While men and women are equally likely to mislead a sexual partner, the things they lie about differ, according to findings published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study revealed that men were more likely than women to deceive a potential sexual partner about their wealth, occupation, and appearance.
Blatant sexual deception is when a person intentionally misleads a sexual partner, usually to encourage a sexual encounter. A person might provide false information, such as lying about their age, or might conceal information that could get in the way of a sexual opportunity, like refraining from disclosing a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Study authors Flora Oswald and her team note that such lies can be used to coerce an otherwise unwilling partner, making sexual deception a pressing issue that overlaps with the topic of sexual consent. The researchers sought to re-examine the issue of sexual deception, focusing on investigating demographic and personality characteristics that might predict this tendency to lie during sexual encounters.
“Our interest in this topic began when the phenomenon of ‘stealthing’ – non-consensual removal of condoms during sexual intercourse – was coming into mainstream consciousness,” explained Oswald, a PhD candidate at Penn State and senior research assistant at the Observations and Research in Gender and Sexuality Matters Lab.
“At that time, we found that there was not much literature on the phenomenon, but we did find that there was some amount of literature on other similar forms of sexual deception, such as lying to partners about the use of birth control. We sought to extend that previous work to capture a broader range of deceptive behaviors.”
A sample of 1,769 participants with previous sexual experience completed an online questionnaire. The participants were between the ages of 16 and 81, and 63% were women, 34% were men, and 3% were non-binary. Aside from various demographic measures, the participants completed a sexual deception questionnaire that asked them to indicate whether they had engaged in different types of deception when initiating a sexual encounter (e.g., “I said I have had less sexual partners than I actually have”). Respondents also completed a measure of sexual narcissism and sexual compulsivity.
Across the sample, sexual deception was considerably high. For example, 34% of men and 33% of women said they had lied to a partner concerning their number of past sexual partners. Perhaps more worryingly, 12% of men and 9% of women had told a partner they had been checked for STIs when they had not.
While men and women were similar in their overall levels of sexual deception, the information that they lied about differed. Men were more likely to mislead a partner about their wealth, occupation, and appearance compared to women. Men were also more likely to say they were younger than they actually were during a sexual encounter, whereas women were more likely to say they were older than they actually were.
“One of the key points that we hope readers can take away from this work is that enthusiastic consent should be the centerpiece of all sexual interactions and that deceiving sexual partners can disrupt consent, because consent cannot freely be given under conditions of deception,” Oswald told PsyPost.
The researchers point out that their study assessed the number of sexual deception items endorsed by respondents, but did not assess the frequency with which they engaged in each form of deception. While men and women endorsed a similar number of items, this does not mean that they both engaged in sexual deception to the same extent. Notably, previous studies have suggested that men engage in sexual deception more often than women.
Participants belonging to a sexual minority group were more likely to lie about their sexual orientation compared to heterosexual respondents. The authors say this is likely because sexual minorities are stigmatized, which may lead these individuals to conceal their orientation to avoid prejudice or harm. For example, a bisexual person might tell a potential partner they are straight to avoid heterosexist judgment.
Finally, sexual narcissism and sexual compulsivity were both positively tied to sexual deception. It seems plausible that people with narcissistic traits, such as heightened self-importance and decreased empathy, would be more likely to use sexual coercion and to exploit potential partners. People with compulsive sexual behavior, on the other hand, have intense sexual urges and might be more likely to feel “that the ends (i.e., obtaining sex) justifies the means (i.e., the use of deception).” Importantly, Oswald and her team say that these findings suggest that people who are high in sexual narcissism and sexual compulsivity may be relevant targets for interventions focused on sexual deception.
“There are two primary limitations to this work,” Oswald said. “The first is that it was not conducted with a representative sample, meaning that certain groups of people or social identities are over- or under-represented in our sample. Our sample was collected online and is more diverse than a traditional college student sample, but is still limited in its generalizability.”
“Second, though we provide comprehensive descriptive information about sexual deception, we didn’t examine why people engage in sexual deception. There remain a number of open questions about what exactly motivates people to deceive their sexual partners.”
Future studies could also assess how often people engage in sexual deception and in what context (e.g., with long-term partners or short-term partners). It will also be important to further study sexual deception among non-binary individuals, since this population is understudied.
“There have been recent legal moves happening around the globe pertaining to stealthing, the phenomenon that initially motivated this work,” Oswald noted. “For example, California just made this practice illegal. However, in many places stealthing remains under the radar.”
The study, “Blatant sexual deception: Content, individual differences, and implications”, was authored by Flora Oswald, Devinder Khera, Kari A. Walton, and Cory L. Pedersen.