Anyone can misread a friendly conversation as romantic interest, but apparently straight men are far more likely to do this than straight women. Is it basic sexism, or evolutionary psychology? Those are the two dominant theories. You tell me what you think.
Writing at Science of Us, Sofia Lyons explains that, according to psychologist Mons Bendixen at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, these two theories can also be explained as error management theory and social roles theory.
Error-management theory is essentially that evolutionary biology makes men hella thirsty. It argues that having a penis—and therefore primarily wanting to impregnate women—makes you so eager to not miss any hot opps to bone that you misread every walking non-scowl as an invitation to get it on. Women, of course, do the opposite: They assume no one is ready for their jelly, because they need to be picky and hold out for the most resourceful, reliable penis to come along. They can't waste the prime real estate of their uterus on just any old sniffin' rando.
Social roles theory sounds somewhat less ancient: Here, the idea is that the basic misunderstanding about who really digs whom is about societal roles/norms/expectations, not evolutionary hardwiring. But Mons Bendixen wanted to find out for sure. Lyons writes:
Bendixen realized that if the social-roles theory were true, it would probably show up when you examined rates of sexual misperception in different countries. In places where there's more equality between the sexes, the social-roles theory would predict that men would misinterpret women's interest about as much as women misinterpret men's. If, on the other hand, error-management theory is true, then men's levels of overperception would be consistently higher everywhere, since the bias comes down to evolutionary hardwired gender influences.
I'll just lay my cards on the table: Unsurprisingly, social roles theory makes more sense to me. The very idea of romantic masculinity, at least in the most generic sense that most of us see in popular culture and various normalizing institutions, is so strongly rooted in a man getting a woman to "give it up." A man not only chooses a potential mate, but all the momentum is up to him, too: He asks her out, pursues her, makes her his, wins her over, decides when it's serious, even if it means competing against another man for her hand.
In many depictions of falling in love, especially in romantic movies, the woman resists her suitor purely out of obligation to her social role—she pretends not to like him, pretends she could not care less. Hell, even books like The Rules told women, ultimately, to do one thing to make sure a guy stays interested in them: Act busy. All of this sets men up to think of women as naturally resisting male charm until they are worn down, and themselves as eager pursuers, ignoring disinterest and carving an alternate path to her heart, be it boombox, fake identity, time travel, or any number of other batshit, stalky things male romantic heroes do in movies to win women over who've said no thanks.
It's a whole lot of women being resistant and then suddenly giving men the Heisman.
(The football is their virginity.)
I realize I have presented a cartoonish image of male thought aligned more with a pickup artist than a perfectly nice male human. But the dynamic is not uncommon, and it's not hard to see why these images of courtship would mislead a man to think most women don't necessarily mean how they are acting at first, or that if they do, it's negotiable—a mere formality in the long game. It's also not hard to see how this socialization would lead men to think that a woman who doesn't appear interested is still possibly interested (and in more extreme forms, that no doesn't even always mean no). And hell, any woman who is actually standing there, talking to you? Showing you that she likes you? Not making it hard for you? Laughing at your jokes, even? Fuuuuck. That's a cakewalk.
So yeah. Social roles theory. My money is on that. But to figure it all out, Bendixen repeated a similar U.S. study from 2003 looking at sexual misperception, only this time, in Norway—which is in the top 5 on the UN's gender equality index. (The U.S. is at 42.) If social roles theory is worth its weight in non-sexist boners, the men and women in the study would misinterpret each other at about the same rate. Lyons:
These differences extend down to the dating world, Bendixen explained in an email. "Norway is very sexually liberal compared to the USA," he said. "A Norwegian woman can play a more active and proactive part in the dating game than an American one without being subject to the same degree of derogation."
Bendixen used 308 college kids aged 18 to 30, and asked the same questions as used in the previous study. Turns out, the Norway results were basically the same as the U.S. results.
