By Susan Kolod, Ph.D.
Young women are becoming equal partners in the hookup culture, often just as willing as young men to venture into sexual relationships without emotional ties. But research suggests hookup regret is twice as common among women as men.
Is that because women are “hard-wired” to be monogamous? Researchers say no—it has more to do with sexual satisfaction. Or lack thereof.
The “Hookup Culture” has generated a wealth of research on how both men and women respond to casual sex. These studies conclude women are much less likely to orgasm in a hookup as in a committed relationship, and that hookup regret is often linked to an unsatisfying sexual experience.
Justin R. Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, studied 600 college students and found women were twice as likely to reach orgasm in serious relationships as in hookups. Both men and women sometimes experience hookup regret, but Garcia found women are twice as likely to have a negative reaction later on.
Likewise, Paula England, a sociologist at New York University, in a study of 24,000 college students over the course of 5 years, found only approximately 40 percent of women had an orgasm during their last hookup involving intercourse, while 80 percent of men did. By contrast, roughly three quarters of women in the survey said they had an orgasm the last time they had sex in a committed relationship.
England suggests that for women, practice makes perfect—in other words practicing sex with a partner is far more important for a woman to achieve sexual satisfaction than for men. Communication, which is a key element in a woman’s sexual satisfaction, is less likely in hookups. “Women are not feeling very free in these casual contexts to say what they want and need.” Another problem, according to England, is that women may still be stigmatized for having casual sex.
Most of subjects in these studies were heterosexual. But Terri Conley, a research psychologist at the University of Michigan, did a study involving bisexual women. She found that if a bisexual woman was approached by both a man and a woman for casual sex, she would be more likely to accept the offer from the woman. Why? Less likelihood of disease, violence or stigmatization and greater likliho0d of sexual satisfaction with a female stranger than a male stranger.
Conley challenges the argument that gender differences relating to casual sex are “hardwired” i.e. biological or evolutionary in nature. She examined the following assumptions:
- Men think about sex more than women
- Women orgasm less frequently than men
- Men like casual sex more than women
- Women are choosier than men
She suggests that these gender differences have more to do with societal factors: prohibition against women expressing sexual desire, and the greater risk of being subjected to sexual assault and disease. According to Conley, when these conditions are factored out of the equation, women and men appear to enjoy casual sex similarly.
Furthermore, if a woman finds her sex partner attractive, sexually skilled and non-judgmental she is just as likely to engage in and enjoy a hookup as a man. And she will most likely not regret the experience.
But before a woman can communicate what she wants, she has to know what she wants. Sex education does not teach women how to have good sex, let alone ask for what they need.
In a recent New York Times article on this subject, In Hookups, Inequality Still Reigns (November 11, 2013) a young woman reports sex education in her school was aimed at stopping teenagers from having sex entirely; there wasn’t any discussion of how to achieve satisfaction. She noted that porn can be a great source of sex education but in porn people don’t tell each other things like, ‘Oh, my foot’s falling asleep, we need to move.”
Men’s sexual anatomy makes it is easier to achieve orgasm, whether the sex occurs within a committed relationship or not. Women’s sexual responsiveness is more complicated and requires the woman know what she wants and be willing to ask for it. Her partner must be mindful of the time and attention required to ensure the woman achieves orgasm.
It is quite common for women to disconnect from sexual experiences in hookups, particularly if they are drunk or high. It is just too difficult to stop things once they get started. As one female patient reports, “I just decided to pretend it wasn’t happening.” She describes being in a trance-like state during a casual sexual encounter and regretting it afterwards.
An unsatisfying sexual experience like this can have lasting negative consequences, resulting in feelings of shame, depression and low self worth.
In taking sexual histories of women who were having problems with arousal as they went through menopause, I found regret over unsatisfying or risky sexual encounters could linger. During the “Sexual Revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s, as now, there was considerable peer pressure to be sexually adventurous. Some of the sexual experiences women reported occurred under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and with multiple partners. While these experiences may have felt adventurous at the time, they are now recalled as painful, humiliating and even traumatic. This may be due to the fact that the woman was not really enjoying herself—just pretending and going through the motions in a very disconnected way.
What is the takeaway for young women today? Know what you like and want sexually and make sure to communicate this to your partner. It is never a good idea to disconnect and pretend you are enjoying sex if you are not. These reactions lead to feeling "used.” Hookups aren't for everyone, but they don't have to be a source of dissatisfaction, shame or trauma. If you have a great time with a casual sex partner, you are less likely to regret the experience afterwards!
Susan Kolod, Ph.D. is a Supervising and Training Analyst and co-Editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. She has lectured and written about the impact of hormones on the psyche with a particular focus on sexuality, menopause and the menstrual cycle. She is in private practice in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Dr. Kolod will be speaking at the Division 39 Meeting in New York City at the Sheraton Hotel on April 24th, 2014. The topic is The Female Body in Psychoanalytic Treatment.