By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Men’s condom use intentions depend on a lot of things, from their general attitudes toward condoms to their perceived ability to use condoms effectively to their degree of concern about sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Their willingness to use condoms also appears to depend, at least in part, on the way their partner looks.
According to a recent study published in BMJ Open, the more attractive heterosexual men perceive a prospective female partner to be, the less likely they are to want to use condoms with her .
In this study, 51 heterosexual men from England (aged 26 on average) viewed photos of twenty women’s faces. These men were asked to imagine they were single and, for each photo, they rated how willing they would be to have condomless sex with the woman pictured. They also rated each woman’s attractiveness, estimated the odds that she had an STI, and guessed how likely other men would be to desire unprotected sex with her.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the more attractive a woman was perceived to be, the more likely men were to want to have sex with her. However, as women’s attractiveness ratings increased, men’s intentions to use condoms decreased. Participants thought that other men would want to have unprotected sex with more attractive women, too.
What was surprising was that there was no link between perceived attractiveness and estimated odds of having an STI. What this means is that women who were judged as better looking were not seen as being any more or less of an STI risk compared to less attractive women. Thus, it wasn’t that sexier women were necessarily seen as “safer” and that this is why men were less interested in using condoms with them.
This is interesting because one earlier study found that men perceived better-looking women as less risky , whereas a different study found that men perceived attractive women as more risky . In other words, we have three different studies saying three different things. So what the heck does it all mean? One explanation is that this discrepancy is evidence that not all men think about the link between attractiveness and STI risk in the same exact way.
Consistent with this idea, the authors of the BMJ Open study sought to determine whether there were distinct subgroups of men in their sample. In the process, they discovered that some men tended to rate “safe” women (meaning those at low risk of having an STI) as more attractive, whereas other men rated “risky” women (meaning those at high risk of having an STI) as more attractive.
In both cases, though, men were more open to having condomless sex with women they rated as more attractive. The takeaway here is that heterosexual men seem to desire unprotected sex with attractive women; however, the thing that makes a woman attractive appears to vary a lot across men.
One other interesting result from this study is that the better-looking men rated themselves as being, the less willing they were to use condoms. At the same time, men who thought of themselves as more attractive felt they were better judges when it came to who had an STI. I suspect that the latter finding explains the former. That is, if men who are more confident in how they look are also more confident in their judgments of risk, then they probably won’t feel as much need to use condoms all of the time. Put another way, being overconfident might make men feel like they can get away with using condoms selectively because their confidence makes them see certain sexual situations as safer than they really are.
With all of that said, these findings are limited due to the fact that this study involved a small, non-representative sample of heterosexual men. More research would be useful, especially research that includes men of various sexualities.
Despite the limitations, the results do have important implications because they tell us that men’s willingness to use condoms depends, to some extent, on their partners’ looks. The big question is now why. Why do heterosexual men appear less inclined to use condoms with attractive women? We can’t say for sure, which is another reason we need more research. However, some might argue for an evolutionary explanation: perhaps this stems from a deep-seated drive to reproduce with attractive women. By contrast, others might point to a cultural explanation: perhaps men derive social status from condomless sex with really attractive partners.
 Eleftheriou, A., Bullock, S., Graham, C.A., Stone, N., & Ingham, R. (2016). Does attractiveness influence condom use intentions in heterosexual men: An experimental study. BMJ Open.
 Agocha, V.B., & Cooper, M.L. (1999). Risk perceptions and safer-sex intentions: Does a partner’s physical attractiveness undermine the use of risk-relevant information? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(6), 751-765.
 Dijkstra, P., Buunk, B. P., & Blanton, H. (2000). The Effect of Target’s Physical Attractiveness and Dominance on STD‐Risk Perceptions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(8), 1738-1755.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program and an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Ball State University.