Is being sexy for your homies?

Epistemic status: Speculation. An unholy union of evo psych, introspection, random stuff I happen to observe & hear about, and thinking. Done on a highly charged topic. Caveat emptor!

Most of my life, whenever I’d felt sexually unwanted, I’d start planning to get fit.

Specifically to shape my body so it looks hot. Like the muscly guys I’d see in action films.

This choice is a little odd. In close to every context I’ve listened to, I hear women say that some muscle tone on a guy is nice and abs are a plus, but big muscles are gross — and all of that is utterly overwhelmed by other factors anyway.

It also didn’t match up with whom I’d see women actually dating.

But all of that just… didn’t affect my desire?

There’s a related bit of dating advice for guys. “Bro, do you even lift?” Depending on the context, the dudebros giving this advice might mention how you shouldn’t listen to women about what they say they want. Because (a) the women don’t really know and (b) they have reason to hide the truth anyway.

But… I mean… there’s an experience here that’s common enough to be a meme:

The more I connect the puzzle pieces, the weirder this looks at first.

For instance, my impression is that there is a kind of male physicality that does tend to be attractive for women. But it’s mostly not about body shape (other than height). It’s about functionality. Actual strength matters more than muscle size for instance. Coordination and physical competence are often turn-ons. Building stuff that’s hard to build, and doing it with physical grace? Yeah.

So you’d think the ideal form of physical training for a guy to attract a woman might be things like mobility training plus some kind of skill practice like dance or woodworking.

But guys mostly be like “Nah.”

(I mean, some go for it. I loved dance and martial arts, and I really tried to get into parkour, and these days I play with qigong & acrobatics. But the reason for these activities wasn’t (& isn’t) to attract a mate. It was (and is) mostly because I find them fun.)

But gosh, getting big does seem to attract men!

I mean, literally this seems to happen in gay contexts I think? But even setting aside sexual attraction, there’s something about getting other men’s “Looking big, king” that somehow… matters.

And if you take the feminist thing about male gaze seriously, that’d suggest that the physique of action heroes and comic book superheroes is actually meant to appeal to men.

If I sort of squint and ignore what people (including me) say things like lifting is for, and I just look at the effects… it sure looks like the causal arrow goes:

“desire a woman” --> “work to impress other men”

I kind of wonder if this is basically just correct. Not just that guys do this, but that maybe this is actually the right strategy. Just with some caveats because I think postmodern culture might have borked why this works and now everyone is confused.

To me this connects to how women relate to their beauty.

Beauty being female-coded seems stupid-obviously about sexual signaling. And yet! Men complimenting a woman’s beauty or even being stunned in awe of her has kind of a meh impact on said woman. Some women even get annoyed if a man thinks she’s pretty when she hasn’t put in effort.

(Maybe it lands for her as an attempt to manipulate? “Yeah, whatever, I’m frumpy and in my sweatpants and this dude just wants to bone me. It’s not sincere. He’d hump anything with tits and an ass.”)

But if another woman is sincerely enamored? Not (necessary) sexually attracted, but honestly says “Wow, you look stunning!”?

As far as I can tell, there’s no ceiling for how much that can matter to a woman.

This is really weird if you think beauty is about signaling sexual fitness and attracting a mate. Male attention, especially involuntary bricking the male brain just by being, should be the most sexually validating thing for a woman.

But instead it’s just… nice? And kind of amusing? A bit empowering?

Rather, what I see is women seeking compliments from each other. They form clusters of “Look at you, girl!” and cheer each other on.

Guys give zero fucks about manicures or whether your purse matches your dress, but boy oh boy do other women notice! And lo, what do women focus on when making themselves pretty?

When a woman is getting ready to leave the house and worries about how she looks, why does her man’s glowing approval (“You look gorgeous, babe!”) basically not matter to her? But if one of her girlfriends is there, her input totally does matter?

The whole picture strikes me as weird, in a similar way as guys bulking up, where sexual signals get primarily focused on one’s own sex, even to the outright exclusion of the opposite sex’s input.

Now why might that be?

There are a few other puzzle pieces that I think are worth putting next to the above. I’m selecting them based on a magic “This is relevant” detector in my head; they just feel to me worth naming:

  • Pick-up artistry (PUA) is very male-coded and creepy. Women seem to be loudest about the creepiness of it, but even men have to kind of rationalize it to get into it. Outside PUA communities, I usually see/​hear the male sentiment to be “Come on, man. Don’t be like that.” It comes across like some kind of defection on everyone.

  • If a woman really hyper-targets her beauty to appeal to men, the collective female response is often slut-shaming. Folk often explain this as a matter of price control (i.e., women acting like a cartel keeping the price of sex high in their bargaining with men). But I don’t think this explains it: slut-shaming happens even if it’s clear the “slutty” woman isn’t having sex. And I think a woman who actually has lots of sex with lots of men gets less overt slut-shaming if she generally doesn’t doll up for the male gaze.

