Category: Misogyny

A biological mechanism that protects against rape?

When sex researchers compare men and women’s genital arousal in response to various stimuli, they generally find that men tend only to be aroused by stimuli that match their declared sexual preferences and subjective feelings, whereas women tend to be aroused by a broad array of sexual material (including scenes involving chimps), irrespective of their declared preferences and subjective feelings. A new study by Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumiere tests the claim, which will surely prove controversial, that this pattern of responding in women is an evolutionary vestige which served in the past to protect women from the genital injury that can come from unwanted sex.

‘Substantial ethnographic, historical, and comparative evidence suggests that the threat of unwanted sexual activity has been considerable over human evolutionary history,’ the researchers said. Their specific proposal is that women’s indiscriminate genital arousal leads to lubrication which reduces the likelihood of injury occurring when unwanted sexual encounters take place.

To test this claim, Suschinsky and Lalumiere presented 15 heterosexual men and 15 heterosexual women (average age in their early twenties), all currently in a sexual relationship, with 14 two-minute audio recordings of various narratives read by a woman from her own perspective. The narratives varied in whether or not a sexual encounter occurred between a man and a woman, whether or not violence took place, and whether or not the activities were consensual.

Consistent with past research, the men’s genital arousal was far more specific, tending to occur most strongly in response to a consensual, non-violent sexual encounter, which was also the scenario they said they found most arousing. By contrast, the women’s genital arousal was far more uniform across all the sexual scenarios. There was one anomaly – their genital arousal to non-consensual, but otherwise nonviolent, sex was lower than for consensual, non-violent sex, but was still significantly higher than their response to neutral scenarios. Like the men, the women’s subjective feeling of arousal was far more targeted, being much higher for the consensual, non-violent scenario than the others. Both sexes reported finding the violent or non-consensual scenarios unpleasant and anxiety provoking.

Suschinsky and Lalumiere said their results support what they call the ‘preparation hypothesis’, adding to past research showing, for example, that some women report experiencing genital lubrication during rape. The researchers acknowledged some limitations in their study. In particular, the scenarios were all told from a woman’s perspective. However, they said that past research had shown men tend to find this narrative perspective particularly arousing, so this methodological imbalance is unlikely to explain the results. The researchers also acknowledged that their sample were young and sexually active, and likely to be fairly sexually liberal given that they’d volunteered for a study of this kind. ‘We recommend that this study be replicated with a larger and more diverse sample,’ they said.

Given the sensitivity of this research topic, and in particular the possibility that its message might be exploited to justify immoral acts, it’s worth heeding the words of Mary Roach in her book Bonk:

‘It is important to remember,’ she writes, that ‘it is the mind that speaks to a woman’s heart, not the vaginal walls… Rape offers a plangent illustration of this fact. I learned in a paper by Roy Levin that rape victims occasionally report having responded physically, even though their emotional state was a mixture of fear, anger and revulsion. … Regardless of the mechanisms that may or may not explain a rape victim’s physical state, a rapist’s defense based upon evidence of arousal has, to quote Levin, “no intrinsic validity and should be disregarded”.’


ResearchBlogging.orgSuschinsky, K., and Lalumiere, M. (2010). Prepared for Anything?: An Investigation of Female Genital Arousal in Response to Rape Cues. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610394660

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

A misogynistic workplace is bad for male employees too

business womanWitnessing the harassment or uncivil treatment of women at work is bad not only for female employees, but for the productivity of the whole organisation.

That’s according to Kathi Miner-Rubino and Lilia Cortina in America, who surveyed 871 female and 831 male university employees, including academic and support staff.

Male and female employees who said they had witnessed either the sexual harassment of female staff, or uncivil, rude or condescending behaviour towards them, tended to report lower psychological well-being and job satisfaction. In turn, lower psychological well-being was associated with greater burn out and increased thoughts about quitting.

Moreover, employees of both sexes who perceived the university to be unresponsive to sexual harassment complaints, tended to report more burnout and less commitment to the university.

Crucially, while these negative effects were not large, they were associated purely with observing the mistreatment of others, not with being a victim of mistreatment oneself – the researchers took account of that (for participants of both sexes) in their statistical analysis.

However, longitudinal research is needed to confirm the direction of causality in the observed associations. It’s possible, for example, that misogynistic treatment is more likely to occur when staff have poor psychological well-being and less job satisfaction.

The researchers surmised the negative effects of witnessing misogyny at work could be caused by the feeling that one is working for an unjust organisation, and by feelings of empathy or fear. “This underscores the need for broad, proactive organisational interventions to manage workplace misogyny,” they concluded.

Miner-Rubino, K. & Cortina, L.M. (2007). Beyond targets: Consequences of vicarious exposure to misogyny at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1254-1269.

Image credit: Michael R

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Why do some men insult their partners?

