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It seems like such an obviously false claim, but I keep running into the claim that men are "Wired differently" than women and therefore can't control their lust.

The claim in conversation was "However, at the end of the day, men's brains are wired a certain way, and the only thing they can do is avert their gaze if they're really trying hard to respect a woman that they're talking to but are getting distracted by her looks." (This forum thread).

I want to refute the idea that men are innately "distracted by [women's] looks" because they are "wired [that] way" and therefore incapable of respecting a woman's opinion or having a proper conversation unless she's covered from head to toe. However, I'd like to do it properly, citing actual studies, since this is a widely-held claim and tied in ultimately with religion.


Examples:

Anthropology Matters cites a 2000 study on muslim women's opinions:

'Men can't control themselves' [...] Women who wear hajib [...] believe it is men's sexual desires that are being controlled


Men are also responsible to control their eyes and minds. However, I think many women are unaware of how difficult this is for men [...] Men and women are wired differently and we women may never understand what men go through."

From an article on The Falcon


Funny thing is I have taken classes on modesty and have discovered that men are wired different than women. It is a scientific fact that a mans optical nerve is directly linked to his penial nerve and that is why he gets hard when he sees a womans skin"

From a forum.


Because men and women are “wired” differently when it comes to the human body. The fact is, it doesn’t take much visual stimulus at all for guys to become sexually aroused. The sight of the female body, even just a little bit and even if it’s a complete stranger, can trigger sexual thoughts instantly. This might be difficult for women to understand, but it’s absolutely true. [...] Remember, the sight of a woman’s body is so powerful for men, that unless they’re well-trained and highly disciplined, they’ll have a difficult time refraining from sexual thoughts. [...] Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, if you present yourself in a way that is sexually revealing, even in the slightest of ways, many men will want your body for pleasure without regard for you as a person. Many men will see you as sexually loose. Other men will be constantly distracted with sexual temptations and find it hard to get to know you as a person.

from an article on Love Matters


Women must learn that men are “wired” differently and the way a woman dresses can have a definite impact on how a man reacts to her. As an example, if a man is watching a TV talk show or interview, and sees a modestly dressed woman sitting on a chair or couch and she is wearing a dress or skirt that extends several inches below the knees, she is viewed as a total woman and the mans concentration is on her, as a complete person, and on what she is saying or whatever her purpose is for being on that particular show.

However, if you take the same woman and shorten her skirt so that it is two or three inches above the knees, then the man perceives her in a different manner, more as a sexual object. He no longer views her as a whole person worthy of respect. Instead, he sees her as a collection of parts, with some parts drawing more attention than others. This sexual “evaluation” all takes place in split second in the brain, but has the effect of distracting the man from what she is saying, because her appearance is sending a different message.

Even if they are full length and not tight fitting, a pair of slacks on a woman has the same psychological effect of dividing her up into parts”.

(from a forum seemingly quoting Dr. Anne Marie McDonnell).

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Interesting and tricky question. I think we need to hone in more on the exact claim. Penile-to-optic-nerve nonsense is simple anatomy, and barely worth responding. The responsibility question is a moral one, not a scientific one. It is clear by example that some men are able to have a proper conversation with 'immodestly' dressed women. Is the claim as simple as "Men are stimulated more visually than women"? Would that address your concern? How about "Men are less able to perform mental tasks in the presence of visual (sexual) stimulation than women."? –  Oddthinking Nov 23 '11 at 1:16
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For some reason I am reminded of some of the thoughts shared here: larianlequella.blogspot.com/2010/09/… –  Larian LeQuella Nov 23 '11 at 2:37
    
It's not "men are stimulated more visually" so much as "Men are stimulated visually and therefore cannot respect women for their words/thoughts/personality/ideas because objectification is built into their brains on a biological level". The former claim is interesting and easy to prove; the latter is hogwash and hopefully easily disprovable. –  Yamikuronue Nov 23 '11 at 13:17
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I don't have time to research this now, but a good answer may be in this human behavioural biology lecture series by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford. Lectures 15-17 are about Human Sexual Behavior –  bobobobo Nov 23 '11 at 20:39
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To me, this question seems to be ultimately related to skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/3028/…. It seems like generalizing all men as being wired one way or the other (ie, do homosexual men see scantily clad women as sexual objects rather than as people?) is making the same assumption that being scantily clad leads to rape. It may be that certain people are just nasty, and that spoils it for the rest of us. –  mmr Nov 24 '11 at 22:43

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I'm torn whether this addresses the question. That's because I'm not sure if the question, as it stands, is answerable.

