Short answer: Sexy outfits get men interested but there is never an excuse for assault.
Beautiful naked person standing before you in the supermarket, clutching a large knife?
“Sexy fun time” is the wrong response here.
Extract from article in Guardian newspaper by Dean Burnett:
EXTRACT: So, is it biologically possible for a typical man to be sufficiently aroused by the sight of woman that it overwhelms his restraint? To answer this, you need to look at exactly what’s going on in the brain when we experience arousal.
We’re still far from a thorough understanding, but current evidence suggests that arousal, or perhaps more accurately “desire”, has many cognitive components, beyond the basic physical characteristics. We observe something, our prefrontal cortex – via links to the more fundamental emotional and reward systems – analyses it and determines if it’s sexual in nature, and if so, if it is “sufficiently” sexual (eg we find some people sexy, but not others). If it is, our attention is directed towards it, and emotional and motivation processes are activated via our amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex respectively. It’s incredibly complex in detail, but the neurological systems that regulate arousal and desire do indeed have many potent effects via important regions throughout our brains.
One thing that could be said to support the notion that men are vulnerable to being sexually aroused by appearance, is evidence that suggests male arousal is far more visual in nature than female arousal. It does seem that the old stereotypes about men having less sophisticated sexual desires than women (men like porn, women like erotica etc) has some basis in fact. Some might argue that this is because males have evolved to “spread their seed” with whoever is available and desirable, whereas females, who do all the childrearing, evolved to look for more complex, enduring qualities in a partner, beyond just visual characteristics. Of course, this explanation relies on only one half of our species evolving to be monogamous (pair bonding, in scientific parlance). That seems … unlikely. Maybe the whole notion is just reverse engineered from modern stereotypes? Who can say.
There are more plausible explanations for this gender-asymmetry. Perhaps it’s due to the different sex-hormone makeup? Or maybe it’s a result of the fact that our sexual desires and the systems that support them develop along with the rest of our brain, so are influenced by the world around us. And in the world around us, the sexualised female form features so often in almost every medium that it’s essentially a type of punctuation. You could argue that the reason men have a stronger visual element to their sexual arousal is because we live in a world where sexy images for men to see are everywhere, whereas women have tended to need to be more creative, and the brain develops accordingly. Perhaps this is changing too, what with women now being regularly presented with marvels of sexy buff Chris’s (Hemsworth) on a regular basis.
And yes, I’ve decided that the collective noun for sexy Chris’s is a “marvel”, for obvious reasons.
So yes, it’s arguably easier for men to be aroused by a sexy appearance. But does that mean they can be provoked beyond self-control?
Not exactly, no. Sexual arousal may be a powerful thing, but the brain also has many processes that counter it. The orbitofrontal cortex, for example, is implicated in regulating/suppressing sexual behaviour. One of the more sophisticated neurological regions, it’s the part that says “this isn’t a good idea, don’t do it” when you’re aroused or excited by an opportunity, particularly a sexual one, which won’t have great long-term consequences.
The amygdala, mentioned earlier, also seems to play a role in determining appropriateness of arousal in context. Beautiful naked person standing before you in your bedroom? Sure, be aroused. Beautiful naked person standing before you in the supermarket, clutching a large knife? “Sexy fun time” is the wrong response here. And it’s the amygdala that’s believed to work this out.
However, it’s possible for these restraining systems to be compromised. Alcohol can hinder the higher, complex areas like the orbitofrontal cortex while leaving the more primitive urges governing arousal intact. And the amygdala does what it can, but can only work with the information available. If the situation is ambiguous, or uncertain, it may make the wrong call.
Does this mean that men who sexually harass/assault women for what they’re wearing are innocent after all?
No, of course not. A woman may choose to wear an alluring outfit, but it’s still the man’s choice to grope her without permission or invitation. If he’s too drunk to hold back, it was his choice to get that drunk. “I couldn’t help myself” is never an acceptable excuse for things like drink driving, and the same is true here.