Sex doesn't sell? This study into women's response to raunchy advertising starts wrong and gets worse

The conclusion that women use sex as a bargaining tool is wildly outdated

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 10 December 2013 15:25
Women don't respond well to overtly sexual imagery, according to the research
Women don't respond well to overtly sexual imagery, according to the research

Sixty years ago, the pill revolutionised sex. Sex was separated from reproduction for women in a way that made it an end in itself.

And while the pill is by no means perfect, it's undeniably linked to a change in the way that women such as myself could enjoy sex (sorry mum), earn a wage and no longer rely on being kept by men. Or so I thought before I was kindly corrected by a study into women's reactions to sexual advertising conducted by the University of Minnesota.

The psychologists concluded that women are not attracted by adverts that feature sexualised bodies. A separate study in 2012 rubber-stamps what we can intuit on a daily basis: that 22 per cent of adverts depict sexualised women while only 6 per cent feature men in the same light.

But there's a catch: the researchers at Minnesota found that women are less put off by sexual imagery when the products being shifted are luxurious and expensive. In short, women are happy to see others get their kit off for Bulgari, but for Rustler’s burgers? Not so much. To Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist who worked on the study, the answer lies in how high-end products are aligned to how women view sex: “ infrequent, special, and rare.” And with one fell swoop, we're pre-pill, back in the 1950s.

Infrequent? Special? Rare? My female friends certainly don’t have sex infrequently, or see it as particularly special, and why should they? Equally, if a woman decides to never have sex, do we really assume her reasons are automatically linked to her value as a person?

The study’s conclusion suggests that women reacted to the advertising in this way because sex is the currency where our worth lies. Maybe they received the minutes from a meeting cavewomen had where they agreed to keep the level of sex women dole out nice and low. Raise it, and another woman might offer more and steal your oh-so-covetable man, and then who will provide for you and the rest of the Waltons?

And so, the study reduces female sexuality to a tool to lure men, the truly voracious sex, which is heteronormative if nothing else. “Women generally show spontaneous negative attitudes toward sexual images,” writes Dr Vohs, which is scientific lingo for: “No sex please dear, I have a headache”.

But a study published in May 2013 shows that if anything, women aren’t reserving sex as another casino chip they put forward in hope of winning a man. Instead, it found women love sex but are bored of monogamy. When they had sex with their long term partners, they still reached orgasm. But starting up the process with the same person, however loving and kind they were, soon became a chore. When heterosexual women and men were shown x-rated images and hooked up to a gadget that measured the blood flow to their genitals, male and female arousal spiked in the same way.

However, in a separate study, when women were asked about their sex lives on and off a lie detector; when they could lie, women reduced the number of sexual partners they’d had. Could it be that women don't actually want to keep sex exclusive or infrequent at all, but rather feel pressured by studies such as the one conducted by the team at Minnesota to uphold a reserved and respectable reputation?

What the team at Minnesota are confusing is the myth that women are gold diggers - only interested in sexual advertising and sex in general if it is connected with a prize - and the fact that the study’s subjects are mostly likely bombared by adverts on a daily basis like the rest of us. Adverts have hard-wired us to want to buy things, with luxury brands being held as the most aspirational and sought-after items available.

It seems more logical to conclude that women aren’t so bored of sex they’re bargaining with it, but rather they’re bored of being cheapened in the majority of sexual advertising. Maybe it's not that women don’t mind sex being sold for luxurious goods, but rather that aspirational consumerism and sexism have shaded into each other. If the two options are being sexualised for Pot Noodle or Gucci, with not a lot else in between, then it’s a no brainer what we’ll choose.

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