When I quit smoking in 2010, my heart was only half in it. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I liked smoking. And yet, my growing fear of the inevitable health consequences won out, and soon after I stubbed out my last butt, the benefits of not smoking began to add up. I no longer woke up gagging on the smell of stale smoke in my hair. My skin literally glowed with good health. I was saving money. I had so much extra energy that I started working out.
Even so, I’d be lying if I said I never missed it. Specifically, I miss the way it made me sound.
My voice on about-a-half-a-pack-a-day was devastatingly sexy. Or at least, that’s what I was told — at least once a week, by all manner of people: friends, lovers, check-out clerks, anyone who spoke to me on the phone, once even a doctor. “You should be a voice actor,” people used to tell me. “Great voice,” I heard over and over again.
Because I’m normal, I’ve always loathed the sound of my own voice. But I’d been complimented on it so many times that I knew I was an outlier. Everyone else loved my voice. Until I quit smoking, that is. When I finished my last pack, and my chronic sore throats and laryngitis disappeared, so too did my perfect, Lauren Bacall-style rasp — and all the resulting admiration.
I didn’t even realize what had happened until the first time I got sick as a non-smoker. My partner mentioned how cute I sounded with my hoarse voice, and it struck me: When was the last time someone had told me that? That’s when I realized there wasn’t anything inherently sexy about my voice. It had been the smoking-induced damage that people had loved.
Husky voices are sexy. My own personal experience demonstrates this; so does what I’ve seen in pop culture. People love to love the raspy utterances of Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Clint Eastwood, Jon Bon Jovi, Kurt Cobain, and Chris Hemsworth.
But despite what I know in my esophagus to be true, the research around vocal attractiveness is relatively mixed. (Among women, anyway. Dudes with low voices are mostly seen as more competent, serious, and generally attractive. Whatever.)
Flying in the face of my own observations, some research seems to indicate that men like higher-pitched voices on women. (Much of this research, by the way, is frustratingly heteronormative; it’s mostly focused on straight people, with some studies looking at gay men, and queer women being largely left out.) Research indicates that higher-pitched voices are thought to signal femininity and reproductive wellness, which is why men are allegedly drawn to them.
Even though I don’t believe it, I understand it: Surely a raspy voice isn’t generally a sign of good health or robust fertility, which would spark some evolutionarily-coded pull toward mating. In my case, my hoarse voice was a sign of significant (albeit reversible) damage that I’d been doing (voluntarily! knowingly!) to my vocal cords. That’s not necessarily a green light to whatever caveman-brain instincts that scientific research is always saying dictates our every move that I was ready to settle down.
But in a 2018 study, researchers asked 30 people to take part in a speed dating event, then rate the attractiveness of the people they met; both men and women preferred people with lower-pitched voices. “While a relatively high voice-pitch in women can signal youth, femininity and reproductive fecundity, by dynamically lowering her voice pitch a woman might be signalling sexual interest and intimacy,” the authors of the 2018 study wrote. In other words, people tend to unconsciously speak in a lower pitch when they’re attracted to someone — and when they’re trying to appear confident — so we’ve learned to pick up on huskiness and interpret it as sexual interest. What’s hotter than someone who’s into you?
Of course, as much as we’d love to believe that our sexual preferences are completely innate, ultimately, what we consider attractive is at least somewhat informed by our environment. So in France, a raspy-voiced woman is almost irresistibly hot, while in Japan, women who tend to speak in higher tones are seen as more attractive.
I can say with confidence that here in the U.S., though, people are really into the throaty voice thing, because everyone was absolutely tripping over themselves to tell me how great I sounded while I was slowly killing myself with my nicotine habit. To be fair, no one seems repelled by my unruined voice. And I’m happy to give up the praise, if it means better health and freedom from an inconvenient and expensive addiction. But I do experience a private, perverse thrill whenever I’m sick and start losing my voice, anticipating the compliments that I know will start to roll in.