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Why do some women have a ‘sexy baby voice’?

Investigating the ‘sexy baby voice’ phenomenon

Love Is Blind contestant Jessica’s affected tone of voice when speaking to men got people talking – experts weigh in on the common behaviour

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

Last month, Netflix dropped its own take on the reality dating series format, Love Is Blind, in which men and women have to fall in love and get engaged without ever having seen each other. The show is, obviously, deranged, and while there’s so many wild moments to pick out (looking at you, Carlton and Diamond), interested mounted around one particular, recurring incident: Jessica’s ‘sexy baby voice’.

“The baby voice Jessica from Love Is Blind puts on when she’s talking to men is fucking freaky,” one Twitter user said. The post was accompanied by a video that showed the then-34-year-old speaking to camera in an everyday register, which then cuts to the contestant raising the pitch of her voice as she talks to her newfound fiancé. The pervasive online opinion branded Jessica’s voice-manipulation as annoying and creepy.

This ‘sexy baby voice’, however, isn’t a new phenomenon. Widely regarded as being first popularised in Lake Bell’s 2013 comedy film In a World…, the phrase describes a voice technique used by women to appear younger – and supposedly ‘cuter’ – than what they are when talking to men. Bell is famously critical of this type of voice, believing it portrays the speaker as “a submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object”. It’s a vocal behaviour that sits alongside ‘uptalk’, ‘vocal fry’, and ‘Valley Girl speak’ – vocal mannerisms also linked to young women.

The ‘sexy baby voice’ typically involves raising the pitch of your vocals, as well as engaging in upspeak, where sentences end with a rising-pitch intonation. According to a 2013 study, men prefer women with higher-pitched voices because it signals that the woman has a small body size (sigh). Likewise, women reportedly prefer men with low-pitched voices, signalling a larger frame. “Some men want to feel protective,” explains Jane Setter, professor of phonetics at the University of Reading and author of Your Voice Speaks Volumes: It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It. “So if a woman sounds more like a child, this might appeal to them from that point of view.” 

Helen Sauntson, a professor of English language and linguistics at York St John University, agrees. “It’s partly to do with the infantilization of women,” she tells Dazed. “The speaker will put themselves in a position where they sound less powerful because they have a belief that men find that attractive, and they don’t want (men) to feel threatened. There’s always been a value placed on girlish femininity, which comes from the history of women having significantly less social power than men.”

According to Setter, the ‘sexy baby voice’ might also reflect so-called ‘daddy issues’. “There’s a possibility that it might be something to do with the speaker’s relationship with their father,” she says. “If they were used to getting what they wanted out of their dad by turning on a childish voice, then this may have something to do with the way they behave with other men.”

“There’s always been a value placed on girlish femininity, which comes from the history of women having significantly less social power than men” – Helen Sauntson, professor of English language and linguistics

Cultural influences also come into play. “There could be a number of different evolutionary, social, or physical types of things going on that explain why (a woman might speak with a baby voice),” Setter explains. “There are cultures where women generally speak with a much higher pitch in public because it’s considered to sound more feminine. Whereas if you’re chatting with them on a one-to-one basis and it’s all girls together, they’re less likely to do that.” Sauntson references Japan as a specific example of this. “Look at the Kawai concept in Japan,” she suggests. “Women are seen as desirable if they present this cute, girly identity. The nature of femininity is something that’s valued across cultures.”

Although any woman might utilise a ‘sexy baby voice’, Sauntson explains that it’s usually young, heterosexual, white women who employ the technique, with Setter stating that it’s likely not always a conscious decision. “We change the way that we speak in different settings all the time,” she tells Dazed, “and we’re socially conditioned to do so without even realising that we’re doing it.” Many people will have a work or a telephone voice, but won’t actively think about using it when the situation arises – and might not even know they do it. This is known as “convergence or accommodation”, says Sauntson. “People will often accommodate the speech of the person that they’re talking to, so if there’s any sort of positive relationship there, their speech will converge so they sound more similar to each other.”

We all have a different perception of how our voice sounds in our head than it does in reality, as exemplified by our reactions to our own voice recordings. “When we’re speaking, we’re not just getting the signal from the eardrum,” explains Setter, “we’re getting the signal from resonances from the bones and inside the oral cavity in the head. And so, to us, our voice can sound lower-pitched, but when you hear it in a recording and you’re not getting all these additional resonances from the body mass, it sounds completely different.” On this basis, it might mean that Jessica – and others who employ the ‘sexy baby voice’ – may be hearing her voice as lower-pitched than it actually is, leading her to raise it to an even higher pitch than she might intend – that is, if she realises she’s doing it at all.

According to a 1998 study, women’s voices have actually deepened over time, reflecting their rise to more prominent roles in society. Although this may help women exceed in the workplace, it probably won’t make them especially likeable or sexually appealing. “While lower voices – and other assertive behaviour in general – effectively signal and assert power and authority in women, as it does in men,” Joey Cheng, a social psychologist at York University, told the BBC, “it might also have the unintended effect of undermining how well liked they are.” This makes sense when it comes to the ‘sexy baby voice’ – women intuitively know to use a low pitch in work meetings and a high pitch when flirting – but is contrary to a 2002 study which found that when women were asked to make their voices sound attractive, they mostly lowered their pitch and made their voices more ‘breathy’. Setter explains: “There is a chance that what people consciously perceive as sexy and how they behave when told to sound attractive is different from what they actually do unconsciously.”

“We see so many mediated images of women as helpless sex objects needing to be rescued. (Women who use the ‘sexy baby voice’) are performing a dating script the way they have learned” – Karen Erlandson, professor of communication studies

Karen Erlandson, a professor of communication studies at Michigan’s Albion College, believes the media and societal expectations influence this subconscious action. “Women get all kinds of societal messages that we should let men take the lead,” she tells Dazed, “and be the strong person and the protector in the relationship. We see so many mediated images of women as helpless sex objects – powerless and needing to be rescued. These same media sources show women being rewarded for being that way. (Women who use the ‘sexy baby voice’) have probably internalised all these societal messages and are performing a dating script the way they have learned.”

On one hand, the ‘sexy baby voice’ can have negative connotations. “It might say that (the person doing it) values a certain kind of femininity,” says Sauntson, “one that is perhaps relatively disempowered to men.” But on the other hand, you could argue that the altering of one’s voice for different purposes is actually incredibly empowering. “If you found that using a particular kind of voice gets you what you want, then you could claim that it was actually strongly feminist,” explains Setter. “It depends on what your view of feminism is.”

One thing’s for sure: this kind of discussion has reached its aggravated peak because of Jessica’s – and other ‘sexy baby voice’ users’ – gender. Women – and young women in particular – are consistently vilified for the way they use language. “Just like anything that women do,” Setter concludes, “the ‘sexy baby voice’ is a speech feature that’s relatively novel and therefore gets criticism. It goes back to society’s view of women, traditionally speaking. If her voice was going up at the end, she’d also be criticised.” Women, and especially those in the public eye, are scrutinised more closely than their male counterparts, with many subsequently battling cruel criticism and evil threats on a daily basis. Whatever the psychology is behind Jessica’s ‘sexy baby voice’, maybe we should let her do it in peace, to whatever matrimonial end that may be.