TIME Race

I Am a ‘Conscious’ Black Woman Who Fell for a White Man

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Here I was: Ms. HBCU, Afro-turned-locs-sporting, ankh-wearing, and lover of all things Black — falling for a white man

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

In the words of my hero Maya Angelou, “I can’t believe my good fortune, and I am just so grateful, to be a Black woman. A Black American woman. I would be so jealous if I were anything else.”

I learned that “Black” was intended to mean “inferior” at the age of five and by the time I was ready for college I had only begun to learn why I should rejoice in my Blackness. I grew up in this spirit. I survived being “the smart Black girl” at majority white schools in this spirit, and rejected an opportunity for full scholarship at a predominately white institution to attend the best university on the globe (naturally a historically black one) — because of this spirit.

Being a Black person at an HBCU is nothing short of divine. A community of academics who understand you, instructors who are exceptionally hard on you because they know what you’re up against in this world, and an ever-present aura that dispels every negative thing that you were taught about your color from the moment you knew what it was.

I chopped off my chemically processed hair, took every class I could led by the master of Africana Studies, Dr. Gregory Carr, and wore an ankh on my body every chance I got.

Needless to say, I only dated Black men.

Though I find Black men physically attractive, what I really, really find attractive is the unspoken understanding that exists between me and a Black man of my choosing. I love not explaining why I tie my hair up at night, or that my skin would burn in beach sun without sunblock. I love arguing about whether “Love Jones” or “Love and Basketball” was the greatest Black love story of the ’90s. I could never date outside of Black men, I thought. It would never work.

But I was W-R-O-N-G! I could and I did.

We’ll call him Mazzi for discretion’s sake. He stood about 6 feet and 5 inches. He was handsome, funny, and a bit cynical. We worked in the same space, after I had graduated from college, for about a year. I hardly noticed him at the onset but eventually we began talking and sharing inside jokes and such. And one day he asked me on a date.

There was naturally some apprehension: 1) because we worked together AND 2) because he was unquestionably a white man.

I expressed my desire to keep it quiet at work and Mazzi agreed, so we went.

I laughed a lot that evening. Like from pick-up to drop-off. As our dates went on for some months, I began to notice the disapproving eyes of people around us when we were out together.

“Do you see how people look at us?!” I asked one day.

“Yeah,” he said nonchalantly. “It happens all the time. People don’t have shit going on in their own lives so that fact that I’m here with this ‘self-aware’ Black woman is earth shattering to them.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. He smiled cautiously.

Time passed and we grew closer. I had just gotten into running and he was a thrower for his college’s track team so he would offer me advice on what I can do to get faster and stronger (he also gave awesome back rubs). He was a writer who never put his thoughts down and I encouraged him to do so. He had become my sounding board when I would get overwhelmed and met disappointments in my medical school application process, and I was his “therapist” who eventually got to the root of his cynicism. We were comfortable with one another. At some point in all this, I changed jobs to work in my field and we no longer had the “work thing” to consider.

Here I was: Ms. HBCU, Afro-turned locs sporting, ankh wearing, and lover of all things Black — falling for a white man.

He brought up the subject of a relationship and I retreated. I’d talk about my reluctance to get in relationships (which was true) and he didn’t push the issue. But of course eventually I entered a relationship with him because it only made sense.

My two closest friends were shocked but very supportive and liked him a lot. I liked him too. He was the ideal, except he wasn’t Black.

My family slowly began to pick up on the fact that this was more than a collection of dates and did not necessarily approve. This didn’t impact me so much though. I was good at being rebellious.

His family was really sweet to me and always invited and included me when going to dinners or family parties.

Though I never felt “inferior” throughout the course of our relationship, race was an issue.

I remember the first time it was brought to my attention. He was driving and talking to me on the phone with some friends in the car. His friends had been drinking one of them yelled into the phone.

“Tell Ashley I miss her! Wait! Do Black people miss people?”

Now you and I both know how idiotic of a statement that was, but my issue was not with his asshole of a friend, it was with his lack of response to the comment. He later told me he addressed it. I didn’t believe him.

When I would experience “exotic otherness” at work, I would talk to him about it and he would suggest that I was overreacting when I knew I wasn’t. He would never know the feeling I was describing and I really couldn’t expect him to understand.

Then once in an argument, he said that my beloved alma mater was “institutionally racist.” This was a HUGE mistake on his part. I don’t remember my exact response but I am certain it was angry.

These were tough issues we had to work through. And it was hard. In considering a future with him, I worried about these issues. And he got to a point where he would refuse to talk if he sensed that race would come up. I understood, it was tense between us.

