Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately

Businessman Flirting Businesswoman
Researchers may have found a new way to combat sexual aggression

By Christian Jarrett

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”  Donald Trump, 2016 Republican Party nominee for US president, speaking in 2005 (full transcript).

The causes of sexual aggression are many, but anecdotal evidence (for example, as implied in the above quote), and research-based evidence, suggests that at least part of it has to do with when men overestimate women’s levels of sexual interest. A new study in the Psychology of Violence finds that men with a history of sexual aggression are especially likely to make this kind of misjudgment, in part because they focus on inappropriate cues, such as a woman’s attractiveness, rather than on her actual emotions. But promisingly, the research also suggests that it’s possible, through practice, to reduce this bias. This is an important finding considering previous research has shown that information-based educational programmes designed to reduce sexual aggression (through challenging rape myths, for example) are relatively ineffective.

Teresa Treat and her colleagues asked 183 heterosexual or bisexual male students to look at hundreds of full-length photographs of female students and to judge their levels of sexual interest (see below). The photographs were posed by actresses who were asked to display different levels of friendliness, sexual interest, rejection (i.e. rejection of any sexual advances), and sadness. The young women varied in attractiveness and also in the style of their clothing.

Image via Treat et al, 2016.

To create a yardstick against which to compare the men’s perceptions, the four authors of the research, plus nine undergraduate women, rated the women’s levels of sexual interest (specifically ignoring their attractiveness and clothing) and rated the provocativeness of their clothing (while ignoring their levels of sexual interest). There was high agreement among the raters. A benchmark for the young women’s attractiveness was provided by averaging the attractiveness ratings given to the photos by a large group of male students separate from the participants.

In judging the women’s sexual interest, overall the male student participants relied more on the women’s actual emotional displays than on their attractiveness and clothing – an encouraging result – but they also took attractiveness and clothing into account. More attractive women, and women who dressed more provocatively, were assumed to be showing more sexual interest.

Men with a self-reported history of sexual aggression, and who more strongly endorsed rape myths, based their judgments of women’s sexual interest to a greater degree on their attractiveness and less on their actual emotions, as compared with lower-risk men.

Crucially, some of the participants received feedback during the task – that is, after they rated each photo, they were given the “correct” answer about how much sexual interest the woman was actually exhibiting (based on the yardstick created through the authors’ and female students’ earlier ratings).

The researchers found that men who received feedback as they went along used women’s actual emotions more, and their dress and attractiveness less, when making their judgments of the women’s sexual interest. Moreover, this carried over to a new task in which the men were asked to categorise photographs of women based on the likelihood that they would be receptive to sexual advances. The beneficial effect of feedback was weaker for the men with a history of sexual aggression than among low-risk men, but was still present.

This was a small lab study involving students, so we don’t know how much the benefits of this kind of feedback training would apply to other groups or how it might affect real-world behaviour. But the researchers are hopeful they have uncovered a potential way to help reduce sexual aggression

“The mere provision of information has not been sufficient to produce adequate change in men’s sexually aggressive behaviour,” the researchers said, referring to the failure of existing educational interventions. “Perhaps the current work can point the way to improved prevention efforts that include both informational and active learning components.”

Enhancing the Accuracy of Men’s Perceptions of Women’s Sexual Interest in the Laboratory

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

26 thoughts on “Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately”

  1. The only thing the woman in the photograph is doing that can be construed as “sexual interest” is smiling. Simply smiling.

    That is not displaying a “5.25” level of sexual interest. She is smiling. Only.

    There’s your problem right there.

      1. I thought the same thing – and I thought, good grief if that is a rating of 5 then I am terrible at this task because I would have given a rating closer to 1! However, looking at it again there are other things going for it: the model is making direct eye contact whilst smiling, body is turned towards the camera, open posture (arms not crossed over body), etc. Perhaps in the lower rated pictures the model isn’t making eye contact, facing away, etc.? Still not sure that helps to distinguish sexual interest per se.

  2. I’m also wondering why the title photograph was of a woman having her bum touched in what looks like an office setting. This article is abysmal on several levels

  3. I don’t like the article concluded with “produce adequate change in men’s sexually aggressive behavior” as opposed to some variation of the title. Ruined the whole article for me. I’ve met plenty of women who would agree that men need to better judge sexual attraction, however, never have I met a woman who said “Gosh, I wish the sex was just less aggressive”. The two variations just paint different pictures for me, the latter paininting an ignorant one.

      1. I understand, it just sounds bad to me and I think there are better ways to word the point. It currently makes me feel like I read an article from some radical equalist group.

      2. I read another article by the same author. Load of crap. The article was titled Neurosexism and in summary explained how people’s assumptions about differences in the male/female brain not only contribute to but create and self perpetuate gender differences. Look it up for a laugh.

  4. This comes across as sexist. How about training women to be more consistent and not send mixed signals? Wouldn’t that be seen as sexist/misogynistic? Exactly. Men are not Pavlov’s dogs. Some people are just morons regardless of genitalia.

  5. Women do send mixed messages and what people forget is that what you wear can give the man the idea that you are up for sex because they use visual cues to be become aroused. There are non verbal and verbals messages and men often think being friendly and wearing sexy clothes means a women is up for it. Then wonder why they get blamed for it.

    1. @ Sian. No, women do not send mixed signals. I’ve been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention regardless of my fashion. I have very traditional values and never did “flirt,” nor did I dress in skimpy attire, but it did not stupid and/or entitled men from “hitting on me” or making lewd comments. The problem is with men and their attitudes, not with women.

