Culturally Speaking

Challenging assumptions about culture, race, and mental health.

The Essential Ingredients of Casual Sex

What would make her say yes to a stranger?

Young blonde woman

Will you have sex with me?

You want to do what with me?

You are a typical undergraduate male, walking across campus in the early evening, when an attractive female student approaches you. She flashes a smile, introduces herself, and then says something that causes a double-take. “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” You can hardly believe your good fortune as you eagerly accept the proposition. But before you have a chance to contemplate what will come next, the female vanishes and a shadowy figure hands you an envelope. You open it and read the statement inside.

You’ve been punked. Even worse, not only are you not getting lucky—you are part of a cruel psychology experiment to better understand gender differences in sexual behaviors. This experiment was classically conducted in the 1980’s by Drs. Clark and Hatfield (1989), who discovered that about 70% of men agreed to a sexual liaison with a strange female. Interestingly, not a single female responded in the affirmative when approached by an unknown male. 

Gender differences in sexual behaviors

This study has been used as evidence of the evolutionary theory that males, driven by instinctual drives, are interested in spreading their seed far and wide and will engage in as many sexual encounters as possible. Conversely, women are more interested in nabbing someone who will be a good provider for their offspring, and are therefore more choosy in their sexual selections. (At least this is what we learned in Psyc 101.)

The Clark and Hatfield study has been replicated in several different countries with similar results. Although the proportion of men accepting the offer differs, wide gender differences continue to evident cross-nationally, with women rarely accepting such offers. And, when guys are approached, it’s not even critical that the female be attractive. A French study found that males accepted the offer 60% of the time from an average-looking female versus 83% of the time from a highly attractive one—with no females accepting the offer no matter how attractive the male was who approached her (Guéguen, 2011).

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?

Although it makes for a catchy song, let’s face it, this kind of experiment is not based on real life.  After all, what find of person approaches random strangers in the street to offer their bodies for a free sexual encounter? As it turns out, perception of such individuals is strongly based on their gender. A man approaching a woman this manner is generally regarded as unintelligent, perverse, and somewhat desperate, whereas, oddly, a woman doing exactly the same thing is rated as more intelligent, successful, and sexually skilled by men and women alike (Conley, 2011). 

lips

Will it be good for me too?

A random male approaching strangers and offering free sexual services is just about the most repulsive thing one can imagine—based on the data anyway. Perhaps the real issue is not that men want sex so much more than women, but rather the perception that such an uninvited male stranger could be dangerous and is clearly sexually unsavvy given that he uses ineffective methods to get what he wants. The danger issue may be particularly salient to women, given that men are generally larger, stronger, and more likely to be sexually deviant.

So, what if we switch up the scenario a bit. Suppose it's not a stranger that approaches you, but a well-known, attractive celebrity? Even though a celebrity is still typically a stranger, we feel that we know them because they are familiar to us. Conley (2011) asked just that question in her follow-up study of Clark and Hatfield’s work. Rewind. 

OMG, it’s Brad Pitt!

One day for a change of scenery you decide to head over to Malibu to study in a cafe that overlooks the ocean. As you are studying, you look over and notice that actor Brad Pitt is just a few tables away. You can hardly believe your eyes! Still more amazing, he catches your eye and then approaches you. He says, “I have been noticing you and I find you to be very attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

In this scenario, women were much more agreeable to the sexual encounter, with over half being likely to say yes, and three-quarters of males responding in kind to an analogous female celeb (in this case, Jennifer Lopez). Interestingly, when Brad Pitt was replaced with Donald Trump, women’s willingness for sex plummeted, due to his unattractiveness. Given that it’s hard to imagine someone more capable of being a good provider than a billionaire like Trump, these findings strike another blow to the heart of the conventional evolutionary theory.

Essential ingredients

So, what does determine a person’s willingness to have sex with a stranger? Conley (2011) examined a host of variables to answer this question, which included not only gender of the proposer, but attractiveness, concerns about danger, social status, sexual capabilities, faithfulness, worries about an STD, warmth, and mental illness. The findings show that after the person feels safe, the attractiveness and promise of sexual pleasure are the primary ingredients needed for a “yes.” Gender did remain an important variable, with more men wanting the sexual encounter than women, but once other factors were considered, the differences got much smaller.

Girls just wanna have fun—and stay safe

The guys were still were more likely to accept a sexual offer from a stranger, even after considering a slew of other factors. But the science has shown us that girls want to have fun too. It’s not all about resources, status, or spreading DNA. It seems that with a safe, attractive partner, the desire for a good time is part of the human condition for men and women alike.

 

Sources

Clark, R. D. & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 2, 39–55.

Conley, T.D. (2011). Perceived Proposer Personality Characteristics and Gender Differences in Acceptance of Casual Sex Offers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100 (2), 309–329.

Gueguen, N. (2011). Effects of Solicitor Sex and Attractiveness on Receptivity to Sexual Offers: A Field Study. Arch Sex Behav, 40, 915–919.

Monnica Williams, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville.

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