But when it was good, which usually was the case, it was perfect. Then, during a period that I thought was a good one, he went through my phone while I was sleeping. He read messages between my friends and me about how I missed the comfort and familiarity of Black men… OUCH!

Race was an issue.

To know me is to know that a violation of my privacy is grounds for dismissal. I felt guilty, so I didn’t break up with him right way. But from that point forward, I stopped feeling like myself. I was no longer mentally present in the relationship and I strongly resented the phone incident. The race thing was too hard and I had stopped “trying” because I knew he didn’t trust me anyway. I ended it a few months later.

This was in August. And I would be fooling myself if I said I don’t sometimes think I made a mistake. In my relationship, I felt special, and I was loved — even though he wasn’t Black.

Someone made a comment to me recently: “I’m glad you came back to this side.” I replied, “I never changed,” because though Mazzi may not have been the guy for me, and though he was undoubtedly a white man, he never wanted anything from me, but me — locs and all.

Ashley Thomas is an aspiring writer from Baltimore, Maryland.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Science Proves It: Men Really Do Find High Heels Sexier

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Women: wear these and you're more likely to get help from men J.B.C.—Getty Images/Flickr RF

They’re bad for the feet and bad for the back, but high heels do wonders for sex appeal

Cue a collective sigh from women everywhere: a new study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior proves that men really do find women in high heels significantly sexier.

Study author Nicholas Gueguen in the department of social behavior at the University of Bretagne conducted three experiments using French women identically dressed in black suits with straight skirts and white shirts. Most were also all brunettes: because previous studies showed that men were more likely to approach blonde women over brunettes and ask them out on dates. The only differences between the women were their shoes.

In the series of experiments, Gueguen dangled the women as science bait in front of unsuspecting men.

First, the women—wearing either black flats with no heel, black shoes with a 2 inch heel or black pumps with a 3.5 inch heel—approached several people and asked them for assistance. The woman switched shoes after soliciting every 10 people.

MORE: ‘Stiletto Whisperer’ Teaches Women To Walk In High Heels

When a 19-year-old woman approached men between ages 25 and 50, asking for their help with a survey on gender equality, she garnered the most responses when she wore the highest heels—83% of the men she approached agreed to spend three to four minutes answering her questions, compared to nearly half as many, 47%, when she wore flat shoes. Not terribly surprising.

But would women react the same way to fellow sisters in high heels? To find out, four women asked both men and women to participate in a food survey about what they ate. Again, men were more likely to respond when the women wore higher heels—82% agreed to do the survey when the women wore 3.5 inch heels, compared to 42% who did when they wore flats. But ladies didn’t fall for it. Only about 33% of women on average said yes to the survey request, regardless of the heel height.

Why were men more receptive to the women in high heels? To test the obvious attraction hypothesis, Gueguen told the women to find “marks” and walk ahead of them, then drop a glove. A whopping 93% of men chased after the women when they wore high heels to return the glove, compared to 62% of those who did when she wore flat shoes. And while women were also more likely to track down the high-heeled women than those wearing flats, the rates were much lower—52% for the heel wearers and 43% for the flats wearers.

MORE: Skinny Jeans and High Heels: What Health Dangers Lurk in Your Closet?

For the grand finale, researchers wanted to see if high heels could actually make men more likely to pursue the wearers as mates. They strategically placed women wearing different heel heights in three bars, seating them at tables near the bar where their shoes were visible to those standing at the counter and perusing the field. On average, it took men only 7.49 minutes to approach women wearing the high heels. For those wearing flat shoes, it took nearly twice as long—13.54 minutes.

All of this confirms that men tend to use physical attributes as a way to gauge women’s attractiveness and to find potential mates. It’s not exactly a revelation; Gueguen found in a previous study that female hitchhikers with bigger breasts get picked up more often by male drivers. But now, science gives some credibility to the seemingly illogical (and unhealthy) choice to endure pinched toes and vertiginous heights. “As a man I can see that I prefer to see my wife when she wears high heels and many men in France have the same evaluation,” Gueguen writes in an email response.

MORE: Can High Heels Trigger Migraines?

What exactly is so sexy about high heels? Gueguen blames (or credits) the media for its strong imagery association between stilettos and sexiness. And yes, higher heels can change the way a woman walks, making her hips sway a bit more as she negotiates walking at a more precarious height, but in the study, even women who were seated and wearing heels were approached by more men. And Gueguen’s follow-up studies, in which he showed men photos of women wearing heels or flats, confirmed that there was more to the attraction than a woman’s gait. “The results showed that high heels were associated with greater sexiness, overall physical attractiveness, breast attractiveness, beauty, attractiveness to other men, and willingness for a date,” he writes. Now, whether you want to be approached or left blissfully alone, there’s a shoe height for that.

