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Using adult actresses and nude models to infer what heterosexual men prefer in women’s looks
I have argued on some occasions that using top-ranked adult actresses and nude models to infer the optimal preferences of heterosexual men is a bad idea. Here is an upcoming letter in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. It is a response to an article by Voracek and Fisher (2006) who concluded that heterosexual men prefer more masculine-looking adult actresses compared to nude models, and that these women are often medically underweight.
Part of this letter has been addressed previously in the context of adult actresses with breast implants. The letter also briefly addresses Playboy centerfolds, specifically that their weights are underreported. Another reason why Playboy centerfolds are a poor choice for assessing heterosexual men’s optimal preferences is that the magazine’s long-standing Editor-in-Chief, Hugh Hefner, is a bisexual who has been selecting lots of masculinized centerfolds, half of whom, from the 1990s onward, have sported breast implants.
Pornographic actresses are a poor choice for assessing what men optimally prefer in women’s looks
– Erik Holland
Voracek and Fisher (2006) attempted a supposedly more ecologically valid assessment of men’s preferences for women’s physical attractiveness by analyzing reported anthropometric measurements of top-ranked female porn stars/nude models. This approach is problematic.
Voracek and Fisher assumed that the physical appearance of top-ranked porn stars/nude models reflects what men generally find most attractive in women. However, most women will not pose nude, let alone participate in pornography. Therefore, as a first approximation, highly ranked porn stars/nude models reflect the best looking among the minority of women who are willing to pose nude or indulge in pornographic acts, not the best looking women per se.
Voracek and Fisher noted substantial overrepresentation of women from the post-Soviet transitional countries of Eastern Europe in their sample, but did not address this observation. Is this because Eastern European women look better than other European women or is it that, for a given amount of money, better looking women can be recruited from poorer nations that have women of similar international appeal as richer nations? The latter scenario appears more plausible, and again cautions one that porn stars and nude models are not necessarily the best looking women. Very good looking women will have more opportunities for mainstream success and are expected to preferably avoid nude modeling and porn work.
Porn stars willing to engage in more extreme sex acts have a broader repertoire of behaviors and will have more acting opportunities. Porn stars that indulge in more extreme acts with a higher level of enthusiasm will tend to attain greater stardom than those who engage in these acts in a more perfunctory manner, thereby making it appear that they wouldn’t be doing it were it not for the money. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that the success of a pornstar is solely a function of her looks.
Voracek and Fisher selected Private Media Group Inc. for their study. Anal sex is common in the videos produced by this company (http://forum.private.com/viewtopic.php?t=2830), but anal sex is uncommon in the general heterosexual community (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). The company also features acts such as the consumption of semen that may be mixed with fecal mucus, oral-anal sex, and performing fellatio on a penis that has emerged from the anorectal region. Therefore, there is the question of how representative of heterosexual men are men who regularly view the company’s pornographic materials.
Women inclined toward greater promiscuity or more promiscuous women tend to have higher testosterone levels (Cashdan, 1995; van Anders, Hamilton, & Watson, 2007) and a more masculine physical appearance than controls (Mikach & Bailey, 1999; Ostovich & Sabini, 2004). Therefore, Voracek and Fisher’s conclusion that androgenousness cues are salient for attractiveness evaluation of moving bodies whereas curvaceousness cues are salient for posing bodies could very well be substituted by the hypothesis of feminine women being less willing to participate in hardcore pornography/disinhibited sex acts, not that less feminine moving forms are preferred by men.
Voracek and Fisher did not address the reliability of the models’ reported anthropometric measurements. They listed the average reported BMI of the models as 18.4 ± 1.3, with a median of 18.3 and range of 15.2-22.5. If this is accurate, then half of these models have body fat levels below the threshold of a medically healthy range (James & Francois, 1994). Why would men’s optimal preferences substantially veer toward women with sub-optimal body fat levels? Again, if the reported BMI of the porn stars is correct, then a large proportion of the top models do not reflect the optimal BMI preference of heterosexual men, which has been reported in the 19.5-20.5 range in Western societies (Swami & Tovee, 2007; Tovee & Cornelissen, 2001). In a mid-1990s sample of 300 fashion models, the average BMI was 17.57 (Tovee, Mason, Emery, McCluskey, & Cohen-Tovee, 1997). The current preference is for fashion models with a BMI around 16 (Johnson, 2007). Does this mean that a substantial minority of top-ranked porn stars/nude models look as thin as the typical high-fashion model and that some look like they are starving? Voracek and Fisher do not appear to have looked at the models they studied or they would have realized that their weights are generally underreported. This applies to the authors’ previous study on Playboy centerfolds (Voracek & Fisher, 2002). Centerfolds in the U.S. edition of Playboy magazine from 1953-2003 averaged a reported BMI of 18.1 ± 1.32 and 16% of them averaged a reported BMI less than 17 (Seifert, 2005). One need only look at these models to realize that their weights are underreported (Szabo, 1996).
Voracek and Fisher ignored the possibility that the reported bust measurements are of limited utility because of a high frequency of breast implants. The very best Private porn stars appear in a video series titled, “The Private Life of [porn star name].” At the time of this writing, there were 42 such stars. It is easy to obtain their nude pictures without purchasing site memberships. I counted 18 (43%) with breast implants, ignoring all cases where breast implants were not unambiguously discernible. I also looked up porn stars that had received top Adult Video News (AVN) awards, considered to be the Oscars of Porn, during 1995-2007, in the categories of best new starlet, female performer of the year, best actress and best supporting actress, totaling 54 women. Again, ignoring all cases where breast implants were not clearly seen, I counted 27 (50%) with breast implants. Although there is an element of subjectivity in discerning breast implants from pictures, readers can observe for themselves just how common breast implants are among these porn stars (http://www.femininebeauty.info/pornstars.zip). Whereas Voracek and Fisher argued that androgenousness cues are salient for attractiveness evaluation, breast implants are not consistent with making moving bodies look firmer. Rather, the high frequency of breast implants among top pornographic actresses suggests that pornographers are not very successful at recruiting women with a level of femininity that suffices to strongly please most heterosexual men. Small-breasted, well-ranked porn stars without breast implants presumably have compensatory characteristics, such as a more disinhibited screen presence. Voracek and Fisher reported an unobtrusive measures design, but does this have to mean not even looking at the pictures of the models they analyzed?
To conclude, whereas Voracek and Fisher are right about the limited ecological validity of most research on women’s physical attractiveness, porn stars and nude models appear to be a poor choice with respect to assessing heterosexual men’s optimal preferences, especially if the analysis relies on their reported anthropometric measurements. On another note, Singh and Randall (2007) have recently published a study involving micro-fat grafting where it was shown that WHR is related to women’s attractiveness independently of BMI.
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