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 The study, which consisted of unpublished data from researchers at the University of Texas, San Antonio, intended to investigate whether a woman’s hormone levels or relationship status contributes to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.”