On Women and Casual Sex – Part 1: The Pleasure Theory

One of the oldest and hoariest tropes in our culture is idea of sexual drives differing in men and women; men are – so the idea goes – hot blooded, almost bestial and totally at the mercy of their libidos. Dudes are so horny that they just can’t control themselves; arousal means that they must satiate it at almost any cost. They’ll stick it in just about anything that offers the right combination of friction, suction and heat – and they’re pretty flexible about their standards for all three. Deprive a man from sexual release for long enough and just about anything becomes fuckable – how else can you explain sailors mistaking manatees for mermaids?

“Stop objectifying me!”

Women on the other hand are less erotic and primal; they are slow to arouse, quicker to turn off if everything isn’t just so, and simply aren’t as interested in sex. Women may like sex but men need sex. One of the oldest jokes in the world1 is that women could rule the world if they got together en masse and decided to hold the Great Fuck-Out until they were given control.

Never is this more apparent when it comes to the idea of casual sex. Ask the average man on the street about who’s more into sex – or who’s more likely to go home with a relative stranger – and you’ll be told over and over again: men like sex more.

There are all sorts of reasons given for this apparent dichotomy. Some people will insist it’s because women know they have the power – (s)he who cares less has the most leverage, after all – and enjoy wielding over men. Others will hoist the old canard about alpha males and assholes.  Others will insist it’s all about status; women only sleep with the highest status males they can find. The wild and wonderful world of evolutionary psychology – which is usually thrown around by people who don’t understand it – will tell you it’s because of sex’s evolutionary purpose of procreation. Women, according to evo-psych, are guided by the unconscious need to ensure the survival of their genes. This, in practice means that they are driven to be especially picky about the potential fathers of their children, giving preference to men who are more likely to care for the child or be able to provide for it’s welfare and help ensure it’s future success at propagating it’s own genes. Men, on the other hand, are driven by the need to spread their seed far and wide; women can only give birth every nine months while men can potentially father children several times a day.

The actual reason, as it turns out, is slightly more complicated than that.

“So, You Wanna Go Back To My Place And Bang?”

One of the most common arguments held up that “proves” that women don’t like casual sex as much as men is an infamous study conducted 1989; the study had a male and female participant go up to random members of the opposite sex and ask “Would you like to go out tonight?”, “Would you like to go back to my apartment?”, and “Would you like to go to bed with me?” Men and women were equally likely – 50% – to go on a date, but when it came to sex, the results weren’t terribly surprising;upwards of 75% of men said yes to sex while absolutely 0 women agreed that yes, they would like to go to bed with a total stranger who propositioned them in the middle of the day on a college campus.

Every single man interviewed had the same thought: “This is exactly how pornos start!”

There were a couple other interesting aspects to this study that usually get ignored but the gist is: women are not as receptive to casual sex as men are. This study has been held up repeatedly as “proof” of the disparity between male and female sex drives, which is unfortunate, considering that it has a number of rather glaring flaws.

To whit: the study ignored a number of issues that might affect a woman’s willingness to have sex with a complete stranger with absolutely no previous interaction beyond “hello” and “hey, let’s fuck!” It focused entirely on heterosexual response, not controlling for the possibility that the respondents might be homosexual or bisexual. They did not control for whether or not the subject was single, married, asexual or practicing abstinence. And – by it’s own admission – did not even begin to scratch the surface of any number of sociological issues that might affect somebody’s response to an offer of anonymous sex by a stranger.

While it’s almost impossible to identify or control for every possible variable that might affect a person’s receptivity to sexual offers, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t be measured.

Unfortunately, it took a while before someone tried.

Sperm Is Cheap, Eggs Are Expensive

Considering that 1989 was near the beginning of the AIDS crisis, it’s not entirely surprising that college students might be a little wary of anonymous sex; HIV was still in the early stages of being recognized as something other than just a “gay” disease. In fact, the researchers in the Clark/Hatfield study speculated that men and women might become even more conservative vis a vis casual sex in the years that followed. A follow-up study in 2009, utilizing similar methodology by Clark and Hatfield found similar results; once they controlled for people who were in relationships, 60% of men and 0 women were receptive to an offer of casual sex from an attractive stranger.

“How dare you ask a lady that… without buying her a drink first?”

So. Case closed, right?

Not so much.

In 2011, a paper published by Terri Conley examined the results of four concurrent sub-studies (the study doesn’t seem to be available online at the moment; you can read a very comprehensive summary here) regarding potential influences on a person’s receptivity to casual sex. She made several tweaks to the Clark-Hatfield study’s methodology; in her first study, she asked informed subjects to fill answer a questionnaire regarding being approached by an attractive stranger and rating their likelihood of responding on a 7 point scale. She also asked them to fill out other seven point scales about issues that would affect their potential acceptance or refusal including social status, potential STD infection, sexual satisfaction, likelihood of getting gifts, etc. Another variation of this randomized the gender of the theoretical propositioning person; men had as much of a chance of being asked whether they would consider going to bed with an attractive man as they would a woman.

