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A glimpse of panties and men can’t function

April 19th, 2006

Dr Petra

If I were to say to you men can’t be trusted in positions of power because they think with their dicks, you’d tell me I was being unfair.

Sure, there are stereotypes of men are preoccupied with sex, but to claim sex gets in the way of men’s abilities to manage even simple tasks suggests men are just brainless Neanderthals.

Yet in many of today’s papers that’s exactly the message being given. It’s based on research from a Belgian University that’s found men are so distracted by sexy women they can’t even focus on a simple lab task.

Instead of challenging the many flaws and assumptions behind the research, science writers and other reporters have run with a ‘this confirms what we’ve always known about men’ approach. It’s amazing in a media that’s increasingly quick to see men as the underdogs when it comes to a study that’s doing men down nobody seems to notice. In fact most journalists have been happy to perpetuate sexist stereotypes.

Maybe we ought to look at the quality of this research before we jump on the men-are-all-sex-crazed-loons bandwagon?

It’s a study of 176 male student volunteers aged 18-28. Now you don’t need me to tell you that a this small sample of young male students is not going to be representative. These are men who’ve either chosen to be in a study, or they’ve been compelled to participate to gain course credits (which is how a lot of social scientists ensure they get participants in their research). And in all likelihood they’ll be social science students so they’re going to have a pretty good idea about what the study’s about, and consciously or unconsciously are going to try and deliver what they think the researcher wants from them.

Let’s imagine these students come into the laboratory. They’re assigned into pair groups and they’ll be told something like they’re there to participate in a study that is testing their responses to a financial game that’s going to measure fair play. This isn’t really what the study is about, but that’s the cover story participants may have been told.

Just before the financial game begins, one half of each pair will be shown images of a ‘sexy woman’ or asked to rate how much they liked a variety of lingerie. However these weren’t equally assigned to conditions and it isn’t clear how analysis adjusted for this.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise at this point these participants will twig the research isn’t really about financial game playing and fair play. And now they’ll be both trying to guess the real purpose of the study and perform for the researchers.

The study claimed the men who saw the sexy women or discussed lingerie were more likely to accept unfair play in the financial game that followed (i.e. they messed up on the game playing task).

But perhaps there are other factors that could explain the results? For a start, if you’re anticipating one study but find yourself in another it’s going to confuse you – that alone could cause a different response later on. Also, you’re in a laboratory and a lecturer or researcher is showing you pictures of sexy women or asking you to tell them what knickers you like. Isn’t that situation going to make you feel self-conscious, embarrassed or flustered? The researchers present the study as though seeing sexy women or discussing lingerie is automatically arousing and that causes men to mess up on tasks. It could be as likely these men were simply befuddled by the whole artificial study setting.

Because we all buy into the stereotype that a glimpse of lingerie arouses men it doesn’t occur to us to question the ethics of such research. Nobody reporting on this study in the media even mentioned how these participants may have felt within this research setting. By repeating the stereotypes that underpin this research we assume such studies are benign, and yet other research indicates they can be unsettling or embarrassing for male participants – and due to pressures of masculinity men also feel trapped in such research.

To further prove their case the researchers claim they ‘measured testosterone’, but not by a blood test as you might expect. Instead they used the more controversial test of the ratio of index finger to ring finger (where a longer ring finger indicates a higher testosterone level). They claimed the men with the ‘highest’ testosterone level were more likely to be put off tasks by sexy ladies.

The research compared the behaviour of men who saw something ‘sexy’ (as defined by the researchers not the participants) with men who did not. This, combined with a limited sample, isn’t enough to draw conclusions about global male behaviour. A more accurate approach would be to have a control arm of the study where a group of men had some interruption before the game-playing task that wasn’t sexual. That way it might verify whether it was the interruption rather than the stimuli that caused responses. Although the researchers did have three conditions in the research, the distraction tasks involved either images of sexy women, or young or old women (which raises other uncomfortable ethical issues) or to discuss lingeri. There wasn’t a non-sexual distraction task.

The researchers claim they’ve not noticed similar effects in women, but given the design of this research is so biased towards masculine stereotypes perhaps other research on females was equally biased to show women don’t respond to sexual stimuli? Perhaps the researchers are deliberately or inadvertently trying to confirm that men are sexual and women are not?

Nevertheless the story’s been massively popular in the press. It has all the right ingredients of sex, stereotypes, and oversimplification. In fact most press coverage hasn’t accurately represented the research, and as usual journalists haven’t read the original paper, relying instead on either press releases or other newspaper coverage of the story.

My main concern with this research, aside from it’s uncritical acceptance in the media, is the way the researchers make claims that go way beyond their data. They argue: “We all think we are rational beings, but our research suggests … that people with high testosterone levels are very vulnerable to sexual cues. If there are no cues around, they behave normally, but if they see sexual images they become impulsive…It’s a tendency, but these people are not powerless to fight it. Hormone levels are one thing, but we can learn to deal with it.”

We often think of women as hormonally driven, but this research is doing the same thing for men. It’s arguing that given enough testosterone you’re irrational and impulsive. In other research we’re constantly told how men in powerful positions are often more likely to have higher testosterone levels. So if we’re to believe this research it’s really telling us is powerful men can’t be trusted to make any sensible decisions because you only need a petticoat to enter the room and men’ll be foaming at the mouth, forgetting all the important stuff.

If this is the case we’ve a great answer to ending all our wars or political problems. Simply get a ‘sexy woman’ to sashay through a board meeting and peace will be restored.

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