Sexual ornaments are often assumed to be indicators of mate quality. Yet it remains poorly known how certain ornaments are chosen before any coevolutionary race makes them indicative. Perceptual biases have been proposed to play this role, but known biases are mostly restricted to a specific taxon, which precludes evaluating their general importance in sexual selection. Here we identify a potentially universal perceptual bias in mate choice. We used an algorithm that models the sparseness of the activity of simple cells in the primary visual cortex (or V1) of humans when coding images of female faces. Sparseness was found positively correlated with attractiveness as rated by men and explained up to 17% of variance in attractiveness. Because V1 is adapted to process signals from natural scenes, in general, not faces specifically, our results indicate that attractiveness for female faces is influenced by a visual bias. Sparseness and more generally efficient neural coding are ubiquitous, occurring in various animals and sensory modalities, suggesting that the influence of efficient coding on mate choice can be widespread in animals.