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Do Men Oversexualize Encounters with Women?

Research on gender differences in inferring sexual interest


While the stereotype of men as oversexed has been around a long, long time, it wasn’t until surprisingly recently that scientific research began to offer empirical evidence for this long held belief.

Since the early 1980s, a body of psychological research has developed providing empirical evidence that when (presumably heterosexual) men and women engage in brief interactions, men tend to rate the interactions as more sexual than women. This result, termed the oversexualization effect, has been replicated in dozens of studies.

A recent study, published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly set out to both further replicate these findings, and also to look a bit deeper into what is going on behind men’s oversexualization. Specifically the researchers looked at the extent to which men’s beliefs and evaluations about themselves as being typically masculine or typically feminine influenced their oversexualization of encounters with women.

The prediction was that that the more strongly “masculine-typed” a man was, the more likely he would be to oversexualize encounters with women.

Participants filled out surveys to asses the extent to which they are “typed” to their gender, called “gender schematics”, engaged in brief interactions with someone of the opposite sex they had never met before, and then were asked to evaluate the interaction in terms of general partner evaluations, physical attractiveness of the partner, and how sexual the interaction was.

Within their brief conversation, partners introduced themselves and talked about college experiences. There was no significant difference in how men, compared to women, rated their conversation partners on agreeableness or extroversion. Nor was their evidence of sexual chemistry, as partners did not share a tendency to find each other attractive or desire a future interaction.

Their findings included:

  • Men rated their female partners more sexual than women rated their male partners.
  • Men in this study think in more sexual terms than the women when evaluating brief encounters.
  • Men associated “conversational smoothness” with sexual interest
  • Men distinguished perceived friendliness from sexual interest in their partners
  • There was no significant correlation between the extent to which a man is “masculine-typed” and his sexual assessment of the encounter.
  • Women, but not men, rated the overall partner and conversation more positively when they evaluated the physical attractiveness of their partner positively. In other words, the hotter the guy, the nicer he seemed.

These findings, while preliminary and limited in some ways, offer arguments against some of the stereotypes being investigated.

Firstly, the extent to which a man conforms to specific gender ideas seems to not be strongly related to how likely that man will sexualize an interaction. This seems to counter the stereotype of the “man’s man” who thinks everything is sexual, versus those guys who are “just like a girl friend” who would be less likely to assume a sexual intent in an interaction.

Secondly, the finding that the physical attractiveness rating was more indicative for women of overall evaluations, offers a possible alternative picture to the stereotype that men are looking for sexy women, but all women want is a good sense of humor. The researchers point out that on the one hand this might indicate that women weight physical attractiveness differently than men, but on the other hand the women may have first evaluated the male partner positively, and out of that evaluation they rated him more physically attractive. Nonetheless, the findings definitely call for more research.

While the research study was well defined, and the authors clearly point out the limitations, and call for more research, the overall limitations of this kind of research leave me skeptical that it will ever be able to dig deep enough to understand what’s going on here:

  • To what extent are the results of these studies a reflection of participants answering questions in ways that they feel are expected of them (so the men “act” like men, and the women “act” like women, but their feelings and motivations are never touched on), and therefore just a re-enactment of the gender roles that are trying to be interrogated?
  • Given the complex nature of both gender roles and sexuality, can survey research that isolates particular elements of gender and sexuality ever capture data that can be meaningfully put back together to help us understand a bigger picture?
  • Finally, will it ever be possible to understand the difference in behaviors between different genders without a wholesale critique of the dualistic construction of gender that this research seems hopelessly stuck in?

Levesque, M.J., Nave, C.S., et. al. "Toward an Understanding of Gender Differences in Inferring Sexual Interest." Psychology of Women Quarterly Vol. 30. Iss. 2 (2006): 150- 158.

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