The accessibility of contraception in the 1960s and changes in attitudes concerning the perceptions of sexual risk sparked a sexual revolution. Gradually, attitudes surrounding sex have become more liberal. While traditionally sexual behaviour (in many circles at least) has been largely considered in a reproductive context, having sex for pleasure has become increasingly socially acceptable.
Online dating has changed the game again. Geo-locative technology has enormously facilitated the hookup process, and were it not for contraception, may possibly be indirectly responsible for a small nation’s worth of conceptions. A recent U.S. study found that 78.2% of adults aged 18-34 claimed to have had casual sex with someone they met online.
While it is extremely difficult to accurately measure the degree to which people are having casual sex (generally defined as intercourse in the absence of a committed relationship), apparently more than half of young people aged 18-25 have had at least one casual sex encounter in their life.
One of the problems is that people either genuinely misestimate or consciously misrepresent their own involvement in casual sex. Men, for example, tend to upwardly exaggerate their numbers whereas women will downplay them. On some surveys, men report four times as many sexual partners as women. Clearly this is madness, as in heterosexual relationships, each new sexual partner for a man is a new sexual partner for a woman, so the numbers should be equal.
It is well agreed upon that women generally experience more negative psychological consequences than men following casual sex but what is less clear is what specifically motivates women (and men) to engage in casual sex.
My colleagues and I were curious about this, so we developed an anonymous online survey and conducted a study where we asked a bunch of people (1121 to be exact) questions about casual sex. The results were very interesting.
Most of our sample (aged 18-82; roughly as many men as women) said they had had casual sex (73%) ever. About 12% refused to answer, and 4% were unsure. The rest said no.
Not surprisingly, there was a huge gender difference, with men reporting nearly twice as many hook-ups on average (28) as women (15). Given previous literature, this was expected, but still nonsensical. A handful of respondents even said they’d had more than 1000 hookups (including 1 woman). Also, 8% of men but only 3% of women said they’d had more than 100.
The more interesting gender differences were in terms of what motivated individuals to engage in casual sex, and how they felt afterwards. In terms of why men and women sought hook-ups, there was a fairly big gender difference overall, with predictable gender differences on items you would probably expect such as "I had a hookup because I was feeling miserable" and "…because I felt pressured" (more agreement from women); and "For sexual satisfaction/gratification" (more agreement for men). Interestingly there were no gender differences for items such as "…because I was seeking affection from another person," "…for personal enjoyment/fun," and "…to increase my self-confidence."
We also asked men and women how they felt after their most recent hookup and again there was a large gender difference overall and for just about every individual question we asked them. Compared to men women said they felt more lonely, unhappy, rejected, regretful, felt more negative feelings about themselves and were more concerned about being negatively judged by others. Men, on the other hand, said they felt more sexually satisfied, happier, confident, content, and their mood improved.
So we then tried to use people’s stated motivations for engaging in casual sex to predict the emotional outcome they would experience. It turns out that this is pretty hard because there are so many things that influence both why people do it, and how they will feel about it afterwards.
We did find that a negative outcome can be predicted if one is trying to regulate negative emotions or trying to achieve positive emotions. In other words, if you are having casual sex because you are trying to get rid of some negative emotions, or you are wanting to feel some positive emotion, it probably won’t turn out good for you. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to determine any factors that would lead to a positive outcome.
The bottom line here is that although attitudes surrounding female sexual autonomy are slowly changing, and society is certainly more accepting of female sexual agency in 2020 than they were, say, 30 years ago, there are still big gender differences. While these data can’t really tell us what you need to do to have a positive emotional experience following casual sex, we can say that it’s probably not a good idea to go into it wanting to eliminate negative emotions.
This post was co-authored with Billie McKeen, based on research co-conducted by Billie McKeen, myself, and David Mitchell.
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