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Men Assume Sexual Interest When There May Be None

Researchers hope findings can curb sexual harassment, even date rape

FRIDAY, June 16, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Turns out men don't have to be living on Mars and women on Venus for communication problems to muck up dealings between the sexes.

Even when they're seated across a table from each other in a first-time, five-minute conversation, a man tends to sexualize a woman and incorrectly assume sexual interest on her part, new research finds.

"We initially got started on this research thinking if we could identify men who tended to over-sexualize women, we could then interview them [to learn why] and stop sexual harassment on the job and date rape," said lead researcher Maurice J. Levesque, an associate professor of psychology at Elon University, in North Carolina.

"We wanted to see if basically the macho-type guy was the only one who did this," said Levesque, adding the study showed that wasn't the case. "That variable -- the socialization to be 'macho' -- doesn't make a difference," he said.

Reporting in the new issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, the researchers said that when a man meets a woman for the first time and they converse briefly, he's much likelier than she is to rate himself -- and her -- higher on sexual traits such as flirtatiousness. And he's more likely to think she's interested in him sexually, when she may not be.

In the study, 43 college men and 43 college women, ages 18 to 22, were paired with a member of the opposite sex they'd never met. They were told the study concerned "conversational smoothness." First, the men and women completed questionnaires about demographic information, and took a standard sex-role inventory to assess their scores of masculinity and femininity.

Next, each couple went to a room by themselves and sat in chairs facing each other across a small table. The researchers suggested they talk about college. Then, after the five minutes, each man and woman walked to a separate room to answer questions about their perceptions of their study partner, themselves and the conversation.

The men and the women rated themselves and their partners on personality traits such as extroversion, agreeableness, physical attractiveness, sexual traits and interaction behaviors. They were also asked if they thought the person they'd just talked to was sexy, flirtatious, seductive or promiscuous.

Men rated their women partners higher in sexuality than the women rated the men, said Levesque, who did the research while at the University of Connecticut. "It wasn't that men over-sexualized women only when there was chemistry," he explained. "Their ratings in terms of sexiness did not have a lot to do with whether she was extroverted, agreeable, or whether she behaved in particularly friendly ways."

"If he found her to be physically attractive, he would tend to rate her as sexier," he said, adding that other studies have found the same over-sexualization effect and that men give physically attractive women higher marks for sexiness.

Next, Levesque wants to focus on whether women are aware of how they are perceived by men. "These misperceptions may be contributing to situations, for example, of sexual harassment," he said.

Levesque doesn't know why all the men in the study seemed to over-sexualize women, but he speculated that "it's got to be something about socialization, that men are being taught in some way to view women as sexual objects."

The study findings are no surprise to Charles Hill, a professor of psychology at Whittier College, in California. He said the two chemical routes to sexual arousal help explain the study findings.

Testosterone, a hormone that both men and women produce, helps arouse both genders sexually, Hill said. But so does the hormone oxytocin, also in both genders. "Oxytocin promotes infant-mother bonding and women have a boost of it when ovulating, pregnant or lactating," he said. "But it also promotes emotional bonding to people in general," he said. "It may help explain why in the study that men rated women as sexy based on attractiveness, whereas women's rating of sexuality was correlated not only with attractiveness but also personality. There was an emotional component to how they rated" the men.

Based on his study and other research, Levesque offers advice for men and women who have brief encounters -- such as meeting on the job, meeting in college classes, or meeting at so-called "rapid dating" events, in which men and women have four or five minutes to talk, then decide if they'd like to see each other again.

For men, he said: "Don't think every women you meet is attracted to you." This caveat especially holds true for men who think of themselves as sexy or sexual. "Men [in the study] who thought of themselves as sexy also tended to think of their partners as sexy and as interested in them." That may not be the case, however.

For women, Levesque said, the best advice "may be understanding that more often than not he is going to be thinking in sexual terms. You may walk away thinking the conversation went well or not and he may still be thinking in those [sexual attraction] terms."

Levesque offers additional advice for men: "Slow down on those thoughts. To evaluate whether the conversation went well, whether she was giving any signals of interest of not, be a little more driven by the data than just whether she is attractive, sexy and flirtatious."

More information

To learn more about relationships, visit Columbia University.

SOURCES: Maurice J. Levesque, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, Elon University, Elon, N.C.; Charles Hill, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Whittier College, Whittier, Calif.; June 2006, Psychology of Women Quarterly
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