The phenomenon of women appearing more attractive to men in the fertile stages of their cycles is, I would argue, annoyingly over-reported. You only have to google some variation of ‘women attraction hormone’ to be met by thousands of headlines about men finding women’s faces more appealing when they’re ovulating, paired with scientific spiel like: ‘Almost all primate females have periodical oestrus, when they attract males by advertising ovulation with sexual swellings or scents’. Hot!
But what about us on the other side of the oestrus (aka the state of excitement that precedes ovulation)? How do our feelings shift when we go through the familiar, maddening motions of a monthly cycle? For those who need it, a quick hormone 101: In the first half of the menstrual cycle, rising levels of oestrogen cause the ovary to release an egg, and people tend to feel more confident, energetic and amorous. In the second half, progesterone helps the womb to prepare for a potential embryo. It turns out that the idea of women being more attracted to men when oestrogen is in full flow, is well documented. In fact, it is pretty basic evolutionary psychology. As my friend put it in a particularly pragmatic and succinct WhatsApp: ‘You’re meant to feel more horny before your period I thought, because you wanna catch the egg’.
Sexual and reproductive health expert Dr Deborah Lee points me towards a 2020 study published in Psychological Science. ‘157 women aged 18–35 who had regular menstrual cycles were asked to watch videos of a group of men interacting with women,’ she reports. ‘The study participants were asked to score the men on their level of attractiveness, and how much they would like to be involved with them for either a short-term, or a long-term relationship. Interestingly, the results showed that the women tended to score all the men as more attractive when they were in a fertile phase of their cycle.’
Things get weird when you look at precisely what women are attracted to throughout the month. In a study published by the American Psychological Association in 2007, it was found that, mid-cycle, women showed a preference for shorter-term flings with men who came across as confident, or ‘caddish’. At other points, they gravitated towards the promise of commitment from kinder, more conscientious types, who might father their children (at least that’s what the study deduced). Scratching the surface of this strange field shows that it is hetero-dominated, and the situation in same-sex relationships seems woefully under-explored.
That’s for psychologists to debate. Personally, I can’t help but worry about the veracity of my attraction to a potential partner if it’s so strongly linked to my hormonal state. Time and again, I’ve felt frenzied rises and apathetic falls in interest, and it’s often exhausting. Is there a way to manage hormonal fluctuations, and perhaps even override hormone-induced attraction? Can we distinguish sincere sentiment from evolutionary impulse?
Most of the experts I consulted found this idea short-sighted, noting that hormones enhance attraction rather than creating it. ‘In the first two weeks as the body prepares for ovulation, we are more confident, outgoing, and our sex drive is high – but it’s not like we’re sex-crazed maniacs who can’t make a rational decision,’ says hormone expert and Artah Retreats founder, Rhian Stephenson. ‘In contrast, we’re more reflective, introverted, and sometimes more prone to anxious feelings in the latter two weeks of our cycle. We may be slightly more analytical and choices made in the first half of our cycle may come under scrutiny.’ If emotions do ebb and flow, Stephenson suggests, an awareness of biological influences can help us to trust our feelings.
With the rise of period tracking apps, such understanding feels within ever closer reach. While monitoring hormones obsessively can seem a step too far, recognising oscillations sounds undeniably useful. One woman I spoke to, who has recently started observing her hormonal shifts, said it had been enlightening. ‘I feel a deeper attraction and emotional connection to my husband at certain points in my cycle, plus more desire to communicate how I feel about him’. That kind of measured insight sounds like something to aim for. In the meantime, I’m sticking to dating on Day 14.