June 27, 2011 at 10:08 AM ET
In the absence of prominent “jazz hands,” or obvious rainbow flag toting, many of us have lousy "gaydar." That’s likely because most people don’t really spend much time caring about who’s gay and who’s straight. (And the fact that gay people don't actually walk around with jazz hands.)
Fertile women, on the other hand, or even women who are simply thinking about sex, do care, though they may not know it. In fact, ovulating women may have more accurate gaydar than the rest of us, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science.
When Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto and colleagues showed a group of heterosexual college women 80 photos of men, 40 of whom were straight and 40 of whom were gay, women who were nearing the most fertile time of their monthly periods were much better at guessing which men were gay. There was no motion or sound. The photos did not differ in expression, attractiveness or facial adornments like the 'stache on the Village People biker.
As Rule explains, past experiments have shown straight men and women all have a bias toward judging men in photos as straight. “This makes sense since straight men outnumber gay men as much as 9:1,” he said. But when women are fertile, they can overcome this bias.
Why? Is it because a man’s sexual orientation becomes more relevant at times when women can get pregnant so they don’t pick a man who will be, reproductively speaking, unavailable? Or is there something about fertility that makes women more attentive to facial cues they miss at other times of the month?
To answer that question, Rule showed straight women 100 photos of lesbians and 100 photos of straight women. While accuracy was greater than random chance, it didn’t matter if the women were fertile or not.
Next, Rule had women read a story of a romantic encounter to induce “mating-related” thoughts (science speak for sex). The women who read the story were much more accurate at guessing a man’s sexual orientation regardless of whether she was fertile or not.
“What we do know is that a mix of women at any given point in their cycles did better when primed to think about mating than when not primed to think about mating,” Rule said.
So it seems male sexual orientation is a more relevant matter for women when they are fertile, and because it’s more relevant they pay attention. I asked Rule if heterosexual women are born with this ability or they learn it. He replied that he thinks he has an answer, but he has just finished a study addressing the issue and since it has not yet been published, he doesn’t want to give it away.
But whether learned or inborn, when female thoughts -- even unconscious thoughts -- turn to mating, women are able to turn down distractions and turn up the cues that say, “Hey there, baby daddy!”