Red as a Sexual Signal In Humans

This entry was written by Natasha Black as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


While female mate choice is common in human populations there is also male mate choice present which has influenced the behaviour of females. Females attract mates by indirect aggression towards other females or by using other mating strategies that involve visual cues. A short-term mating strategy in human females of WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) societies is that they display the colour red, via clothing or make-up, as a sexual signal for potential mates (Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010). This is supported by females being more likely to wear red when they are expecting to encounter an attractive male and avoid red when expecting to encounter an unattractive male. Males perceive females wearing red as more sexually available and alter their behaviour as result. Also, other females perceive a female displaying red as a sexual signal causing them to engage in mate guarding strategies. All of these expected effects of using red as a sexual signal by females have been tested through mate choice experiments.

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In non-human primate females, they have been shown to display red on themselves to signal to males that it is around the time they are ovulating and increase their sexual attractiveness (Elliot & Padza, 2012). Similarly, in human females of WEIRD societies, they might also display the colour red through clothing or make-up as a sexual signal to increase their sexual attractiveness to males. This is supported by a study where females were given a photo of a male before the experiment and asked to rate the attractiveness and half were given an attractive male while the other was given an unattractive male. The females expected to meet the male in the photo when meeting with researchers and had either displayed red or avoided the colour. Females that perceived a higher probability of meeting a male they had rated as being good-looking had chosen to display red by wearing red clothes or make-up while the females that thought it was probable they would encounter a male they had evaluated as unattractive had avoided displaying the colour red. Females involved in the study were not told what colours they should wear which means the choice of displaying red was a natural one (Agthe, Kayser & Maner, 2016). This suggests that females would be interested in gaining the attention of an attractive male are more likely to display red which could be read as a sexual signal.

Males that view a female that is displaying red perceive this as a sign of being sexually availabile and are more likely to make advances on the female such as sitting closer and using intimate language. An explanation for the link between red and sexual attractiveness in females is potentially from the portrayal of red in society such as the involvement of red in the advertising of sex-related things such as ads where ‘sex sells’ or could be more biological where reddish skin can indicate good cardiovascular health (Agthe, Kayser & Maner, 2016). This increased attraction of males towards females displaying red was demonstrated in an experiment where males were shown females that were wearing red or green and the number of intimate responses were recorded. Another experiment was males were shown one of two photos of a female where one was wearing red while the other was wearing blue and then the proximity the male chose to sit to the female was recorded. In both experiments it was shown that the males used more warm language and sat closer to the females that were wearing red (Elliot, Feltman & Kayser, 2010). However, this increased sexual attraction for females is reliant on the males finding the female attractive. This was demonstrated by showing males either an attractive female or an unattractive female and then rated their attractiveness based on if they were displaying red. It was observed that males would only find females displaying red more attractive when they found the female attractive initially (Young, 2015). This indicates that in order for the sexual signal of displaying red to work there must be a baseline attraction at the beginning.

While this display of red can increase sexual attraction of males towards females, it can also cause indirect aggression of competing females. This is because females also perceive a female displaying the colour red as a sexual signal which can result in them mate-guarding by indirect aggression. This was demonstrated through three experiments where females were shown a picture of a female wearing red or another colour such as white or green and then rated the female. The experiments showed that females also perceived another female wearing red as more sexually available, were more likely to use indirect aggression towards the female displaying red and engage in mate-guarding. Indirect aggression that females engage in is a form mate-guarding used to make the other female seem less attractive and is done by derogating the other female with verbal attacks at the female or about the female to other people (Elliot, Padza and Prokop, 2014). This recognition by females of other females displaying red further supports the idea that displaying the colour red is a sexual signal used to attract males by females.


By observing the behaviour of both males and females to the display of the colour red demonstrates that it is a strategy used in human mate choice for short-term sexual encounters. Observing the choice of a female choosing if they display red and how it is affected by the expectation of the meeting attractive mates, demonstrates this is a strategy employed by females to gain the attention of attractive potential mates. The reactions of males to a female displaying red demonstrated that if they found a female attractive that the red colour enhanced the attraction and also effected the advancements the male would make. Females displaying red as a sexual signal is further supported by females recognising the display of red as a sexual signal and being more likely to engage in indirect aggression and mate-guarding. Overall, females using red as a sexual signal is a strategy that can help a female increase their chance of being chosen by an attractive male.


Agthe, M., Kayser, D & Maner, J. (2016). Strategic Sexual Signals: Women's Display versus Avoidance of the Color Red Depends on the Attractiveness of an Anticipated Interaction Partner. PLoS One, 11(3), e0148501.

Elliot, A & Pazda, A. (2012). Dressed for Sex: Red as a Sexual Signal in Humans. PLoS One, 7(4), e34607.

Elliot, A., Pazda, A & Prokop, P. (2014). Red and Romantic Rivalry: Viewing Another Woman in Red Increases Perceptions of Sexual Receptivity, Derogation, and Intentions to Mate-Guard. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(10), 1260-1269.

Feltman, R., Elliot, A & Kayser, D. (2010). Red and romantic behaviour in men viewing women. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 901-908.

Henrich, J., Heine, S & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

Young, S. (2015). The effect of red on male perceptions of female attractiveness: Moderation by baseline attractiveness of female faces. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(2), 146-151.

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