Although dominance perceptions are thought to be important for effective social interaction, their primary function is unclear. One possibility is that they simply function to identify individuals who are capable of inflicting substantial physical harm, so that the perceiver can respond to them in ways that maximize their own physical safety. Another possibility is that they are more specialized, functioning primarily to facilitate effective direct (i.e., violent) intrasexual competition for mates, particularly among men. Here we used a priming paradigm to investigate these two possibilities. Facial cues of dominance were more salient to women after they had been primed with images of angry men, a manipulation known to activate particularly strong self-protection motivations, than after they had been primed with images of angry women or smiling individuals of either sex. By contrast, dominance cues were more salient to men after they had been primed with images of women than when they had been primed with images of men (regardless of the emotional expressions displayed), a manipulation previously shown to alter men's impressions of the sex ratio of the local population. Thus, men's dominance perceptions appear to be specialized for effective direct competition for mates, while women's dominance perceptions may function to maximize their physical safety more generally. Together, our results suggest that men's and women's dominance perceptions show different patterns of context-sensitivity and, potentially, shed new light on the routes through which violence and intrasexual competition have shaped dominance perceptions.