Women — but not men — seek to actively punish sexualized women, study finds

New research has found evidence that both men and women are prejudiced towards sexualized women. But only women are willing to endure a cost to themselves to punish a woman who appears to be promiscuous. The findings appear in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Across cultures, women and girls have been subjected to various attempts to control their sexuality. This has included slut shaming, female genital cutting, and honor killings.

The researchers from the University of Warwick wanted to better understand what motivates individuals to suppress female — but not male — sexuality. “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,” they explained.

In the study, participants played one of three kinds of economic decision-making games. The participants were led to believe they were playing against a female opponent in real-time, but were actually only interacting with computerized responses.

The opponents varied in whether they appeared to be sexually accessible or sexually restricted. For some participants, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing a tight, red outfit and an abundance of makeup. For others, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing loose-fitting clothing with less makeup.

The researchers found that both male and female participants were less willing to share money with a woman wearing the tight outfit. The participants also trusted sexually-accessible opponents with a financial investment less than sexually-restrictive opponents.

Women, but not men, were also willing to inflict punishments on a sexually-accessible female opponent who made an unfair offer, even though it left them empty-handed as well.

Given the choice between receiving a small sum of money while their opponent took a large sum or having neither player receive any money at all, women tended to pick the latter option.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. The researchers recruited nearly 1,000 participants, but the vast majority were from the United Kingdom — a country with a relatively high level of gender equality.

Nevertheless, the findings suggest that both sexes perpetuate prejudiced behaviors towards sexually-accessible women but for different reasons. The researchers believe that men seek to avoid being duped into investing in a child that isn’t their own, while women seek to keep the cost of sex high or wish to sabotage potential sexual rivals.

“More broadly, our results find that sexual suppression cannot be described as being either male- or female-driven, and that more nuanced models are needed to understand society’s propensity to suppress female sexuality,” the researchers said.

The study, “Who punishes promiscuous women? Both women and women, but only women inflict costly punishment“, was authored by Naomi K. Muggleton, Sarah R. Tarran, and Corey L. Fincher.