One of the oldest canards – something I’ve written about before, in fact – is the idea that women don’t like sex, especially casual sex, as much as men do. It’s the subject of many a heated debate, the punchline to hacky comedians’ jokes and the background noise in movies and sitcoms since pretty much forever. We’re given any number of reasons for this, from the classic “sperm is cheap/eggs are expensive” evo-psych rationale to the more mercenary “women use sex for barter” market view of human sexuality. This supposed disparity between male and female libidos is part of what drives so much of Pick-Up Artists tactics, of Red-Pill rage and many a rant from anime-avatar’d randos on Twitter when people dare to suggest otherwise.
The ur-evidence of this belief is the infamous Clark-Hatfield study, which was published in 1989 and replicated over and over again by YouTube pranksters as “social experiments” ever since.
Of course, the study was fatally flawed; as has been pointed out many times, Johnny Rando rolling up on a college campus and asking chicks to bang him betrays a rather severe lack of social calibration at best. But despite its flaws and mistaken conclusions, it hangs in as part of the accepted wisdom of gender relations.
(Of course, the heteronormative focus of this causes the idea to fall apart as soon as homo- and bisexuality are introduced into the mix, to say nothing of trans men and women… but hey, why let facts get in the way of closely held beliefs?)
However, a new study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior drives home just why the Clark-Hatfield study was wrong and – more importantly – why women are so reluctant to say “yes” to casual sex.
“Would You Go to Bed With Me?”
Like Dr. Terri Conley before them, researchers Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz decided to conduct a series of experiments to test the Clark-Hatfield studies… with a few twists.
First, they replicated the original study’s methodology. In their study, Clark and Hatfield had their volunteers visit the Florida State University campus and approach members of the opposite sex with the line “Hey, I’ve noticed you around campus. I find you to be very attractive.” They would then ask the subject either to go on a date with them, to follow them back to their apartment or to skip the formalities and just go to bed with them. In a turn of events that surprised literally no one, none of the women interviewed said “yes” to the offers of sex with a stranger while 3/4ths of the men did.
Baranowski and Hecht repeated the study with a minor change – adjusting the location from a college campus to the more socially correct nightclub. By all reasonable measurements, this should have affected the results – after all, nightclubs and bars are locations where the social contract encourages approaching strangers and looking to hook up for the night. Interestingly, the results were almost exactly the same as the Clark-Hatfield study; precisely zero women said yes to the offer of casual sex. So one would think that we could consider this particular myth confirmed, right?
Well… perhaps not. See, Baranowski and Hecht were interested in why women were refusing casual sex. Was it simply a matter of a lack of interest, or were there other factors involved?
The Unerotic Power of Fear and Judgement
Baranowski and Hecht zeroed in on a commonly overlooked fact in these studies: women face greater personal and social risks when it comes to sex. Unsurprisingly, the potential for physical danger, pregnancy and good old-fashioned slut-shaming bullshit are all unlikely to induce the screaming thigh-sweats in even the terminally horny. Why put yourself through the joy of being mocked by someone who’s shaming you for the things they want you to do to them when batteries are cheap and vibrators don’t pass out after ten minutes of unimaginative missionary sex with zero foreplay?
But what if you could take the risk of social opprobrium, judgement and risk out of the mix? How much would women’s responses to offers of casual sex change if their safety were guaranteed and nobody would find out?
To test this idea, Baranowski and Hecht concocted a new study. In this version, the subjects – men and women both – were invited into the lab under the pretense that they would be taking part in a study to help a popular dating site adjust and calibrate its compatibility matrix. During the study, they were presented with pictures of ten members of the opposite sex and told that – among other details – all ten of these individuals were interested in meeting up with them, either for a date or for sex.
The results were astounding. 100% of the men were down for meeting up with at least one of the pictured candidates for casual sex – no surprise there. However 97% of the women were equally as interested with meeting a stranger for a completely casual hook-up. In fact, there was only a difference between the number of potential candidates that both men and women were willing to hook up with; men chose a little over three possible partners on average while women chose a little under three partners out of the ten.