  • “Bros before hoes.”

  • A man being deeply respected and lauded by his fellow men, in a clearly authentic and lasting way, seems to be a big female turn-on. Way way way bigger effect size than physique best as I can tell.

    • …but the symmetric thing is not true! Women cheering on one of their own doesn’t seem to make men want her more. (Maybe something else is analogous, the way female “weight lifting” is beautification?)

  • As far as I know, every culture throughout all known history has made a point of having men and women act as two mostly distinct social clusters most of the time. (Today’s postmodern culture, where we try to pretend as much as possible that physical sex doesn’t matter, is extremely bizarre.) This separation is independent of how respected or oppressed women are in said culture. There’s some variance in terms of how okay intersex friendships are… but even today, questions arise around whether men & women even can be just friends, and it’s still kind of suss and not a good sign if nearly all of someone’s friends are of the opposite sex.

  • Modern dating culture mostly focuses on having men and women meet each other as socially unconnected strangers in a shared context of “dating”. Also, modern dating famously sucks for lots of (most? the loudest?) people. These two things strike me as connected.

  • My stereotype center says that when a (monogamous hetero) couple pairs off, it’s disastrous to the mental/​emotional health of either partner to lose touch with their same-sex friends. Women need their girlfriends, men need their guys. It does not do for the guy to have his social life be his wife’s girlfriends coming over — unless he can bond with their husbands. And vice versa.

  • One of humanity’s main survival traits is our ability to function in groups. And yet, sexual competition by default is very group-fracturing. Cultures evolved a bunch of strategies for sorting this out, like “Sultan gets the harem” or “No sex before marriage.” But just thinking through the evolutionary timeline, we had to have had some sexual strategies in place before culture even could have started forming. This means culture evolved in part from sexual strategies. So surely we have some elements of culture navigating sexuality that are way, way deeper than just some malleable local strategies…?

Next to all of this, I want to name something more personal.

I grew up being taught that “Women are people too.” The messaging was obviously meant to be anti-misogynist. But part of what I heard and received was that I’m supposed to treat women the same as men. That physical sex shouldn’t matter when it comes to seeing someone’s humanity. That it’s dehumanizing to see a woman as “a woman” rather than as “a person with many attributes, one of which just so happens to be ‘female’”.

The thing is, physical sex does matter. If nothing else, it sure matters a lot in mate selection!

So if a young heterosexual man believes it’s morally wrong and socially threatening to see a girl as a girl, but he also wants to date someone… how does that work?

Well, we have a stereotype for a psychic structure that deals with something like this: the closet-gay homophobe.

The deal is that Dude McDudeface both (a) feels involuntary attraction to some guys and (b) believes he’ll be socially (and maybe physically) attacked if his attraction is discovered. And he fears it’s more likely to be discovered if he’s conscious of his attraction. So he learns to mix the reminders of his attraction with his social terror in part to suppress his own awareness of his homosexuality.

This is an example of what I named years ago as “Newcomblike self-deception”:

If Omega is modeling your self-model instead of your actual source code to predict your actions, then you’re highly incentivized to separate your self-model from your method of choosing your actions. Then you can two-box while convincing Omega you’ll one-box by sincerely but falsely believing you’re going to one-box. This paints a pretty vivid picture if you view the intelligent social web as the real-world version of Omega with “social role” playing the part of “self-model”.

I recently came to realize I’d been caught up in one of these structures around sexual attraction. I’m supposed to appreciate women “for who they are”, which I’d internalized to mean who they are when you factor out the fact that they’re female. But I’m attracted to women in part because they’re female! So now what?

Because of a recent revelation, it suddenly feels way safer for me to see some truths about myself that had felt socially Forbidden™. And ways I’d been disrespecting the social fabric as a result.

…but also a lot of compassion for myself in that. Kind of like how Dude McDudeface isn’t inherently an asshole; that’s just the output he landed on when his culture handed him an impossible and agonizing paradox.

I mean, I don’t think I was doing anything as bad as beating people up. Just stupid and disrespectful stuff.

Like, recently I went to a discussion group, and one woman there was just stunning to me. Utterly gorgeous. And she was also super clearly paired with a guy there. I noticed how my habits would have had me wanting to “just be friendly” with her, and maybe with the guy too, to feel out whether I had a chance with her. But also to avoid letting myself notice that that’s why I wanted to do it!

Two thoughts patched this in a way I found both kind and clear:

  • “It’s okay that I’m attracted to her. It’s just true that I feel drawn to her. There’s nothing wrong with that, or with me.”

