Whenever I'm around this one guy I know, I feel my head tilt to the side and my hand reach out toward him, as if to touch him. I try to stifle these gestures because they are sexual "tells," that is, unconscious moves signaling unspoken thoughts or intentions. And these particular gestures, I must confess, are universal mating signals. In terms of biological signaling, I may as well be breaking out the landing gear lights and guiding him to my gate, so to speak. I don't actually wish to mate with this dude (oh hell no) but, clearly some part of my subconscious is thinking he's fine. Real fine.
That's what's interesting to me about these mating gestures. I don't wish to signal anything to this guy, but my body certainly does, and I wonder what mechanism is at work there. I mean, why him? I am fascinated by how my body responds to him automatically and unconsciously. I don't mean to do the whole head tilt thing, it just happens. And although I'm not going to act on it, I have to admit that it's fun to feel my body react, feeling the pull of attraction and knowing I'm part of a timeless biological dance.
So what am I signaling exactly? Well, Grasshopper, a head tilt does a few things. It makes me smaller, for one, and exposes my vulnerable neck. These indicate "I am harmless." (Note: I may or may not actually be harmless.) Appearing harmless is a good thing, mating-wise, according to Helen E. Fisher in her completely fascinating book, Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce. Men also try to appear harmless. All of their initial mating gestures are geared to convey the basic message, "I am here; I am important; I am harmless."
"Men tend to pitch and roll their shoulders, stretch, stand tall and shift from foot to foot in a swaying motion. They also exaggerate their body movements. Instead of simply using the wrist to stir a drink, men often employ the entire arm, as if stirring mud...And the whole body is employed in hearty laughter--made loud enough to attract a crowd."
In the 1960s ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt used a secret camera to document female flirting behavior around the globe. No matter who he was
"First the woman smiles at her admirer and lifts her eyebrows in a swift jerky motion as she opens her eyes wide to gaze at him. Then she drops her eyelids, tilts her head down and to the side, and looks away. Frequently she also covers her face with her hands, giggling nervously as she retreats behind her palms."
Of all the courting gestures, to me, the most potent is the so-called "copulatory gaze." In cultures where eye contact is permitted, potential lovers will stare into each other's eyes a second or two longer than is necessary (generally two to three seconds) and, if interested, their pupils will dilate. Eye contact seems to trigger a primitive part of the brain, notes Fisher, calling forth one of two basic emotions--approach or retreat. "You cannot ignore the eyes of another fixed on you," she writes, "You must respond."
Many of these courting gestures are present in animals as well. Female possums do the coy look/head tilt move. Snakes, frogs and toads inflate their bodies to draw attention to themselves, and "pygmy" chimpanzees at the San Diego Zoo look deeply into the other's eyes for several moments before having sex. (No documentation exists on whether they also make each other mix tapes.)
My favorite animal courting move, however, comes from the chimps observed by the lovely Jane Goodall at the Combe Steam Reserve in Tanzania. When a female is in estrus (heat), a dominant male doesn't muck around with the loud laughing and notable drink stirring, he gets right to the point. "A male will stare intently to get a female's attention, sit with his legs open to display an erect penis, flick it, rock from side to side (and) beckon her with outstretched arms."
Yes, it's kind of comically direct, but I can see how with the right chimp, or my case, human male, it would be quite heady to be so courted. Although it would have the unfortunate side effect of eliminating the wholly enjoyable pastime of analyzing and dissecting a potential lover's moves. "Okay, so last night, Fred was staring intently at me, displaying his erect penis and flicking it. What do you think he meant?"
Thus we get to your questions of the day. One of the reasons I'm so fascinated by this subject is because I was always bad at interpreting such signals. What about you? Do you consciously use these gestures, or have you noticed yourself doing them? Do you notice when a potential suitor is doing these things, feel a general intuition about their intentions, or what?
Please, do tell.