Truth be told, every straight and bisexual woman I know has gone through a phase of dating tatted guys. Once upon a time, I would only date a man if he had a set of full sleeves. Now, new research published in Personality and Individual Differences is letting sex science explain the appeal—and why many women end up changing their taste once they’re ready to settle down.
Researchers at Jagiellonian University Medical College in Poland recruited 2,369 female and 215 male study participants from social media. All participants were exclusively straight and their average age was 25 years old. They were shown photos of tattooed and non-tattooed men and were asked to rate them, using a five-point scale, on domains of health, attractiveness, masculinity, dominance, aggression, potential for being a good partner and potential for being a good father.
To create the photos, nine men, ranging in age from 19 to 35, were photographed from the waist up while shirtless and standing. They each held the same pose with a non-smiling, neutral facial expression (think something along the lines of having your picture taken at the DMV). The photos were then digitally altered to have a black, tribal-looking tattoo inked on one arm so that two versions of the same photo existed. Participants viewed and rated each of the nine men once, with at least one tattooed and one non-tattooed photo in the randomly selected set.
Women rated men with tattoos as healthier but not more or less attractive than those with no tattoos and—perhaps a little harshly—as worse potential partners and fathers. Alternatively, men rated tattooed guys as more attractive, but not more or less healthy than non-tattooed guys. Both sexes rated tattooed men as more masculine, dominant and aggressive, but having a tattoo didn’t affect men’s ratings for the partner and parental domains. Across the board, tattoos had a greater effect on men’s ratings than women’s ratings. Since the male participants were straight, the authors took their ratings to be indicative of how they perceived the men in the photos as same-sex rivals.
Regarding the perception of being healthier, previous research has shown that tattoos are interpreted by women as being a sign of better health. And a recent study found repeated tattooing may inadvertently improve your immune system due to the body’s habituation to the stress response. (This strengthened immune response may also explain why many people find newer tattoos heal faster than previous ones.)
As for the higher ratings of masculinity, dominance and aggression, these are all characteristics associated with higher levels of testosterone, which can suppress a man’s immune function. This fits in with the idea of tattooed men appearing healthier, because in theory, only someone with a really strong immune system could walk around harboring alpha traits while also tempting death with his body art.
Some women, particularly those who prefer their mates to be protective of them, would likely find these highly masculine traits attractive. By the same token, other women might find them less attractive (sorry, guys) and indicative that a man wouldn’t be a suitable long-term partner or parent. Research shows women tend to prefer masculine men only for short-term relationships because the downside of high testosterone is cheating, relationship instability and lack of parental investment.
Finally, regarding male participants’ higher ratings of attractiveness for men with tattoos, this was an example of how cultural stereotyping can play a role in how we present ourselves. Men in the study found tattoos on guys attractive based on what they thought women would want, as opposed to what women are actually looking for.
The authors concluded that tattoos on men serve two functions: to attract women by signalling good health and masculinity and to intimidate same-sex rivals. Based on these findings, it would appear tattoos operate more for the purposes of scaring off male competition than directly appealing to potential mates.
It would have been interesting to know whether raters in the study, particularly the men, had tattoos themselves, as this likely influenced how attractive they found tattoos on someone else and how much they believed women liked them. It’s also important to note that the researchers only looked at one style of tattoo placed on one part of the body, so the use of a different design placed elsewhere may have generated different findings. But all in all, the study makes an interesting comment about what women really want—and an argument for being yourself in order to win her over.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist, specializing in the fMRI of hypersexuality and paraphilias (or unusual sexual interests) at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, Scientific American and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.