Research consistently shows that men believe women are more sexually interested in them than women actually are (Levesque et al., 2006; Perrilloux et al., 2012; Treat et al., 2015). Interestingly, women also believe men are less sexually interested in them than men actually are (Levesque et al. 2006; Perrilloux et al., 2012). Men’s inaccurate perception of women’s sexual interest may be a factor in sexual harassment (Perilloux et al., 2012), or even sexual aggression or coercion (Treat et al., 2015). Men’s tendency to overestimate women’s sexual interest may stem from three sources—women’s subtle signals of sexual interest; men’s emphasis on unreliable indicators of sexual interest; and the possibility that men have more to lose by underestimating rather than overestimating women’s sexual interest.
Many of the strategies that women use to signal their sexual interest in men are subtle and nonverbal, such as eye contact, eyebrow flashing, open body posture, and smiling (Moore, 2010). Although men are more likely to use overt strategies, such as initiating conversation, men often wait to receive women’s signals before "making their move" (Moore, 2010). Researchers posit that women use more subtle sexual signals because they may want to avoid a reputation for promiscuity, or because they may want more time to evaluate a man's quality as a potential mate or interest in them (Perrilloux et al., 2012). Similarly, women may underestimate their own interest in men due to concerns over sexual double standards (Levesque et al., 2006). Because women tend to use subtle cues to signal sexual interest, men who are more sensitive to these covert cues may have more successful dating outcomes (Moore, 2010).
While it is true that women may dress in sexier clothing (such as revealing more skin or wearing the color red) to signal sexual interest (Durante et al., 2008; Elliot et al., 2013), that signal may only be meant for attractive men (Elliot et al., 2013), or it may only be directed toward one man in particular. Therefore, clothing is not a reliable indicator of women's sexual interest in men in general. Furthermore, men also seem to use women’s physical attractiveness as an indicator of sexual interest, assuming that women who are more attractive are also more interested in sex (Levesque et al., 2006; Perrilloux et al., 2012; Treat et al., 2015). Women's physical attractiveness is unlikely to be related to their interest in men in general, and women who are very attractive may even be less interested in sex with most men. Men who have been trained to ignore signals, such as clothing and physical attractiveness, and focus on women’s emotional expression tend to more accurately perceive women’s sexual interest in laboratory experiments (Treat et al., 2015). This training was particularly effective for men with a higher risk of sexual aggression.
Evolutionarily, for men, it may be more costly to miss a potential mating opportunity than it is to risk rejection due to the misperception of sexual interest. Men who misperceive women’s sexual interest may have had more successful mating opportunities and, thus, may have evolved the bias to overestimate women’s sexual interest (Perrilloux et al., 2012). In fact, researchers even predict that women’s physical attractiveness should be related to men’s misperception, because missing a mating opportunity with an attractive woman (and thus likely a fertile woman) would be more costly than missing an opportunity with a less attractive woman.
Because women also tend to underestimate men's sexual interest (Levesque et al., 2006; Perilloux et al., 2012), more research will be necessary to increase accuracy in the perception of sexual interest among heterosexual pairs. Future research may also reveal whether same-sex individuals more accurately perceive one another's sexual interest. Until then, it may be wise for men and women to be aware of their biases in the perception of sexual interest.
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Durante, K. M., Li, N. P., &Haselton, M. G. (2008). Changes in women's choice of dress across the ovulatory cycle: Naturalistic and laboratory task-based evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(11), 1451-1460. doi:10.1177/0146167208323103
Elliot, A. J., Greitemeyer, T., & Pazda, A. D. (2013). Women's use of red clothing as a sexual signal in intersexual interaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 599-602.
Levesque, M. J., Nave, C. S., & Lowe, C. A. (2006). Toward an understanding of gender differences in inferring sexual interest. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(2), 150-158.
Moore, M. M. (2010). Human nonverbal courtship behavior—A brief historical review. The Journal of Sex Research, 47, 171-180. DOI: 10.1080/00224490903402520
Perilloux, C., Easton, J. A., & Buss, D. M. (2012). The misperception of sexual interest. Psychological Science, 23(2), 146-151.
Treat, T. A., Viken, R. J., Farris, C. A., & Smith, J. R. (2016). Enhancing the accuracy of men’s perceptions of women’s sexual interest in the laboratory. Psychology of Violence, 6(4), 562.