  • “Bros before hoes.”

The point of that second one was to highlight how I was viewing the guy. Was I respecting him? Was my inclination to interact with him honoring his humanity? To what extent was it a means to an end instead?

There’s a clear difference, I find, between my sex drive operating within care for the social fabric vs. it trying to use the social fabric as cover.

And this is way easier for me to tell when I orient to people I’m not sexually attracted to.

“Am I being good to my brethren here?”

Crystal clear.

And it has me notice — in defiance of what I took in from my upbringing — that in order to be respectful it is absolutely necessary that I address the attraction question when orienting to a woman. Even if we’re “just being friendly”.

That doesn’t mean we have to talk about it. Sexual stuff is mostly nonverbal and weaves with ambiguity. It can actually hurt the social fabric to bring this topic into explicit conversation.

But it does mean that at least internal to myself, I cannot ignore when a given person is a woman. I can acknowledge when it in fact doesn’t matter; there’s no sexual dynamic between me and my sister for instance. But it really is an extra step I have to sort out with women.

And it’s not a step I need to take with men.

I’m now going to shift from “observations and questions, selected by a hidden agenda” to “wild fuzzy speculations”.

I wonder if culture evolved in a context that relied on partly separating the two sexes and emphasizing within-sex bonding.

I’m reminded of a story I heard long ago about bonobos. Supposedly if you toss a big pile of food into the middle of a bonobo tribe, they start fucking each other before getting to the food. The issue being that if there’s any possibility of there not being enough food for everyone, that could result in the bonobo tribe fracturing in fights, and they don’t want that. So they start by affirming their bonds with each other.

I don’t know if this really happens. But even if not, the fiction does a great job of highlighting the dynamic I’m thinking of.

If you have a group of men who rely on one another for survival, and then they encounter a Helen of Troy… this could spell disaster for all of them.

But gosh, what if they had ways of reaffirming their brotherly bonds in the face of this temptation? What if that was more important to them, collectively, than was the erotic possibility with Helen?

What if… bros before hoes?

If human tribes tried to form by mixing the sexes, with sexual competition going unspoken and persistent and with culture just suppressing its worst expressions so as to stay functional… I kind of suspect culture would not have evolved.

But an easy neighboring strategy would be:

  • Separate the sexes so there’s no immediate sexual dynamic.

  • Affirm bonds within each sexual cluster.

  • Ritualize the interactions between the sexual clusters so that they minimize harm to the within-sex bonds.

If something roughly like this were part of the basis of cultural evolution, rather than being simply one solution humans tried amongst many, then we should find that a lot of the human sex drive causes individuals to orient toward their own sex.

And then the whole bizarre puzzle throughout this post seems to snap into place.

It suggests things like, maybe football players get the girls not because they’re muscly and rich, but because they’re a respected part of an obviously functional tribe of men. Whereas a solo dude staying buff at a gym and bragging about his income is cringe rather than attractive.

And the issue with slut-shaming might be less about the collective price of sex, and more about calling out social defection. “You’re choosing to appeal to the male gaze in ways we women find appalling — which means you’re prioritizing sex over culture. Don’t do that.”

And maybe modern dating sucks because people are directly looking for mates, but this totally screws with the signals that for tens (hundreds?) of thousands of years would happen through culture. Maybe the way we evolved to find mates is by turning toward our own sex and being richly connected and supported and of value to them.

(A corollary here would be, a way better “dating” app might be one that helps people find folk of the same sex and helps them bond in in-person communities. And such an app would work best if it weren’t just targeted at singles but still made it easy for folk within a network to know who’s looking. Coincidentally, this design would fix the incentive problem where dating apps have reason to keep (monogamous) people hoping without actually pairing them off: the value is in facilitating healthy community, not in keeping people looking for a mate.)

Maybe the most… political implication of this line of oversimplified thinking is this:

Maybe the postmodern feminist push for equality of the sexes has been extremely damaging to the social fabric.

It might actually be essential that we try to divide people by sex wherever sexual dynamics can meaningfully affect a group’s functionality. And where we don’t separate them, maybe it’s extremely important that there be total clarity for how the sexes are to interact.

That’s not a claim about the sexes’ relative worth. I think that’s a point feminism rightly pushed back against.

I also don’t mean to say that men and women can’t be good friends or that there can’t be healthy coed scenes.

But… I mean, think of a bakery of all (straight) men.

Then think of the same bakery, but it’s all (straight) women.

Then imagine the same bakery, but it’s mixed sex.

Can you see what happens?

Even if there’s no attraction going on in the last case, the fact that there could be dramatically changes the unspoken dynamics. It’s just not as stable as the other two.

Things like… if a man notices a female coworker struggling with a flour sifter, and he comes in one day with a device he purchased to help her out… it raises questions that just wouldn’t have arisen if the two coworkers had been the same sex.

