Can Men Be Taught to Understand Women’s Nonverbal Cues Relating to Sexual Interest?

A new study by researchers at the University of Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis, and Indiana University, finds that educating men about women’s nonverbal clues regarding sexual interest may help reduce incidents of sexual misconduct.

teresa-treatTeresa Treat, professor of psychology at the University of Iowa and lead author of the study, stated that “researchers have shown that misperception of a woman’s sexual-interest cues plays a role in sexual aggression; this research takes the novel step of trying to modify what people focus on when judging a woman’s sexual interest.”

In the study, nearly 500 male and female undergraduate students were shown a series of 130 full-body photographs of women wearing warm weather clothing with varying degrees of provocativeness. The models also displayed nonverbal cues such as sadness, friendliness, or sexual interest. Participants were asked to rate the models in the photographs on how sexually interested they were or whether they appeared to be rejecting any sexual interest. Half of the participants were given instructions prior to viewing the photographs telling them to focus on the nonverbal clues rather than the women’s clothing or attractiveness.

The group that was given instruction tended to focus more on nonverbal clues and less on clothing and attractiveness when judging sexual interest. “This finding suggests that instruction could help even men who are at a higher risk of sexual aggression to focus on women’s nonverbal cues,” Dr. Treat says. She adds that short of hearing a woman say she isn’t interested, these cues are the next-best way for men to realize that a woman doesn’t want to be approached. “What this study indicates is focusing more on nonverbal cues and less on overall attractiveness and provocativeness of dress when judging how women feel is associated with a reduced risk of aggressive behavior among men.”

Dr. Treat is a summa cum laude of Indiana University. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology and cognitive science from Indiana University in 2000 and went on the conduct postdoctoral research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She joined the faculty at the University of Iowa in 2010 after teaching at Yale University for nine years.

The study, “Effects of Gender, Rape-Supportive Attitudes and Explicit Instruction on Perception of Women’s Momentary Sexual Interest,” was published on the website of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. It may be accessed here.

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