  6. The problem lies in the attitudes of men who approach women aggressively. They consider themselves entitled and are not too bothered whether women want it or not. No woman wants a man to touch her from behind unless they are very close and being playful. Men need to consider the needs and feelings of women and ensure that a woman is interested before touching her. It is not rocket science. A woman smiling is being friendly. Not sexy. There is a huge difference.

    Even if a man thinks a woman’s sexy dress means she wants sex he still needs to discover if she wants sex with HIM! Or if she is affected by the norms of society where women are meant to look good for men’s pleasure. Men who are controlling and aggressive need to develop empathy which they normally lack.

  7. This article is disturbing. It confuses missing signals with rape and sexual assault. Men with a (self-reported) history of sexual assault have diminished judgement, I get that. But the title implies this: if rapists could simply determine which women were attracted to them, they would suddenly be respectful and wonderful towards women. The fact that the article didn’t clarify this is, to me, horrifying. You’d have to furnish another study showing that rapists and attackers could be rehabilitated by reading social signals better, and we all know that’s patently untrue.

    1. No, the article does not confuse “missing signals with rape and sexual assault”. Rather it explains that one causal factor in sexual aggression, among many, might be a misreading by at-risk men of the sexual interest shown by women. Past research has shown that at-risk men, more than others, depend on inappropriate cues to judge women’s interest in them. The article most certainly does not imply that rapists would “suddenly become respectful and wonderful towards women” after completing the discussed feedback training. Rather it raises only the possibility that the training might have some beneficial rehabilitative effects on at-risk men, against the background context of failed educational programmes. This equivocality and caution is highlighted in the figure caption “researchers may have found a new way to combat sexual aggression” and it is explicitly acknowledged in the discussion of the findings: “… we don’t know … how it [the training] might affect real-world behaviour”.

      1. Listen, I appreciate the response but I don’t think it resolves the issue. The study gathered male students from a campus, some who then admitted to “sexually aggressive behavior”. What exactly does that mean? Does it mean they were catcalling women? Or does it mean those male students just admitted to rape and assault? Am I the only one who finds this disturbing? To simply breeze by it is doing the college community a huge disservice, if you’re saying they committed crimes against women. The fact that they’re “students” tells me that they’re still present and free around campuses. Did I read that wrong?

        The title of the article implies that non-criminal men, perhaps men who simply want to ask a woman out, can be helped. Instead it’s an article about sexual assault. This and the snide photo send the signal that this is somehow quaint or funny. That really needs to be changed. Now add this – every article that even mentions suicide will have a suicide hotline provided at the end. But here – no resources for rape or assault victims? Again, guys – – awful.

  8. A history of sexually aggressive past behaviour was measured via the 10-item “sexual experiences survey” published in 1987 – items range from staring at someone sexually after they’ve asked you to stop, to making obscene phone calls. Any participant who agreed to having performed any of the 10 acts on the survey was categorised as having been sexually aggressive in the past. This was combined with a survey of their belief in rape myths. The article is not about “sexual assault” per se, nor assault victims, but rather it is about a form of feedback training that may help reduce one factor that contributes to sexual aggression – this very clear context is supported by the opening quote and photograph, both of which pertain to unwanted sexual contact, and further by the very first sentence of the article. However the study involved men with and without a history of sexual aggression, so the title is deliberately broad.

  9. items range from staring at someone sexually after they’ve asked you to stop, to making obscene phone calls

    So was sexual assault of any kind listed or not?

    The title may interest college students who want to know if their love interest might share their feelings. Then they encounter an article about sexual aggression and rape culture. If I were a college-aged male I’d be somewhere between annoyed and insulted.

    Then you enlist Donald Trump’s vile behavior to reinforce the justification. This conflates innocent attraction with assault.

    Again – explain to me why no phone number for rape crisis victims?

    1. Hello Emmy,

      The articles on this website aim to summarize current findings from psychological studies and assume that some prerequisite knowledge is held by the reader, like multiple explanatory factors for a behaviour and methodology aimed to identify such factors (e.g. the ability to perceive women interest accurately as a partial factor for aggressive sexual behaviour). The title assumes that readers know the aim of this digest and it’s not the author’s responsibility to cater to all possible feelings from college-aged males, as it is also not his responsibility to do research and evaluate what useful resources are available for rape crisis-victims, especially when these often vary from one region to another.

      The study probably asked participants if they have a history of sexual assault, convicted or not, but often these studies are don with confidentiality and cannot constitute a basis for reporting to the police. for more specific information you are free to read the original study from the peer-reviewed article.

  10. Can we have some clarity on what constituted “sexual interest” and “provocative clothing” when the researchers rated the models? I’ve read the actual paper but it doesn’t explain what the women were doing to denote “sexual interest” or what they were wearing to denote “provocative clothing”. Unless you believe that some clothes “provoke” harassment then there is no such thing as provocative clothing. And I’d love to know how a stationary woman who is not speaking is supposed to express “sexual interest” (other than, for example, just being friendly).

    1. I was also surprised to see clothing described as ‘provocative’, as it seems out of kilter with current politically correct ideas. Personally, though, I think it’s reasonable to describe some clothing as provocative, or at least, to acknowledge that some clothes are designed to draw attention to the female form – and the choice to wear them is presumably motivated in some way.

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