Dirty Talk: Deconstructing the Sex Appeal of the Human Voice

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RESEARCHERS IN London have begun to examine that most mysterious of sexual signals: the human voice. These phonetic scientists, not content to let the allure of a sexy, sultry voice go unexplained, have dissected the sound into small, explainable components.

Their article, just published in the prestigious medical and scientific journal PLOS One, is full of technical terms and way too much math, but it is a truly great read. Consider the bluntness of its first claim: “Physically attractive men and women enjoy enhanced success in dating, job applications, and elections.” Or even the setup of the study itself: 10 young men listened to a recorded British female voice cooing “Good luck with your exams” three ways: normal, breathy, and “pressed,” meaning “pressured.” Then the lucky male listeners ranked the attractiveness of the sounds on a scale of one to five.

But that’s just the start. Next the researchers changed the voice around to give it more lift and twang and subjected it to further evaluation by the 10 young judges. Finally they took the human element out altogether, designing a computer “voice” to recite “I owe you a yo-yo.” After augmenting, nipping, and tucking the synthetic speech to provide a wider variety of sounds, a new fleet of opposite-sex judges rated the results.

The winner for the most attractive type of female voice is no surprise: breathy and high-pitched, though not too high. (Breathiness, for the curious, is “produced with an incompletely closed glottis.”) For your basic male on the prowl, this sound evokes a woman of relatively small body size, which, for reasons related to our evolutional stint as beasts in the jungle, is most desired by men. In contrast, women prefer a deep voice, consistent with—surprise, surprise—bigness, with a little added breathiness for good measure. The breathiness in the male voice, the researchers posit, “presumably softened the aggressiveness associated with a large body size.”

Though this sort of investigation is interesting, one might worry that scientists will destroy the magic of sex appeal by reducing it to its tiny, interlocking parts. Indeed, few things are less sexy, and more bizarre, than hearing a robotic voice say “I owe you a yo-yo.” In the end, the underpinnings of emotion are fascinating to study, but human desire is infinitely more complicated and confusing than the simple sum of its parts.