TIME psychology

How to Have a Great Relationship — 5 New Secrets From Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

What is love? (Sit down. This might take a minute.)

I’ve posted a lot about the science around love, including how to tell if your spouse is cheating and why high heels are sexy.

But what about the stuff we need to know to be happy? Platitudes don’t cut it and though the poets are often right they’re frequently vague.

Is there an expert who can give us some real answers about love: how to find it, nurture it and maybe even repair it?

You better believe there is. Arthur Aron is one of the world’s top researchers on romantic love.

He is a professor at Stony Brook University and author of a number of key books on the subject of relationships including:

I gave Arthur a call and learned what makes us attractive, how to have a great first date, and the things that kill and improve relationships.

Let’s get started.

So What The Heck Is Love Anyway?

Love isn’t an emotion, really. When you look at fMRI studies of the brain it shows up more as a desire. A craving.

And that explains why it feels so good. As far as the ol’ gray matter’s concerned love’s right up there with cocaine and cash.

All three activate the same area of the brain — the dopamine reward system.

Here’s Arthur:

When you’re in love with someone romantically, the areas of the brain that are activated when you think about them are what we call the dopamine reward system. The same system that responds to cocaine and expecting to win a lot of money. Love seems to be more of a desire than an emotion.

So, yeah, even neuroscience agrees that love is intense. But can anything that powerful last? Doesn’t it eventually have to fizzle?

Not necessarily. Research shows some couples are very much in love 40-50 years later.

Here’s Arthur:

Another thing we’ve learned both from that research and from surveys is passionate romantic love can exist in people that have been together 40 years, 50 years. We don’t know the percentage. But people who claim to be very intensely in love that have been married and are in their 70s show the same patterns of neural response to a large extent as people who have just fallen in love.

Want your marriage to last more than 30 years? Just “being married” often isn’t enough: you also need to be good friends.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

In studies of people happily married more than three decades, the quality of friendship between the partners was the single most frequently cited factor in the relationships’ success. – Bachand and Caron 2001

(For more on how to keep love alive and live happily ever after, click here.)

So what do we need to know to have a good relationship that stands the test of time? Let’s start with attractiveness.

This Is What Makes You Attractive

Looking good matters. Duh. But it’s far from the only thing.

Arthur also found that we’re more attracted to people who are attracted to us. So showing interest gets people interested in you.

And believing the two of you are similar is powerful (whether you’re actually similar, well, is another story…)

Here’s Arthur:

You are much more likely to be attracted to someone who you think will be attracted to you, or who has shown they’re attracted to you. And believing the person is similar turns out to matter a lot. Their actually being similar doesn’t matter so much but believing they’re similar does.

Believe it or not, other research shows even having similar fighting styles is a good thing.

It was related to double digit drops in conflict and a double digit increase in satisfaction.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

While people may employ many different conflict resolution strategies in a relationship, when both partners use the same strategy they experience 12 percent less conflict and are 31 percent more likely to report their relationship is satisfying. – Pape 2001

And while we’re on the subject of attraction, how about “playing hard to get?” Does it work?

Nope. Pretending you’re not interested in the other person is a terrible strategy.

However, making it look like you’re picky and have high standards but that you are interested in this person, that works very well.

Here’s Arthur:

Playing “hard to get” does not help. It’s good for a person you meet to think you’re being hard for others to get but not hard for them to get. That’s sort of the ideal partner: one that’s hard for everyone else to get but is interested in you.

(For more on how to flirt — scientifically — click here.)

How many internet dates do you need to go on to end up in a relationship? Online dating data says 3.8. But what should you do on that date?

How To Have A Great First Date

So how did Arthur become so well known as the big researcher on romantic love? He did the classic “bridge study.”

It showed that if we feel something, we associate it with who is around us — even if they’re not the cause.

So if our environment makes us feel excited, we can mistake it for feeling in love. Check out a video of the study here:

So what’s that mean practically? Roller coasters, concerts, anything exciting with energy in the air makes for a great date.

Here’s Arthur:

When in the initial stages of dating, you might want to do something physiologically arousing with the person. The classic is to go on a roller coaster ride or do something like that as long as it’s not too scary.

In fact, research shows you might even be attracted to someone trying to kill you. Researchers simulated a torture scenario and found exactly that.

Via The Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science:

Those in the high-fear condition did show, for example, significantly more desire to kiss my confederate (one of the key questions) and wrote more romantic and sexual content into their stories. Looking at the details of these results, I found that the situation had generated, quite specifically, romantic attraction.

Other than excitement, what else is good to do? Open up. Not too much, too fast, but start sharing. Superficial conversation is boring.

