“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.
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.”