Why do men always think women are flirting?

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Natalie Reilly

according to the study, "women reported being subject to ... sexual over-perception far more often.

according to the study, "women reported being subject to ... sexual over-perception far more often. Photo: Stocksy

Hey laaaadies, science has now confirmed what we've always known: heterosexual men think we're flirting with them even when we're not. New York Magazine has reported that polite human behaviour such as smiling, laughing or even being interested in a conversation are enough for a man to think, "Yeah. She wants it."

Okay. This is bad. So, first, let's talk about us. As children, we're more likely to have been socialised to please people,whereas men? Not as much.

It makes sense, then, that if one gender is raised to be overly courteous all the time and, by extension, be overly courteous when they are attracted to someone … well. Things are going to get a little "blurred", shall we say. Although, you don't have to be Kate Upton to realise it's not just friendliness men mistake for flirting. Sometimes we roll our eyes, (she wants it). Or tell a man 'we're taken' (she wants it). Or even ignore them (she wants it). It's called 'sexual over-perception'. And, according to the study, "women reported being subject to ... sexual over-perception far more often ... [than sexual under-perception]." However, "This difference was small for men." 

"Hey Honey, it's not harassment - it's just my sexual over-perception!"  I can't wait for an RNB artist to work that into a song. I really can't.

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The US researchers concluded that the gap in "sexual perception" was a tricky one to figure out, but surmised that it was likely down to evolution, and that pesky thing called gender inequality.

Cavemen, so the evolution theory goes, had so much seed to share – blah blah blah - you get it. Meanwhile, us prudish cave ladies were like, "I'm not picking up on what you're putting down because if I do, somebody's going to get pregnant." Modern translation: we don't even know when someone likes us in that special way! Apparently, from an evolution standpoint, the "sexual risk" is too high for women. 

The "gender inequality" theory is essentially the story of men's misplaced entitlement to women and their bodies. From which we have our social norms, which dictate that men do the chasing while women cross their legs, sniff and look away.

But can anyone really be sure where the cave ends and society begins? Can THEY?

Enter Mons Bendixen, a psychologist at the Norwegian university of Science and Technology. Bendixen believed he could properly test the gender inequality theory about sexual misperception on his fellow countrymen and women because Norway has been ranked among the top five most egalitarian countries on the U.N.'s Gender Inequality Index. Norway's women have free education, one year of paid maternity leave, paternity-leave, government-funded nurseries and affordable child care.

Pretty snazzy.

Also, Bendixen told NYMag that Norwegian women were "more proactive" when it came to dating. Imagine Bendixen's shock, then, when he found out that even in sexy Norway, the results were the same.Turns out that the mens still believe women are flirting with them --constantly. Meanwhile, women still think, "Yeah, probably just not that into me."

Still, Bendixen ruled out gender inequality. Instead, in his paper he said it was probably evolution. Oh, and being sexy and single and up for it. I'm not joking.

Okay! End of experiment!

Except it's not.

Here's the thing. Just because ladies are confidently dating in a (Western, predominantly white, wealthy) country and the government has certain policies in place does not mean said country is a feminist utopia.

In fact, Norwegian women only make up three percent of the country's top business leaders. Moreover, they have a relatively segregated job market. Reported incidents of rape in Norway are currently low, (relative to other countries) but, according to a New York Times article published in 2011, that's because the majority of sexual assaults occur within marriage. Reported rapes within marriage stood at 9% in 2005.

But, there's a more nuanced way to decipher gender inequality in a country, whether its people are conscious of it or not. How closely do the women subscribe to unrealistic standards of beauty? Turns out Victoria's Secret is big in Norway , as are super models. Weird, jah?

I'm not an expert on Norway by any means. But I do know sexist outcomes when I see them. I also know that even in wealthy, Western democracies, women are taught to doubt, first themselves and then the love of anyone else.

I wonder, then, if Bendixen might look at his research again through the wider context of society.

Alternatively, perhaps the next researcher might examine the gap in 'sexual perception' a little more closely so that next time such an alarming result arises; one that's pointing squarely at the problem of rape culture and how it extends to even casual interactions between men and women, they don't seek to simply replicate the survey.

Perhaps the next researcher might even find out why it is, that no matter the government's stance on equality within a country, patriarchal assumptions are so deeply, subtexturally engrained within a culture, that they're likely to be dismissed by the researcher, in a favour of evolution-based 'evidence' -- even when those assumptions are staring him in the face.