For more than three decades, popular wisdom—backed up by solid research—has held that, when it comes to possible sexual interest, men tend to badly misinterpret signals given by women. Actions that are intended to convey friendly affection are routinely seen by males as invitations to stay the night.
But provocative new research raises the possibility that “the inaccuracy of men’s perceptions has been exaggerated.” While not claiming to be definitive, it suggests women who engage in flirtatious or romantic behavior may be indicating a higher level of sexual interest than they care to admit.
“Perhaps women are underreporting because they themselves are unaware of their true intentions, or because they are using self-reports to control the way they are perceived by other people,” write psychologists Carin Perilloux of Texas State University and Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania. Their research is published in the journal Psychological Science.
"Men and women provided higher ratings for what women want than for what women say, but the discrepancy was much larger for female raters than for male raters."
The researchers describe three studies. In the first, 271 heterosexual men and 213 straight women recruited online were presented with a series of behaviors often encountered on dates, including “held hands,” “complimented appearance,” “sent roses,” “cooked dinner,” and “had a drink at apartment.”
On a seven-point scale (from “extremely unlikely” to “extremely likely”), men estimated the sexual intentions of women who engaged in each of those behaviors. Using the same scale, women reported how likely they would be to have sex with a man if they performed any of those actions.
“Men rated women’s intentions after engaging in 12 of the 15 behaviors significantly higher than women did,” the researchers report. “Men’s estimates of women’s intentions, conditional on the behaviors in question, were higher than women’s estimates.”
So the conventional wisdom is confirmed. Or is it? In a second study, participants were asked to guess how women in the first study responded. “Men reported similar estimates in Study Two as in Study One,” the researchers write, “whereas women’s responses changed in the direction of men’s guesses.”
To Perilloux and Kurzban, the results suggest “women know that other women underreport their genuine sexual intentions, but do not know by how much.”
In the third and final study, “participants rated each behavior in terms of what they believed other women would say, and what they believed was actually intended.”
“Men and women provided higher ratings for what women want than for what women say,” the researchers report, “but the discrepancy was much larger for female raters than for male raters.” In fact, they write, women’s estimates of the desires of other women “were quite close” to those offered by men in the initial study.
Needless to say, it’s important for men to remember that no means no. Indeed, a new California law designed to reduce sexual violence on college campuses takes that one step farther, declaring that anything less than an explicit verbal agreement to have sex could result in sexual assault charges.
It's also important to note that this research is measuring attitudes and assumptions. Perilloux and Kurzban admit it would require “retrospective accounts or diary studies” to determine whether the actions in question were actually followed by sexual encounters.
Nevertheless, sexual interest is still routinely expressed through behaviors that subtly suggest increasing levels of intimacy. While these are easy to misinterpret, this research suggests men may not be so far off in their assessments as they have been led to believe.