Here’s Arthur:

Another thing is to try to keep the conversation from being too superficial — but you don’t want to move too quickly. You can scare a person away if you right away tell them the deepest things in your life.

Research shows that talking about STD’s and abortion is better than bland topics. Other studies show that discussing travel is good but movies are bad.

But what you say isn’t everything. It’s also how you react to what they say. Be responsive and engaged.

Here’s Arthur:

There’s some wonderful work by Harry Reis and his colleagues on self-disclosure showing it’s not how much is disclosed but how you respond to the other person’s self-disclosure. You want to be very responsive to hear what they’re saying, to show that you understand it, to show that you value what they’re saying and appreciate it.

In fact, the best self-disclosure can produce a bond almost as strong as a lifetime friendship in less than an hour. Seriously.

Arthur ran this test with two graduate students, trying to produce a romantic connection. What happened? They ended up getting married.

Here’s Arthur:

The very first pair we ran, which were a couple of research assistants in our lab who weren’t involved in this study, they actually did fall in love and got married.

(For the list of self-disclosure questions Arthur used in that study, click here.)

So the date goes well and you’re together. What makes relationships go bad? And how can you dodge that?

The Real Reason Why Relationships Fail

Think you two are badly matched? You’re probably wrong. Arthur says this is a common mistake.

Who you are and what you’re like has a much bigger effect than the match between you two.

If you’re insecure, anxious or depressed you’ll have trouble connecting withanyone.

Here’s Arthur:

Most people think that how well a relationship will work has to do with the match between you whereas that only matters a little bit. Much more important is who you are, and then secondly, who the partner is. If you are insecure, anxious, or depressed, you’ll have a hard time with anyone. Who you are and who the other person is matters much more than the match.

Think you two are going through difficult times but you’ll come out stronger? Probably wrong again.

Difficult times don’t usually strengthen a relationship — more often they destroy it.

Here’s Arthur:

Long-term relationships of any kind have a very hard time when there are great stressors on people. If you live in a war zone, or you have a child die, or someone loses their job, it’s really hard for a marriage to survive. When things aren’t going well and we behave badly or our partner behaves badly it’s common to jump to the conclusion that it’s always been this way and that things will always be this way. When something stressful is happening we need to remember it’s not always like this.

Other research has shown that trying to change the other person is a killer as well. Often, you need to accept your partner for who they are.

69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.

Via The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.

(To learn the four things that most often kill relationships, click here.)

Okay, so maybe things aren’t going so hot. Everybody thinks they know how to make it better. What does the research say really works?

4 Things That Really Improve Relationships

Like Arthur said above: it’s not usually the match, it’s usually one of the people in the relationship.

So if you have personal issues like depression, anger or insecurity, get help.Fixing you is the best step toward a better relationship.

Here’s Arthur:

First, look at your own life. Are you anxious, depressed, or insecure? Did you have a really difficult childhood? If so, do something. That would be number one.

Relationships stop being fun because we stop trying to make them fun.

Early on you did cool things together but now it’s just Netflix and pizza on the couch. Every. Single. Night.

What to do? Just like the recommendation for a good first date: It’s about excitement.

Here’s Arthur:

After a while, things are sort of settled and there isn’t much excitement, so what can you do? Do things that are exciting that you associate with your partner. Reinvigorate that excitement and the main way to make them associated with the partner is to do them with your partner.

What’s the third most important thing for keeping love alive? “Capitalization” is vital. (No, I don’t mean using bigger letters.)

Celebrate your partner’s successes. Be their biggest fan.

How a couple celebrates the good times is more important than how they deal with the bad times.

Not acting impressed by your partner’s achievements? Congratulations, you’re killing your relationship.

Here’s Arthur:

Celebrating your partner’s successes turns out to be pretty important. When things go badly and you provide support, it doesn’t make the relationship good, but it keeps it from getting bad. Whereas if things are going okay and your partner has something good happen and you celebrate it sincerely, you’re doing something that can make a relationship even better.

The fourth thing Arthur mentioned was gratitude. And not only does it help relationships, it’s one of the keys to a happy life.

What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:

…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.

(To learn the science behind how to be a good kisser, click here.)

So that’s a lot of solid relationship advice. How do we pull all this together and put it to use?

Sum Up

Here’s what Arthur said can help you have a great relationship:

  1. According to your own brain, love is right up there with cocaine and cash. And it can last if you treat it right.
  2. Want to be attractive? Make yourself look good, emphasize similarities, and let the person know you’re picky — but that you do like them.
  3. A great first date is something that creates excitement and energy. Share things about yourself and respond positively when your partner does.
  4. Relationships often fail because of individual issues, not because of a bad match. Resolve difficulties as soon as you can; they don’t strengthen relationships, they cripple them.
  5. Improve your relationship by dealing with your personal issues, doing exciting things together, celebrating your partner’s successes and showing gratitude.

