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Status, power, and aphrodisia

- March 10, 2008

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Back in the days when Henry Kissinger — nobody’s idea of a matinee idol — was frolicking with Hollywood starlets like Jill St. John (above) and Marlo Thomas, he explained his obvious but seemingly inexplicable appeal to the opposite sex with a pithy one-liner: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

The other day I happened upon an article by sociologist John Levi Martin that was published in 2005 ago but seems to have attracted little attention at the time, titled, engagingly, “Is Power Sexy?” (abstract here). Although it’s tarted up in lots of fancy sociologese, the basic idea of the study is simple. Martin begins with the idea, based on both rational choice theory and evolutionary psychology, that women want to pair with high-status men, but he wonders whether the crucial factor is the male’s hierarchical position (which he calls “status”) or his specific relationship to to the women in question (which he calls “power”). To probe these possiblities, he analyzes data from a 1970s study of interpersonal relationships in a national sample of “naturally occurring communities” (aka communes). In that study, the respondents were asked to name fellow commune members they thought fit any of a number of descriptions, including “sexy.”

What Martin discovered, unexpectedly, was that although there was a link between status and perceived sexiness, it wasn’t because women found high-status men especially sexy. Rather, the status-sexiness link was in the minds of men, who seemed to be turned on by high-status women — but not by women who held power over them in particular. For their part, what women seemed to find sexy in men was their interpersonal power, not their more general status within the community.

I’m reluctant to assign any electoral meaning to this, as research on the traits Americans desire in their political leaders has never, insofar as I know, singled out “sexiness” as a desired trait (see here). Still, it bears thinking about in a year when not all the leading presidential contenders are men — especially when a disproportionate percentage of caucasian males have been turning out for lone woman candidate.

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