CASUAL SEX: WHAT IT MEANS FOR MEN vs. WOMEN
In 1979 and 1982, two widely publicized studies examined the difference between men and women on the topic of casual hook-ups. Researchers Clark and Hatfield asked their assistants, one attractive male and one attractive female, to approach members of the opposite gender and provide one of three offers: A date, a meeting at the assistants apartment, or casual sex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the male was unanimously declined for a casual encounter by all females approached. Offers from the female assistant, however, were accepted 75% of the time (1979) and 69% of the time (1982) (theoretically, since the research assistant didn’t actually go through with the act). Funny enough, these numbers were markedly higher than the men who accepted a date (56%) or the offer to go over to the female’s apartment (60%) (1979). [Clark & Hatfield]
While amusing, their results did not rock the world. They were merely quantifying what people already assumed: Men just want to get laid.
Decades later, these studies are still referenced in discussion of male versus female sexual motives. The conclusion fits what we often see – Men pursue sex more openly and freely than women. But, there might be more to it than meets the eye. In the 21st century, women report a significant number of one-night stands, and rival men in the number of sexual partners.
So, what has changed? The female mindset? The social stigma? Are women simply more open to putting the casual back in casual sex?
A study of college students revealed that when women had one night stands, even with someone they weren’t necessarily interested in a long-term relationship with, the act of sex itself was enough to make them worried and anxious. Most women in the sample reported being concerned about what their male sexual partner felt about them, whether or not the man would call, and stated they found these feelings difficult to control. Researchers noted, “…some women began to realize that coitus itself produced feelings of bonding and vulnerability, and these feelings were difficult to suppress.” As a result, the more women had one-nighters, the more they eschewed such ‘low-investment copulations’ [pg 38]. [Townsend]
In a more recent study of adults across all age groups, researcher Anne Campbell surveyed 1,743 people who had experienced a one-night stand, and sought to determine if there are “differences between men and women in the positivity or negativity of their morning after evaluations” [pg 161]. She found that women reported feeling significantly more negative than men about the one-night stand experience. Men were more likely to cite sexual satisfaction as one of the perks/after the event, but many women “expressed disappointment with the quality of the sexual encounter.” [pg 167] (Perhaps a basic plumbing issue, or the nature of gender differences in the level of comfort each tends to feel (or not feel) with their bodies.) While men indicated they felt greater sexual satisfaction and contentment, sense of well-being and confidence about themselves, women were more likely to experience regret at having been used and regret that they have let themselves down. [163-164].
Also, perhaps not surprisingly, men were far more likely to secretly want their friends to hear about it, while women worried about the loss of reputation if people find out. [163-164] The only area that didn’t have a statistically significant sex difference after the event was the fear of pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease. 
Overall, the general impressions show a telling reversal: 59 percent of men and 28 percent of women had positive recollections of their one-night stand, but 23 percent of men and 58 percent of women indicated they regretted and/or would not repeat the experience – nearly exact opposites in terms of the percentage of male vs. female opinions.
It’s worth noting: Among men who had a negative recollection, Campbell notes the “prevailing tone” was isolation, and as one interviewee called it “utter emptiness” emotionally. [pg 166] Apparently some men are disappointed by a lack emotional connection, too.
Anyway, so if women aren’t enjoying the experience, why do it? Sure, things like alcohol might be a factor. Sometimes, though, it’s an attempt to build a relationship –
When it comes to one-night stands, researchers have found that men are more willing to “lower their threshold criteria” [pg 158] for short-term mates, while women tend to have similar requirements for short and long-term interests [pg 159]. Women are more likely to have sex if there was a chance of a relationship, and it’s been theorized that women use short-term mating as part of a strategy to evaluate and acquire a long-term partner [pg 159] [Campbell]
Research confirms what many “players” already know – pretending to want a long-term relationship can increase your chances of getting laid. For men, that is.
Alas, this still begs the question if sleeping with a man can increase the odds it will become something more. Social anecdotes seem to imply that it might actually decrease them, but I did a little delving into the actual data:
Does an initially casual hook-up affect the formation or quality of a long-term relationship?
Research suggests that it does not, at least not in sense that sex itself is the culprit.
Unfortunately I can’t provide the entire article without breaking a few laws, but I can link you to an interview with the lead researcher, Anthony Paik.
Some important quotes:
According to his recent study, “average relationship quality was higher for individuals who waited until things were serious to have sex compared to those who became sexually involved in “hookups,” “friends with benefits,” or casual dating relationships.”
“…having sex early on wasn’t to blame for the disparity. When Paik factored out people who weren’t interested in getting serious, he found no real difference in relationship quality. That is, couples who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship ended up just as happy as those who dated and waited.”
“We didn’t see much evidence that relationships were lower quality because they started off as hookups,” said Paik, an assistant professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “The study suggests that rewarding relationships are possible for those who delay sex. But it’s also possible for true love to emerge if things start off with a more ‘Sex and the City’ approach, when people spot each other across the room, become sexually involved and then build a relationship.”
“The question is whether it’s the type of relationship that causes lower quality or whether it’s the people,” he said. “The finding is that it’s something about the people.”
Again, emphasis on: “The finding is that it’s something about the people.”
Overall, the findings indicate that it is not the action but the intent of the person — some people are looking for casual sex, and some people are looking for a relationship. It doesn’t matter what time period they have sex in, what they are looking for mitigates the later relationship quality.