This rather neatly puts a stake in the heart of many of the evo-psych arguments about who’s biologically programmed to want sex; as soon as the social and safety factors are eliminated, the difference in interest for casual sex is negligible. Of course, this is in a laboratory setting, which by its nature is going to affect the answers. So let’s talk a little about what happens in a real social situation.
Why Women Say No To Casual Sex: Skill, Not Biology
The most significant find in Baranowski and Hecht’s study is how much their findings correspond with Terri Conley’s pleasure principle: women were less likely to be receptive to offers of casual sex because most of the time the sex wasn’t seen as being enjoyable enough to overcome the potential risks. If it seems like someone might be good in bed, women are more likely to say “yes” to a hook-up. The problem is that most of the time, men tend to broadcast that not only are they awful in bed but that the aftermath isn’t going to be a picnic either.
To give an example, let’s look at the Pick-Up community. Many – if not most – schools of pick-up teach an intimidatingly aggressive approach to getting sex, one that’s almost specifically designed to turn women off. Many PUAs who practice day game – that is, making cold approaches during the day in public venues instead of at night in a bar or club – will physically impose themselves in front of a woman in order to make her stop to talk to them and do a little dance to keep her from walking away. Others will consciously ignore soft no’s and refusals in the name of getting a woman’s number. Part of the DNA of the PUA scene are the idea of the “bitch shields” and “shit tests” – that women are continually trying to weed out “the unworthy”1 by being dismissive, rude or trying to make men jump through their hoops. Because these are “tests”, PUAs are encouraged to ignore them or fire back with something suitably “alpha” in order to pass; by doing so he is supposedly showing his social value is higher than hers and thus increasing her interest in him. A woman’s response of “I have a boyfriend”, for example is taken as a challenge rather than as as soft no; PUAs are supposed to assume that this boyfriend is a fake and will mysteriously disappear when he’s demonstrated his higher value.
In practice what happens is that you end up getting men who are demonstrating that they are poorly socially calibrated and uncomfortably aggressive – suggesting that not only are they going to be shit in bed, but they’re potentially dangerous. Someone who doesn’t take “no, I’m not interested” for an answer is less likely to respect a “no, I don’t want to do this,” after all. This level of obnoxiousness gets especially bad when PUAs cluster in high-traffic, high-female-populated areas like college campuses or busy shopping districts. Eaton Center in Toronto, for example, is notorious for having dozens of PUAs hanging around to work on approaching crowds, as are other areas such as Robson Street in Vancouver, Ocean Drive in Miami and many others. Walking quickly becomes akin to running a gauntlet of aggressive douchebags who won’t let you by “without a kiss”, who take refusal as an invitation to try harder and may actually follow you.
All the alpha-posturing in the world isn’t going to overcome the message that you’re a creeper and a lousy lay.
Online dating often isn’t much better. A message like this…
… is generally a pretty good indication that the sender isn’t exactly going to be the last of the red-hot lovers.
Small wonder that the Clark-Hatfield approach (and its YouTube fanclub) fails consistently: it’s a giant flashing signal that the sex is going to suck.
Give A Little Respect…
It’s significant that one of the surest signals of being a poor lover is in the way they treat women. That lack of respect – from the approach beforehand to the slut-shaming afterwards tends to go hand-in-hand with “seeing a woman as a walking Fleshlight,” with a side of “pounding away like a arhythmic fleshy jackhammer while she lays back and thinks of Westeros. The PUA approach of “get the pussy at all costs”; the “u want sum fuk” messages on OKCupid and Tinder; the Brosephus’ “be alpha, bro”; even the fedora tipping, “M’lady”-dropping Nice Guy all tend to give the same overall message: the person delivering them doesn’t give a six-legged rat’s ass about a woman’s pleasure except in how it reflects on him. And even then, most of it is likely to be of the “my magic stick is big enough to satisfy all women” variety rather than “actually paying attention to what women want in bed.”
