Study of long-term heterosexual couples finds women over-estimate and men underestimate their partner’s sexual advances

By Emma Young

Imagine that, during a quiet evening at home watching a movie with your romantic partner, you feel intense sexual desire and sensually put a hand on your partner’s thigh. Your partner does not respond and blithely continues to watch the movie… Is your partner truly not interested in sexual activity, or did she/he simply miss your cue?

So begins a new paper, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, that explores how accurate heterosexual people are at judging their partner’s attempts to initiate sex – in terms of their ability to the spot their partner’s cues, and also their overall impression of how often their partner makes sexual advances. It’s important, because as the researchers, led by Kiersten Dobson at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, note, “Sexual satisfaction is associated with relationship happiness, whereas sexual dissatisfaction is associated with relationship dissolution.”

Other studies have found that in casual, short-term relationships, men tend to overestimate a partner’s sexual interest (while women either underestimate it, or show no bias either way; they’re fairly accurate). An evolutionary psychology explanation for a male tendency to think women are more interested than they actually are is that – in a casual relationship – while incorrectly perceiving interest and being rejected might not feel great, missing the signs of interest, and so a chance to mate, is worse.

To explore what happens in longer-term relationships, the researchers recruited 120 heterosexual couples aged 18-51 (but with a mean age of 22), who had been together for between three months and 30 years.

An initial, exploratory study involved half the couples. The participants all privately completed a battery of questionnaires, which included questions about how often they and their partner attempt to initiate sex and how often they and their partner turn down an opportunity for sex. Then they rated how often these events typically occur over a one-month period (from “never” to “more than 11 times a month”). 

Next, they read short descriptions of 29 behaviours that might indicate sexual interest (such as “I put my hand on my partner’s thigh”) and were asked to rate the degree to which they and they partner use each of these behaviours to indicate that they are interested in having sex. The participants also completed questionnaire assessments of their sexual satisfaction and love for their partner. 

The results showed that both men and women were pretty good at identifying the behaviours that their own partners use to indicate that they’d like to have sex. However, on average, the women overestimated the number of times that their partner tried to initiate sex, whereas the men got it about right. 

A second, similar, confirmatory study, involving the other 60 couples, found that the participants were again pretty good at recognising the behaviours that their own partner uses to indicate interest in having sex. In this group, the women also thought that their partners made more sexual advances than they actually did (according to the partner data), but only marginally. However, the men underestimated their partner’s advances. 

Again from an evolutionary psychology perspective, the researchers speculate that for men in a long-term relationship, compared with a casual one, the costs associated with missing the signs of sexual interest may be lower (as there will be plenty more opportunities to have sex) and the costs of rejection will be higher (as being rejected by a long-term partner could be more painful). But as the results from the two studies were in part inconsistent, more work is needed before any firm conclusions on bias can be drawn, they note.

When it came to sexual satisfaction and love, people who overestimated their partner’s sexual advances reported feeling more sexual satisfaction. This might be because they felt more attractive and desired by their partner, the researchers suggest. 

On the other hand, people with partners who under-estimated their own advances reported feeling more love and greater sexual satisfaction – perhaps because the under-estimater feels motivated to do something to strengthen the relationship, which may then make their partner feel more satisfied. 

As the researchers note, “Navigating sexual activity can be difficult, especially when partners’ behaviours that indicate their sexual interest are subtle.” 

The researchers would like to see studies investigating how perceptions – and misperceptions – of sexual advances may affect relationships in the long term. But it would also, I think, be interesting to see a more real-time version of this study. Since other work has found that men under-report their own sexual intentions, it’s hard not to wonder whether the women in this study were really over-estimating their partners’ advances. Asking participants to report back daily, or every time they thought they or their partner had made a sexual advance – and whether or not it led to sex – would surely provide more accurate data than retrospective estimates of what happened in the course of a month.

Are you coming on to me? Bias and accuracy in couples’ perceptions of sexual advances

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

20 thoughts on “Study of long-term heterosexual couples finds women over-estimate and men underestimate their partner’s sexual advances”

  1. Uh huh. But don’t go ahead and say the obvious: Men underestimate women’s advances BECAUSE women overestimate men’s. We’ve created a culture of fear and paranoia around matters of sex and intimacy in the west and the laws are brutally biased against men.

    1. Your comment is dreadful in so many ways – but I will only pick up your last point – ‘laws are brutally biased against men’ – even if this is true, and it is not (perhaps there are biases in the way men and women are treated in various aspects of the law, but not in the laws themselves), HOW exactly does this translate to people’s PERCEPTION of their partners sexual advances?

      Well done for creating a fictional world where the law affects the way people perceive other people’s behaviour.

      PS Rape in marriage has been illegal only since 1991 in the UK. It is acknowledged that NO complainant has a chance of a conviction unless the complainant is separated from the accused. As rape in marriage is almost always perpetrated by men against women this is a very good example of how the law is NOT biased against men.

      Also: ‘The two most common times for spousal rapes to occur is just after a woman has been discharged from the hospital (often after giving birth to a child and under doctor orders not to have sex) and when the woman is feeling sick.’

  2. why would you say that laws are brutally biased against men? As a middle-aged white male can‘t detect any sign of that in Europe or the US of A. The system appears still to be rigged against women. Can you elaborate?

    1. Bernard Seriously?. Women are 60% in colleges and growing. Men have to tiptoe around women for fear of being arrested if they even think of touching a woman (unless Sweden of course). Divorces are almost always against men for both children and finances (only 5% of women pay child support for instance). . That is why so many single moms since women initiate 85% of divorces as well since they know the state will protect them. Europe is worse, they are both feminized societies, basically these “strong women” are apparently not that strong since they need so much protection, the old double standard. There is a CA law being considered for equal pay for women but does not take into account experience or qualification in positions. It is ridiculous. Open your eyes and stop being a typical white knight.

      1. Men have to tiptoe around women for fear of being arrested? Seriously? Are you saying that it is so difficult for you to not commit criminal acts that you have to change your behaviour? Your entire post is utter nonsense (even if we discount “open your eyes”). I think you’d be more at home on an MRA or incel forum.

      2. Your entire reply is fundamentally flawed and full of contradictions.

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