Men who habitually insult their wives or girlfriends do so, somewhat paradoxically, as part of a broader strategy to prevent them from leaving for someone else – what evolutionary psychologists call ‘mate retention’.

Steve Stewart-Williams and colleagues asked 245 men (average age 29 years) to report how many times in the last month they had insulted their partner using one or more examples from a list of 47 insults, arranged into 4 categories: physical insults, insults about personal value or mental capacity (e.g. “I called my partner an idiot”), accusations of sexual infidelity, and derogating their value as a person (e.g. “I told my partner she will never amount to anything”).

The men were also asked to report their use of 104 mate-retention behaviours, such as whether they became jealous when their partner went out without them, and whether they checked up on where their partner said they would be at a given time.

The men who insulted their partners more also tended to engage in more mate-retention behaviours. A similar association was found in a second experiment in which a separate sample of 372 women were asked to say how often their partners insulted them, and how often they engaged in mate-retention behaviours. The researchers said insults might serve a mate-retention function, by making a “woman feel that she cannot secure a better partner, with the result that she is less likely to defect from the relationship.”

Past research has shown that men who engage in mate-retention behaviours are more likely to be violent towards their partners. This study appears to support that research by showing that such men are also more likely to use what might be considered verbal violence.

The researchers said that future research should also focus on the extent of women’s use of partner-directed insults and the function they serve.

McKibbin, W.F., Goetz, A.T, Shackelford, T.K., Schipper, L.D., Starratt, V.G. & Stewart-Williams, S. (2007). Why do men insult their intimate partners? Personality and Individual Differences, 231-241.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related Digest item.

We continue to blame rape victims

Researchers in Israel have found people, including psychologists, continue to allocate some blame to rape victims. The reason, they say, is that blaming rape victims allows us to maintain our belief in a just world, and to preserve our sense of control over our own lives.

Sixty male and female participants, including university students, and 24 psychotherapists (including clinical psychologists) who work with sexual offenders, were presented with a number of fictitious rape scenarios. The scenarios varied according to the sex of the victim and whether or not the rapist was a stranger, but all generally involved a victim hitching a lift from a male driver who would later rape them.

On a blame scale from one to ten, the participants held the victims responsible with an average score of 2.14. “This trend is moderate, but it exists among all subjects regardless of gender or occupation”, the researchers said.

Female participants tended to allocate less blame to a female victim than male participants did, while the opposite was true for male victims. However, overall, female victims were blamed more. The participants also blamed the victim more when the rapist was a stranger. Therapists allocated just as much blame as the student participants.

Overall, the more a participant held the victim to be responsible, the less severe they judged the rape to be, and the less serious punishment they said was deserved by the rapist.

Yael Ididis and colleagues concluded: “Despite growing public awareness of the problem of rape, this study shows that even among educated subjects, assumed to be free of prejudice, there is still a tendency to blame the victim”.

Idisis, Y., Ben-David, S. & Ben-Nachum, E. (2007). Attribution of blame to rape victims among therapists and non-therapists. Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 25, 103-120.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Dating a psychopath

Most of what we know about psychopathy comes from studies with people diagnosed as psychopathic who have been incarcerated, to protect others and/or themselves. Consequently, people who have the personality characteristics of a psychopath, but who have not (yet) been imprisoned for crimes or violent acts, have been little researched until now. To find out more about this group, Christine Kirkman at Bolton University interviewed twenty women (average age 48 years), recruited via newspaper advertisements, who rated their partners as psychopathic according to the Hare P-SCAN scale, a 90-item questionnaire used by police and social workers to screen for psychopathic traits. The recruitment adverts mentioned a soap opera story line, popular at the time, that involved a psychopathic character. “Were you duped like Deidre?”, the adverts asked.

Twenty-three recurring themes emerged from interviews with the women, each of which was mentioned by at least half the interviewees. Further themes also emerged from analysis of letters written by the women in response to the newspaper advert. The themes related to the way the women’s partners behaved and included: talking the women into victimisation; lying and use of false identities; economic abuse; emotional and physical torture; multiple infidelities; isolation and coercion; physical/sexual assault and/or rape; and the mistreatment of children. One woman recalled having petrol poured over her before being raped by her match-wielding husband. Kirkman was struck by the similarity and consistency between the interviewees’ accounts. Most of the women’s partners had been charged with crimes, usually of a fraudulent nature, consistent with Hervey Cleckley’s seminal description of psychopathy – “The Mask of Sanity”, originally published in 1941.

“Although the male partners were not assessed, it became evident while conducting this study that there are males living amongst us who have the characteristics associated with psychopathy”, Kirkman said. Of course, it can’t be ruled out that some of these women had vivid imaginations and/or paranoid dispositions.

Kirkman, C.A. (2005). From soap opera to science: Towards gaining access to the psychopaths who live amongst us. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/147608305X26666.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.