The idea of “she’s a casual hook-up, so I don’t have to work as hard,” is rife amongst would be cocksmen; after all, if you’re probably not going to see her again, why put in the extra effort? You got yours, let her get hers! In fact, in a study of over 24,000 students over the course of five years, researchers found that men in general were more concerned with pleasing their girlfriends than their more casual encounters. Not surprisingly, casual sex tended to include fellatio more often but very little cunnilingus for her. It becomes part and parcel of the hook-up – the guy gets his rocks off, then has the balls (as it were) to turn around and denigrate the woman he literally just finished up in.
The disrespect for women – the sexist double standard that makes men studs for bagging a woman and the woman a slut for allowing it – makes casual sex less “respectable”, which in turn makes sexual reciprocity increasingly unlikely. Someone who demonstrates respect – actual respect, rather than the benevolent sexism of paternalistic chivalry – is more likely to be more invested in activities during casual sex that bring her pleasure.
Of course, it doesn’t help for the sex to be bed-rocking amazing when the walk of shame afterwards includes actual shaming – both from her partner but also their various friends. Many women will hold off on casual sex – sex that they actually want – because they’re not interested in the gossipy bullshit and disrespect from their peers or co-workers for doing something that would lead to their male friends getting a never-ending string of high-fives.
What Would Jack Harkness Do?
There’s a famous quote by William Mizner: “Treat a whore like a lady and a lady like a whore.” While frankly problematic in its phrasing (and its usage 99% of the time), there is a glimmer of truth to be found there, especially for those who’re interested in casual sex. The idea is simple: treat your potential sex-partners with respect. One of the mistakes that many, many men make is that they assume that a woman who’s interested in sex is somehow ok with being treated like a sex object rather than a person. Someone who’s interested in getting down, either in the abstract or with you in particular, hasn’t miraculously given up her self-esteem. Treating her like a sure thing or that the only thing that she has to offer you is her vagina is a great way to ensure that sex will not happen – either that night or any time in the future. Whether you’ve both swiped right on Tinder, she’s checked the “casual sex” box on OKCupid or she’s generally indicated that she’s down to clown, treating her with genuine respect and an interest in her pleasure for pleasure’s sake can be the difference as to whether you’re going back to your place alone or together.
At the same time, treating someone with respect doesn’t (necessarily) preclude flirting, teasing or touching or the other activities that build towards sexual excitement – provided that she’s comfortable with it, obviously. You can be sexual without being crude or boorish. You can indicate an interest in sex without being a pushy asshole. It’s what I call the Jack Harkness model of sexuality: it’s all about the mutual fun.
Finding a partner who wants the same thing you want and making sure they have a good time is more important than getting one’s dick wet and racking up another notch on the proverbial bedpost.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt to expand your definitions of “sex” beyond the standard “penis-in-vagina-until-he-ejaculates” model. By being more open2 to more forms of sexual contact than just putting Tab A into Slot B makes you more likely to find a partner who’s interested in trying them. That woman at the bar, that classmate at the party or even the cute girl you had your eye on at the bookstore may not necessarily be interested in playing hide-the-sandworm but may every well open for some other mutually fulfilling activities. Treating, say, mutual oral, as an end to itself instead of a preliminary act or a consolation prize opens up wider possibilities in partners.
The difficulty in finding people who are down for a casual hook-up has less to do with any biological differences between male and female libidos and more to do with the behavior of the men involved. Someone who’s sexual yet safe3 is far more likely to find a willing sex partner than your stereotypical bro who leans heavier on blurred lines and superficiality or the PUA shotgunning negs and canned lines about smiles around the room until he’s annoyed all the available women around him. You can be sexually forward, even aggressive, while still being respectful both of a woman’s pleasure and her safety.