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Why we need to stop making assumptions about attraction

Do you enjoy getting dressed up and having a drink with friends? You probably don’t like feeling judged by what you wear or how you act, but it’s easy for people to jump to false conclusions.

Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you met someone in a bar who thought you were interested in them, but you weren’t. Maybe you’ve approached someone who seemed interested in you, but you were rejected. There are many signals that people unconsciously process to reach conclusions about sexual attraction. But as a society, we need to get better at deciphering non-verbal communication so that unwanted advances don’t occur.

Recent research suggests both men and women make assumptions about how certain attires and behaviour might lead to a sexual encounter in certain social settings. Understanding these assumptions more deeply could lead to positive social change in the way we interact with each other, says Dr Eric Koukounas, lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

You are what you infer

The study highlighted three main concerns. Firstly, men and women generally didn’t differ on how they inferred sexual intent. Secondly, both men and women inferred more sexual intent when they observed a woman dressed in revealing clothing, and finally, both men and women inferred more sexual intent when they observed a woman consuming alcohol.

Dr Eric Koukounas, lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology is one of the authors of the article The effects of gender, clothing style, and alcohol consumption on the perception of sexual intent.

 He explains that the research is important because it can help to reduce misperception that can lead to unwanted sexual attention. ‘Understanding how we process sexual information can lead to social education which can potentially affect social change around how we sexually interact with one another,’ he explains.

‘These findings are important because they highlight that both men and women potentially use clothing and alcohol consumption as cues to sexual intent in a woman,’ Dr Koukounas says.

'Understanding how we process sexual information can lead to social education which can potentially affect social change around how we sexually interact with one another.'

Dr Eric Koukounas,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

The issue is perception, not you what you wear

‘Men and women should be able to dress however they wish and drink whatever they wish,’ Dr Koukounas says. The research is not designed to take away personal choice. Instead, he hopes to highlight the cues that people use to process sexual information.

‘Understanding the impact of cues is important for social education, which can potentially affect social change around how we interact with one another,’ he suggests. According to Dr Koukounas both men and women should be educated to assess their perception of alcohol.

But he admits this is easier said than done. The misinterpretation of sexual intent can occur anywhere, from the office to a café.

The first step should be addressing the media’s portrayal of intent, Dr Koukounas says. ‘The media has a responsibility. It links clothing and alcohol with sexual information to sell a product.’ Increasingly, bodies such as the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation are constantly refining their guidelines to ensure alcohol promotion is free of sexually explicit content.

But the advertising industry shouldn’t take on all the responsibility alone, he adds.. Dr Koukounas says the research highlights a need for a broader conversation about the way people unconsciously – and sometimes incorrectly – infer attraction and interest in sexual activity. ‘It’s about instigating a social change – we need a discussion about how men and women interact. We’re not getting it right,’ he concludes.

Want to learn more about human behaviour? Consider completing a Bachelor of Psychological Science at Deakin University.

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Dr Eric Koukounas
Dr Eric Koukounas

Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University
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