Sexual Exploitability: How Men Identify Hook-Up Partners

If there’s one overriding gender difference when it comes to relationships, it’s that men are more open to the idea of short-term flings than women.

True, there are women who are fine with the idea of one night stands, and men who are only interested in a committed match. But on average it’s the man who has to persuade the woman into bed. This imbalance makes sense evolutionarily speaking because the consequences of sex are more serious for women: whereas a man is often free to abandon a partner before daybreak, women can be left pregnant, with the prospect of an obligatory twenty year investment in an expensive child who’ll probably start demanding an iPad before they’re out of nappies.

But what it also means is that men are faced with a conundrum. They want to have sex with more woman than they can reasonably expect to agree to it. So, how to sway the ladies if the usual flowers and chocolates fail to do the trick?

Cari Goetz and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin hypothesised that there might be four, broad strategies that men use to exploit women sexually. The first is to use seduction: to charm a woman into bed without promise of commitment. Might be a toughie to implement if you don’t sound like Barry White or look like Ryan Gosling. The second strategy is verbal or nonverbal pressure: essentially relentless persistence in the hope that she’ll eventually give in just to shut you up. Third on the list is deception, typified by the man who promises his undying love and a diamond engagement ring the size of Neptune, only to abscond before the bed’s cooled down. And the final strategy, to which many men regrettably stoop, is coercion: forcing sexual contact in the absence of consent.

What Goetz wondered was whether men are attracted to women who are likely to fall prey to their exploitative strategies. Is a woman who is open to seduction or easily deceived found more alluring?

She had 76 men view a series of photographs of women culled from the web. For each photograph, the men were asked to rate how easy a man would find it to have sex with the woman by exploiting her. The questions were phrased in the third person to counter men’s unwillingness to respond to these sensitive and taboo questions. Men also rated how attractive each woman would be as a long term or a short term romantic partner. Meanwhile, an independent batch of raters judged the extent to which the women in the photos embodied 88 potential cues of sexual availability or exploitability.

Women who appeared stereotypically “easy”, or immature, intoxicated, reckless or who were partying with friends were judged easily exploitable. And they were also seen as highly attractive for short term relationships and highly unattractive for long term relationships. Women who looked intelligent were considered difficult to exploit and were unattractive for a fling, but they were much more attractive for a longer term relationship.

Some other characteristics were modestly good cues of exploitability, such as youth, sleepiness, lack of shyness, and revealing clothes, and all women judged to be exploitable were considered good prospects for short-term, but not long-term relationships.

These results are especially interesting because it’s been thought for a long time by attractiveness researchers that when men are looking for a long term partner they want someone who is attractive, but, when pursuing a short term partner, they lower their standards since attractive women are less likely to agree to a one night stand. This new research means we have to ditch that theory, because it shows that when men are after a fling, their standards don’t drop: they change. Men don’t stop caring about potential faithfulness or intelligence when judging women’s suitability as short term partners: they’re actively attracted to women who appear promiscuous, intoxicated or unintelligent.

Rather depressing, really. Well, it’s good news for Lindsay Lohan, I suppose.

Goetz, C. D., Easton, J. A., Lewis, D. M. G., & Buss, D. M. (in press). Sexual exploitability: observable cues and their link to sexual attraction.Evolution and Human Behavior. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the April 2012 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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