88 percent of women reported having experienced at least one incident in which their friendliness was misinterpreted as sexual interest by a man, and on average it had occurred about 3.5 times in the last year alone. Men also reported experiencing sexual misperception, but the rate — 70.6 percent — was far lower. These rates were pretty similar to what was found in the original, U.S.-based study, which found that around 90 percent of women reported that their friendliness had been misperceived at least once in their lifetimes, on average 2.7 times in the last year, with about 70 percent of men reporting having experienced this.
Bendixen says this means that the social roles theory is kinda bullshit; that these results basically prove that this behavior of men over-perceiving female sexual interest is a "universal evolutionary adaptation."
"Despite America and Norway's cultural differences, the findings suggest that men and women make systematic errors in their attempt to read each other's minds in dating and mating contexts," he told Lyons. "These errors follow the predictions of error-management theory."
His work was published in Evolutionary Psychology.
Here's another idea: Even in places that are considered the most egalitarian places to have ever existed on earth, this equality is still a relative thing, and it's still a new thing. Norway may rank in the top five countries on the UN Gender Equality Index, but that doesn't mean there's no sexism. Because there is no place on Earth where sexism has not left a serious mark on history.
Moreover, a study that operates from the premise that greater equality automatically means a lack of sexist attitudes seems fundamentally flawed to me. I would argue that Norway and America are probably not that different when it comes to sexual practices and dating, that we consume much of the same media. Policy is not always a direct reflection of attitude, and one of the remaining frustrations of feminist advances is all the little leftover sexist attitudes that permeate sex and the domestic front even under the cover of equality.
This isn't to suggest that Norway isn't baller on the equality front. Nordic countries beat us hands down for a number of reasons: literacy rates, educational access, participation in a highly skilled labor force, a minimized wage gap, more equally shared childcare and domestic work, generous maternal and paternal leave, and gender quotas requiring a certain percentage of female presence on corporate boards and in politics. There's no doubt that Scandinavian countries were ahead of the game in terms of pushing these policies through from the start, all the way back to granting women the vote, in some cases, even decades earlier than in the U.S., which in comparison, looks like a real shitshow.
But it's important to note that inequality still exists in Norway, because it always has, and it's bound to still influence attitudes. In the early 90s, studies showed that in spite of staggering political gains, women were still doing four times the housework, and no woman was the head of a corporation. Salaries were up to 25 percent lower for women than men. Male political colleagues still met in male-only saunas to talk shop, making female engagement difficult.
Cut to today, and even a glowing review of being a woman in Norway still concedes there is everyday sexism, "as well as late night rapes and domestic violence." A quarter of women in male-dominated fields in Norway say they still deal with chauvinism, even as executives, according to a report from 2011. Three quarters in those industries say they aren't paid equally, that there are no opportunities for advancement, and some 63 percent say they don't think they can become senior execs.
In 2012, a report found that women at the university level were still bumping into a glass ceiling that kept them from many senior professor positions held by men. The bias was found to be directly connected to their childbearing age, and in part possibly even exacerbated by the generous leave policies.
Oh, and a report from this week looking at the safety of teenagers in five European countries found that Norway ranked just behind Britain in categories of online, emotional, physical and sexual violence against teen girls. One in five young women in both countries experience physical violence from men. The good news was that at least in Norway, due to greater equality, more young women were likely to report the abuse. But it still happens.
Don't mistake better policies to address sexism for a utopian solution that has eradicated it.
Anyway, what does this have to do with flirting? Just, perhaps, that sexism lasts longer than policy dictates, and sexual practices and attitudes may be sexism's last stand. I'm not sold on the evolutionary biology tack yet. It will always be easier to tie our most unsavory behaviors to an ancient imperative than it will be to suss out our modern condition: where sexism stops and real equality can ever exist. Looking to Norway as a country that can prove or disprove sexism in practice won't lead you anywhere meaningful. Unless a country is able to "solve" centuries of formative history, we should probably keep looking for better, more modern answers.
Image credit Peter Paul Rubens