It’s easy to get lazy when things are going well. But a little effort can go a long way — and not just toward a better relationship.

The research shows love has many positive effects like increasing success, longevity, health and happiness.

Here’s Arthur:

The evidence shows that relationship quality plays a huge role in longevity. The findings are that the importance of being in a good relationship versus being alone is a bigger effect than smoking or obesity on how long we live. And the quality of your relationships is also the biggest factor associated with general life happiness.

If you don’t have someone special in your life, here’s how to find them.

And if you do have someone, make an effort today. Celebrate any good news they have and plan something exciting to do this week.

And then show them a little gratitude. Does anything feel better than hearing how much we mean to someone else?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Watch How These People Learned About Sex

Dr. Ruth and others share their stories

In spring 2014, parents in the normally progressive Bay Area city of Fremont started a campaign to get a book removed from the 9th grade curriculum, arguing it was inappropriate for their 13 and 14-year olds. They hired a local lawyer and put together a petition with more than 2500 signatures.

Read TIME’s Special Report on Why Schools Can’t Teach Sex Ed

Their target was Your Health Today, a sex-ed book published by McGraw Hill. It offers the traditional advice and awkward diagrams plus some considerably more modern elements: how to ask partners if they’ve been tested for STDs, a debate on legalizing prostitution. And then there was this: “[One] kind of sex game is bondage and discipline, in which restriction of movement (e.g. using handcuffs or ropes) or sensory deprivation (using blindfolds or masks) is employed for sexual enjoyment. Most sex games are safe and harmless, but partners need to openly discuss and agree beforehand on what they are comfortable doing.”

“I was just astounded,” says Fremont mom Teri Topham. “My daughter is 13. She needs to know how boys feel. I frankly don’t want her debating with other 13-year-olds how well the adult film industry is practicing safe sex.” Another parent, Asfia Ahmed, who has eight and ninth grade boys, adds: “It assumes the audience is already drinking alcohol, already doing drugs, already have multiple sexual partners…Even if they are experimenting at this age, it says atypical sexual behaviors are normal. ”

But school board members contend that 9th grade students have already been exposed to the contents of the book—and much, much more. They argue that even relatively modern sex ed has even not begun to reckon with what kids are now exposed to in person and online.

Read TIME’s special report on sex ed in the age of porn with resources for parents and teens.

 

TIME advice

The Best Way to Approach a Tough Conversation With Your Significant Other

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Licensed master social worker Jennifer Gatti has the answer

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

Question: My girlfriend’s parents are very involved in her life. She’s an only child, so I get it, but she talks to them every day and wants me to talk to them every day, too. I don’t even talk to my own parents that much, so why should I be expected to talk to hers? How do I get them to back off and give us some space?

(MORE: When Lying Is Actually Your Best Option)

Response by Jennifer Gatti, Licensed Master Social Worker: Every day, huh? Well, on one hand, it’s nice that family is important to her, and her efforts to share those values with you is a good indicator of how she feels about you and your future together. On the other hand, if your present time together is dominated by struggling to make small talk with middle-aged Midwesterners about what happened on The Big Bang Theory, then it’s time to set some boundaries.

First of all, people can be extremely sensitive when it comes to their families, so you shouldn’t approach her as if there’s anything wrong or weird about their close relationship. Because, first of all, there isn’t. Second of all, you risk offending her. An accusatory “Why do you talk to your parents so much?” might not be received as well as an observant “Wow, your family seems so much closer than mine.”

(MORE: 1 In 5 Men Admit To Committing Partner Violence)

In general, making gentle, curious statements will get you closer to understanding someone’s behavior than asking antagonistic questions will. Have a casual talk about her family’s dynamic, and then try sharing your own experiences about how and when you interact with your own parents. Remember that the goal isn’t just to get her to stop shoving the phone in your face, but to manage your expectations about each other individually and as a couple.

I’d also recommend that this discussion be had at a time when you’re not feeling upset about having just had your usual, perfunctory conversation with your girlfriend’s parents. It’s best to pick a time when you’re not feeling irritated, a time when you’re both feeling safe and loved. Freaking out and suddenly screaming, “I don’t care about your dad’s cat!” will only make you seem like a jerk. But, if you speak to your girlfriend in a calm manner and with the idea that it will ultimately bring you closer together, you are more likely to have good and productive conversation.

It could be that your girlfriend just loves talking to her parents so much that she wants you to love it too. So, do your best to tread lightly and honestly, making sure to express nothing but respect for her and her parents.

