You may have seen headlines over the past week proclaiming that handsome men have lower-quality sperm. If this made you panic because you happen to be a great-looking guy, you can stop. (If you're an un-handsome man who's been gloating—sorry.) This scientific study did say a few interesting things about Spaniards, Colombians, and cheekbones. But there was no bad news for good-looking men's swimmers. Using male students at the University of Valencia in Spain, researchers searched for connections between good looks and sperm quality. In a 2003 study, the same researchers had already found that more attractive males have better-quality sperm. Now they wanted to confirm that finding while adding a cultural element to the experiment. After weeding out men with facial hair and various diseases, the researchers were left with 50 subjects. They collected semen samples and photographed the men's faces from the front and side. The researchers also measured several dimensions of their subjects' heads that vary between men and women, such as eye size, nostril width, and the proportion of the face that's below the eyes. A total of 226 heterosexual women and men then judged pictures of the male faces. The judges were a mix of Spaniards and Colombians. Women were asked to rate each subject's attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10; men were asked to rate the pictures as they imagined a woman might judge them. Each semen sample got a quality rating based on sperm count, appearance, and how well the swimmers were swimming. Then the researchers compared this number to the subject's attractiveness rating. They found that no matter who was judging them, more attractive men had better-quality sperm
. So why did so many headlines say the opposite? ("Handsome Men Have Poorer Sperm Quality, New Study Shows," announced the Huffington Post
. At Esquire
, "Good News! You're Either Handsome with Bad Sperm or Ugly and No One Wants Your Sperm.") The confusion seems to have come from another part of the study, in which researchers looked at all those facial measurements they'd taken and tried to find a link between "masculinity" and sperm quality. Out of seven facial features, only one had any correlation: cheekbone width. Men who had a more manly cheekbone width—which is to say, wider faces—had lower-quality sperm. So it's not "handsome" men who made out badly in the study, but those with especially far-apart cheeks. Panic accordingly. A couple of fun findings emerged about the facial judges themselves. Spanish judges found the (Spanish) faces more attractive than the Colombian judges did. And men rated faces more highly than women did (or "overestimated the attractiveness of their rivals," as the authors put it). The researchers would like to explain their results as an evolutionary trade-off. Perhaps men can invest energy either in making good sperm or in making a masculine face to attract women, but not both, they suggest. But since the manlier faces weren't the same ones that attracted women—and in fact women rated the good sperm producers as more attractive—this isn't too convincing. I wrote to lead author Carles Soler to ask whether his research was being misrepresented in the media, but he hasn't responded. For now, it's probably safe for all you good-looking dudes to stop worrying. And if anyone needs an ego boost, consider asking another man to rate your attractiveness.
Image: by Flickr user Danny (a.k.a, I am not making this up, "spunkinator")
Soler C, Kekäläinen J, Núñez M, Sancho M, Alvarez JG, Núñez J, Yaber I, & Gutiérrez R (2014). Male facial attractiveness and masculinity may provide sex- and culture-independent cues to semen quality. Journal of evolutionary biology, 27 (9), 1930-8 PMID: 25056484