A third variation asked for their perception of a man propositioning a woman, while a fourth asked bisexual women specifically about the likelihood of their being receptive to a woman approaching them as opposed to a man.

Another study asked about their receptiveness to specific individuals: in this case, Johnny Depp, Donald Trump, Brad Pitt, Carrot Top, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez and Roseanne Barr. Another specifically asked about the likelihood of being receptive to a proposition from their best friend of the opposite sex while yet a third was directed specifically at homosexual men and women.

The results were interesting to say the least.

It became clear early on that the Clark-Hatfield study’s methodology was flawed; it wasn’t a matter of whether women were less interested or receptive to sexual offers than men were, it was that they were less interested when those offers came from men. In fact, hetero-identified women were more likely to be willing to go to bed with another woman. Even gay men – propositioned by an attractive gay man – were less likely to accept.

When it came to the celebrities, the studies got interesting: men and women were equally likely to go to bed with the attractive celebrity and equally less likely to bed the unattractive one. Yet, when it came to opposite-sex friends, the gap re-established itself; men were more likely to go to bed with their female friend than women were with their male friend.

So what made for such a difference in the responses?

What Women Want (When They Want To Get Laid)

It came down to two issues: personal safety and potential sexual prowess in the proposer.

Contrary to the idea in evolutionary psychology that women will instinctively respond to outward signifiers of social superiority like money or status, women are far more motivated by the likelihood of sexual pleasure than any other factor.

The better the lay the man was perceived to be, the more receptive the women were to the possibility of a fling.

“My eyes are up here, miss.”

According to the results of the study, women consistently thought that men were potentially more dangerous and far less likely to be good in bed. Men and women (gay, bi and straight) on the other hand, consistently thought that women were likely to be at least a decent lay (at the median for the study), warmer and less dangerous.

In short: the  it came down to a question of potential risk vs. potential sexual pleasure. Social status and finances – signs of a potential good provider, according to evolutionary psychology – didn’t move the needle. It was the perception of whether a guy was a decent lay or not that made her more likely to sleep with him; in other words, was he worth the risk? The differences in women’s response to an attractive stranger versus an attractive celebrity had less to do with fame than with familiarity; when theoretically propositioned by both Brad Pitt and an equally attractive unknown man, women were more likely to pick Brad because they felt that they knew him well enough that it mitigated the potential risk.

So Why Aren’t Women Having More Casual Sex?

Actually… this is a somewhat misleading question. Women are far more open to casual sex and short-lived flings than we suspect; in fact, a fourth study by Conley found that approximately 40% of women who had been propositioned in real life (as opposed to the scenario played out in the Clark-Hatfield study) had accepted the proposal. Women weren’t refusing casual sex in the Clark-Hatfield study because they didn’t like sex or were instinctively searching for higher status men; they were refusing the offers because the scenario and the proposer were an ideal set-up for making the prospect of casual sex less attractive, even among people predisposed to casual sex with men.

Women are interested in seeking out sexual pleasure, just as men are. However, they’re trapped between opposing forces; while on the one hand they want to get laid, on the other, society and gender roles tend to shame women who take ownership of their sexuality. Our society still puts emphasis on the commodity model of sex: that men are the aggressors  – the purchasers – and women are the pursued – the vendors, and that sex has a “price”. If a woman gives away her goods too “cheaply”, it devalues her as a person. Because so many men measure themselves by their sexual conquests, the “easier” a woman is, the less glory there is to be had by sleeping with her; as a result, she is only as valuable as the sex she doesn’t have. When you add in other factors – the risk of pregnancy is borne entirely by the woman, it’s much easier for women to contract an STD from a man than vice versa, the risk of violence from men is far higher than the reverse – more often than not, the possibile sexual pleasure isn’t worth the potential fallout.

In other words: in a culture of slut-shaming, blaming rape victims for their own assault, increasing restrictions on contraception and abortion, a man has to be pretty impressive to make it worth a woman’s time for a fling.

Now if all this sounds daunting… well, it is. It will require a long-term societal solution – working to build a world of true equity, where women feel safer and more secure and aren’t demonized for their sexuality.

In the short term however… you need to learn how to be that impressive sort of person who is worth the risk.

Next week, we’ll talk about just why and when women say “yes” and how to be the sort of person they say “yes” to.

  1. Literally. The Lysistrata, performed in 411 BCE, is the story of how the women of Sparta and Greece forced an end to a war by refusing to sleep with their menfolk []