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Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. This finding, which has been replicated in scores of studies using a variety of methodological approaches, has been linked to important social concerns, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. Theoretical explanations for gender differences in sexual intent perceptions are reviewed.

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Assessing sexual intentions, in particular assessing whether another person has sexual interest in you, is an important, yet difficult, task. Most people consider sexual activity an essential component of their lives, and sexual activity is critical for the perpetuation of the human species. Thus, identifying reciprocated sexual intentions is of fundamental importance. Instead, people may engage in behaviors that hint at their sexual intentions but could easily be interpreted as friendly Fichten et al.

Using such behaviors provides people with some protection from embarrassment or rejection, but also allows for multiple interpretations of sexual intent and can lead to misperceptions and misunderstandings. As a result, making accurate sexual intent assessments is often challenging. Central to the study of sexual intent perception is the well-established phenomenon of gender differences in perceived intent.

However, the range of consequences of misperception is broad, and consequences are not always severe Abbey, ; Haselton, For example, consequences of misperception also include embarrassment or minor discomfort, and it is possible that a misperception might, eventually, become a source of humor Abbey, Given the accumulating breadth of empirical studies documenting gender differences in sexual intent perception, and the possible adverse consequences of this phenomenon, it is an opportune moment to summarize existing research findings and recommend future directions.

This article aims to provide a qualitative review and integration of findings pertaining to gender differences in sexual intent perception. To this end, we will a define and critique key constructs and typical research methodologies, b summarize findings, c review theoretical explanations for gender differences, and d propose future directions. We intend our treatment to represent the breadth and depth of the field, and we will rely on selective studies for illustration.

We begin our discussion of sexual intent constructs and methods by describing the first published sexual intent study. In this study, Abbey began with the hypothesis that men, as compared to women, perceive more sexuality in female targets. This hypothesis was tested using an experimental paradigm in which unacquainted male—female dy of White college students had 5-minute conversations with the goal of getting to know one another. The conversation session was observed by a second, unacquainted, male—female dyad.

Thus, members of the first dyad served as interactants e. Abbey found that male raters and interactants perceived higher sexual intent in female targets than did female raters and interactants. In addition, male raters and interactants were more sexually attracted to the female targets than female raters and interactants were to the male targets.

Abbey also found that male raters and interactants saw more sexuality in male targets than did the female raters and interactants. Because of this unexpected finding, Abbey concluded that men have a general bias toward overperception of sexual intent in behaviors, not one limited to female targets. Consistent with Abbeythe prototypical sexual intent study is a laboratory-based investigation in which participants are asked to provide estimates of sexual intentions in response to a given stimulus or scenario.

To help the reader understand this methodology, this section provides the working definitions of sexual intentions, perceptions of sexual intentions, and their conceptual overlap with related constructs.

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Finally, we define several terms that will be used throughout the article in discussing methodological characteristics of sexual intent perception studies. The section concludes with a critical analysis of the strengths and limitations of existing construct definitions and measurement approaches for studying sexual intent perceptions. The word subjective is intended to connote cognitive and affective appraisals, but not necessarily physiological sexual arousal; sexual activity includes sexual behaviors that range from touching and kissing to intercourse.

We propose that sexual intentions are not fixed, but in fact vary; they will change in response to introspection or new information, whether about a potential partner or situation. This constitutes a working definition, due to both the lack of a clearly specified definition in the existing literature and the lack of empirical investigation into several aspects of the construct. Although the latter instance could arguably be described as actual sexual intentions vs. For example, either one or both parties may be unaware of a discrepancy in perceptions.

Sexual intentions should be distinguished from overlapping, but not synonymous, constructs, such as sexual interest, romantic intentions, and flirting. Finally, flirting consists of specific, overt behaviors e. We liken the distinctions between the aforementioned terms and sexual intentions to the distinctions between unique versus shared variance in multiple regression models.

These terms overlap with the construct of sexual intent, with each generally suggesting an appetitive or approach-based orientation with regard to pursuing intimate, whether sexual or romantic, activity. Stated from the opposite perspective, sexual intentions are distinctive because they may or may not co-occur with physiological sexual arousal or interest in having a romantic relationship and are not necessarily manifested in overt behavior.

The vast majority of research on sexual perception focuses on a very narrow population: male and female heterosexual college students, the majority of whom are White, middle class, and live in the United States. For brevity, we use the terms men and women to refer to these respective groups of research participants. Any exceptions are explicitly noted. The objects of sexual intent ratings and the means by which they are presented to participants vary considerably across studies.

