Women — not men — are more willing to punish 'sexually-accessible' women, researchers find

Even when they suffer costs in doing so.

  • It's commonly thought that the suppression of female sexuality is perpetuated by either men or women.
  • In a new study, researchers used economics games to observe how both genders treat sexually-available women.
  • The results suggests that both sexes punish female promiscuity, though for different reasons and different levels of intensity.

Researchers from the University of Warwick recently sought to answer the following questions: "Who's suppressing female sexuality — and why?" They started by noting one double standard between the genders: Men are praised for getting laid, while women are often shamed, or worse.

Some suggest this double standard is imposed by men, and that patriarchal societies seek to suppress female sexuality to maximize paternity certainty, or to monopolize a man's access to his mate(s). Others propose that women punish promiscuity in order to maintain the value of sex, giving women more power as a group.

"Sex is coveted by men," Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, who's conducted research similar to the new study, told the New York Times. "Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous."

The Warwick study, which was published in Evolution & Human Behavior on December 22, confirms that both men and women suppress female promiscuity. However, they do so for different reasons and different levels of intensity. For example, only women were observed to inflict punishment on sexualized women when it meant they themselves suffer costs in doing so.

Three experiments

In the study — authored by Naomi K. Muggleton, Sarah R. Tarran, and Corey L. Fincher — participants were told they'd be participating in an online "Economic Decision-Making Game" against a real opponent located anywhere in the world.

In reality, however, their opponents were merely computer responses that were matched up to one of three models, each of whom had posed for photos in both sexually restrictive and sexually provocative contexts. For the sexually provocative photos, the models wore tight-redding red outfits and "copious makeup," while they wore loose-fitting clothes of neutral colors for the conservative photos.

The participants played one of three games.

In a so-called "Dictator Game," the participants were given $20 and told they could give any amount of money to the recipient they were matched with online, and that their identities would remain anonymous to the recipient. As predicted, both men and women gave less money to the models who were dressed provocatively.

The researchers also tested how participants judged the trustworthiness of the two sets of models. In a trust game, participants were given a sum of money and matched with a trustee. They were told that any amount they handed over to the trustee would be tripled, but the catch was that the trustee could then choose to give any amount back to the investor, or none at all. Again, as predicted, both men and women were less likely to trust the women wore sexually provocative outfits.

The researchers noted that this is "consistent with our view that sexually-accessible women are perceived as more likely to cheat on mates or poach the mates of others."

Finally, the "Ultimatum Game" tested whether women are more likely to inflict costly punishments on sexually-available women at their own expense. In the game, one person received a sum of money and could choose to give any amount to the other player. Meanwhile, the recipient could choose to either accept the offer or reject it if it seems unfair. If the recipient rejects, neither player gets anything. The results showed that women were considerably more likely to reject offers they deemed unfair, meaning they were willing to lose out on money just to punish their sexually accessible opponent.

A refined outlook

The researchers wrote that men don't really have good reasons to suffer the costs of punishing sexually accessible women with whom they're not romantically involved. However, women do because they have an interest in maintaining the value of sex within the group.

The researchers concluded that explanations that blame one gender for the suppression of female sexuality are incomplete.

Instead, both sexes perpetuate and maintain prejudiced evaluations of sexually-accessible women, but for different reasons. Therefore, we propose a theory of female sexuality that acknowledges that men and women have different routes to reproductive success, and that both men and women can attempt to control a woman's sexuality simultaneously. This complements previous evidence that men and women are motivated to objectify sexualized women via different mechanisms... If society is to understand and overcome the sexual double standard, interventionists should seek to uncover how men and women vary in their attitudes towards sexualized women.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.