Women Underestimate Own Sexual Intention and Men Overestimate Women’s Sexual Intention

With all the recent furore around consent and the so-called ‘rape culture’, how many of these crossed wires and sexual/romantic faux pas are the fault of men? According to a recent study, men and women could be both held equally accountable for giving and reading into wrong signals, resulting in miscommunication and a touch on the knee or an attempt at a kiss when one isn’t wanted. These findings contradict the argument that it is men who overstep the boundary by assuming a woman is giving sexual signals when she is not.

Whilst it is true that it has been found men do predict a woman’s sexual intentions to be higher than what she later says her intentions actually were, it has previously been argued whether this occurs because men overestimate women’s intentions or because women underreport their intentions.

In the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Professor Priya Raghubir, chair of the Marketing Department at NYU Stern School of Business, and former NYU Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar Isabelle Engeler, find a gap in how women and men interpret dating situations and intentions.

Across three experiments, they measured the ‘misprediction bias’ between men and women. In the first experiment, they assessed the overall size of the misprediction bias then they altered the order-of-elicitation of self- and other-reports to assess the impact of the order on self-awareness and honesty, which occurred in experiments two and three.

The argument supporting reversing the questions is that it normalises the topic and relaxes the person into answering more honestly when the focus is then turned on them, it’s easier to open up if another is perceived to have just opened up. As a side note, it is also worth mentioning that due to this study being conducted online (rather than face-to-face or having to meet other participants / the researchers), the participants are more likely to be honest about their sex lives and sexuality.

Some of the participants were presented with several scenarios and were asked what their sexual intent would be if they were acting out these scenarios in real life, then the sexual intent of others if they were in the same situation. In line with previous research, the authors found women’s ratings of their own sexual intentions were 23% lower than men’s average estimates of female intent based on the same behaviours and comments.

For the other participants, the order was switched such that they first estimated other people’s sexual interest based on the scenarios then asked to give their own intentions based on the same set of behaviours. With the questions reversed, women answered with higher sexual intent and the gap between men and women’s perceptions of women’s sexual intentions reduced down to 8%.

Women report significantly higher own sexual intentions when they are asked about other targets’ intentions before their own, suggesting that 48-69% of the overestimation bias is attributable to women underreporting their own sexual intentions.

For the reverse (men’s and women’s interpretation of men’s sexual intent), the author’s found with the standard question sequence that women overestimate male sexual intentions but to a lesser extent than men’s overestimation of women. In the second experiment, the gap was non-existent. This could be explained by women’s naturally higher empathic capabilities. The results also suggest that women’s estimations  of what men really want may be lower than what men actually want; this result comes to no-one’s surprise.

Engeler and Raghubir noted “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.”

These findings have serious implications: how well can a woman recognise her own sexual intentions in a day-to-day scenario and how well can a man read her? How many of these accusations in the news (such as hands on the knee, passing comments, attempts at a kiss, etc) could be because the women were unwittingly giving off signals that the men were responding too, only for these to later become accusations of sexual harassment?

There is certainly a cultural and evolutionary pressure for women to under self-report sexual intention despite past history and the reverse is true for men, both can serve to improve sexual fitness (for women, to prove to men paternity of offspring; for men, to prove status/sexual success). Yet, these pressures appear to have a negative side-effect of miscommunication between the sexes.

In a press release, Professor Raghubir gave the following advice:

  • Men: “Temper your expectations when it comes to sex.  You’re likely to overestimate your partner’s intentions.”
  • Women: “Be clear about your sexual intentions and beware of engaging in certain behaviours (e.g., inviting a date to your apartment or placing a hand on your partner’s thigh), which may lead to misperceptions.”

This research overwhelmingly contradicts the socially accepted idea of full-male culpability in sexual/romantic faux pas, leading one to wonder how many situations have occurred where a man has received signals the woman was unwittingly transmitting. It certainly causes me to question the validity of a lot of these #MeToo tweets.

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