Do Women Sin Differently Than Men?

Recent comments in the Vatican newspaper raise questions


There’s a new study out from the Vatican: Seems men and women confess to different sins. The most commonly confessed sin for women is pride, while for men, lust and gluttony rule the confessional. Men’s desire for food is surpassed only by the urge for sex.

This analysis is based on a study of confessions carried out by Father Roberto Busa, a 95-year-old Jesuit scholar, and backed up by Vatican theologian, Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych. Recently, Monsignor Giertych told reporters for the Vatican newspaper (and, subsequently, the world) that men were more inclined than women to pursue pleasure.

“Often the most difficult [sin] men face is lust, and then comes gluttony, sloth, wrath, pride, envy, and greed,” Monsignor Giertych told L’Osservatore Romano. “For women, the most dangerous is pride, followed by envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and lastly, sloth,” he said.

It’s unclear how this dataset of sins was compiled, but as a social scientist my eyebrows shot up pretty quickly when I read a BBC News piece suggesting that Father Busa had collected lists of sins during confessions he had heard over a period of months or years. Did the priest himself interpret each person’s sins and rank them under specific categories? Or were they asked to take a brief survey about the nature of their sins upon leaving the wooden box? (I’m picturing an exit interview like you might have on Election Day as you leave the polls… but a whole lot more invasive.)

The short answer is that we don’t know how the study was compiled. Nor do we know the sample size, which is very important: If we’re talking about the confessions of 10,000 people, that’s more interesting than the confessions of three nuns and a priest from the parish next door. Nor do we know how the rank ordering of sins by gender was done: How many more women confessed pride, listed in the #1 slot, compared with how many confessed lust, the sin listed in the #4 slot. All we know is that the Vatican stands behind the findings. So let’s take this step by step:

  1. Why the Seven Deadly Sins? The Seven Deadly Sins, formulated by Gregory the Great in the sixth century (and popularized by that 1995 gory movie, Seven ), is a list of temptations of the flesh and spirit: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, lust, and of course, gluttony — temptations to be overcome with a strong spirit and prayer. So while none of these are good things to do, there are many other bad things that we might confess to that aren’t on this list. And those, apparently, weren’t tallied by this survey.
  2. Are women actually more “proud” than men? So women confess pride more often. Might it just be that women are more likely to think that their feelings of pride are sinful, whereas men think their feelings of pride are well-deserved and normal? My previous research has shown that women often downplay their accomplishments, because they feel culturally compelled to present themselves as demure and “sweet” — not strong and successful. This kind of socialization effect will carry over from the classroom to the bar to the confessional; it’s the way we are taught to operate. So a woman who gets an “A” on a test and thinks she’s da bomb for doing so might feel a twinge of guilt about her excitement, whereas a man would not.
  3. Are men confessing to lust because they are conditioned to do so? I give talks to college students about dating and marriage, and you might be surprised that in the Q&A sessions, it’s the guys who do most of the talking. The men are quick to talk about their desire for a late night booty call to be answered in the affirmative, and what a “hook-up” really means in their circle of friends. After one such talk, it occurred to me that many think they are cool, attractive and more masculine for “confessing” those thoughts. I’m not saying that men are more lustful than women; I wonder how much our social conditioning impacts what we think to confess.

Here’s an idea for some future research: Give a few potentially sinful scenarios to men and women. Is there any gender difference in the “sin factor” assigned? Do women think it’s more sinful for someone to brag about an accomplishment than men? Do men think it’s more sinful to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s than women? Let the sin experiments begin!

Share your thoughts in the comments box below… this is prime fodder for debate and conversation!