An attractive person approaches you and asks, “Will you have sex with me?” Do you (a) accept, (b) decline politely, or (c) stare blankly back at the person before running home to hide out in your apartment, grabbing your favorite Jane Austen novel and wondering what the world is coming to over a beer or three? Well, there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that if you’re a man, you’ll choose option a; if you’re a woman, option b; and if you’re me, option c. (OK, I’m kidding about that last part. Sort of.)
Admittedly, that scenario is kind of absurd. Honestly, how often do normal people approach each other on the street asking for sex? Still, maybe not quite to the extent of asking a random stranger on the street, but the unabashed pursuit of no-strings-attached casual sex is becoming increasingly common and socially acceptable. Blunt propositions of casual sex from strangers are certainly not unheard of and are profiled frequently in popular media, from Vanity Fair’s bleak profile on casual sex with the rise of Tinder to The Atlantic’s exploration of women pursuing casual sex while they pursue careers (instead of men). The message: that women are engaging in casual sex just as much as men. And though it might be true that more women than in generations past are engaging in casual sex, recent research shows that women still, in general, are far more likely to turn down the opportunity. If women and men respond differently to offers of casual sex, it’s worth discussing why that’s the case.
Biology Is Destiny?
In a famous study conducted at Florida State University by Russell Clark, Ph.D., and Elaine Hatfield, Ph.D., ninety-six students (forty-eight male and forty-eight female) were approached by a member of the opposite sex who was instructed to say, “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be very attractive,” and then ask one of three questions: (1) “Would you go out with me tonight?” (2) “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” or (3) “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” The upshot? Men and women responded very differently to those offers.
Interestingly, when the request was for a date, the answers were fairly evenly split: 56 percent of females agreed, compared to 50 percent of males. However, responses to the other scenarios varied widely. When participants were asked to go to the requester’s apartment, 69 percent of males agreed, whereas just 6 percent of females did. The gap widened further when the requester invited them directly to bed: 75 percent of men agreed, but a whopping 0 percent of women said yes. Clark and Hatfield recreated the experiment four years later in 1982 and found nearly identical results.
The participants’ reactions to the request also varied. Men who turned down the offer were reportedly “at ease” with the request, providing explanations such as, “I’m married” or “I’m going with someone.” Meanwhile, women responded much more harshly, saying, “What is wrong with you? Leave me alone,” or “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Clark and Hatfield’s study has been the subject of much debate since its publication. Many psychologists have recreated and expanded upon their work. Some have found nearly identical results. Some, adjusting various elements of the experiment, have been able to close the gender gap. But there remains a large body of evidence to suggest that women and men respond very differently to offers of casual sex. To this day, the lingering question among psychologists is: Why? In the original words of Clark and Hatfield, “We know that this is so. We are not sure why this is so.”
The traditional theory is that men are simply more interested in sex than women and, as a result, more readily pursue the opportunity when it arises. While it may be tempting to conclude as much, the reality is that Clark and Hatfield’s findings don’t necessarily prove that. As Dr. Justin Lehmiller points out, “The fact that women typically say no to these requests for sex doesn’t tell us that women aren’t into casual sex at all—it simply tells us that women aren’t into casual sex with creepy strangers who proposition them on the street.”
When Clark and Hatfield first published their study, they acknowledged that the data was consistent with the “traditional” perspective. They went on to posit that women’s relative lack of interest in casual sex may be the result of our evolutionary biology, a view that is commonly held by psychologists today. As Freud argued, “Biology is destiny.” Sex, the argument goes, poses a greater biological threat for women than for men; for instance, whereas men can impregnate many women with little danger to their own bodies, each pregnancy takes a physical toll on women. As a result, women have historically had an incentive to limit sex, and our sexual preferences and habits have evolved accordingly.
Clark and Hatfield also considered the possibility that men and women are equally interested in sex, but men perceived fewer risks in accepting a sexual invitation. “Men may be more confident in their ability to fight back a physical assault than are women.” Studies conducted since 1989 seem to support this theory.
Researchers Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz recently expanded upon the Clark and Hatfield study, attempting to account for the effect of perceived risk on the outcome in a study published earlier this year. First, they recreated the original study in a more socially appropriate nightclub. Despite the change of setting, they found almost exactly the same results as Clark and Hatfield. However, they then conducted a study in which participants were surveyed under the auspices that they were helping a dating site adjust and calibrate its compatibility matrix. Participants were presented with pictures of ten members of the opposite sex and told that all ten of these individuals were interested in meeting up with them, either for a date or for sex. “The participants then could choose from the pictures who they wanted to meet to engage in a date or sex. In this subjectively safer environment, the gender difference disappeared, with the same proportion of men and women consenting to a date or sex.”
Many have used this study to conclude once and for all that men and women are equally interested in casual sex. But, of course, there is a significant difference between agreeing to a hypothetical sexual encounter that you know will not actually occur and agreeing to actually having sex with someone.
Another commonly held theory is that the sexual gender gap is rooted in the difference in anticipated pleasure that men and women expect from casual sexual encounters. Terri D. Conley, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Michigan, recreated the Clark and Hatfield study in 2011 with a methodology geared at providing “context” for participants. In her study, participants filled out questionnaires asking them how they would respond to sexual offers in a variety of scenarios. Respondents answered on a seven-point scale from one (no) to seven (absolutely). The questionnaire also requested information about how the participant perceived the requester.
In the scenarios that mirrored the original Clark and Hatfield study, Conley once again found a similar divide been male and female responses; the mean female response was 1.37, and males averaged 3.74. However, when participants considered offers of casual sex from famous people, or close friends who were reportedly “good in bed,” the gender gap closed.
While Conley found evidence to support the aforementioned “risk perception” theory, she concluded that the gender divide has more to do with “pleasure perception.” Per her results, “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.” Additionally, men proposing to women were perceived as less likely to provide sexual satisfaction than women were perceived by men. Essentially, she found that people are more likely to agree to a request for casual sex when they believe that their partner is sexually skilled, and women are less likely to think that men are capable of pleasing them than men are to think of women.
Still, others argue that the gender differences found in these studies are better explained by “social role theories” than anything else. People generally act according to prescribed social standards, they argue, and those standards are more forgiving of male promiscuity than female promiscuity (e.g. promiscuous men are called “players,” while their female counterparts are called “sluts” and “whores”). Thus, differences in sexual behavior are caused by the differences in how men and women are socialized.
Are the Cards Stacked Against Women?
Taken all together, it can start to feel like reality is stacked against women. Sex is an incredible human experience, yet female biology, along with society, condemns women to have less of it. If we had a free and equal society, and if our biological makeup allowed it, the thinking goes that women could pursue casual sex as freely as men and would be happier for it.
I can’t help but suspect that we are thinking about this the wrong way. Despite the countless words spoken and written on the subject, it seems that one angle has hardly been explored. What if casual sex, like unchecked power or lavish wealth, is not so much a source of happiness but a distraction from it? Consider another study that surveyed college students and asked them how many lifetime sexual partners they would ideally like to have. Although the most common answer for both sexes was one, the average of the men’s responses was more than sixty, and the average of the women’s responses was just 2.7. Is it possible that women are on to something here?
Maybe more casual sex isn’t necessarily better. Maybe—just maybe—casual sex isn’t all that great, and women tend to understand that better than men. Maybe casual sex distracts from greater, better, more holistic uses of our time, and women are less likely to be distracted by it.
In which case, it seems that biology and culture are stacked against men, not women. It’s certainly food for thought.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller