There's a viral video making the rounds with a very simple, if unusual premise: An attractive woman walks up to men on the street and asks them if they want to have sex with her. It's a candid camera gag by the prank-happy YouTube comedy channel whatever, and it's the second time they've done this shtick: Two years ago, they had a man proposition 100 women for sex (he was rejected 100 percent of the time) and then had a woman proposition 14 men for sex (she was rejected 50 percent of the time). This go round, they had the same woman proposition 100 different men and her success rate -- if it can be called that, given the circumstances -- was a low 30 percent. Despite our cultural bias that men will sleep with anything with a pulse (or, hell, even without), it's not too surprising that she was rejected by the majority of the guys. Her cuteness and belly-shirt aside, there is something odd about approaching a stranger in the middle of the day to say: "Hi, my name's Andrea. Would you maybe want to have sex with me?"
The rejections were largely delivered without hesitation, as if by reflex -- so much so, you might actually be misled to believe that it's a common experience for men to be propositioned by strange women on the street. Their quick no's were decisive, too: "No, I'm fine" and "Absolutely not," for example. She gets a few who are outwardly disapproving: "Why would you subject yourself to something like that?" asks one guy (to which she responds in a whisper, "My parents didn't love me"). An older man simply says, "What's wrong with you?" Another man chastises her, "That's a very weird proposition. Plus, I think it's stepping outside regular social conventions." You think? A couple of men assume that she's a prostitute and ask how much. There are lots of vague excuses like, "I have class in a few minutes" -- and then there's the young guy who gestures vaguely into the distance and says, "Uh, that's a great offer, but I gotta get my bike … " My favorite is the guy who is maybe possibly avoiding it, but maybe possibly into it and just seriously dehydrated: "Let me get some Gatorade first." The yeses ranged from "Sure, let's go" to "You're really sexy. I'm down" to "Fuck yeah." Some barely let her finish her sentence before effectively pumping their fists in excitement.
This scenario might seem like the sort of thing that could only be dreamed up by YouTube pranksters, but a famous academic study in 1989 actually undertook a similar experiment. Male and female research assistants approached members of the opposite sex on a college campus and said, "I have been noticing you around campus and I find you to be very attractive.” They then followed up with 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 request for a date garnered an equal percentage of yeses from both men and women. A gender divide showed up with the apartment question, though, with women much less inclined to say yes. And as for the awkward "would you go to bed with me" question: 100 percent of the women declined and roughly 70 percent of the men said yes.
For decades, this finding was used as evidence of men's and women's different propensities for casual sex -- but then in 2011, psychologist Terri D. Conley published a study that sought to control for some of the complicated factors at play. When her study asked participants how they would respond to being propositioned by a celebrity or a friend rumored to be good in bed, the sex differential in saying "yes" all but disappeared. She found that both men's and women's responses were determined by just how "sexually skilled" they imagined the initiator to be -- and it just so happened that male proposers on the whole were deemed to be less sexually skilled than female proposers. The main conclusion left to be drawn was basically: Hey, maybe that gender difference thing can be better chalked up to women's concerns about sexual pleasure.
Anyway, it would be silly to get too serious about comparing this highly unscientific YouTube video with that legendary peer-reviewed study, but it's hard not to wonder if the study's approach was more successful because it offered more context simply by beginning with, "I have been noticing you around campus." In any case, this all got me thinking about how women proposition men in real life.
I asked Sarah Hepola, Salon's personal essays editor, about it since she once wrote a terrific piece about the time she met a Wall Street banker in a bar and asked him, "Would you like to come back to my apartment and have sex?" Granted, this was after they had shared a couple beers and engaged in conversation -- not exactly outlandish enough to make the guy think there were hidden cameras behind the bar -- but, still. "He licked the foam off his lips," she wrote, and he replied: "'Yes. Yes, I would." She doesn't remember doing anything quite that bold ever again. "Drinking made me very impulsive, and I was known to say things like: let's kiss now. Or: you are going to come home with me," says Hepola, who has a memoir forthcoming about her relationship to booze. "Growing up, I struggled to ask for what I wanted, and alcohol freed me … once I was drinking, I could be bold and direct in a way I never could when sober."
The liquid courage factor was something I heard from several other women who responded to my call for stories of female pickups. "As far as I remember, I've never straight up been like, 'Wanna fuck?'" wrote 28-year-old "Alex" in an email. "Honestly, alcohol is involved with most of these stories and I can't always clearly remember the final details, you know?" She once met a cute guy at a bar near her college and, as they were smoking cigarettes toward the end of the night, he asked if she had a place to stay, since she had missed the last shuttle back to the dorms. "I responded, 'I don't know. Do I?' while taking what I'm sure I thought was a seductive drag on my cigarette at 21," she said.
Of course, it's easier to make such bold moves from behind the safety of a computer screen. Clare, 36, tells me, "In my many years of online dating, there were a few cases in which I knew -- without even meeting the dude -- that I wanted to have sex with him," she says. "I found the easiest way to proposition in those cases was to simply invite the dude over to hang out -- or expressly for sex. This method was 100 percent effective." In fact, she's still friends with three of these guys. "If these guys hadn't been into it, I wouldn't have been crushed," she says. "The context was low-risk for me." Interestingly, when she has rejected dudes' blatant come-ons after a first date, they have almost always reacted terribly. "Once, the dude said to my face, 'That's OK, I'm not really into chubby girls anyway.' Another, when I dropped him off at his house and refused to come in, slammed the car door in my face mid-sentence and then threw his beverage at my windshield."
On the whole, the women I spoke with were successful with direct come-ons after at least sharing a drink or exchanging a couple messages on OkCupid. Arden Leigh, a female pickup artist who studied under the infamous Mystery -- hi, Mystery! -- and now coaches women on seducing men, tells me this is a much preferred tack. "A direct approach can be fun but I recommend more time spent flirting and bantering and getting to know one another first, even if you want to get physical on the same night you meet a guy," says Leigh, author of "The New Rules of Attraction: How to Get Him, Keep Him, and Make Him Beg for More." "Approaching a guy as though sex is already a closed deal is creepy because he knows there's no way you know if you can trust him yet, and it's dehumanizing because you don't know anything about him other than his looks." She says that ladies on the prowl should escalate from being flirty and playful to sensual and sexual. Now, there are some exceptions to this. "The guys you can approach most directly for sex are the guys who are used to being approached for sex all the time -- rock stars and public idols," she says. "Since they're accustomed to getting offers for sex because they have broadcast their attractiveness on a mass level, it won't be unnatural to them."
So, women, by all means, go forth and ask for sex! Just — maybe exchange a sentence or two first?