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Casual Sex and What Slate Got Wrong about "Sexual Economics"

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | March 2, 2011 | Comments ()


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Last week Slate ran another one of those articles about male-female dynamics that's based on the assumption that men enjoy and pursue sex more than women do. The only scientific study mentioned (a frequently cited one, the article notes!) is more than 20 years old. In fact, the experiments in that study were actually conducted in 1978 and 1982 -- so make that more like 30 years old. In those experiments, confederate college students -- men and women who ranged in appearance from "slightly unattractive" to "moderately attractive" (as defined by who knows what scale) -- approached members of the opposite sex at locations on the University of Florida campus. They asked one of three questions, "Would you go out with me tonight?" "Would you come over to my apartment tonight?" or "Would you go to bed with me tonight?" The total subjects approached were 48 men and 48 women in each study. The subjects were rated by the questioners as ranging from "moderately" to "very" attractive. Both men and women responded positively to the idea of a date, but only men agreed to go to the questioners apartment or to bed with them, at rates of 68% and 75% respectively.

You can already see problems with this study, can't you? Women, approached in the middle of the day and propositioned by a stranger, balk. Men enthusiastically agree. That doesn't tell you much about how men and women behave when they don't have to worry about social pressures to be fuck everything they can/be good girls who don't do that. There's also the fact that the questioners were on average rated as less attractive than the people they approached, which may have affected the respondents' decisions (we don't know, because the researchers didn't bother to ask them about their reasons). Not to mention the safety issue. I'll be honest, I've slept with at least one dude who approached me at random in a park. In fact, I countered his date offer with the information that I was only interested in casual sex. But I spent a good half hour talking to him before hand so that I could get a sense that this was someone who wouldn't make me feel unsafe (not a guarantee, of course, but it never hurts to look for sketchy vibes). I can't imagine agreeing to sex with a man who just walked up and offered (unless maybe he was reeeaaally gorgeous), because he might turn out to be dangerous. I doubt men worry quite as much about this possibility when approached by a strange woman. It doesn't mean I'm less interested in casual sex, just that I have to take my safety into account when deciding who I'm going to sleep with. There's also the fact that these experiments were conducted decades ago and may not apply to our current society. While sexual mores were loosening in the 70s and 80s, women still had less freedom to be sexually expressive than they do now.

The simple truth is that this oft cited study that so many assumptions of the male/female dynamic is based on is not really all that well designed (in fact, I'd say it's biased toward a situation where men are more likely to respond positively), has a very small, very specific, sample size, and is, frankly, outdated. Ironically, the writer of that Slate article missed a more recently released paper that finds that, surprise, men and women are equally receptive to casual sex. It also demonstrates that how likely both genders are to respond to an offer of sex from a member of the opposite sex depends on how they perceive the personality of the person approaching them. This newer study used interviews to get at the motivations of men and women with respect to their sexual behavior, rather than a field study with unwitting subjects. In doing so it provides insight into why women and men might be more or less likely to accept sexual offers, but loses the direct evidence of how they behave when they don't know they're being watched. (This was done in part to protect the researcher, as current social attitudes mean that an unwanted sexual advance could be seen as illegal sexual harassment.) Unfortunately, this means we lack a direct comparison for the previous study that would demonstrate how men and women's responses changed with societal changes. In order to compensate for this, interviewees were asked about their actual experiences of casual sex. This study also had a much more robust sample - 516 participants, compared to the original's 192, although it was similarly composed of college students.

In the first part of the study, subjects were asked to imagine a scenario in which they were approached on campus by a stranger and propositioned. In this case, 82% of women indicated that they would not agree to such an offer while 74% of men indicated that they would. But unlike the previous study, this one tells us why: male proposers were perceived by women as being dangerous and unlikely to give them sexual satisfaction, whereas female proposers were perceived by men as warm and sexually skilled. When participants were asked to judge the scenario from the outside, the results were the same:

They assumed that men approaching women in such a manner were more dangerous and less sexually capable than women approaching men. On the other hand when participants were asked how they would respond to someone they were familiar with - either an acquaintance or a famous person (that second one may have skewed things a bit), the gender differences disappeared. The gender differences also disappeared when gay subjects were asked to imagine being approached by members of the same sex. Surveys of participants actual experiences showed that women accepted offers of casual sex about 40% of the time, compared with 73% for men (it's unclear how comparable these numbers are however, since women likely get more such offers than men given the social convention of men approaching women). Again, female proposers were perceived more positively than male ones. Overall, the best predictor for whether men or women would accept an offer depended most on how they perceived the proposer's sexual abilities, with perceived danger level also having a strong impact, and gender was found to affect both perceptions.

In other words, the current scientific evidence is not that women want casual sex less than men do, it's that women are more cautious in accepting offers and less likely to assume that a stranger is going to give them sexual satisfaction. Which doesn't mean that women are having less casual sex than men or desire casual sex less. After all, it takes two to tango.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.



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