Are Women Programmed to Avoid Casual Sex?


In the late seventies and eighties, psychologists did a series of tests to see how receptive undergraduates are to casual sex. They hired people (whom the studies refer to as “requestors”) to stand in the middle of different college campuses, and to walk up to total strangers of the opposite sex. The requestor would say to his or her chosen subject: “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be very attractive.” He or she would then ask 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 results were striking. About half of the subjects, both men and women, agreed to go on a date. (Nice work, requestors!) Between seventy and seventy-five percent of the men agreed either to go back to the requestor’s apartment, or to have sex with her. (The ones who refused were generally somewhat apologetic, and provided some excuse, like “I have a girlfriend.”) Zero percent of the women in both studies agreed to either of these requests. Zero. In all of the studies combined. That’s a big difference.

According to a widely-held assumption about how men and women are, this makes perfect sense. Here’s a headline from a British newspaper that captures this assumption perfectly: “Sex: Why it makes women fall in love – but just makes men want MORE!” On this view, women have to be careful whom they have sex with because they are much more emotional about it. If a woman has a casual fling with some guy, she’s liable to wake up in the morning really into him, but he’ll just take off, and that will give her the sads. And evolutionary theorists can offer a scientific explanation of why this is the case. According to “sexual strategies theory”, men want to spread their genetic material as widely as possible, while women are trying to find mates who will help them raise their off-spring. Women are thus essentially programmed to be interested in relationships rather than in casual encounters. 

I don’t buy this. I’d like to offer another explanation instead. I suspect a lot of women aren’t afraid the guy will ditch them. Quite the opposite: they worry that he will be hard to get rid of, and even become dangerous if they try. Stalking is a depressing fact of life for women, and one that is virtually unknown to men. Hollywood seems to believe that almost all stalkers are women.  But real life is very different. Close to ten percent of women have been stalked, mostly by someone they were involved with in some capacity (compared to around two percent of men). A much higher number of women have had to deal with unwanted attention and various other forms of creepy behaviour, often from guys they did nothing more than be nice to (or just friend on Facebook), and every woman has heard enough scary stories from friends that it’s always in the back of their minds. It’s no surprise that women tend to be a little wary of getting involved with total strangers.

There is at least some data to support my explanation for women’s lower receptiveness to casual sex. Psychologist Terri Conley has found that when women are put in scenarios where they can be confident that the encounter will be a safe one, they become about as willing as men to have a casual fling. (She thinks another factor is expectation of orgasm. Women suspect that, if they go to bed with a stranger, the guy won’t really do much for them and so they won’t really enjoy it. I’m sure that’s true.) Incidentally, it’s always worth remembering that if someone approaches you on campus and asks you to do something weird, like come home with them or electrocute a total stranger, they may not be crazy – they may just be a psychologist!

UPDATE: I meant to discuss the phenomenon of Tinder, but, well, I forgot. Ann Friedman has a great analysis of the Tinder phenomenon here. I think its success provides further evidence of my thesis. Tinder is a dating app that uses pictures from your Facebook profile, then gives you a feed of photos and allows you to swipe to say who you’re interested in. If they are interested to, you get to make contact. All you get is the photo, and a list of any friends you have in common. But this is enough. By requiring a Facebook profile, it provides some (albeit not perfect) guarantee you’re the person you say you are, and if you do have common friends, gives at least some sort of character reference. And even though it works mostly as a hook up app, women are using it in very high numbers.

Illustration: Esmeralda and Djali from Alfred Barbou, Victor Hugo and His Time (1882), artist unknown. In Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Esmeralda is the target of the obsessive affections of Claude Frollo, a powerful arch-deacon.

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  1. I don’t buy the evolutionary theory explanation either, and I’m so glad to see some debunking. I would add to your list of reasons that the possible consequences of unintended pregnancy for a woman are enormous — so if you’re not already on effective birth control, you’re in a position of having to trust a stranger with cooperation (e. g. effective and sensible condom use). It’s a high bar. The fact that so many women do have casual sex despite the real risks of violence, stalkers, and unintended pregnancy has always suggested to me that women typically do want and enjoy it a lot — when, as you say, it’s safe etc.

    Posted October 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink | Reply
  2. That is striking revelation from the findings of casual sex in the undergrads. However in campus situations some women are more daring or are more aggressive to having casual sex than men. This is usually driven by occasion where they are in a relationship but their partners are far away so they find it easily to indulge while still maintaining the commitment.

    Posted October 22, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink | Reply
  3. Olive

    Safety, yes… But also pleasure.

    I live in Canada, and I can’t recall the last time when I felt apprehensive in the presence of men. I still believe that no matter how safe I feel, I would still not be inclined to have casual sex if I was not getting a measure of sexual pleasure out of it.

    Posted November 19, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

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