That’s what this study should have been titled; instead, the researchers decided to go with the equally inane question “Why Do Men Prefer Nice Women?”, as the title. What a great question. We should definitely study why someone would prefer to be around a nice person as opposed to what, an asshole?
Here is the study abstract for reference:
Responsiveness may signal to a potential partner that one is concerned with her or his welfare, and may therefore increase sexual interest in this person. Research shows, however, that this proposition holds true for men, but not for women. In three studies, one observational and two experimental, we explored a potential mechanism that explains why men and women diverge in their sexual reactions to a responsive opposite-sex stranger. Studies 1 and 2 showed that men, but not women, perceived a responsive stranger as more gender typical (masculine/feminine) and, in turn, as more attractive. Study 3 revealed that responsiveness increased men’s perception of partner’s femininity. This, in turn, was associated with higher sexual arousal, which was, in turn, linked to greater partner attractiveness and greater desire for a long-term relationship. These findings suggest that whether responsiveness affects perceptions of partner attractiveness varies in individuals, depending on the contextually based meaning of responsiveness
Now, studying how heterosexual men and women respond to behaviors that are coded as masculine or feminine isn’t a bad idea, but flirting with evopsych explanations as to why that is, with no meaningful discussion of the body of gender studies scholarship pointing out all the reasons that there is no reason to assume such proclivities are innate? Are you kidding me?
So let’s take a look at what the researcher’s say, shall we?
This quote from the introduction setting up their study seems innocuous enough, “A clue for why responsiveness in initial acquaintanceships induces a different sexual response in men and women comes from studies on gender roles that are embedded in dating scripts (i.e., stereotypes about the sequence of events and actions appropriate for dating encounters).”
Ok, you might say, it makes sense that cultural norms of gender would influence dating scripts, and, therefore, the behavior of men and women in a dating scenario. But they don’t stop there, oh no, they go straight for the evopsych explanation of gender based stereotypes and assert that: “These perceptions and preferences may also be driven by evolutionary forces that have shaped women to prefer agentic, potentially good providers and men to prefer nurturing partners (e.g., Buss, 1989).”
So let’s just break this down; according to this quote women prefer men who are proactive and good providers due to evolution because they need men to provide for them. And listening attentively to what a woman says is somehow an indicator that a man will not be a good provider or “agentic”? Ok, that’s quite a leap of logic.
One sure way to arrive at that conclusion is for the researchers to believe that (western) gender stereotypes are actually true indicators of men’s and women’s intrinsic nature. Or that men are evolutionarily designed to provide (economically) for women and offspring, and that a man’s likelihood of being such a provider can be determined by assessing how stereotypically masculine he is, based on current cultural norms in the west about masculinity.
Next, they assert that men prefer nurturing partners; no word yet on why that is, though I’m going to go out on a limb and say that evopsych types will probably link stereotypical notions of nurturing behavior to child-rearing capabilities. Never mind that the way children have been raised and cared for has changed drastically, even within the last 500 years.
Overreach much? Check. Appeal to the natural? Check. Ignoring the influence of sociocultural norms and/or attributing them innate/evolutionary adaptations? Check.
Next, they hypothesized, due to prior research, “that men would perceive a responsive [i.e. caring] woman as more conforming to gender norms and feminine than an unresponsive woman and, thus, as more sexually attractive” and that “These perceptions may be enhanced by men’s tendency to overestimate women’s sexual interest so as not to miss potential reproductive opportunities (e.g., Haselton & Buss, 2000).”
Now, pay special attention to the last sentence, which attributes men’s increased attraction to stereotypically feminine women to an evolutionary need to (in technical terms) bang as many chicks as possible. Because stereotypically feminine women are more likely to wanna bang dudes AMIRITE? And they make better mothers. Because they bake cookies and appear to have just walked out of a 1950’s ad for kitchen gadgets. /snark
Also, let’s just take a moment to reflect on the fact that race and culture were in no way controlled for here – the study participants were all recruited from Israeli colleges and fell into a narrow age range. But that’s not stopping the researchers or the popular press from making sweeping statements about (heterosexual) men’s partner preferences. In fact the popular news article that prompted me to enter full-throated feminist rage mode was published in the Pacific Standard with the title Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, not so Much.
Yeah – I’m not even going to touch that title.
Predictably, the popular reporting on this research ignored other sections of the study that actually posit somewhat reasonable explanations for women’s differing response from men when interacting with a male stranger who expresses attentiveness.
To their credit the authors point out that some “women may interpret men’s provision of responsiveness as a tactic for sexual exploitation rather than genuine long-term interest.” Which, given the dangerous climate women live in, is a reasonable response. Unfortunately they don’t spend much time on this interpretation.
Instead, they continue with the same tired assertions based in evopsych to explain men’s attraction, in their study, to women who exhibit gender normative behavior. They say that their “findings…imply that assessment of a woman’s femininity is central to activation of such mechanisms [to pursue a long-term partnered relationship].” They continue, stating that, “Past research has already suggested that physical cues of femininity (e.g., facial features, vocal characteristics) are one source of information to which mechanisms for sexual attraction are sensitive (e.g., Fraccaro et al., 2010), as they denote higher estrogen levels, good reproductive health, and overall mate quality (e.g., Feinberg, 2008; Law Smith et al., 2006; Thornhill & Gangestad, 2006).”
Oh, where to begin?
Let’s examine the assertion that facial features are indicative of good health (which could theoretically correlate with reproductive capacity). This study, conducted in 2003 casts serious doubt on that assertion, finding no causal relationship between femininity in women’s faces and objective measures of health. And in a later more detailed study by the same lead author, facial feature symmetry (the way attractiveness is typically measured) was again, at best, weakly correlated with health.
But beyond that, there is the built in assumption that reproduction is the driving factor motivating men to pursue sexual relationships with women (and vice versa, though that is less discussed – I wonder why?). But why assume that reproduction is THE explanation for human sexual desire? Humans express sexual desire and engage in sexual behavior with others, such as in same-sex interactions or other non-procreative sexual acts, that would indicate that the desire to reproduce is not the only (or even necessarily) the primary factor behind human sexual activity. However, that is not even touched upon in this study.
The study concludes on a more cautious note that is seemingly at odds with many of the statements in the body of the study; they say their study contributes to research on the “implication” that “attraction is grounded in cultural traditions” and go on to say that “categorical gendered thinking, which reflects cultural beliefs and prevails in the dating realm, shapes the meaning that people ascribe to expressions of intimacy.”
So, why repeatedly tie these cultural norms to evolutionary causes?
I won’t speculate as to why that is but researchers must begin to do better when producing research around sexual behavior and stop relying on dressed up versions of biological determinism to explain away behavior that is, in all likelihood, primarily of socio-cultural origin. And at the very least, anything but fixed or innate.