A lot of women bemoan the constant presence of sexual images in advertising, particularly the over sexualisation of women to sell products to both sexes.

However, new research shows that while women do exhibit negative reactions to sexual imagery, this diminishes for high value products that are viewed as exclusive or designed for the elite.

It seems women don't mind sex being used to products we deem as high-end, rare and glamorous, and psychologists suggest that this is because it mirrors their view of sex in general.

The study, conducted by the University of Minnesota and published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that evolutionarily women have a vested interest in sex being portrayed to men and other women as something special and rare, something to be highly valued.


Perpetuating this view makes it less likely that another woman will attempt to hoodwink your partner into bed, or that your man will stray, leaving him attached to and providing for you and your children.

"Women generally show spontaneous negative attitudes toward sexual images," says psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, a researcher at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

"Sexual economics theory offers a reason why: The use of sexual imagery is inimical to women's vested interest in sex being portrayed as infrequent, special, and rare."

Vohs and colleagues predicted that women's negative attitudes toward sexual imagery might soften if sex is depicted in a way that is consistent with the values of sex being seen as highly valued and of great worth.

Sexual imagery may be less off-putting to women, for example, if it is paired with high-priced consumer goods, which can convey exclusivity and high value.

To test this prediction, Vohs and colleagues Jaideep Sengupta and Darren Dahl had male and female participants come to the lab and view advertisements for women's watches. In some of the advertisements, the watch was presented with a sexually explicit image, whereas in others the watch was pictured with a majestic mountain range. Importantly, some of the ads priced the watch at $10 and others at $1,250.

To measure the participants' gut reactions toward the ads, the researchers had them memorise a 10-digit code before viewing the ads, a cognitive distraction designed to prevent them from thinking too deeply about the ads. Then, after reciting the code, participants were asked about their attitudes and emotional reactions toward the ads.

Overall, women who saw the sexual imagery with the cheap watch rated the ad more negatively in comparison to women who saw the sexual imagery with the pricey watch.


These negative ratings seem to be driven by women's negative emotions - feeling upset, disgusted, unpleasantly surprised, or angry - in response to the ad that paired sexual imagery with the cheap watch.

Men, on the other hand, reported similar reactions to the sex-based ads, regardless of the advertised price of the watch.