I'd like to argue that smokers and drinkers (so-called "bad boys," or risk-taking men) are not somehow more hot than more timid or straight-laced guys, but I cannot do so in earnest: Everyone knows men like these are desirable.
Thanks to a recent study, this is now scientifically verifiable. Called "The Young Male Cigarette and Alcohol Syndrome: Smoking and Drinking as a Short-Term Mating Strategy," the study was conducted by Eveline Vincke of Ghent University in Belgium and "explored the possibility that male youngsters use these physically risky behaviors as a short-term mating strategy." The findings confirm this possibility to be true, identifying smoking and drinking as sexually compelling because they are physically harmful. According to the study findings, "despite all efforts to sensitize youngsters for the dangers of smoking and drinking, male tobacco and (especially) alcohol use still bring attractiveness benefits in short-term mating situations." In fact, warning young people of the dangers of smoking and drinking may be having the exact opposite effect, the study found: Such education reinforces the dangerousness of the behavior, thus solidifying its attractiveness in the eyes of young women.
But why are people so aroused by this tired, stereotypical hot guy? Tristan Bridges is a masculinity scholar and a professor of sociology at the College at Brockport State University of New York. In an interview with Broadly, Bridges explained that the link between dangerous behavior and masculinity is historic. "In the 1970s, the psychologist Robert Brannon famously said that a form of [the phrase] 'Give 'em Hell' was an integral component of contemporary masculine identity," Bridges said. What Brannon meant was that being a man was defined by being an aggressive asshole—and it still is.
Bridges explained that researchers have recently been studying men in laboratories, observing the way they react to the perceived loss of their masculinity. "Research has shown that men whose masculinity is experimentally challenged are more likely to support war," Bridges said. "They express more sexual prejudice towards gay men; they are more likely to claim to believe that men are inherently superior to women, and more."
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But does this mean that men are genetically programmed to live dangerously? Not so much. Bridges says that this is a social phenomenon, the result of an idealized division between the genders. "What do men turn to when they have nowhere else to turn?" Bridges asked rhetorically. "How do they find ways to establish masculine identities when their claim to masculinity has been challenged? Risk-taking is one method on which research has shown that men rely."
If men want to partake in dangerous behaviors as a way to compensate for the fact their identities are unrealistic—that's fine. But why do women have to love it so much? Bridges told me that there are "bodies of scholarship" that have tried to portray such risky behavior as evolutionary—"a kind of 'sexual selection' by which women's sexual tastes have evolved to locate men most likely to protect them." Unfortunately for the boring, biological essentialists behind this work, Bridges says that such research has been largely discredited "because it relies on stereotypes of early humans, and the adaptive problems they faced that are historically inaccurate and fail to account for much of what we know about how early humans lived."
So according to Bridges, there's no biological reason that women would be drawn to risky behavior. Yet Vincke's findings show that women are drawn to bad boys. Bridges says that if this generalization about women can be made, then it is the product of cultural ideals—not evolution. "Both men and women are often attracted to culturally idealized embodiments of masculinity and femininity," he said. "Our sexual desires are shaped and molded by the societies in which we grow up. Not every society in the world considers mouth kissing, oral sex, or any number of sexual practices to be sexually desirable. If our sexual desires were biologically programmed to advance the species, then shouldn't we have evolved to the point at which women with broad shoulders and waists were seen as the most idealized form of femininity?"
Conversely, masculinity is sexually appealing in our society when men are dominant, powerful, and strong. Risk-taking becomes just another way for men to demonstrate their power, and women are told to admire that. In other words, according to Bridges, "if a risk-taking masculinity is sexualized in our society, it tells us a lot more about gender inequality in our culture than it does about the biology of gender."