Can you trust a handsome man’s face?

Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

Researchers have found that men with very masculine faces (prominent brow, cheekbone and jaws, face height and inner face breadth) tend to be perceived by women as low quality romantic partners, that is, less trustworthy and committed (compared to those with less masculine faces).  Women generally find high masculine faces to be more attractive (Buckingham et al., 2006) (especially women in a high fertile phase of their menstrual cycle!), although there are occasions when men with low masculine faces are preferred (Swaddle & Reierson, 2003).

But preferences may vary depending on whether women are judging men for a short-term fling or a long-term partnership. And most past research has examined perceived partner value in a very narrow fashion—using only one or two items. Yet value of a relationship partner is complex. For example, women make judgments of a man’s value as a romantic partner based on their view of his romantic past.

Ashley Thompson and Lucia O’Sullivan had 201 pre-menopausal women (18-45 years) complete an online survey assessing preferences of men’s faces.  Photographs of men with the highest facial masculinity ratings and those with the lowest were used.  Women rated each man in terms of their perceptions of his masculinity, attractiveness, trustworthiness, quality as a parent, level of past romantic experience, speed he would fall in love, and preference for each as a short-term or long-term partner.

Men with high facial masculinity were rated as more desirable as both short-term and long-term partners than were those with low facial masculinity. However, they perceived that men with high facial masculinity would take longer to fall in love and would have more previous romantic partners than would men with low facial masculinity. They did not differ in their ratings of the two groups of men in terms of trustworthiness and parental quality.

In essence, men with an extensive dating history may be judged as more desirable as partners because they have been “vetted” as good catches by other women. Another study with Sarah Vannier found that women judging the attractiveness of men rated photos of those who were labeled as ‘in a relationship’ as more attractive than they rated those men labeled as ‘single.’

Alternately, women may desire men with higher facial masculinity (for short- or long-term relationships) simply because they find them more physically attractive—and that might be a primary sort feature for women choosing men. Perhaps not a surprise overall.


Does having a history of sexual coercion make teens less likely to look after their sexual health? Quite the opposite.

Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

It is incredible to realize that despite decades of efforts to reduce rates of sexual coercion—there has been no change in rates at all. 

Drs. Lucia O’Sullivan, Sandra Byers, Lori Brotto, and Jo Ann Majerovich examined whether adolescents who had a history of sexual coercion were less likely to look after their sexual health—that is, was access to and use of sexual health care services lower for those teens with a history of sexual coercion compared to those with no such history?

They found that 30% of participants (somewhat more female than male) had experienced an incident of sexual coercion since the age of 14.

Surprisingly, those with a history of coercion reported more sexual health-related visits than did those without.  There were no differences between the two groups in difficulty accessing care, perceived quality of care, or rates of unmet health needs.

Those who reported a history of sexual coercion had over 8 times the odds of having a sexual health-focused visit if they had had a routine checkup in the previous year.

What this means is that teens with a coercion history who are visiting their health care provider for any reason are more likely to have their sexual health needs met.  Probably health care providers are using the routine visit as an opportunity to inquire about sexual matters or these teens have more trust in their provider or the health care system—enough to bring up important matters.


Time Out! Teens Taking a Break from Sex or Romance


Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

Researchers have long been concerned about the pressures adolescents experience to become and remain sexually active.  They have explored in great deal how many adolescents abstain from sex, that is, delay the first occasion that they engage in sex.  Usually the focus has been on penile-vaginal intercourse because of concerns about pregnancy and disease, but also because of a bias toward exploring male-female partnered interactions.

We were interested instead in how often young people who had already started a partnered sexual life decided freely to take a break from sex—to stop for a while, for whatever reasons.  We also wanted to know how often this happened for all types of sex and among all types of partnerships.  In addition, we wanted to know whether adolescents also took a break from romance—avoiding relationships and intimate contexts—and why they might do so.

Drs. Sandra Byers, Lucia O’Sullivan, and Lori Brotto surveyed 411 adolescents (16-21 years) about a range of sexual and romantic experiences, but one set of questions asked about breaks from sex or romance. About one-quarter (27%) reported that they had taken a break from sex and almost half (47%) had taken a break from romance.  More female than male adolescents reported taking a break.