(MORE: Dating Nightmares Come True)

TIME Sex/Relationships

Manly Men Are Not Always the Best Choice, Study Says

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It’s a Hollywood stereotype: Men prefer to partner up with feminine-looking women, and women favor masculine men. But even when you allow for same-gender couples and variations in personal preference, plenty of research suggests that the proposition is generally true. “It’s been replicated many times across different cultures,” says Isabel Scott, a psychologist at Brunel University in Uxbridge, on the outskirts of London, “so people tend to assume it’s universal.” A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges that thinking, however.

Historically, human studies have shown that women with more feminine faces tend to have higher estrogen levels, which are in turn associated with reproductive health. In men, the argument is that masculine-looking faces are associated with stronger immune systems—always a good thing in a mate, especially if that trait is passed on to the kids. Masculine appearance may also a sign of a dominant and aggressive personality, but our distant female ancestors might plausibly have gravitated toward these men anyway, for the sake of their children’s health.

These theories fall under the rubric of evolutionary psychology—the idea that many of our fundamental behaviors have evolved, just as our bodies did, to maximize reproductive success. But as in many cases with evolutionary psychology, it’s easier to come up with a plausible explanation than to demonstrate that it’s correct. In this case, says Scott, “the assumptions people were making weren’t crazy. They just weren’t fully tested.”

To correct that, Scott and the 21 colleagues who put together the new study used computer simulations to merge photos of men’s and women’s faces into composite, “average” faces of five different ethnicities. Then they twirled some virtual dials to make more and less masculine-looking male faces and more or less feminine female versions. (“More masculine” in this case means that they calculated the specific differences between the average man’s face and the average woman’s for each ethnicity, then exaggerated the differences. “Less masculine” means they minimized the differences. Same goes, in reverse, for the women’s faces.)

Then they showed the images to city-dwellers in several countries and also to rural populations in Malaysia, Fiji, Ecuador, Central America, Central Asia and more—a total of 962 subjects. “We asked, ‘What face is the most attractive’ and ‘What face is the most aggressive looking,’” says Scott.

The answers from urban subjects more or less confirmed the scientists’ expectations, but the others were all over the place. “This came as a big surprise to us,” Scott says. “In South America,” for example, “women preferred feminine-looking men. It was quite unexpected.”

If these preferences had an evolutionary basis, you’d expect them to be strongest in societies most similar to the ones early humans lived in. “These are clearly modern preferences, though,” Scott says, which raises the question of why they arose.

One idea, which she calls “extremely speculative at this point,” is that when you pack lots of people together, as you do in a city, stereotyping of facial characteristics might be a way of making snap judgements. “In urban settings,” she says, “you encounter far more strangers, so you have a stronger motive to figure out their personalities on zero acquaintance.”

Read next: Wide-Faced Men: Good Guys or Bad?

TIME relationships

Why Dating Someone Younger Shouldn’t Be a Big Deal

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This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

One of my friends only dates much younger dudes and it’s not a good look for her. She always end up in super casual relationships where neither of them seem to take it very seriously, but I know she wants to have a family one day. I get that everyone has “a type” but I care about her and don’t want her to keep wasting her time on these scrubs. Should I say something?

Natalie Ruge, Licensed Marriage And Family Therapist

If your friend seems to truly be enjoying her casual relationships and is okay when they don’t last very long, then sounds like it’s more your problem than her problem. A younger man may feel like more of a challenge, give her a sense of control, or just be a better match for her — sexually or otherwise. Some women enjoy being assertive with a younger man, making the first move, and confidently telling him what she likes and doesn’t like. And, if that’s the case, then more power to her! The world needs more people who know what they want and aren’t afraid to go after it, regardless of social norms or peer pressure. It could even be said that the older woman-younger man pairing results in a more equal power dynamic, and research shows that mutual respect and high regard is a strong indicator of a long-term, successful relationship.

(MORE: The Worst Questions Women Get When Online Dating)

I believe that your concern comes from a good place, but it does sound a little bit judgmental. Are these men “scrubs” just because they’re younger, or not in the kind of careers that you consider successful? And, why do you assume that she can’t have a family with someone younger than her? Maybe settling down with an age-appropriate finance type sounds like a death sentence to her. Just because you’re friends and have things in common doesn’t mean you have the same romantic interests. And, that’s a good thing — at least you’ll never fight over an S.O., which is never a good look.

(MORE: Dating 101: The New Rules)

On the other hand, if you’re just curious and want to know her better, there’s no reason why you can’t start a non-judgmental, but honest, conversation about what you want in a committed partner and then ask her what she wants in hers. However you handle it, just remember that for the most part, unsolicited opinions are rarely received well. No matter how nicely you say it, the message will be that you know what’s better for her than she does. If the guys she’s dating treat her like an adult that’s fully capable of making her own choices (and it seems like they are), you should too. Unless a friend is hurting herself or someone else, it’s best to live and let live.

