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Relationships • Sex

What Makes a Person Attractive?

Understandably enough, our societies pay vast attention to the idea of ‘sexiness’; far more questionably, they tempt us to believe that it might be easy to understand what this quality consists of. The leading suggestion takes its starting point from the biological sciences: we learn that sex aims at successful reproduction and genetic fitness in the coming generation. Therefore ‘sexiness’ must logically comprise a host of semi-conscious signals of fertility and of resistance to disease: bilateral facial symmetry, large bright pupils, full lips, youthful skin and melanin-rich hair.

But this analysis too quickly assumes that it might be simple to know what sex really aims at. Unlike most other living beings, our biological drives sit alongside, and at points take second place to, a range of emotional priorities. Chief among these is the desire to overcome loneliness and share our vulnerability within the arms of a safe and intimate other. We seek, through a physical act, to overcome our customary psychological alienation and a host of painful barriers to being known and accepted. Viewed through such a lens, the erotic is not so much a promise of reproductive health as a suggestion of a redemptive capacity for closeness, connection, understanding and an end to shame and isolation.

It is this emotional mission that explains the conundrum sometimes generated by people whom one would expect, by all standard biological criteria, to possess an exemplary sexual aura but who manage to leave us cold – just as it may shed light on the associated puzzle of those physically more challenged candidates who nevertheless lay claim to a rare power far outstripping the quality of their hair or the lustre of their eyes.

The people whom we call sexy despite, or aside from, the raw facts of their appearance are those whose features and manner suggest an unusual ability to fulfill the underlying emotional purpose of love-making. The way they respond to a joke, the curve of an eyebrow, the characteristic motion of their forehead, the way of holding their hands convey in an unconsciously understood but hugely eloquent language, that one is in the presence of a kindly being who is liable to understand our broken and confused aspects, to help us over our loneliness and submerged sadness and reassure us of our basic legitimacy and worth; someone with whom we can at last reduce our normal suspicions, cast aside our armour and feel safe, playful and accepted. Whatever the quality of their skin or balance of their proportions, it is these aspects that have a true power to excite us; in a melancholy and avoidant world, this is the real turn on.

We hear so much about what we might need to do to increase our physical appeal. But by getting more detailed about the psychological traits that drive desire, we could learn to pay as much, if not more, attention to the foundations of an exciting mindset. Armed with a broader understanding of the aims of sexuality, some of the following might also – henceforth – deserve to be counted as valuable sources of sexiness:

A sense of being slightly at odds with mainstream society

Whether at work, with friends or around family, we are too often hemmed in by exhausting requirements to fit in and subscribe to dominant notions of what it means to be good and acceptable, requirements which nevertheless leave behind, or censor, a lot of our internal reality; there ends up being a lot we mustn’t say and even more we shouldn’t even really feel. What a relief then to note (perhaps via a wry twitch in another’s upper lip) that we are in the presence of someone who knows how to adopt a gently sceptical perspective on prevailing assumptions – someone with whom we would be able to break away and express doubts about revered ideas or people and cast a cathartically sceptical gaze on the normal rules of life. Good sex promises to feel like something of a conspiracy against everyone else.

An unshockable nature

The more we are honest with, and exploratory about ourselves, the more we realise that there is much inside our characters that might surprise or horrify outsiders: that we possess alarming degrees of vulnerability, meanness, strangeness, waywardness and folly. Our standard response may be shame and embarrassment – and yet we quietly hunger to be properly witnessed and accepted as we really are. What may prove supremely sexy therefore are suggestions that another person has explored their own deeper selves with courage, has a handle on their darkness – and may on this basis be capable of extending an uncensorious perspective on our own.

A tension between good and ‘bad’

Someone who paid no attention whatsoever to decency and scoffed at all propriety might be merely alarming. Yet what can prove uniquely appealing is a person alive both to duty and temptation, to the pull of maturity and the draw – at least for a little while in the early hours – of wickedness; a divided person simultaneously responsible and marked by a touch of desperation.

Vigour and impatience

In addition might come a potential for aggression and anger that they managed to keep very sanely under control in daily life, but that they knew how to release at points in private; someone whose capacity for a little cruelty was all the more moving because it stood out against a customary habit of extreme consideration and gentleness.


A lot of our reality deserves compassion and sympathy. How compelling, therefore, to come across someone whose features would belie a willingness to extend charity towards a lot that is less than perfect in human nature, someone who could know how much we stand in need of forgiveness and who could laugh generously with and at us – because they knew how to do the same in relation to themselves.

We have allowed our concern for sexiness to be coarsened by physical obsession because we are under the sway of an overly simplistic biological sense of what sex might be aiming at. Yet by recovering contact with some of what we emotionally crave from another person, we can – happily but not merely conveniently – rediscover that the real turn on is never just a well-polished body but, always and primordially, a well-fashioned soul.

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