Head Games

What Freud never knew

Why Are Women with Tattoos Seen as Promiscuous?

A new study sheds light on why some see body art as a “tramp stamp.”

It's no secret that when it comes to the mating game, men tend to place a higher premium on beauty than women do — whether it be for a liaison or a lifetime. Ample research shows that men are sensitive to a range of physical cues in women, such as a low waist-to-hip ratio, larger breasts, effective cosmetics use, revealing clothing, and wearing the color red (which signals sexual receptivity). But according to psychologist Nicolas Guéguen of the Université de Bretagne-Sud, this research also highlights another kind of sensitivity: Men tend to overestimate women's sexual intentions. Put another way, men often misinterpret women as having more sexual interest than they really do.

By comparison to other physical cues, Guéguen notes that, remarkably, the research on men's responsiveness to tattooed women has received scant attention. In France, where he's based, 12 percent of women sport a tattoo. In the United States, that number stands at 23 percent. (See this Harris Interactive survey for a fascinating breakdown of who gets tattoos in the United States). The few studies that have focused on men's perceptions of tattooed women have found that these ladies are seen in a negative light. One study, for example, had a photograph of a 24-year old woman rated along personal characteristics, both with and without a black dragon tattoo on her upper left arm. When she displayed the tattoo, she was judged as less athletic, motivated, honest, generous, religious, intelligent and artistic than when she displayed no tattoo. But Guéguen noticed a curious set of findings in this thin research area: While men see tattooed women as less attractive, they also see them as more promiscuous.

Are tattooed women more promiscuous than those who display no body art? Guéguen conducted a survey of tattooed and pierced women in France, and found that they had had sexual intercourse at relatively younger ages. But what these numbers couldn't determine was whether women with tattoos and piercings were more interested in sex, or if women with tattoos and piercings simply had more sexual solicitations by men. Given this lack of clarity, he set out to investigate men's responses to tattooed women.

Guéguen conducted a two-part study. The first experiment tested whether men approach women with tattoos more than women without tattoos. The procedure began with female confederates (i.e., undercover research assistants) arriving solo at one of 60 well-known beaches in Brittany on the south-west Atlantic coast of France. They were specifically instructed to identify an area where there were many young men present, and to spread out their beach towel in this location. From here, they lay flat on their stomachs and read a book or magazine. Guéguen intentionally chose this activity because he had previously found that roughly 85 percent of women who were alone on the beach did just that when they were lounging on their towels. But here's the twist. All the confederates wore the same red two-piece swimsuit, but in some trials they also wore a temporary tattoo of a butterfly on their lower back and in some trials they did not. Of note, the temporary tattoo was 10.5 by 4.95 centimeters in size, and was selected because a survey of five tattoos parlors' websites indicated that this was a common design among women.

Meanwhile, a male observer sat 20 meters away, carefully and surreptitiously watched the confederate lying down. When she began reading her book, he turned on a timer and switched it off when he saw a man making contact with her. In this study, a contact was defined as a verbal statement such as ‘‘Hello’’, or ‘‘Hello, I’ve never seen you here before’’, or ‘‘Hello, what are you reading’’?. The female confederate was instructed to then reply, ‘‘Hello, I am waiting for my boyfriend who is likely to arrive in one or two minutes.’’ If an overture occurred, the observer recorded how much time elapsed between the female confederate's beginning to read and a man's solicitation. Furthermore, upon seeing contact he immediately joined the confederate to put a stop to any further interaction between her and this random individual. Conversely, if no men initiated contact with the female confederate the observation period simply ended after an hour. By the study's end, 220 observations were carried out — 110 with the confederates with a tattoo, and 110 with the same confederates without the tattoo.

The results were striking. When women wore tattoos they were solicited by men 23.67 percent of the time, but when the same women didn't wear tattoos they were solicited by men a mere 10 percent of the time. Men also made faster contacts with the women with a tattoo vs. without a tattoo, an average of 23.61 and 34.78 minutes, respectively. That's a difference of more than 11 minutes.

The second experiment tested for men's evaluations of women with and without tattoos. The procedure for the second experiment was identical to the first, and included the same female confederates. But this time around, it was a male confederate who took the lead role. Ten minutes after the female confederate lay down to read, a male interviewer approached a young man who was within 10 meters of the female confederate and asked him if he would answer questions about a girl who was‘‘somewhere on the beach.’’ Caution was taken only to query men who were already on the scene before the female confederate arrived. The interviewer informed the male beachgoer that it was for a university study on romantic relationships and presented identification.

The interviewer pointed to the female confederate and recited to the male beachgoers,‘‘You see this girl. I want to ask you two questions concerning this young woman. Thus, look at her carefully.’’ All the while, the female confederate simply read while lying flat on her stomach. The interviewer waited 10 seconds and then asked the participant to evaluate the probability of getting a date with the woman if the opportunity presented itself, and the probability having sex with her on the first date. These assessments were made along a nine-point scale. As was the case in the first experiment, the same women alternated wearing a temporary tattoo of butterfly and wearing no tattoo at all. In all, there were 220 trials with the tattoo and 220 trials without the tattoos.

What did Guéguen find? In keeping with his expectations, male beachgoers thought their chances of having a date or having sex with the female confederates were significantly greater when they were displaying a tattoo than when they were not displaying a tattoo. Extrapolating from this result, Guéguen stated that tattooed women are seen as more promiscuous.

These findings add to multiple lines of evidence showing how men value women's physical attributes when judging and interacting with them. A healthy body of research indicates that men exalt beauty in both long-term and in short-term mating. Studies also show that various aspects of female appearance are used to evaluate their “mating value,” and bodily attributes are not the only criteria that are relied upon. Clothing appearance or color, cosmetics, and hair color have been linked to men’s approach to and evaluations of women. Consistent with these studies, the results suggest that tattoos also serve as signal that men see as as an advertisement of heightened sexual intent and/or receptivity.

Guéguen interprets the results from an evolutionary perspective. Like cosmetics or clothing, women may adorn tattoos as a way to enhance their appeal to men and, in turn, to attract more males. A woman has a better chance of choosing a mate of “higher quality” when there are more of them from which to choose. Tattoos may then serve as an effective means to capture male attention. Along similar evolutionary lines, men are driven to mate with many women in order to spread their genes. Logic then dictates that they will pursue women who display more sexual receptivity. Again, like cosmetics and clothing, men may see tattoos as advertising greater interest in sex on the part of women.

Guéguen is sure to point out that this study has its share of limitations. Similarly, he recommends that future research should focus on whether the association between tattoos and promiscuity is based on men's stereotypes or real experiences. Nonetheless, this study offers some novel insights into why when it comes to tattooed women, some men see body art and others see a “tramp stamp.”


Connect with Dr. Mehta on the web at:

drvinitamehta.com and on twitter and Pinterest!

More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults.  She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. 

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.


Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.


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