Study provides new insights into why some men behave aggressively toward women who reject them

With the recent rekindling of the #MeToo Movement (originally started in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke), the rise of “Incels” (men who are “involuntarily celibate” due to lack of appeal to women who are seeking sexual partners), and increased public discussion of sexual aggression — particularly that of men toward women — and sex-related crimes, many researchers have turned their attention to understanding what causes these behaviors.

Recently, Australian researchers Khandis R. Blake, Brock Bastian, and Thomas F. Denson examined the effect of sexualization of women on men’s aggression toward them. Their findings were published in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

The researchers predicted that men would behave more aggressively toward sexualized women than non-sexualized women because the sexualization would increase the men’s romantic or sexual arousal, desire to have a romantic partner, and desire to be considered attractive (i.e., sex goals).  The researchers also expected that men who experienced higher levels of aggression would feel more sexually dominant over women.

To text these predictions, they conducted an experiment in which single, heterosexual men interacted with a prerecorded video of a sexualized or non-sexualized woman through what they were told was a dating portal connected to a student at another university.

Participants completed a questionnaire that measures typical aggression levels, followed by a video dating game in which they viewed a pre-recorded video of a woman who was either sexualized (wearing sexy clothing and said that she was open to casual sex) or non-sexualized (wearing neutral clothing and said that she was not open to casual sex).  Following the video, the men completed a survey that measured their sex goal activation.  They then received written feedback stating that the woman from the video was not interested in dating them.

For the final part of the experiment, the men completed an aggression paradigm in which they were told that they were competing with the woman from the video on reaction time.  If they “won” any given trial, they would blast her with white noise, the intensity and duration of which they selected themselves.  When they “lost,” they were blasted instead, supposedly by the woman.  This allowed the researchers to measure the men’s aggression toward the woman who had recently rejected them as potential partners.

Participants assigned to the sexualized condition reported higher sex goals, and aggression (measured by the white noise-blasting paradigm) was positively correlated with sex goal activation following rejection, supporting Blake, Bastian, and Denson’s hypotheses.

The researchers explain that when men interact with a sexualized woman, they presume that she is more sexually available and suffer a bigger blow to their ego when such women reject them.  The extent to which this is true on an individual basis depends on whether or not they believe their sexual interest in the women who reject them is returned; if they expect her to be interested in them and are then rejected, their sex goals have been activated, and they experience greater disappointment after facing rejection than if they did not think they had a chance in the first place.

The aggression displayed by the participants of this study can be partially explained by men’s entitlement to sex.  If men think they are entitled to a sexual relationship with a woman, they are less likely to exhibit self-control, more likely to endorse traditional gender roles, and more likely to be hostile toward women.

Past research has suggested that sex goal activation in men can lead to aggression toward women later, regardless of whether they are sexualized.

Another possibility for future research in this area would be to conduct a similar experiment with face-to-face interaction.  It would be more difficult to control for subtle differences in the woman’s speech and behavior, but it might allow researchers to observe this pattern in a more natural situation.

The researchers hope that these findings will contribute to our understanding of male aggression and help reduce sexual violence.  This is a timely study because it illustrates that sexualization of a woman, in and of itself, does not directly cause aggression.  It increases sex goal activation in men, which in turn can increase aggression.

This is not a call for women to choose non-sexualized clothing, to avoid advertising their sexual availability to men, or to be careful about how they tell the men who pursue them that they are not interested.  Ultimately, individuals must choose whether to act on their aggressive impulses, and it is possible to overcome those impulses and manage a blow to one’s self-esteem in a healthy way.

The study, “Heightened male aggression toward sexualized women following romantic rejection: The mediating role of sex goal activation“, was authored by Khandis R. Blake, Brock Bastian, and Thomas F. Denson.