Men and women interpret the sexual intent behind dating behaviours very differently

Men tend to overestimate the sexual intent behind women’s behaviours on a date

By Alex Fradera

Imagine you’re out one evening with someone you met recently – you take your date’s hand in yours, or compliment your date’s appearance, or you kiss him or her passionately. For each behaviour, how likely is it that you wanted to have sex with that person for the first time? Researchers have put this question to heterosexual women, then they’ve asked men how they would interpret a woman’s intentions if she had behaved in these ways. The contrast in their answers is striking: men judge woman’s sexual intent as much higher than women do.

We could conclude from this that men read sex into situations where it isn’t there. But another explanation could be that men aren’t far off – it’s just that women under-report their true intentions. Which is closer to the truth? And what about men’s own sexual intentions – do women get those right?

In a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involving hundreds of US participants recruited online, Isabelle Engeler from IESE Business School and Priya Raghubir at New York University shine some light on the different ways men and women interpret the same dating behaviours.

The researchers asked some of their participants what their sexual intent would be if they acted in various ways on a date, and then to estimate the intent of another person of the same or opposite sex if they’d acted in those same ways. Consistent with past research, women’s ratings of their own sexual intention were 23 per cent lower than men’s average estimates of female intent based on the same behaviours and comments.

To find out if this might partly be due to women underestimating their own intentions, the researchers reversed the order of the questions for other participants – they first estimated other people’s sexual intentions based on a given set of behaviors, and only after this, stated their own intentions based on their display of the same behaviours. The idea behind reversing the questions is that you normalise the topic and relax the person into answering more honestly when you turn the focus to them (the researchers reasoned that women in particular might feel under pressure to answer in a socially appropriate manner, especially when the first question was focused on them).

With the question order reversed, women provided higher ratings of their own sexual intent – arguably because they were now answering more honestly. This shrunk the gap between their own and men’s perspective on their intentions to eight per cent. Based on a comparison of women’s answers depending on whether they were asked the question about their own intentions first or second, the researchers’ best guess is that around half of the perspective gap between genders is the result of women underreporting their intent, and the rest due to men’s overestimation.

What about men’s and women’s interpretation of men’s sexual intent? Some past studies suggested that women overestimate male sexual intentions, albeit to a smaller degree than men’s overestimation of women’s intent. In the current research, the standard question sequence reproduced this finding. But in the reversed question sequence, the gap closed, suggesting that any female overestimation of men’s intentions is “entirely (100 per cent) attributable to men underreporting their sexual intentions.” In fact, there was even an indication that women may be underestimating what men really want.

The results suggest that, at least in a heterosexual context in America, both sexes are wary of public revelation of their sexual intentions, and tend to downplay them. But women are fairly accurate at reading what men are really after. Men, by contrast, are prone to overestimate women’s intentions, in line with their own interests. Engeler and Raghubir conclude that “there seems to remain a substantial gap in how women and men interpret dating situations, which could lead to problematic misunderstandings between dating partners’ intentions in actually wanting to have sex.”

Decomposing the Cross-Sex Misprediction Bias of Dating Behaviors: Do Men Overestimate or Women Underreport Their Sexual Intentions?

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

16 thoughts on “Men and women interpret the sexual intent behind dating behaviours very differently”

  1. Rather apposite given recent events! Fascinating study, especially given that it was conducted online where people tend, due to anonymity in responses, to be more honest. How much this reflects real life interpretation of sexual intent by men and women is unknown, but feels intuitively correct according to my personal experiences. It would certainly explain a few things if there is indeed a difference of interpretation of the same behaviour between genders.

    I think it worth saying too, even though, it may not be the right place , that women are just as capable of deliberately looking for sexual encounter opportunities as men are and, of using their sexuality to play power games, although they might not admit to it because it is socially/ morally unacceptable for women to be seen to behave in this way, they do (and I am a woman who has done this) ‘play with fire’ or test a man’s ability to resist temptation, at their peril. I was completely unaware as a young inexperienced woman of the power of Testosterone for a man and underestimated how much this hormone and the drive to mate manifests itself in male human behaviour.

    Humans are not as evolutionarily as far removed from their ape ancestors as we like to think…

    It’s not a PC idea right now, BUT, women SHOULD think about what they wear, what makeup they use, be aware of the disinhibitive effects of alcohol and drugs and the messages these convey to men, as well as consider the safety of their environment . There are, for example, in any city, places you should not go, day or night. We would all like to live in a society where we are safe 100% of the time. Unfortunately, our desire to dissociate modern humans from ‘the naked ape’ means that until we do evolve sufficiently for this to become reality, we should be vigilant and take some personal responsibility for the situations we unwittingly or otherwise find ourselves .

    That is NOT to say that men can be absolved of their responsibility for their behaviour where women are violated. I refer interested persons to Zimbardo and his work on closed, unmonitored institutions, deindividualisation and dehumanisation if you want to understand how abuses of power and male dominance are manifest in sexually overt behaviour within institutions.

    I have direct experience of this in the Health Service as a student nurse some 30 years ago, where sexually charged encounters happened on a daily basis and where fear of little or no career advancement was enough to ensure that ‘open secrets’ never went beyond the ‘golden handshake’ level of punishment for the men concerned.

    1. Hi appliedpyschologysolutions

      I think that anyone who cares to look can see that the capacity for cruelty, abuse and manipulation is pretty well distributed. And also that it might manifest in different ways, given the resources people have at their disposal. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences in the Health Service, that sounds grim. And interesting to hear your own account of the interplay of the sexes in sexual dynamic.

