It's no secret that when it comes to the mating game—whether it be for a liaison or a lifetime—men tend to place a higher premium on beauty than women do. 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, the research also highlights another 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.
And compared to other physical cues, Guéguen notes, research on men's responsiveness to tattooed women has received remarkably scant attention. In France, where Guéguen is based, about 12 percent of women sport a tattoo. In the United States, the figure is about 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 women are seen in a generally negative light. One study, for example, asked men to rate a 24-year old woman seen in a photograph on a range of personal characteristics. Some men were shown the photo with a black dragon tattoo on the woman's upper left arm; others were shown the photo without the tattoo. When men saw the woman with the tattoo, they judged her as less athletic, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent and less artistic than when she displayed no tattoo.
But Guéguen noticed one 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 actually more promiscuous than those who display no body art? Guéguen conducted a survey of tattooed and pierced women in France, and found that they did tend to have their first sexual intercourse at relatively younger ages. But what this research couldn't determine was whether women with tattoos and piercings were more interested in sex, or if women with tattoos and piercings simply received more sexual solicitations from men.
Given this lack of clarity, he set out to investigate men's responses to tattooed women.
He conducted a two-part study: The first experiment tested whether men approach women with tattoos more often than women without tattoos. The procedure began with female confederates (undercover research assistants) arriving solo at one of 60 well-known beaches in Brittany on the southwest 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 of 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. (The temporary tattoo was 10.5 by 4.95 centimeters in size, and was selected because a survey of five popular tattoos parlors indicated that this was a common design chosen by women.)
Meanwhile, a male observer sitting 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 make contact with her. For purposes of this study, "contact" was defined as a verbal statement such as ‘‘Hello"; ‘‘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 lying down to read and a man's solicitation. Further, upon seeing contact, he immediately joined the confederate to put a stop to any further interaction between her and the random individual. If no men initiated contact with the female confederate after one hour, the observation period simply ended. By the study's end, 220 observations were carried out—110 with the confederates sporting a tattoo, and 110 without the body art.
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 just 10 percent of the time. Men also made faster contact with the women who had a tattoo than with women who didn't, 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 was identical to the first, and included the same female confederates. But this time, 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 said 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 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.
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.
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,” although 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 approaches to and evaluations of women. Consistent with these studies, the results suggest that tattoos also serve as a signal to men of heightened sexual intent and/or receptivity.
Guéguen interprets the results from an evolutionary perspective. Like cosmetics or clothing, some 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," the thinking goes, when there are more 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 quick to point out that this study has its share of limitations, and 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.”
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. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.
See Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.