In 1989, scientists published a seminal study into the real differences between men and women’s desire for casual sex. The findings have been something of a holy grail for those who insist that women only engage in casual sex reluctantly, or as an alternative when other forms of “more satisfying” sex are unavailable.
Forty-eight males and forty-eight females were approached by moderately attractive members of the opposite sex and propositioned for one of the following: to go out on a date that night; to come over to the proposer’s apartment that night; to have sex that night. The results were strikingly different for males and females. While approximately half of each sex agreed to a date (How’s that for a defense of the cold approach, guys?), only 6% of women agreed to go to a man’s apartment, and a whopping zero agreed to casual sex. On the other hand, nearly 70% of men agreed to the apartment visit and 75% agreed to sex.
So men like casual sex more than women, right?
Well… maybe not. This study was based on the assumption that men and women’s approach to casual sex is the same — that is, that both sexes want precisely the same things, and are attracted to the same things in a prospective casual sex partner. This has been proven resoundingly and spectacularly wrong.
Furthermore, the researchers assumed that women’s acceptance or rejection of an offer for casual sex would represent their true desire regardless of perceived social repercussions for engaging in such an encounter. In retrospect, this seems either charmingly naive or downright fraudulent.
Curiously, there’s been precious little continued research into women’s desire for casual sex in light of this unfounded hypothesis. It’s as if we got the answer we wanted and left it at that for fear of discovering we were wrong.
Researchers at the University of Michigan decided to tackle the subject with an updated foundational hypothesis. Traditionally, women’s sexual desires have been described as a representation of Sexual Strategies Theory, which asserts that mating behavior is directly related to the desire (conscious or unconscious) to pass genes to the next generation as effectively as possible. In this framework, the prediction is that women will reject casual sex because of the lack of indicators of long term support and protection for offspring.
The Michigan researchers chose to pursue predictions based instead on Pleasure Theory, which asserts that pleasure is the primary motivation for sexual activity, and reproductive success is a byproduct of pleasure seeking. This may sound counter-intuitive at first. After all, you’ve got to reproduce before you can develop pleasure seeking mechanisms in offspring, right? Actually, no. Pain and pleasure are the most ancient motivators for animals. Long before the brain developed enough to form social groups, it was capable of interpreting pain and pleasure, avoiding the former and seeking the latter. So it’s actually backwards to suppose that pleasure would be secondary to reproductive success in more complex animals.
(For a more direct illustration that it’s about pleasure first, ask yourself this: In your life, how many times have you had sex when the primary thought in your brain was “Oh boy! This is going to make a baby”? By comparison, how many times have you had sex and thought, “Oh boy! This is going to feel great”?)
Based on Pleasure Theory, the Michigan researchers replicated the “cold approach” of the earlier study with the addition of a battery of controls for perceptions of risk and reward for both sexes. For both women and men, the proposer’s perceived warmth, sexual skill, potential danger, risk of STD transmission, and other factors were compared and factored into the analysis.
The short answer: When women believe they’ll get more reward than risk, they’re equally as likely to engage in casual sex as men.
The bad news for men: The playing field is not equal.
The fact is, when a woman turns a man down for casual sex, she’s sending a message loudly and clearly: “I don’t believe you could give me enough pleasure to make it worth my time or the risks I’d have to take.” It’s not about prudishness, and it’s not about women saving themselves for long term wedded bliss. It’s about women’s pervasive belief that men aren’t going to get the job done on a one-nighter. “Across studies involving both actual and hypothetical sexual encounters, the only consistently significant predictor of acceptance of the sexual proposal, both for women and for men, was the perception that the proposer is sexually capable (i.e., would be “good in bed”).”
It gets more depressing for men. There’s good evidence that women are right. According to a soon to be released study by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong, women only orgasm 35% as often as men in first time encounters.
So it really boils down to this: When a woman propositions a man for casual sex, he hears: “Would you like to come home with me and be sexually satisfied, and then go home happy?” When a man propositions a woman, she hears: “Would you like to come home with me, get me off, then go home unfulfilled?”
The results of this study are much more consistent with recent findings than the 1989 study. Although the functional implications may not be helpful to many men, the broad social implications are far reaching and potentially revolutionary. As more and more evidence piles up, it appears that the traditional narrative of women as less sexually motivated than men is just dead wrong. The difficult questions — the really difficult questions – have yet to be answered. Is the pervasive sexual double standard representative of a healthy mating strategy, or is it a patriarchal suppression of women’s pleasure seeking? It will be interesting to see where this new research leads…
References: Conley T. Perceived proposer personality characteristics and gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [serial online]. December 2010
Hatfield, E. Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol II 1989