Many men mistake innocent sexual interest for something more, study finds

BINGHAMTON, N. Y. — Many men mistake a woman’s display of romantic interest in him for wanting to sleep together or engage in other forms of sexual behavior, a new study finds.

Researchers at Binghamton University and Rush University in Chicago visited a large college in the southeastern United States, enlisting 145 straight male students to participate in a study on what could influence a man to engage in sexual misconduct.

Man and woman flirting with one another
A new study finds that most men tend to confuse romantic interest or attraction from a woman as a desire for sexual behavior.

Participants, who were presented with and asked to evaluate a series of hypothetical sexual scenarios, had the tendency to most often confuse sexual attraction with the giving of consent, the researchers found.

This misguided perception, however, was more attributable to the scenarios offered than any inherent characteristics of the male gender.

“We found that the way in which the woman communicated her sexual intentions, that is verbal refusal versus passive responding, had the largest effect on men’s perceptions,” explains researcher Richard Mattson in a news release. “However, there was also evidence of a precedence effect.”

In this context, a precedence effect would apply to a man who believes his prior sexual exploits warrant future misconduct — even when the current woman in question has expressed vehement denial.

Whenever a potential female suitor left her intentions ambiguous, rape myths (such as when a woman says “no” she really means “yes”) and the adoption of hypermasculine attitudes became much more prevalent in the participants’ minds.

“However, our findings also suggest that some men were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation,” Mattson says.

While the allures of college life, such as alcohol and independence, may enable many young men to mistreat women, a university setting can also help warn male students about the risks of sexual misconduct, the researchers argue.

Ultimately, the researchers recommend that both employers and educational institutions provide general guidelines on proper conduct for men (e.g., making only unequivocal “yeses” the standard for consent) and women (e.g., making sure that any sexual desires are clearly expressed).

The researchers published their findings last month in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.