A stimulus may consist of a person real or hypotheticalan individual behavior e.

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Stimuli can also range from being entirely scripted, in which behaviors or situations are fully specified beforehand e. The contexts in which stimuli are presented also vary widely. In some studies, stimuli are delivered via live paradigms, in which a behavior or interaction transpires between people in the moment Abbey, ; Shea, For example, participants may observe or partake in a minute conversation.

Sexual intent perceptions are typically measured in the form of ratings that evaluate one or more of the following types of variables: 1 the degree to which the target possesses or expresses particular dispositional traits e. Generally, these ratings are made using anchored Likert scales. Published studies range both in the and type of ratings of sexual intent and in their analytic strategies. The majority of studies include multiple measures, but the precise ratings and the methods by which they are analyzed often differ across studies.

There are both general strengths and limitations to the construct of sexual intentions and methodology used to assess them. We discuss each in turn and, in our discussion of limitations, propose future directions for refining the conceptualization of these constructions. First and foremost, sexual intent and sexual intent perceptions focus on a unique aspect of social cognition and interpersonal relationships, namely, interest in pursuing some form of sexual activity. Finally, by characterizing assessments of sexual intentions as perceptions, one is reminded that assessments can be biased, inaccurate, and influenced by a multitude of factors.

Despite the strengths of these constructs, there are notable limitations, particularly with respect to operationalization. Much of the early research on gender differences in perceptions e. The use of some of these terms may be problematic.

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There are also critical socio-political concerns about the use of these terms as proxies for sexual intent—for example, the implication that a woman is interested in sexual activity simply because she is flirtatious or has a reputation for being flirtatious.

Thus, because of the overall pattern of findings and the empirical relationship between flirting beliefs and sexual intent ratings, there appears to be some utility and empirical support for considering personality dispositions as a type of sexual perception measure. A second limitation concerns the lack of formal definitions and formal construct validation. It should be emphasized that our definitions of sexual intentions and perceptions of sexual intentions are working definitions; they do not necessarily reflect historical or common operationalizations in the literature.

Finally, sexual intentions are typically operationalized as a unidimensional construct, ranging in magnitude from having no sexual intentions to having strong sexual intentions. Thus, multiple aspects of these constructs require empirical attention. In addition to limitations in how sexual intentions have been studied in isolation, there are also limitations with respect to our understanding of the relations between sexual intentions and other constructs. Although we have provided a discussion of the distinctions and similarities between sexual intentions and romantic intentions, sexual interest, and flirting, our discussion is based primarily on philosophical rather than empirical grounds.

These constructs are covered, for the most part, in separate literatures and have rarely been studied simultaneously. As a result, it is unclear to what extent they overlap and what factors might moderate the relations among them. For example, although subjective assessments of sexual interest and physiological sexual arousal are viewed as overlapping but distinct in our conceptualization, it is possible that physiological sexual arousal is a critical factor underlying sexual intentions.

A final problem is that the constructs of sexual intent and perceptions of sexual intent may be conflated with other constructs such as sexual consent.

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Arguing from a feminist perspective, we hold that being interested in pursuing sex or perceiving someone as interested in pursuing sex is not synonymous with agreeing to or consenting to engage in sex. However, we also hold that whether individuals actually view them as distinct is an empirical question that, if addressed, would provide important information regarding the constructs of sexual intentions and perceptions of sexual intentions.

In sum, sexual intentions represent a unique, useful, and important construct that is worthy of greater empirical attention. We turn next to our discussion of sexual intent findings. In particular, we provide an overview of factors that have been studied in relation to sexual intent perceptions and highlight consistencies and inconsistencies across studies. Moderators are broadly classified into three domains: target influences, rater influences, and situational influences.

As discussed above, Abbey found that men saw more sexuality in male and female targets than did women. Subsequent sexual intent studies have typically included an investigation of some aspect of rater and target gender differences. Collectively, findings suggest that the reliability of rater gender differences in sexual intent perception varies based on target gender. Moreover, this finding extends across studies that varied across multiple stimuli and paradigms e. These studies have had methodological characteristics that may for the discrepant findings.

For example, Quackenbush surveyed participants using similar adjectives to Abbey and did not find that men inferred more sexuality than women in female targets. However, the sample size 60 and study de may have limited the power to detect differences.

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