Sexual attraction is when you find another person sexually appealing or have a desire to make sexual contact with them. It’s a basic instinctive trait and the driving force behind evolution. Without sexual attraction, we wouldn’t be inclined to reproduce and the human race would eventually die out.
Attraction is driven by various chemicals in the brain including oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters, together with reproductive hormones and pheromones, mean human sexuality can be largely explained in scientific terms.
Continue reading to learn more about the science of sexual attraction, the chemicals involved, and sexual chemistry in commercial applications.
In this post:
Introduction to sexual attraction
When we find someone sexually attractive, our brains release “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and serotonin. If the attraction is intense, these chemicals go into overdrive and light up our brains. As a result, you might feel euphoric and your body may respond physically. For example, your heart might beat faster or you may become aroused.
Sexual attraction can be triggered or enhanced by different stimuli including visual, pheromones, and touch. Men and women also respond differently to sexual stimuli. Men tend to be more visually stimulated while women often respond better to the auditory and tactile stimuli.
Although sexual and romantic attraction are often interlinked, they are distinct concepts and involve different parts of the brain. For example, someone can find another person (or even an object) sexually attractive without necessarily loving them or desiring a romantic relationship. Conversely, romantic attraction may not necessarily include sexual attraction or lust.
The parts of the brain that mediate sexual desire are the subcortical structures – specifically the hypothalamus, ansa lenticularis, and pallidum. Meanwhile, brain activities in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the caudate nucleus are consistently associated with the feeling of romantic attraction or love.
What chemicals cause attraction?
There are several neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones involved in sexual attraction, which directly influence the pleasure centres of the brain. These chemicals are produced and used by the brain in certain ways when sexual stimuli are present.
Often called the ‘feel-good’ chemical, dopamine stimulates the brain’s reward pathway and creates a feeling of pleasure. It’s produced in the ventral tegmental area and is released into the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex. Dopamine makes up some 80% of catecholamine content in the brain.
The pleasure feeling triggered by high levels of dopamine can be replicated by artificial chemicals like methamphetamine and other drugs, which mimic and attach to the dopamine receptors. This can lead to dopamine resistance and is how addiction starts.
However, dopamine addiction doesn’t always involve illicit drugs. When you experience sexual attraction and eventually engage in sex, the pleasure pathway of the brain is stimulated by dopamine. As a result, people who develop dopamine resistance can sometimes become addicted to sex. This means they need to continually engage in sex to achieve a feeling of euphoria or at least a sense of emotional normalcy.
Serotonin is widely known for its impact on our sleep-wake cycle. However, it also has functions in regulating mood, digestion, and libido.
Generally speaking, low levels of serotonin are thought to increase libido while high levels may be a sign of a low sex drive. Some experts believe this is because serotonin inhibits the release of other important hormones that have a role in sexual desire. However, the link between serotonin and sexual attraction isn’t quite as simple as it might seem. The impact of serotonin on libido also depends on which brain receptors are stimulated by the chemical.
Known as the love hormone, oxytocin is a complex biochemical that functions as a hormone and neurotransmitter. It has a significant role in forming strong emotional bonds between mother and child, and between romantic partners. Oxytocin levels also increase during and after sex. Hence, the chemical plays an indirect role in both romantic and sexual attraction.
Oxytocin manages some of the important aspects of the male and female reproductive systems. These include triggering labour and lactation. The chemical is produced in the hypothalamus but it’s stored in the pituitary gland, from where it’s then released into the bloodstream.
Hormonal influences on sexual attraction
Reproductive hormones such as testosterone, progesterone, and oestrogen can also influence sexual attraction. They’re partly responsible for things like puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, sperm production, and libido, among others. These hormones are produced in the testes (in men) and the ovaries (in females).
The other reproductive hormones are produced and stored in the pituitary gland. They include the following:
- Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HcG)
- Luteinizing Hormone (LH)
- Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
Pheromones: their role in attraction
Pheromones are chemical signals that are secreted by one being and received by another of the same species. Social insects, such as bees and ants, use pheromones to communicate with each other. In mammals, pheromones can signal fertility and trigger mating behaviour.
Pheromones may also have a role in sexual attraction in humans, however, this is yet to be proven conclusively. Some people believe those who secrete higher levels of pheromones are likely to feel more confident and may be perceived as more sexually attractive.
Pheromones are released in a variety of ways, including through urine, saliva, sweat, and vaginal secretions.
The impact of scent and memory
Scent and memory can also have an impact on sexual desire. In humans, natural body scents can trigger memories of sexual attraction. For example, the subtle smell of sweat during intercourse can later spark memories of sex in a non-sexual situation.
Olfactory memory (the ability of odours to trigger memories and emotions) can generate feelings of nostalgia, too. Many people find that particular scents (the smell of your mother’s cooking, for example) enable them to recall vivid memories of events that happened a long time ago. As a result, olfactory memories can often help strengthen emotional bonds.
Sexual chemistry in commercial applications
From clothing and beauty products to alcohol and cars, advertisers have long relied on the concept of sexual attraction to sell their products. And for good reason. Research suggests sexually appealing imagery and/or behaviour can influence consumer spending, making us more likely to part with our cash. As the old adage goes, sex sells.
However, it’s not just advertisers that rely on sexual chemistry. Some perfume manufacturers include small amounts of pheromones in their customised blends. This is based on the concept that pheromones can influence sexual behaviour in animals. Although manufacturers claim pheromone-infused perfumes can enhance your sexual appeal, the jury’s still out on whether this is actually true.
Nonetheless, the scent of a perfume itself can often be associated with romantic or sexual attraction and may trigger olfactory memories of a previous partner.
Sexual attraction is an instinctive behaviour that’s driven by the neurotransmitters oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Reproductive hormones like testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen also play a role in sexual attraction. Although pheromones can influence sexual behaviour in mammals, there’s currently limited evidence to prove whether they can affect human attraction.