Sex Ed

Heterosexual Women Are More “Flirty” When They’re Ovulating, But Only With Bad Boys

March 26, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller


Research has found that heterosexual men seem to be able to detect when women are ovulating and this, in turn, appears to have implications for guys’ behavior. For instance, one study found that male visitors to a gentlemen’s club gave the biggest tips to female lap dancers when those dancers were ovulating [1]. Why is that? One possibility is that ovulating women are releasing pheromones that unconsciously change the way that men act around them. But another possibility is that ovulation changes women’s behavior, which ultimately leads men to treat them differently. A new study published in Psychological Science provides some support for the latter explanation by suggesting that women are “flirtier” when they’re ovulating–but only with certain types of guys.

In this study, 31 naturally cycling women (i.e., women who were not taking any form of hormonal birth control) visited a research lab twice: once when they were ovulating (i.e., at high fertility) and once while they were at another phase of the menstrual cycle (i.e., at low fertility) [2]. Fertility status was verified via a urine test.

During each session of the study, women interacted with two men. The interaction was videotaped so that women’s verbal and nonverbal flirting behavior could be coded by trained observers. In addition, after the interaction, participants completed a survey about how interested they were in each man.

In the authors’ words, one of the men was always presented as a “sexy cad,” and the other was presented as a “sexy dad.” These men were actually professional actors who were following a script. In the words of the study’s authors, this is how the set-up worked:

“The role of the sexy cad involved making statements and displaying mannerisms that conveyed charisma, confidence, and social dominance while also coming across as somewhat unreliable and undependable. The role of the good dad involved coming across as reliable, caring, family-oriented, and wanting a committed relationship while also being socially reserved and neither charismatic nor confident.”

Based on past research suggesting that ovulating women tend to find masculine-looking and -acting guys more attractive (presumably because those traits signal better genetic fitness and, thus, a higher likelihood of being able to father babies who will survive), the researchers hypothesized that women would flirt more with the “sexy cad” than the “good dad” while they were at peak fertility. They also predicted that ovulating women would report more interest in the “sexy cad” than the “good dad” as a short-term sexual partner. In other words, when women are at peak fertility, they should funnel their mating efforts to those men who have the best genes for producing offspring as opposed to who those men who would make the best long-term partners.

Consistent with these predictions, women engaged in more verbal and non-verbal flirting behavior with the “sexy cad” than the “good dad” when they were at high fertility. At low fertility, women’s flirting behavior did not differ based on which man they were interacting with.

In addition, when women were ovulating, they reported more interest in a short-term relationship with the “sexy cad” and less interest in such a relationship with the “good dad.” At low fertility, women rated the men as equally desirable prospects for a short-term mate.

These results provide some initial evidence that women behave differently toward men when they are most fertile. However, it is important to note that rather than becoming more flirty across the board during ovulation, women’s flirting behaviors appear to selectively favor those men who are likely to possess the best genes for making babies.

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[1] Miller, G., Tybur, J. M., & Jordan, B. D. (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: Economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 375-381. doi: 10.1016.j.evolhumbehav.2007.06.002

[2] Cantú, S. M., Simpson, J. A., Griskevicius, V., Weisberg, Y. J., Durante, K. M., & Beal, D. J. (in press). Fertile and selectively flirty: Women’s behavior toward men changes across the ovulatory cycle. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797613508413

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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