Pretty in Pink
What does the color of our genitals have to do with evolution?
Once these four key images had been chosen, and the investigators given email approval from the models for the use of their copyrighted “girls,” each one was digitally retouched to generate a set of ostensibly realistic vulval shades: pale pink, light pink, dark pink, and red. (You can scroll down to Figure 1 of the journal article to see how this color manipulation appeared. Perhaps I’m wrong, but to my untrained, homosexual eyes, the colors do indeed appear to capture a natural-looking variation—though the red does look a bit raw and painful.) That left the investigators with 16 pictures in all: four different vulvae, each rendered in four distinct shades of pinkish-red. Potential male subjects for the study were first “warned of the graphic nature of the vulva images before participating”—and yet, wouldn’t you know, every single one of these brave young men decided to proceed with the testing. They were also checked for relevant visual problems. It’s unclear how a scarlet vulva would appear to a man with red-green color blindness, for instance, but better safe than sorry.
The 40 men who passed screening were allowed to advance through the 16 photos at their own slow and steady pace, rating each vulva shown on a sliding scale from 0 (unattractive) to 100 (attractive). The results—I know you’ve been dying to hear them—came out against the sexually salient hypothesis. The men showed no particular fancy for darker shades of pink; in fact, they found all the standard pinks to be equally attractive—with an average score of about 40—while the red vulvae were less appealing to a statistically significant degree, scoring a mean attractiveness value of just 35.
What might explain this slight aversion to red genitals? It's possible that the darkest shade simply looked more artificial than the other colors. There’s also a rather odd contradictory caveat written in the original article: The authors of the study claim to have used "colors within the normal range expected for human genitalia," (and they mention having a certified nurse midwife and clinical specialist sign off on the colors for her professional opinion). But then they claim that they were never trying to capture the male response to a "natural variation in vulval morphology or color.” Instead, they were interested in whether the male bias for the color red applies in the general context of female genitalia. As a result of this peculiar hedge, it's fair to wonder what might happen if one of the shades happened to fall near the very edge of the presumed "normal range." It’s easy enough to imagine Mother Nature despoiling our body parts with a palette of yellow, green, and purple disease, so perhaps the men would have an aversion to exotic colors independent of everything else. After all, red, inflamed genitals might be symptomatic of sexual arousal, but they could also signify a vulvovaginal infection. That logic applies to men as well; I think I speak for most of my gay peers, and straight women, too, in saying that a surprisingly crimson scrotum isn’t a terribly inviting sight, either.
In any case, Johns and her co-authors propose that whatever special attraction men might have to women wearing red is caused by some other psychological mechanism than was previously thought. Since red has been found to be associated with perceptions of male dominance, they suggest that a woman with red accoutrements might function as a sort of “badge” to enhance a man’s social status among his peers. “Women may even use red (clothing, cosmetics),” write Johns and her colleagues, “to stimulate such competition as a means to select higher quality mates.” In other words, a man’s desire to be seen with a lady in red may be less about his being attracted to the mirrored state of her wanton genitalia than it is a reflection of his own social psychology.
Theirs was a modest, imperfect little study. Personally, I’ve come to distrust any measure of male arousal that does not involve phallometry, and it seems like the researchers ought to have asked their male subjects what it was about the reddest vulvae that turned them off. The men might not have been able to articulate their color preferences in clear terms, but a direct question would still have given us some useful insight into their thought processes. Factoring in such limitations, however, Johns and her colleagues have at least given us reason to believe that—after decades of our having swallowed it up as an evolutionary truth—the sexually salient hypothesis might be a lot of bunk.
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.