      I also agree that personal responsibility and vigilance is a sensible thing to expect from everyone who exists in a non-utopia. Both men and woman have to, and do, moderate how they behave to manage the levels of risk they expose themselves to. I can appreciate the frustration that people feel when they have dress or behaviour mentioned in the context of sexual risk, because historically these factors have been explicitly used to downplay crimes or deny justice; I think it’s a good thing that we’ve centred fault on those who commit the transgression. To do otherwise would actually be to deny or downplay their personal responsibility.


  2. I think the cultural pressure to under self-report female sexual intention is definitely a potentially confounding variable. It is also important to assess the differing function of sex between men and woman. I think whilst sex is mostly an end in itself for men, for women, sex is often a means to another hypergamous end, such as securing access to additional income, housing, status, good genes, physical security, popularity, affirmation and as a means of control. When asked to self report on hypergamous aspects of their relationship, women may fail to even be consciously aware of these aspects, despite the fact that they played a significant role in their choice of mate and sexual intent. Men often welcome advances, so are more likely to be open about intent. Women however are very selective, unless intoxicated, so tend towards more strategic narratives, which feature an interest in shaping people’s perceptions of their intent and reputation.

    1. Hi Nicksps,

      That sounds like one particular flavour of the classical evolutionary biological account of sexual preferences. I definitely agree that as evolved animals with our biggest biological differences revolving around our role in reproduction, it’s likely that some group-level psychological differences exist that reflect that. Perhaps they are entirely accounted for in the small group-level differences in personality traits, for instance; I could see that as a plausible explanation.

      That said, I think that its easy to fall into generalisations. Taking “sex is mostly an end in itself for men”, I just can’t really see what you mean. A great many men, especially in the relationships that they consider meaningful, treat sex as an expression of intimacy and discovery of the person they are sharing it with. A great many men consider sex as a union to bring about a child and the next chapter in their lives. A great many men consider a spiritual component to sexual union, as a way to get a glimpse of the divine. And even taking most of those more virtuous motives out of the picture, men certainly have sex to raise their self-esteem, burnish their status, and as a form of control. I’d be interested to know where all these disembodied sex-men live, I must admit that I haven’t met all that many of them. A similar critique could be levelled at the account of women, as well.


      1. Interesting points Alex. I would make a distinction between what you think your drives are and the actual drives. Most things involving living animals are multi-functional, it’s just nature being efficient. So I do not deny that men may see all those secondary motivations, in reflective retrospect and crucially at a middle class level, where higher motives are more hungrily created and consumed for comforts sake. They are mostly rationalisations or by-products of pleasure chasing. Chiefly, sex is sought by men for genital and emotional pleasure. It may have other uses, such as intimacy and enabling female control of her mate or vice versa, but chiefly men have evolved to chase the pleasure, not the point of that pleasure, fertilising your mate. That was really my point, that men aren’t disembodied, but when you break it down, sex is much more direct for men. Woman rarely chase sex for sexes sake, it is so they can have something else. How often do you see female flashers, sexual assailants or pornography addicts. As Stephen Fry said, if woman wanted sex for sexes sake, there would be cruising areas, just like there are for gay men. The only woman who want sex in those situations, want to do it for money. I.E a secondary utility, a means to an end, he has the means and she has the end. Female cruisers may exist, but these are few in comparison to the huge number of male examples.

        I see all the things that you mentioned as middle class academic garnish, luxurious nothings, which are just add-ons to the main function, making babies. Men wouldn’t chase sex, if they had a clear link to the resulting 20 years of servitude. In order to be successful, only those in our male populations, who went fuzzy headed during encounters with the opposite sex, went on to breed. Thus why men’s logical faculties click in to neutral, when confronted with an attractive woman. Men regularly crash cars while looking at a hot woman. When’s the last time a woman did that?

        Ask an honest woman about her sex plan. She will tell you that months before a guy thinks about the actual sexual encounter, a woman has an extensive, organised and specific schedule for each and every sexual event, even flirting or small verbal things. Everything is done to a goal oriented timetable. Meanwhile the man sits back and says, ‘you’re so special’ and follows his drive to have sex.

        Men tend to think in a binary way, at most mass levels of class or education, when interacting with a woman. There are just two states, Towards Vagina(TV) and further away from vagina(FAV). That’s it. They haplessly say and do what they think will get them closer and try to change any behaviour that pushes them further away. Not paying to have new wallpaper=FAV, Being funny=TV, Whistling=FAV, Showing non-alpha traits=FAV, Having money, power or useful resources=TV, Not trying hard enough at work to get promoted=FAV, Having friends outside the relationship that detract from her time=FAV, Not giving up your hobbies=FAV, Arguing with her opinion, even when wrong=FAV, Being a manager or boss=TV, Being prime genetic material=TV. Intellect can attenuate these two states, like when the need to be right overrides his need to get laid. But generally, that’s how men’s minds work. Middle class men tend to need their romantic delusions, in order to raise the value of their encounters above just trivial physical pleasure. This is just a form of self centered snobbery, where the guy can’t stand to lower the object of his affections to just lust. Inflated ego. It hurts his ego to damage her purity by reducing his drives to such base things. Still regardless of his sensitivity, he just wants sex, but lies to himself to protect his ego.

        A couple of hundred years of retrospective intellectual garnishing of sexual motives, does nothing to erase the hundreds of thousands of years, that created the core nature of what it is to both sexes, pleasure for men and a means of ensuring offspring survival through swapping sexual access for resources for the woman.

  3. Or…you know…we could all just talk about bit more and reduce the guesswork 😊

    1. True, talking is always useful! That said, one of the points of this study is when people are put on the spot about their sexual intentions – even when asked by a disinterested stranger/survey – they underreport them.

Comments are closed.