Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why do women have casual sex?

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

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.

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.

Everything we do, we do for sex

Importance Of Sex
Sex is everywhere. It's on television, in the movies, in your conversations, in your dorm rooms, and chances are, it's guiding most of your actions.

The fields of psychology, biology, anthropology and sociology are all busy attempting to explain just how much our desire for sex drives our actions. In my opinion, the importance of our sexual drives cannot be overstated. Whether you realize it or not, the majority of your actions and thoughts can eventually be traced back to a sexual origin.

Before you write me off as a Neo-Freudian, allow me to explain myself. Have you ever stopped to wonder how often you check yourself in the reflection of a window? How many times a day do you check yourself for unsightly stains, bad breath, messy hair or food stuck in your teeth? Chances are good that most of us are guilty of taking part in these actions several times daily. The reason for our obsession with a pleasant appearance? Sex.

If we did not have some desire for sex, there would be no point in looking nice. We spend enormous amounts of effort each day to present ourselves as a suitable mate. Girls have makeup, special bras, suggestive clothing and many other things at their disposal to make themselves noticeable to men. Men, who do notice these things, usually make a strong attempt to present themselves as being physically strong, competent and capable of protecting anyone willing to mate with them.

As a regular gym-goer, I will admit that I began my interest in fitness because I wanted to look more attractive to the opposite sex. I would guess that approximately 90 to 100 percent of all males in UD's gym either started working out for women, or are currently working out in an effort to impress women. Admit it. Women, why do you diet, exercise and worry about gaining a half a pound around the waist? It's because you want to be perceived as desirable. Men, why do you spend an average of $6 billion a year on nutritional supplements, and spend three to seven hours a week in the gym? If you are honest, it's for sex. Sure, it keeps you healthy, but you want to look good at the party on Friday, and you are fooling nobody.

I'm not saying that our habits are wrong. They are necessary, as reproduction is what keeps our species from becoming extinct. Subconsciously, sex is way more than just an outlet for pleasure. I would argue that we all have a hidden drive to reproduce. It is ingrained in the fiber of our being. We should not attempt to hide this primal drive.

It permeates our behavior and controls the way we think and act. I'm not advocating sexual promiscuity, infidelity and other risky behaviors. I consider myself to be staunchly opposed to all of these behaviors. But I do believe it is outrageous much of our society attempts to hide the fact that humans have sex, and we love doing it.

So the next time you go to the gym, do your makeup, look in a mirror or act like a fool in an attempt to impress someone, have a good laugh at yourself, and realize it's all for sex.