This is actually a very complex topic and further complicated by the fact that preferences change according to times and cultures. Furthermore, most studies are so poorly designed and so poorly analyzed that they are worthless (this is a perennial problem for the social sciences). Thus we’re left with anecdote and opinion, which have limited viability.

Evolutionary psychology would suggest that in times of hardship, females will seek males who seem capable of offering protection and acquiring vital assets such as shelter & food. In times of plenty, females will have a wider choice of desirable traits. Hence in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was common to see attractive young women vying for strong powerful men even if these men were two or three decades older than they were. In the late 1960s and early 1970s (a time of unprecedented economic wealth for people under 40 years of age) the androgynous look became fashionable because there was no anxiety about being able to get the basic necessities of life and so strength and overt power were less attractive — though women still flocked to famous males (pop stars, etc) because fame is a proxy for resources and power.

So called “bad boys” are very much a product of culture, and the USA seems to be uniquely situated in this regard as it’s not a particularly common phenomenon elsewhere, as best as I can tell from 60 years living and working all around the world. Perhaps the appeal is a function of indoctrination via movies and TV shows, or perhaps it is partly because in such a sex-negative culture there’s a certain allure to a man who seems to be less sexually constrained.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this is a complex topic with a great many variables and in the end we’re left with personal opinion and little else.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.