-finding websites (Study 3).
In the second, experimental, study, women who thought they were going to interact with an attractive man (tall, with clear skin, an athletic body, and high grades) were much more likely to choose to wear a red shirt – as opposed to a green or a blue shirt – than women who thought they were going to interact with:
– an unattractive man (short, with or an unclear skin, an out-of-shape body, and low grades);
– an attractive woman; or
– an average-looking woman.
At this point, you’re probably wondering – what the hell is it about red that’s so sexy in male-female interactions? Don’t worry: Science has you covered. There seem to be both biological (i.e., evolutionary) and social learning (i.e, conditioning) reasons for the red-sex link.
Biologically, when women and other mammals ovulate, estrogen becomes elevated, which increases blood flow, which in turn increases reddening of the skin. In some species (e.g, baboons, chimpanzees), this reddening is really obvious and in your face; in others (e.g., gorillas, gibbons, and humans), the reddening is more subtle (e.g., blushing). So biologically, you can think of red as a ‘fertility compass’.
Socially, the pairing of red and sex has a long and colorful history starting over 10,000 years ago and continuing to the present day. From red ochre used as face paint on women in prehistoric times, to The Scarlet Letter in literature, to red-light districts in many different countries, and to female lingerie in stores and bedrooms across the world, red has been used to symbolize fertility, sexuality, passion, lust, and sexual availability. So socially, we build on the biologically engrained predisposition to red as a sexual signal, and in that way, we create a powerful, if often unconscious, link between red and sex.
One caveat: Red only enhances the sexual desirability of young women, but not older, post-menopausal women. Since post-menopausal women are not fertile, this whole red as a mating ‘help’ or mating ‘compass’ business doesn’t work anymore.
Take home message for the guys: If you’re looking to get laid, pay more attention to the ladies in red.
Take home message for the gals: Next time you wanna lure a man into your bed/arms/web, redding it up might help.
Elliot, A. J., & Pazda, A. D. (2012). Dressed for sex: Red as a female sexual signal in humans. PLoS ONE, 7, e34607. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034607
Elliot, A. J., Greitemeyer, T., & Pazda, A. D. (2013). Women’s use of red clothing as a sexual signal in intersexual interaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49. 599-602. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.10.001