The problem is that there’s a complete blurring of (a) being supportive members of the same team and (b) being potential sexual interests.

If there’s no place to put a sexual exploration protocol, then everything becomes potentially sexual…

…and maybe culture’s evolved ways of integrating sexuality break down.

But gosh, you know what would work really well to fix this?

If the kitchen staff were one sex, the serving staff were another, and this were explicit.

I think maybe a bunch of socially conservative ideas about gender had something of this seed in them. They were (and often still are) ossified in ways that hurt people kind of pointlessly.

But I’m coming to wonder if maybe the separation of the sexes was deeply structural in ways no one really understood before, and loudly asserting “Equality!” just forces everyone to pretend a false “should” is true.

And if maybe this is key to why mate-finding and child-rearing and even just feeling sexually safe at a job has been such a royal pain these last many years.

Some closing caveats:

Yes, I recognize I’ve been very cis/​hetero normative here. I liken this to removing friction from physics. There’s no such thing as actually frictionless physics in the real world (as far as I know)… but friction is derived from principles that are easier to see from the imagined frictionless case.

It seems dead obvious to me that all sexual dynamics have to arise from the ones governing how men and women mate. I don’t mean to deny the existence of other configurations. But if I’m going to look at “frictionless” sexual dynamics, binary cishet ones strike me as obviously the right ones to focus on.

I’ve also leaned toward assuming monogamous pairings as a default. I haven’t thought very carefully through how poly interacts with all of this. I’ve just done a few spot-checks, including with my own personal experiences with poly, and haven’t encountered anything damning about the basic ideas here. But I want to acknowledge that maybe I’m overlooking something key.

There’s also something to be said about flings and one-night stands. I’m definitely not the expert there though! Again, spot-checks seem to check out, but also maybe I’m just clueless here.

I also want to emphasize that I’m trying not to assert “should”s anywhere here. I mean all this as speculation about “is”, not “ought”. That can still imply some “ought”, and I’ve gestured toward some of it! Like, I think people who are single and looking would like to have an easier & more successful time of it, so if the ideas in here are roughly correct then they imply what such people maybe should do differently. But it’s a structural “should”, like “You should put gas in your car if you want to make it to Mexico from here.”

And it’s all very, very hypothetical! I could imagine someone saying “Yeah, but what about the armadillos?” and it creating a cascade of “Oh, oops, yeah, I didn’t think of that, this whole thing is silly nonsense isn’t it?”

I name these caveats because I notice some neighboring ideas often get heard as saying, say, “Being gay is wrong.” I most definitely do not mean anything like that! On so many levels. So please don’t read that into what I’m saying.

I do mean to say, though, that there’s maybe something complicated here that we can’t actually brush aside simply by saying “Love is love.” For instance, on the “gay” topic: if communal stability arises in part from subgroups that can implicitly trust there’s no sexual attraction within those subgroups, then homosexuality really throws a basic wrench into the system. The only context where you can stick a gay person and know there isn’t sexual attraction involved is with exactly one other gay person of the opposite sex. In binary sexual systems, there’s no way to add a third person without risking attraction in some direction.

So I can see why some cultures might have evolved a “Burn it with fire” reaction to this problem. That’s not a sane kind reaction, and (thus) I don’t back it… but I can appreciate why it might have arisen, and how ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.

And I’m adamantly against pretending real things aren’t real. I think that’s actually more fundamentally toxic than is homophobia, transphobia, etc.

There’s also an asymmetry between the sexes that I haven’t fully grappled with. Like, men are way more worried about being seen as gay than women are. And a woman being popular amongst her girlfriends has an ambiguous effect on men’s attraction to her. And there’s this thing where a woman’s compliment to a man can actually make his season, not just his day. I have an intuition that these are all connected.

(If I had to force a guess: I wonder whether women have basically always been the main tenders of the social fabric. So they’re reading men’s positions in the social graph way more than men are reading women’s, and it’s way more tied to how they perceive men as potential mates. In which case the within-sex signaling for women would be less about “This is how I work within my community to find a man” and way, way more entirely about “Make sure my sisters are cool with me pursuing a man and will support me if I get pregnant.”)


There’s a ton of speculation here.

Some of it is surely just wrong. Just on priors.

Even if it were all totally correct, there are some essential pieces missing.

And I don’t claim to know what that means we should all collectively or individually do.

I mean to offer this mostly as something to ruminate on, with the hope that it will help us (or at least me!) move toward truth.

If you can avoid it, please don’t take any of this personally.

I care about this mostly because it might offer a way for people to be kinder to each other, and for culture to become more benevolent.

Hopefully we can engage on this topic within that benevolent spirit.