Why Men Assume You're Interested — Even If You're Not

Photographed By Alice Gao.
We've all been there: either our own friendliness was misinterpreted as interest in sex (um, no thanks), or, on the flip side, we took someone else's platonic pleasantries as a come-on. It's not easy for anyone to intuit what a potential hookup is thinking, but there does appear to be a gender imbalance in this guesswork. As researchers from the University of Iowa and Indiana University write, "At least three quarters of college women self-report that their friendliness toward a man has been misperceived as sexual interest, and one quarter to one half of college men self-report having misperceived the friendliness of a woman as sexual interest."  

When a man misjudges a woman's interest, often embarrassment is all that follows. But, those same researchers found that this gap between perception and reality can also "increase the likelihood of sexually coercive and aggressive behavior" — a much darker outcome than getting made fun of by your buddies. To parse the reasons why men misjudge women's sexual interest, the researchers devised a study — published this week in the Archives of Sexual Behavior — that confirmed that "location, location, location" applies as readily to flirting as to real estate. Men, the findings suggest, evaluate women's sexual interest based on where they are.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers designed 28 scenes to represent social environments with different levels of sexual relevance (for example, they deemed bars, bedrooms, and house parties to be more sexually relevant than offices, sidewalks, or reception areas). In each scene, they included a full-body photo of one of 14 college-age women, each with a neutral-to-friendly expression and pose and varying levels of "provocativeness of dress and attractiveness." The researchers then asked 237 either bisexual or heterosexual male undergrads to evaluate the hypothetical sexual interest of each still-life woman on a nine-point scale; afterward, researchers looked at how social environment, provocativeness of dress, and the appearance of friendliness influenced the men's judgments. 

While provocative dress reigned in predicting how interested the men found each woman to be, social setting played a far more significant role in their evaluations than did the women's perceived friendliness. In other words, a woman's location, rather than the impression she gives, has a lot to do with how DTF men think she is.

Of course, merely being at a bar or party is not a sign of willingness to spend the night — and neither is showing skin, or even talking for hours with a smile. See, that's what's great about women as opposed to photos: You can actually ask them what they want.
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