There’s a difference between concern and control, so unless the issue is somehow affecting you directly, or if she seems unhappy about said partners, keep your opinions to yourself and enjoy your friend’s scandalous cougar tales. Maybe she’ll even convince you to give it a go yourself — have fun!

(MORE: Why I Dated a Guy Who Hated My Body)

TIME Sex/Relationships

How Previous Sexual Partners Affect Offspring

At least, if you’re a fly. But the research suggests that it may be time to take into account more than just DNA when it comes to our offspring

It’s a long-held belief among animal breeders that pure-bred progeny are best produced by females who have never mated before. Call it puritanical or ridiculous, but in breeding, it’s been a long-standing practice—even though there has never been much science to back it up. Now, however, researchers at University of New South Wales in Australia believe they may finally have some evidence to give that notion some scientific support.

Working with flies, Angela Crean, a research fellow at the evolution and ecology research center, picked up on her mentor’s work of looking at how male factors can influence offspring outside of the DNA in his semen.

“The genetic tests showed that even though the second male fertilized the eggs, the offsprings’ size was determine by the condition of the first male,” she says of her findings, published in the journal Ecology Letters. “The cool thing is that the non-genetic effects we are seeing are not necessarily tied to the fertilization itself.”

Cool, or really disturbing. The implications of the study are that any mates a female has had may leave some legacy—in the form of physical or other traits that are carried in the semen (but not the DNA-containing sperm)—that could show up in her future offspring with another mate.

While there’s a growing body of work showing that a mother’s diet, her smoking status, and other lifestyle habits can have an influence on her offspring, the data on similar factors on the father’s side is just emerging. With flies it’s known, for example, that males who eat a maggot-rich diet while they’re mere larvae, develop into larger than average adults, and on top of that, sire larger than average offspring as well. Males fed a meager maggot diet tend to be smaller have have smaller progeny.

Eager to learn how this was happening, Crean conducted a series of mating experiments with female flies when their eggs were immature. At that stage, the eggs are more receptive to absorbing factors in semen, but because they aren’t fully developed, they can’t be fertilized and won’t result in baby flies. When she and her colleagues “mated” these females with males who were larger, then allowed the females to actually mate with smaller males once they were mature, the offspring turned out to be large, just like the first males the females had sexual contact with. Genetically, they were the offspring of the second, smaller male, but physically, they resembled the larger males.

The same was true when they reversed the experiment and first exposed the females to smaller flies and then mated them with the larger ones.

To be sure that the was indeed due to something in the semen, Crean repeated the studies with an unfortunate group of male flies who had their genitalia glued down so they could not pass on any semen during their encounters. (“It’s horrifying but seemed nicer than cutting them off,” she says.) When these males, both large and small, were the first “mates” for females, their size did not have an effect on the offspring when the female mated with her second mate and had offspring. In other words, those offspring were large if the second male was large, and small if the second male was small.

Crean says the idea of a female’s previous mates having an effect on their offspring isn’t unheard of. In fact, this very idea, called telegony, was proposed by ancient scholars such as Aristotle but dismissed with the advent of genetics. But new findings about epigenetics — how our behaviors, such as diet, smoking and drinking — can affect our genes and how those changes can be passed on, make the idea of such non-genetic inheritance possible. “This could be seen as a maternal effect [such as diet or smoking] where the mother’s environment are her previous mating partners,” she says. “We have to realize that it’s not just DNA that gets passed on. It opens up the opportunity for all these other pathways that we had excluded.”

And while flies aren’t people, what are the chances that the same phenomenon is occurring in human reproduction? “It’s something we definitely don’t want to speculate about yet with humans,” she says. “There is no direct scientific evidence for that at all.” At least, for now.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Teenage Girls Given Choice of Free Contraceptives Get Far Fewer Abortions

IUDs
Illustration by Miles Donovan for TIME

Girls allowed to choose between free contraceptive methods had 76% fewer abortions than their peers in the general population — and most chose IUDs

Three in 10 teenage girls in the U.S become pregnant each year—a rate far higher than in other industrialized countries. But when girls are counseled about the most effective contraceptives and given their pick of birth control at no cost, their rates of pregnancy drop by 78% and they get 76% fewer abortions than the general population of sexually active teens.

That’s what a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests, in which researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis attempted to see what would happen when they tore down the three main barriers to teenage birth control—ignorance of options, limited access and prohibitive cost.