There has been a very recent set of experiments published exploring this area:

More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification. Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom, Lisa Feldman Barrett. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov 2011. DOI: 10.1037/a0025883.

The experiments looked a number of aspects of how people (both men and women) perceived others differently based on their state of dress, sexualised pose, attractiveness, or emphasis on their bodies, etc.

It is a complex paper, and difficult to summarise all the experiments here. (Actually, I take that back: their own abstract does a reasonable job, which I have cribbed from.)

They concluded people (men and women) did perceive the minds of others differently based on these factors. However, they found that it didn't fall into a simple definition of "objectifying" (in their words "viewing someone as a body induces de-mentalization, stripping away their psychological traits".)

They found that people changed their perceptions to reduce inferences of "agency (self-control and action)", but increase inferences of "experience (emotion and sensation)"

The effect of a body focus on mind perception also influenced moral intuitions, with those represented as a body seen to be less morally responsible (i.e., lesser moral agents) but more sensitive to harm (i.e., greater moral patients; [...] These effects suggest that a body focus does not cause objectification per se but, instead, leads to a redistribution of perceived mind.

It suggests that men (nor women) do not, as the question's quotes suggests, treat "immodestly dressed"1 women (or men) as merely "as a collection of parts", while supporting the view that men (and women) may treat immodestly dressed women (and men) differently.

Limitations

This doesn't completely address the question.

I couldn't see anything in the paper that suggested women and men reacted differently (except where there was symmetrical differences between the perceptions of photos of the same and opposite genders), but I also couldn't see that they were looking for such a pattern.

So, there's no evidence here of being "wired" differently, but I don't see how that could be proven in any case.

The subjects were not asked to overcome these feelings, so it is impossible to say whether it would be "easy" for them to compensate for them.


1 I am not a big fan of the term "immodestly dressed", because people's definitions of "modestly dressed" vary so much.

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Regarding your footnote: I would assume that the fact that "modestly dressed" varies from person/culture to person/culture would explicitly affect the results, but in a way that can be compensated for. If you think someone is "immodestly dressed" and behave the same as someone else evaluating a different person that they consider "immodestly dressed", then it's a valid grouping of behavior, even if one person's view is "shows knees and elbows" and the other is "shows everything but nipples". –  Bobson Sep 2 at 17:03

Very timely question. There was an interview in Time on this very question, with Amy Schalet.

Amy Schalet is a researcher of sexuality and culture (comparative sexuality), currently assistant professor of sociology at UMass. She has her Ph.D in sociology from UC Berkeley. Schalet's book is Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex. For more information about her credentials, see: Amy Schalet: Bio at UMass.

Schalet disagrees with this idea that boys and men are uncontrollably in rut and that women simply have to be protected. She says the facts tend to bear out that boys and men are very romantic and normally conceive of sex as a part of a relationship.

Here's the chilling part. Schalet concludes that societies which fear and suppress sexual behavior tend to create more men who are sexual bullies. So the cultures which put in place these protective (i.e. fear-driven) strategies are actually creating the very problem they say they are trying to solve. It's a vicious cycle.

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Sorry, an interview on Time is absolutely not a good reference for this site. More than anything, it's just another claim. Please reference with something a bit stronger (like a peer-reviewed article). –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Nov 22 '11 at 20:14
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I suggest updating the FAQ to reflect that only peer reviewed sources are acceptable. Until that time, the guidance from the site itself is: "any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful". That's a fairly low bar, and I suppose a referral to a review and a book that directly address the subject would qualify. –  MετάEd Nov 22 '11 at 20:36
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The FAQ does not require peer-reviewed sources, but it does encourage them. Even so, an interview, whether in Time magazine or anywhere else, is not generally a good source, IMO, as it is very likely to convey personal opinion. An interview from an expert may be part of a good answer. And an interview may reference statistics, studies, or other authoritative sources which can be used to build an even better answer. –  Flimzy Nov 22 '11 at 21:46
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@MetaEd We cannot update the relevant section of the FAQ, however see meta for more info. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Nov 22 '11 at 21:51
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I don't plan to accept this answer because the source is only an interview and a book which appears to contain primarily anecdotal data. I'm looking for something more scientific. However, I appreciate the quick response and it's certainly in the right direction. –  Yamikuronue Nov 23 '11 at 13:19

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