On Tuesday, mainstream news outlets covered the results from a small survey in Australia that polled just over 100 women about their sexual preferences. One headline atop an NBC story proclaimed, “Science proves women like men with bigger penises.” The reporter includes a few other examples of studies that have reached the same conclusions about women’s predisposition to larger male genitalia, but only after acknowledging that the results from past research on the topic “have been disputed as sexist, or scientifically flawed, or both.”
Sex and science often become entangled in the news, perhaps because the topic makes for eye-catching headlines. This is hardly the first time that the media has latched onto a small study in an attempt to make a larger statement about gender roles, regardless of the potentially shaky scientific relevance of this type of evolutionary psychology. Under the guise of being backed by scientific authority, news outlets will often tout studies’ results — or sometimes, selectively highlight certain results — to reinforce gender-based stereotypes. Of course, citing research also sets up a situation where it’s more difficult for opponents to take issue with the those studies, since it may appear as if they’re objecting to scientific fact simply because they don’t want to believe the truth.
Here are five other examples of this dynamic at play in mainstream media outlets:
1. Women’s hormones affect their voting choices. CNN incited significant backlash right before the 2012 election when the outlet published an article entitled, “Do hormones drive women’s votes?” The study, which consisted of unpublished data from researchers at the University of Texas, San Antonio, intended to investigate whether a woman’s hormone levels or relationship status contributes to her decision about how to cast her ballot. The study found, among other things, that women who are ovulating tend to favor more liberal political candidates because they “feel sexier.” After a massive outcry, CNN removed the article, explaining, “After further review, it was determined that some elements of the story did not meet the editorial standards of CNN.”
2. Husbands who do housework have less sex. A USA Today article published at the end of January suggested that “traditional chores are linked with more sex for married couples,” citing a study that relied on data collected two decades ago. The researchers believed that their findings — which found that couples in which women did more of the traditionally “female” chores had sex 1.6 times more each month than the couples in which men did all of those jobs — were still relevant despite the passage of time, because “the relationship between sex and housework has changed little since then.” But much of the coverage of the study drew a simplistic connection between chores and sexual activity without giving much consideration to the myriad of other factors that can contribute to a couple’s gender balance, sex life, and household chore break-down — particularly the fact that women and men have been socialized to consider many household tasks to be “women’s work.”
3. Women are gaining weight because they are doing less housework. In February, a team of researchers sought to investigate the ways that “socio-environmental” factors can impact obesity. They concluded that, since many American women have entered the workforce and are now spending the majority of their days at sedentary office jobs, they’re spending less time doing more active tasks that could help them maintain a healthy weight. The New York Times chose to package its coverage of this story with a picture of a woman vacuuming and a headline promising to explain “What Housework Has to Do With Waistlines.” The article sparked controversy on Twitter — not because critics necessarily doubted the study’s methods, but rather because it appeared the media neglected to consider the implications of its framing. The Times’ headline and picture relied on the deep-seated stereotypes that women have “responsibilities” to stay thin and do more of the housework.
4. Deep voices attract women. Similarly to the media’s assertion that the Australian study “proves” that women prefer larger penis sizes, the New York Times declared the results from a 2011 study made it “official” that women are attracted to deep voices. Researchers in Scotland found that the female subjects in their study preferred lower-pitched male voices, and speculated that women are biologically programmed to select a mate who appears to be more traditionally masculine. Of course, women may simply be more likely to favor qualities that Western society has already determined to be masculine and attractive. The New York Times noted that the researchers also planned “to study how a women’s preference is affected by her menstrual cycle and by the geographic location of where she meets a man.”
5. “Cougars” are more sexually active because older women sense their fertility is declining. A 2010 TIME Magazine article proclaimed “the science of cougar sex” stems from “evolutionary forces” that push older women to become more sexual in their later years. The article spends about 10 paragraphs detailing a University of Texas’ psychologist’s theory that women in the 30s and early 40s are more sexually active — as opposed to men, whose sexual activity supposedly remains constant — because their fertility is declining as they approach menopause, and women are driven to seek out sex before they become infertile. In the second the last paragraph, the author eventually includes the important caveat that the study’s methodology is disputed because the psychologist recruited three-quarters of the participants from Craigslist and the remainder from the University of Texas in Austin — but only after the headline, the photo depicting a naked couple, and the bulk of the article already solidified the framing.