This is still potentially more complex than it sounds. The researcher distinguishes the type of people as those who are looking for (or at least open to) a serious relationship from those who prefer more casual, noncommittal interactions. I would argue that those two mindsets exist, but are not each characteristic per se. They can change based on the situation.
Here’s what I mean:
When it comes to men and relationships, it’s often less about what they want than who – A man can be completely different based on who they are interacting with. A “player” will entirely quit the game when a certain woman strikes a chord. A “nice guy” who wants to get involved seriously can be a jerk to women he simply isn’t all that into.
My current boyfriend was very much the “casual,” just looking to hook up guy when we first met. From day one, he was trying to get into my pants as they say. Well, I wasn’t interested in just getting after it, and honestly, not necessarily all that interested in him. It was a while before we started doing anything physical, not because I was playing some sort of power game, but because it was just the place I was in at the time.
As a result, it made him actually get to know me — made us to get to know each other, really– and ensured that I wasn’t seen as just another fling. I wouldn’t say delaying sex changed him, but I would say that it changed what he wanted from me.
So, while a man may be more inclined to one or the other, it isn’t an absolute reality. A man who sleeps with a woman on the first night may not pursue anything more because he thinks it’s all he wants from her. But, this may very well be because he doesn’t know her. If the same woman waited to make things physical, and IF the guy learned to appreciate and respect her in other ways, it might change his way of thinking. The guys who just want sex can become the guys who want a relationship, but the problem with having sex too early is that it can prevent them from considering it as a possibility, or from making the effort to go any deeper (that sounds like a set-up for “that’s what she said!” but hopefully you know what I mean.)
On the flip side, it’s still entirely possible that a man (or woman) won’t be interested in a relationship even after getting to know someone. That’s just the way it is. We don’t all appeal to everyone, and you can be an absolutely great person and still the guy won’t like you “that way.” (I’ve also read stories of people who waited three months to sleep with someone, then found out the sex was terrible. Arguably this is something that can be overcome, but not everyone agrees).
This is JUST research – Not an absolute reality. It can go any number of ways with different people, and personally, I’ve been on all sides of this issue: Refrained from having sex and had it turn into a great relationship. A 3-year relationship that essentially began with a one night stand. A complete cease and desist after having sex with someone “too soon.”**
Across all potential scenarios, there are a few things worth keeping in mind:
- Sex can affect our objectivity. We may feel attached when otherwise we likely wouldn’t. This is biological, this is cultural, this is something we can’t always control. Getting to know someone first may ensure that we’re getting intimate with someone who we’d actually WANT to be intimate with.
**I say “too soon” in quotes because while it wasn’t the first night, it was pretty early on. It’s possible that waiting would have helped the situation, but who knows. And, who knows if I would have even wanted to become serious with the guy — a few months later, I found out that he’s like the Casanova of his MBA program, and notorious for being sketchy and a liar.
- Sleeping with a guy right away can mean finding out the hard way what he really “wants” from you.
The question may not be if first date sex ruins a potential relationship, but if you can tell on a first date if the person actually even wants one. You could sleep with him and see if it goes anywhere, but self-preservation might be preferable. Going back to Paik:
“…In the casual dating category, some people think they’re headed for a long-term relationship, but there are also people who are only in it for sex. It basically brings ‘players’ and ‘non-players’ together. As a consequence, it raises the question of whether casual dating is a useful institution. This paper would suggest not really, because it doesn’t screen out the non-romantic types.”
- Acting “like men” doesn’t necessarily make us feel better about ourselves. And, it doesn’t necessarily show an improved gender landscape, or a healthier future for women. Let’s take just one example of where the male mentality of sex for sex’s sake goes awry: I recently came across a blog written by a guy on some “quest” to have sex with 50 different women. He details each encounter as they come along, and it struck me as crass and asinine on so many levels. This is sad not just for the unfortunate women who don’t realize what they’ve become a part of by (I can’t think of a non-cheesy way to say this) “sharing their bodies,” but also for the author. To see past and future women as literally another number…? How depressing.
To pull a few quotes on the topic: “We have to be careful in this era of radical feminism, not to emphasize an equality of the sexes that leads women to imitate men to prove their equality. To be equal does not mean you have to be the same.” -Eva Burrows
“Civilized people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love.” -Bertrand Russell
- There’s no real reason not to wait, at least for a little while. I’ll go ahead and disagree with 3MM that waiting until marriage is the ideal solution, or even the best way to get a guy to stick around, because there’s no evidence to support it in the academic literature. The few “studies” that claim as much are conducted and/or funded by religious organizations, and a key element of good science is unbiased motives. (Sex studies funded by religious organizations are like antidepressant research funded by Pfizer. Suspicious, at the very least.)
Either way, if sex is what you’re interested in, there’s not much holding back men or women from pursuing just that. But when it comes to building a relationship, we may do ourselves a favor by waiting until it really feels “right.”
Campbell (2008) The Morning after the Night Before – Affective Reactions to One-Night Stands among Mated and Unmated Women and Men. Human Nature. Volume 19, Number 2 (2008), 157-173,
Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55.
Paik (2010) “Hookups,” dating, and relationship quality: Does the type of sexual involvement matter? Social Science Research. Volume 39, Issue 5, September 2010, Pages 739–753.
Townsend (1995) Low-Investment Copulation: Sex Differences in Motivations and Emotional Reactions. Ethology and Sociobiology. Volume 16, Issue 1 , Pages 25-51, January 1995