Here's What Makes Someone 'Sexy,' According To Science

Patrick Dempsey was voted People's "Sexiest Man Alive." Experts weigh in on what factors make up attractiveness.
Actor Patrick Dempsey was named People's "Sexiest Man Alive" for 2023.
Franco Origlia via Getty Images
Actor Patrick Dempsey was named People's "Sexiest Man Alive" for 2023.

Every year, pop culture fiends dissect (or dissent) People magazine’s selection of the “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Many popular celebrities have donned the crown, including Harry Hamlin (1987), Brad Pitt (1995 and 2000), Jude Law (2004), Idris Elba (2018), Michael B. Jordan (2020) and Chris Evans (2022). This year, the magazine tapped Patrick Dempsey, the 57-year-old actor infamously nicknamed “McDreamy” from his role on Grey’s Anatomy, for the honour.

In a 2012 interview about the selection process, editor Julie Jordan told USA Today the magazine staff takes note of how the general public feels about potential options throughout the year while also asking celebrities for their opinions on the matter.

So what makes up this “feeling” that someone is sexy? According to experts, there are several factors ― and they aren’t just physical attributes. In fact, it’s based on an interplay of elements that relate to both nature and nurture, making “sexy” a highly variable adjective.

“Sexiness is in the eye of the beholder,” Blanca Cobb, a trained body language expert, told HuffPost. “Some people are drawn to physical attributes of the face, voice can be seen as sexy depending on pitch, tone, and intonation. Someone might find the way another person smells or their aroma as sexy. Additionally, warm, open, confident body language can be a turn-on.”

Here’s what else makes a person attractive, according to science:

Our biology plays a big role — perhaps even the most influential one

“There are many theories in terms of factors that can enhance level of attractiveness that are surrounded by cultural aspects, such as generational trends and ethnic differences of preferences, evolutionary factors such as ‘curviness’ in women noting fertility, and proximity factors indicting we are attracted to what we see most and what we are exposed to around us,” explained Kelsey Latimer, a psychologist based in Florida. “This suggests that attraction has both biological and learned factors.”

When talking about appeal, it’s important to distinguish between traditionally defined “good looks” and “sexiness.” According to Merriam-Webster, the latter term refers to someone who is “sexually suggestive or stimulating, interesting.” Sexiness, it seems, invokes a bodily reaction in the eye of the beholder.

Someone might be good-looking, for example, without necessarily eliciting a physical response within the average person. When referring to somebody as sexy, on the other hand, we usually mean that they make us physically tingle, to put it simply.

“There are evolutionary theories that help us understand that physical attraction is important because it makes us want to reproduce, which keeps the species alive,” Latimer said. “There are certain physical features of men and women that are seen to be highly associated with fertility that might be sparked on an innate level.”

Smell, physical similarity and face symmetry also spark our brain to feel a level of attraction toward someone as well. However, noted the experts, trying to use a “one-size-fits-all” approach when analyzing the topic isn’t right.

“The reality is if something were ‘innately’ attractive or not attractive, then trends would never change over time and ‘natural selection’ would have boiled us down into all looking the same,” Latimer said. “There is a lot of variation about what is attractive.”

Personality is a huge factor as well

Experts are adamant about this: a person’s character and the way he or she presents him or herself to the world influences the way fellow humans perceive their potential sexiness.

“Consider this: have you met someone that you might have considered average in physical appearance and then, after getting to know them, you suddenly realized they have a great smile or beautiful eyes?” Latimer said. “That’s not a coincidence. Personality absolutely can change the initial feeling of attraction for the positive or negative.”

Although the staff in charge of crowning the sexiest man alive for People magazine each year may not know the various candidates’ personality traits, perhaps asking fellow celebrities for their opinions is a way to account for the behavioral aspect of sexiness.

Cobb goes a step further: not only does she acknowledge that personality traits can affect sex appeal, but specific attributes make a difference.

“Confidence in the way one speaks and acts can be appealing,” she noted. “Charisma can captivate someone’s attention because it reflects charm, magnetism, and social intelligence. An undervalued characteristic of sexiness is kindness, which reflects compassion, empathy and sensitivity, where the other person feels cared for and loved, which helps strengthen an emotional connection.”

A 2017 study led at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, confirms this theory. The researchers analysed a speed-dating event and noticed that the participants who were considered funny were also rated as more attractive than they were deemed at the start of the date.

Our environment also matters

“Trends vary a lot based on time, generation, culture location and age,” said Latimer, adding that what makes men sexy to the eyes of others isn’t necessarily the same thing that adds sex appeal to a woman’s character.

Similarly, cultural and geographical differences usually birth a diverse set of standards when it comes to attraction. For example, preferences in the U.S. are generally different in Spain, France, Italy and the Netherlands, Cobb said.

What’s important to note is that environmental differences clearly affect what the general population may consider to be a favourable set of traits, making sexiness a pretty subjective characteristic that’s in constant flow.

“What is sexy in America today might be what is seen as sexy in Asia tomorrow and vice versa,” Cobb said.

So the conclusion? There isn’t one definitive marker for attractiveness; what gives one person a feeling that someone is sexy may be unappealing to another.

But, that being said, we can certainly see the argument for Dempsey.