Tattoos and Sexual Selection

This entry was written by H Roshelle Martin as part of a project done in BIAN2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at the Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Studies have found that the presence or absence of tattooing can influence the observer’s assessment of a person as a potential mate or competitor for mates. Tattoos can be a visual signal of biological and/or parental quality. Since men and women look for different qualities in potential mates, they have varied perceptions about potential mates or rivals with tattoos.

In this entry I will briefly discuss the findings and associated explanations from some of the aforementioned studies and conclude with some recommendations for further research.

Main Text

Tattooed Women

Studies on tattooed women have found that they tend to be perceived, by both women and men, as less attractive and healthy and more promiscuous than women without tattoos.

Guéguen’s (2013) study’s results concurred with previous studies that observed that men perceived tattooed women as more promiscuous and less attractive than women without tattoos. Most of the men involved in Guéguen’s study found tattooed women more approachable yet less physically attractive. Guéguen explained this apparent incongruity by reasoning that the men approached the tattooed women not because they found them attractive but because they perceived them sexually receptive. This explanation was strengthened when the men also rated their chances of a sexual encounter with the subject greater when she was tattooed than when she wasn’t.

Musambira et al (2016) further dissected perceived attractiveness of tattooed women by investigation their correlation to age. They too found that women were generally regarded as less attractive and more promiscuous when they had a tattoo, but by both women and men. Judgements of older women, however, were harsher than those of younger women. Additionally, older women with masculine tattoos were considered less attractive and more promiscuous than those with feminine tattoos. These results were attributed to the expectation that older women should adhere to societal norms of femininity. Younger women, however, were rated more attractive and less promiscuous when they had masculine, rather than feminine, tattoos. This could be because those with masculine tattoos were viewed as more rebellious (and therefore attractive) or unfeminine and therefore nonsexual (which would not negatively impact their perceived attractiveness). With feminine tattoos they may have been seen as too overtly sexual and, consequently, more promiscuous and therefore less attractive.

Wohlrab et al’s (2009) study’s findings indicated that tattooed women were perceived as more unhealthy than non-tattooed women. They suggested this might have been due to “traditional stigmatizations” that women are physically weaker than men and therefore incapable of withstanding the health hazards of tattooing. Alternatively, tattooed women may be expected to engage in health-averse behaviour such as promiscuousness or alcohol consumption. The researchers noted the mismatch between the information intended to be sent by most tattooed women, who commonly wore them to increase their attractiveness, and the negative information construed by their observers.

Tattooed Men

Studies on tattooed men have found that women tend to view them as healthy and masculine but not good candidates for long term partnership. Fellow men are also inclined to perceive them as more masculine and attractive.
Wohlrab et al’s (2009) and Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz’s (2017) studies found that women viewed tattooed men as healthier than non-tattooed men. Tattoos can pose significant health risks including allergic reactions, bacterial infections and blood borne diseases. Men with well healed tattoos have resisted or overcome these health risks, signalling a strong immune system. Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz also linked the increased health perception to increased symmetry which may be an indication of biological quality. Studies have shown tattooed men to be more symmetrical than men without tattoos.

Both studies found that both men and women thought men with tattoos were more dominant and aggressive. Wohlrab et al (2009, p.203) accounted for tattoos being a signal of masculinity by linking them to characteristically male behaviours including risk taking and sensation seeking. Additionally, tattoos have, in the past, been more prevalent among men than women, particularly in environments fostering competition between men for access to mates. Dominance, aggressiveness and masculinity are related to testosterone levels and, consequently, immunocompetence. Since testosterone suppresses immune function, only men with strong immune systems can have high testosterone levels and exhibit the related characteristics. Hence women consider men with tattoos good short term mates as they will make a positive contribution towards the biological quality of a woman’s offspring (Galbarczyk & Ziomkiewicz, 2017, pp.123-124).

Despite perceiving tattooed men as having better biological quality, the women in Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz’s (2017) study did not find them more attractive. The researchers postulated that this could be because some traits that indicate superior health, including aggressiveness and dominance, are not desirable in long term mates. Those characteristics could be directed towards a woman and her offspring and therefore pose a potential risk. Men with high testosterone levels have also been observed to have an increased probability of being adulterous. More masculine men benefit from investing in acquiring multiple mates rather than parental care. Hence, they are not expected to invest in relationships for the long term.


Tattoos can impact sexual selection because they are a visual signal about the biological quality and/or capacity for parental care of a potential mate or competitor.
Studies have found that men and women generally consider women with tattoos less healthy and attractive and more promiscuous than non-tattooed women. Conversely, studies of tattooed men have found them to often be considered healthier and more dominant, aggressive and masculine than men without tattoos, by both women and men. While men tend to consider tattooed men more attractive than men without tattoos, women do not.
The impact of tattoos on sexual selection has not kept abreast of the growing popularity of tattoos and the changing societal perception of them (Musambira et al, 2016, p.9). The studies that have been done have had various limitations, including small sample sizes, homogeneity of participants and limited range of study subjects. There is potential for further, more detailed study into the effects of specific variables. For example, sexual orientations, gender identities, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, age groups and extent, locations and designs of tattooing.

Literature Cited

Galbarczyk, A., & Ziomkiewicz, A. (2017). Tattooed men: Healthy bad boys and good-looking competitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 122-125.

Guéguen, N. (2013). Effects of a tattoo on men's behavior and attitudes towards women: An experimental field study. Archives of sexual behavio,, 42(8), 1517-1524.

Musambira, G. W., Raymond, L., & Hastings, S. O. (2016). A comparison of college students' perceptions of older and younger tattooed women. Journal of Women & Aging, 28(1), 9-23.

Wohlrab, S., Fink, B., Kappeler, P. M., & Brewer, G. (2009). Perception of human body modification. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(2), 202-206.

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