Here are the most common reasons for taking a break from sex: 

  • Lack of sexual pleasure or enjoyment from the sex that they were having (“It’s unsatisfying”)
  • Tension in their relationship
  • Negative emotions (such as feeling used)
  • Values (“I wanted to feel like a better person”)
  • Fear of negative outcomes (such as sexually transmitted infections)
  • Other priorities (“Sex is distracting and I really needed to focus on my grades”)

Most common reasons for taking a break from romance:

  • Getting over a difficult breakup (“There were lots of problems; I was exhausted”)
  • Not interested in commitment (“Romance means commitment usually and I wasn’t interested right now”)
  • Wrong timing (“I was going through a lot of stress. It was not a good time to be trying to start a relationship”)
  • Other priorities
  • No one seems good enough(“I’m through with dating people I know I won’t like”)
  • Sexual concerns

This last reason is interesting as some of those reporting a break from romance did so to avoid the pressures of sex.

Can you spot a cheater? Likely not…

Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

We were wondering if there was a good way to test who might be cheaters when it comes to romantic relationship.  That is, are there personality traits that are useful for characterizing who is versus who is not a cheater?  There are studies of personality traits and infidelity before this one, but most have not examined more than 2-3 traits at a time.  Infidelity in this case refers to “the violation of a couple’s assumed or stated agreement concerning romantic and/or sexual exclusivity.” This question is interesting in light of the fact that rates of infidelity (recent and lifetime) are really quite high even though most adults (94-99% in any survey) expect monogamy in both their romantic and sexual relationships (Treas & Giesen, 2000).  Rates range from 23% to 63% (depending on how you ask the question and which behaviours you focus upon) among men and 19% to 45% among women. If rates are so high—can there really be a personality trait, or traits, that capture that many people?

We were also struck by reports from other work that many cases of infidelity actually came out of the blue—or at least, weren’t anticipated, planned, expected by the person engaging in the infidelity. The partner was usually someone that the person saw quite frequently, spent a lot of time with (such as a work colleague), or had a close bond with in some other context.  This suggested to us that circumstances or context might be more important than personality.

With Kirstie Gibson, Lucia O’Sullivan surveyed 474 young adults about their close intimate relationships.  When asking questions about infidelity, it is of course very important to ensure that participants know their responses are completely anonymous and can never be tracked back to them by the researchers or others. Online surveys are really a superior way of ensuring that is the case.  We surveyed participants about their current relationship, infidelity history in their current relationship, and had them complete an array of personality measures.

It was important to establish first that they had an agreement or expectation with their intimate partner that they would be romantically/sexually exclusive.  Only three people did not have such an understanding so we excluded them from our analyses. Almost all others expected romantic (96%) or sexual (94%) exclusivity from a partner “always” or “absolutely always.” Despite the expectation of exclusivity, 9% reported having engaged in romantic infidelity and 13% reported sexual infidelity in their current relationship (the average duration of the relationship was just under 3 years). These are fairly typical rates of infidelity. There were no gender differences in rates.

Most interesting to us, however, was that personality was a really poor predictor of infidelity. (There was a slight effect for extraversion, but that was it). Better predictors was knowing whether the participant had felt any attraction to someone other than their partner (e.g., co-worker, fellow student) and whether the quality of their relationship was less than ideal (not necessarily poor, but not great). These might be viewed as “vulnerability factors” in a sense given that most people report not wanting to violate the exclusivity of their relationships—even if they do. 

Take home message:  If your relationship isn’t doing so well and/or you are getting distracted by someone other than your partner—these might be risk factors for engaging in infidelity.  Another study from our research program (with Charlene Belu) explores infidelity in points of transition to new relationships. Many people start a new relationship (or are “poached” from their old one) before they have fully ended one that just isn’t working…  More about that shortly.


Do digital technologies compromise intimacy and relationship quality? No! They seem to make relationships better!

Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

In a recent study, Andrea Boyle and Lucia O’Sullivan had 359 young adults (18-24 years) report in detail about their technology use when communicating with friends, families, and dating partners. Our interest was really about the dating partners and whether communicating a little or a lot using digital technologies during the course of the day would replace face-to-face communication or supplement it (that is, make it better). 

Participants rated how much and what type they had disclosed intimate (such as, “You know what really turns me on…?”) vs. non-intimate information (such as, “I’m finished with that book I borrowed if you need it back”) over the prior three days, as well as relationship intimacy and communication quality.  It turns out that any self-disclosure (even the non-intimate type) is good for relationship quality, and as you might guess, positive as compared to negative (complaining, whining, critical of self, partner or others) communications were really important to relationship quality. 

Also important to note:  Those who used a lot of digital technology to communicate with their partners (e.g., texting tons each day) still had as much face-to-face communication as those who didn’t use digital communication all that much.  Use of these technologies to send messages back and forth just added to the communication quotient overall—it wasn’t a way to avoid or escape seeing each other, as many in the media have worried. 

We concluded that digital technologies provide opportunities for partners to stay connected through the day and truly help to improve the overall quality of their intimacy and communication—as long as you keep it positive folks!