A number of times, people have quoted this statistic, or asked about it here. There's some truth to it, but it needs to be interpreted a little more carefully. The source of the number is an oktrends article: Your looks and your inbox. The article pulls from ratings given by okcupid users of one another. The graph of how males rate women looks like this:
While the equivalent chart showing how women rate men (along with a curve showing who they message) is shown here:
(Both graphs are from the oktrends article)
So it is 'true', at least for these datasets. It's worth noting that the datasets used are far, far bigger sets of data than most polls or research are based on. They are not random people though - they're okcupid users. That may be a biased sample. Some people suggest that male online daters are somehow more desperate (read ugly) than women, but given similar numbers of men and women who use the site, I doubt that as an explanation.
So why do I think we should be careful in how we interpret this data? Two reasons why women and men are -different-, and two reasons why the graphs are probably an exageration.
The differences in perspective:
- Men tend to be more appearance focused than women. Personality factors have much less impact on our perception of attractiveness (which isn't to say we don't care about them - they certainly play into compatibility, which is distinct from attractiveness). Women DO care about appearance, but also care about other factors much more than men do in terms of attractiveness (which I would argue is for women ALSO distinct from compatibility). So I'd suggest we interpret the result as meaning that women only consider a small proportion of men attractive based on looks alone. But there's a much bigger group of men who they potentially find genuinely hot based on a combination of looks and other factors once they get to know them. For men, if you don't think she's attractive based on her picture, it's only a small number of cases where other factors could make her attractive.
- Men find casual sex appealing on an instinctive (perhaps not ethical/emotional) level, with any fertile and reasonably attractive women. Throughout our evolution, for women, casual sex was always a much bigger risk, and only attractive with very desirable partners. One way of interpreting the numbers is that men would find casual sex appealing with many women, women would find casual sex appealing (in both cases, if they're ethically okay with it) only with a few men. But women would have enthusiastic relationship sex with more men than that, while men want a relationship with fewer women then they would sleep with.
The biases in the graphs:
- The data set focuses on younger people. "Youthfulness" is a more significant portion of female attractiveness than it is of male attractiveness. So all young women are getting full marks there: combine that with average features and "not fat", and they're pretty attractive. But they're actually not average. If you lined up all women, young and old, that group (young, healthy, average features) would be top quartile. Men are also better looking from say 25-35 than older ( :( ), but young men get less of a boost than young women. If we had even numbers of people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, I'd guess the graphs would look somewhat closer.
- Women seem much more capable than men, on average, of using makeup/hair/camera angles/photo retouching to boost their appearance. If we rolled both the men and women out of bed and took an immediate selfie, the graphs would likely look closer.
Finally, there is probably some hint of truth in it. Evolution rewarded women who went after the best men, while rewarding men who went after lots of reasonably fertile looking women. But the story is probably overstated in just looking at the 'only 20%' headline.