They studied a group of 1,404 teenage girls enrolled in the Contraceptive CHOICE project, a study of adolescents and women at high risk for unintended pregnancy. 62% of the girls were black and 99% were sexually active. Black teens have even higher rates of pregnancy than the rest of the population: 4 in 10 become pregnant, compared with 2 in 10 white teens.

In the study, peer educators, volunteers, medical students and others interested in health education counseled the girls on the available methods, presenting them in order of effectiveness—IUDs and implants, followed by Depo-Provera injection, pills, patch and ring, and condoms. They stuck to a script that encouraged the girls to choose for themselves, emphasizing that they can always change their method later. The contraceptives were in the room for the girls to see and touch. The clinic had flexible scheduling so that even if a teen was late to her appointment, she was guaranteed to be seen, and every girl received her birth control right after the counseling session.

That’s a world away from the experience of girls in the outside world, who are often asked by providers to come back several times before they start a method, given false information about IUD risks, and eventually mass-prescribed pills, says project director Gina Secura. “It’s often a one-sentence conversation: what do you want, and here’s a prescription,” she says.

MORE: How Having an (Insurance-Covered) IUD Is Saving My Life

Focusing the conversation purely on effectiveness was, well, extremely effective. “When we first started the project, we had hoped to double the national rate [of IUD or implant use]—about 5%,” says Secura. Instead of the hoped-for 10%, a whopping 72% of teems chose IUDs or implants. “We were shocked,” she says. And they stuck with them. Two-thirds of the girls were still on long-acting reversible contraception (LARC, which includes implants and IUDs) after 2 years, compared to one third of girls on short-acting methods like the pill.

IUDs are a solid choice according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, who just endorsed IUDs as the best method of birth control for teenage girls. And the evidence bears it out. The researchers tracked the girls for 2-3 years and followed up every few months by phone. They found that 3.4% of CHOICE teens got pregnant, compared to 15.85% of sexually experienced teens in the general population. Fewer than 1% of CHOICE teens got abortions (0.97%, to be exact), while 4.15% of the other population did.

That means that girls in the program were 78% less likely to get pregnant and had 76% fewer abortions than their peers in the general population. Of course, it’s not quite fair to compare these two groups, since the girls in the research project were given free access and would have been more encouraged to stick to their methods with follow-ups, but the implications are incredibly important for clinics and counselors.

Most notable of all, the low pregnancy rates between white and black teenagers in the project were almost identical. “If we really want to tackle this health disparity, that shows we can actually do it,” Secura says.

These rates far outpace even the CDC’s 2015 goal for teenage births; they’re aiming for 30.3 teenage births per 1,000 teens. The CHOICE rate was 36% lower than that, at 19.4 teenage births.

Secura attributes these dramatic drops largely to the high uptake of long-term contraceptive methods, options that are cost-prohibitive to many low-income teens and free clinics. “It can be difficult to justify spending the same amount of money on 10 devices, where they could buy five times as many packs of pills,” Secura says.

The researchers put their CHOICE methods on a site called LARC FIRST designed to guide clinics, and since data from the study began coming out over the past two years, Secura says they’ve gotten about 300 requests from clinics asking for help in implementing their best practices—including training people who aren’t time-pressed providers and nurse practitioners to deliver effectiveness counseling. Having a kind of AmeriCorps for contraceptive effectiveness counselors, Secura says, would be a dream.

Though the study is over, several clinics are trying to adapt some of CHOICE’s methods to their real world practices and evaluate them scientifically. “I’m hoping we build the demand in terms of teens wanting these,” Secura says.

TIME has called IUDs the best form of birth control that no one is using—but when teens are informed and cost barriers disappear, this study shows that teenage girls are clearly hungry for better birth control.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Doctors Advise IUD Use as Best Birth Control Method for Teenagers

A copper IUD
A copper IUD B. Boissonnet—BSIP/Corbis

A boost for a little-used but widely effective method of contraception

A leading medical group on Monday recommended implantable rods and intrauterine devices (IUDs) as the best form of birth control for teenage girls other than abstinence.

The new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), published Monday in the group’s Pediatrics journal, touts birth control methods not commonly used in the U.S. despite widespread agreement about their effectiveness. The AAP says pediatricians, who teens consider “a highly trusted source of sexual health information,” should recommend, in decreasing order of effectiveness, progestin implants, IUDs, injectable contraception, and oral contraception for use among adolescents.

(MORE: The best form of birth control is the one nobody is using)

The doctors call oral contraceptives the least effective options for teens because many fail to use them properly and consistently. About 18% of women experience an unintended pregnancy when using male condoms, compared to 0.8% who experience unintended pregnancy while utilizing a Copper T IUD. Though IUDs are expensive at the outset, the AAP says the long-term cost is less than the cost of over-the-counter oral contraceptives.

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