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

Even when they suffer costs in doing so.

Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson is a St. Louis-based writer whose work has been published by outlets including PBS Digital Studios, HuffPost, MSN, U.S. News & World Report, Eleven Magazine and The Missourian.

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  • 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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