In recent years, there has been growing discussion around the topic of sexual assault on college campuses. Prominent statistics estimate that between one in four and one in five women will experience sexual assault or rape during her time as a college student. Researchers in the field have emphasized that caution must be taken when interpreting these figures; however, the fact that sexual aggression persists at all highlights its importance as an issue of societal concern.
This greater public awareness has led to an increased emphasis on improving preventative measures against sexual assault. With this aim, a recent study in Psychology of Violence has uncovered a novel way of approaching the problem and potentially lowering rates of sexual offending.
Previous research has shown that a man’s tendency to misread female sexual interest—for example, mistaking friendliness for interest in sex—can lead to the commission of sexual aggression toward her. As a result, researchers at the University of Iowa were interested in testing whether this inaccuracy in perception could be improved through the use of a feedback-based computer task.
Study participants were 183 heterosexual or bisexual undergraduate male students at the university. Roughly 92% had been in at least one serious or casual relationship in the last three years. They completed two computerized tasks. For the first, they viewed and rated 232 full-body, clothed photos of undergraduate women on how sexually interested they believed the women felt, on a scale running from -10 (extremely sexually rejecting) to +10 (extremely sexually interested).
Half of the men received feedback about each woman’s actual level of sexual interest, based on ratings made by the study authors and female students. All participants then viewed 110 photos and decided whether each woman in the photo would respond positively or negatively to a man’s sexual advance.
The participants also answered questionnaires pertaining to history of sexual aggression and rape-supportive attitudes. Examples of attitudes supporting rape include, “It is usually only women who dress suggestively that are raped,” and “When a man is very sexually aroused, he may not even realize that the woman is resisting.”
When guessing how interested a woman was in sex, the men relied largely on women’s affective cues, such as facial expression and body language, which is good news, because these cues are more likely to be indicative of how she is feeling toward him. However, the men also relied on non-affective cues, like attractiveness and how provocatively the women were dressed—this is a cause for concern, the study authors note, because relying on these cues can lead a person to overestimate the sexual interest of more attractive and provocatively dressed women when they are not, in fact, feeling that way. This tendency was more pronounced in men with a history of sexual aggression and in those who endorsed rape-supportive attitudes.
But there was more good news when it came to the men who received feedback on their initial ratings. Feedback improved men’s ability to accurately judge a woman’s interest in sex by teaching them to shift their focus from someone’s attractiveness to affective cues instead. (In men with rape-supportive attitudes, the improvement was smaller.) Feedback did not, however, have an effect on how much men relied on what a woman was wearing to make their inferences.
The authors acknowledged that the study was limited in its generalization to non-college student populations. We also don’t yet know whether the positive feedback effects in the study participants would carry over to real-life social situations —where it counts. It’s important to also consider how additional, complex factors beyond the laboratory, such as verbal cues, level of alcohol intoxication, and interpersonal history between two people, might further contribute to muddying the waters in interpreting sexual interest accurately.
Overall, the study’s findings are promising: They show that the ability to read sexual cues is malleable and can be learned. So, when thinking about future solutions to the problem of sexual assault, in addition to increased public education about consent—it never hurts to just ask someone if they want to have sex with you—preventative efforts may also one day benefit from including a similar cognitive training paradigm, but with an increased number of photographs and multiple sessions to maximize the amount of feedback given to the person using it. As someone who has worked with incarcerated sex offenders in both research and clinical capacities, I would emphasize the importance of also incorporating interventions challenging rape-supportive attitudes to simultaneously help nip the problem in the bud.
A final thought: Although the study targeted male college students, it’s important to consider whether feedback-based interventions could be beneficial for both sexes. Sexual coercion has been shown to be about five times more common among male perpetrators, but we mustn’t forget, in our efforts to end sexual violence, that this is an issue that affects male victims, too.