Changes in sexual politics have left men mystified about how to behave when shopping for lingerie.1
One of the saddest sights in nature is that of the human male, forlornly trailing his girlfriend around a shopping mall. The shuffling gait, the slumped shoulders, and that glazed look in the eyes that seems to say “When can I go home and play Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare?”
But how do men behave when they step into a lingerie store?
Scientists from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax wondered if the sexual imagery — the lingerie, the advertisements depicting gorgeous models in a state of undress — stimulate and interest male shoppers. Or, if being surrounded by intimate apparel causes men to feel anxious and embarrassed, and to behave like cornered wild beasts.
Eager to find out, Kimberly Moule and Maryanne Fisher went on safari to their local mall. They sat at a table in the food court, near the entrance to a lingerie store. From there they had a wide open view of the store’s interior. They kept their eyes peeled for male-female couples. When they spotted a pair, they made a note of all the man’s behaviors — whether he interacted with the merchandise or talked to his partner, how he moved about the store, and where he directed his gaze. Later, the psychologists repeated their observations at a regular clothing store.
Moule and Fisher found that men interacted with merchandise more frequently in the regular clothing store than in the lingerie store. They were less likely to touch, carry, or purchase lingerie than other items of clothing. This is hardly surprising, as male lingerie shoppers also tended to keep their hands in their pockets.
Men were no more likely to talk to their partners in one store or the other, but they kept much closer to their partners in the regular clothing store. When lingerie shopping, men preferred to walk or stand alone (but they avoided standing too close to the store’s entrance, possibly so they didn’t look like a creepy loiterer).
Why do men behave differently in the two types of store? “We observed that men visually approached the merchandise and then seemingly avoided physical contact,” say Moule and Fisher. “Men clearly exhibited mixed feelings between the desires to approach the sexually provocative merchandise, and to avoid it as well.” One possibility is that women are more likely to engage men in purchasing decisions about regular clothing. “When men were not prompted to engage in helping or purchasing roles [in the lingerie store], men may have begun traveling independently”.
Men could be baffled about how to behave when shopping for lingerie, and women unsure how to involve their male partners, because of changes in how lingerie is marketed and the perceived purpose of racy underwear. “Contemporary women are more often being targeted as consumers of sexual goods than previously,” say the researchers, “suggesting women are taking a more active role in developing their sexual identities”.
If men are unsure whether women purchase lingerie to please their male partners, or to explore their feminine identity, they may be confused about their role in the store. Should they complement their partner’s lingerie choices? Should they pick out items themselves? Or should they steer clear of offering opinions, for fear of encroaching on their partner’s self-expression? In the face of these contradictory impulses, men may find it easier to wander away and leave their partners to shop alone.
So any women planning a pre-Valentine’s shopping trip to Victoria’s Secret should know that men may act all awkward and self-conscious when surrounded by lacy garter belts, silk chiffon babydolls, and spandex corsets, but they’re dying to help you choose. Even if they’re lurking two aisles away with their hands crammed into their pockets.
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1Moule, K.R. & Fisher, M. (2014). You can look but you cannot touch: Male behaviors observed in lingerie stores. Human Ethology Bulletin, 29(4), 4-17.
Dr. Robert Burriss – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Rob is an evolutionary psychologist who researches what we find attractive in potential partners. He is most interested in how female behavior and appearance is influenced by menstrual cycle phase and hormonal contraceptive use.