Why do women have casual sex?

A researcher upends traditional thinking and argues that both genders are looking for the same thing: Pleasure

Topics: Sex, Gender, Gender Roles, Love and Sex,

Why do women have casual sex?Black and white photo of young caucasian couple(Credit: Photographer: B-d-s)

Forget what you think you know about the sexes when it comes to hooking up: A new study claims that women are just as likely as men to accept an offer of casual sex. That is, so long as they are sexually propositioned by Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, respectively.

OK, so that isn’t terribly shocking — but a study published in this month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology raises some interesting questions about what it is that motivates no-strings sex. The University of Michigan’s Terri Conley set out to replicate a classic 1989 social psychology study that found men were likely to accept an offer of casual sex, but women never did. For ethical and legal reasons — pshh! — she wasn’t able to reproduce the social experiment exactly. Instead of having students proposition unwitting subjects around campus, Conley presented fully informed participants with a hypothetical situation and asked how they would expect themselves to respond. So, a grain of salt would be wise.

Based on a survey of which famous people students found most attractive and unattractive, researchers asked straight male participants to either consider a fling with Angelina Jolie or Roseanne. Hetero women were asked to either mull the possibility of a hookup with Johnny Depp or Donald Trump. The result: Women and men were equally likely to accept the proposal of the “attractive” famous person as they were to reject the “unattractive” celebrity. Conley writes that this is particularly interesting given the evo-psych view that women choose mates based on their good genes and capabilities as providers. “It is indeed difficult to imagine a better person to take care of a woman and her children than someone with the enormous resources of Donald Trump, yet women rejected him soundly,” writes Conley. “This challenges the assumption that women are driven to choose mates with great resources.”

What exactly is at play here is up for debate, though. “Perhaps the perceived gains in status afforded to individuals who have a sexual encounter with an attractive famous individual are so great that they offset any gender differences by reducing the stigma associated with casual sex for women,” Conley considers. But she ultimately settles on a more controversial hypothesis, suggesting that the disparity between men’s and women’s likelihood of actually getting pleasure out of a sexual encounter might be responsible for gender differences in willingness to engage in casual sex. In other words: Women are more discriminating about whom they sleep with in large part because they are much less likely to be sexually satisfied by the experience. There are countless other variables that I can’t even begin to consider here — but this study is at least fascinating as a conversation-starter and a kickoff for future research. I recently chatted with Conley about her findings, “pleasure theory” and the competing sexual pressures women face.

If you could summarize the importance of your findings in one sentence, what would it be?

Anticipated pleasure motivates both women and men to have casual sex and women would accept more casual sex offers from men if they believed that they would get good sex out of the encounter.

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That brings up the “pleasure theory,” which looms large in your research. What is it exactly?

The idea behind pleasure theory — a theory developed by Paul Abramson and Steven Pinkerton — is that pleasure itself is evolutionarily selected. If people are pleasuring each other in many different ways, enough procreative sex will occur to propagate the species.

If women are motivated by pleasure theory, why is faking orgasms so common? Any hypothesis as to what larger purpose “faking it” serves in casual encounters?

Sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong has shown that women do not feel entitled to sexual pleasure in casual heterosexual encounters. They seem to be more focused on providing the male partner with pleasure. If faking is common in casual sex encounters, it is likely because women are trying to do what they believe their male partner will like the best.

What’s the motivator there?

Women are typically socialized to be more concerned about others’ need than their own. They are also perceived negatively if they take the lead in sex.

Isn’t the motivation to give men pleasure at odds with the general “pleasure theory,” though?

Yes, I believe it is; women have competing pressures — they want sexual pleasure but other social forces prevent them from asking for it.

Do we know whether women’s perception of which men will bring them more pleasure actually bears out? In other words, using the example from the study: Is Johnny Depp necessarily a better lover than Donald Trump just because he’s more attractive?

Women orgasm only about 35 percent as often as men do in casual sex encounters — again, according to research by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong. Therefore, women’s estimations of the ability or willingness of the male partner to provide them with sexual pleasure seem to be accurate.

What does your research tell us about women and how they calculate the risk of a particular sexual encounter?

Pleasure is the motivating force for both women and men in sexual encounter. Risk — for example, STI risk or risk of violence — does not appear to affect whether they accept or reject a casual sex offer.

What weaknesses did your research reveal about the popular evolutionary view of how we choose whom we sleep with?

Sexual strategies theory proposes that women are motivated to accept sex because of the status of the potential sexual partner. I tested this possibility in several studies and it was never borne out. Moreover perceptions of status did not affect perceptions of the males’ sexual capabilities, either. SST variables do not effectively explain gender differences in casual sex.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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