Lust in translation

A new study says "faulty male introspection" is to blame for misread sexual signals.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published April 26, 2008 9:59AM (EDT)

It's a familiar scene: A guy and a girl sit in a dorm room -- the lights are dimmed, Portishead is playing in the background and they're, of course, passionately making out. But mid-makeout, the girl decides that she wants to stop -- so, she pulls back and sheepishly says, "It's getting late." But the guy simply smirks and goes in for another kiss. According to a new study on sexual communication, this scenario of lust-in-translation can be blamed on -- drum roll, please -- "faulty male introspection." Yes, seriously: faulty male introspection.

Before I start blowing steam out of my ears, let's go over the basics of the study: 30 female and 60 male undergraduates responded to a survey asking about 16 "female resistance messages." According to the press release: "The messages ranged from very direct -- 'Let's stop this' -- to very indirect -- 'I'm seeing someone else.' Four potential interpretations were listed for each message; only one was 'stop.'" Half of the male participants chose a message that a romantic partner had communicated to them in the past and chose the interpretation that best matched their own take at the time; the other half chose the interpretation that fit what they would personally intend if delivering the message to a woman. The female participants, on the other hand, chose a message they had used with a romantic partner in the past and chose the interpretation that most closely matched the message they intended.

Researchers found that "men were accurate at interpreting direct resistance messages like 'Let's stop this.' But they were as apt to interpret 'Let's be friends' to mean 'keep going' as to mean 'stop.' And few of them would mean 'stop' if they were to deliver any of the indirect messages themselves." Lead researcher Michael Motley, a communications professor at the University of California at Davis, explained, "Males' inferred meanings for women's indirect sexual resistance messages are more similar to the meanings males would have intended by those same messages than to the meanings women intend." Hence, "faulty male introspection."

Now, for the ear steam: I think it's unfair to blame this sexual miscommunication on men. Just as men are misreading women's indirect resistance, women are miscalculating how men will interpret their cues to slow down or stop. (Interestingly enough, in previous research, Motley found that women use indirect messages of resistance to avoid upsetting men, but most men easily accept direct resistance.) I also find it hard to blame men for not correctly reading women's indirect resistance; women are often expected to, in the very least, put on a halfhearted performance as the steadfast sexual gatekeeper -- even if it's clear that she ultimately intends to abandon her post for the night. Given that cultural script -- first she resists, then she consents -- how is it any surprise that a guy would misinterpret a woman's subtle suggestions to slow down?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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