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Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research

March 3, 2011

Many of my readers will likely have seen the report of the new paper by Professor Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan.  I’m often skeptical of science reporting, so I didn’t want to write about it until I saw the paper for myself.  I’ve now read it, and it deserves a complete run-though.   (I don’t have the right to redistribute it, so I’ll refer to and sometimes quote the paper.  You can buy it here.  Folks with access to a library may be able to get it free, it is Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, vol. 100, no.2, 309-329.)   It’s not really one study, it’s four, with subparts.  It strongly contradict the theory that pop-evo-psych spouting people think of (though they often don’t know what it’s called), the Sexual Strategies Theory.  And, for once the science reporting wasn’t awful, and the paper really did conclude what the press report says it does: that most of the gender difference in women’s and men’s propensity to agree to a broad-daylight, out-of-nowhere proposition for casual sex is driven by women’s perception that their risks are higher, and their likely enjoyment is lower from the proposer.

First of all, the backdrop of the whole study is another famous psychology paper, Clark and Hatfield’s 1989 paper, Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers, Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55.  That paper studied receptivity to one, really specific and unusual, sexual offer: a stranger walks up to the subject, on a college campus, and propositions sex.  All the women declined while a lot of men accepted, and this is a replicable result.  Conley calls that scenario the CHSP, for Clark-Hatfield Sexual Proposal.  You might think that this not necessarily representative of other propositions for casual sex — and you’d be right.  After reviewing her results, Conley concludes:

Based on a number of findings from the current studies, it appears that the Clark and Hatfield paradigm is a casual sexual proposal that is uniquely repulsive to women being approached for heterosexual encounters, likely because of what it conveys about the male proposer’s sexual capabilities and safety.

[p. 324, emphasis mine.]  But we’ll get back to that.

Conley’s paper isn’t just based on one study; she really did four, some with subparts.  To do what she needed to do, instead of having people walk up to college students on campus like the original CHSP, she asked about the scenarios in questionnaires.  One might think that this would affect the results, but in fact the numbers for the iterations that replicated the original CHSP scenario matched their results pretty well, indicating that what people said they’d do was a good indicator of what they in fact do when they don’t know it’s a study.

The basic hypothesis she set out to test was that the original CHSP didn’t really see which respondents were more inclined to casual sex, because an offer of casual sex with a man, for a het woman, is not the mirror an offer of  casual sex from a woman for a het man.  She hypothesized that men and women were viewed differently by the respective respondents in ways that made an offer of casual sex from a woman more attractive to people who like sex with women, than an offer of casual sex with a man was for people who have sex with men. 

Sub-Studies and Results

Just for space reasons I’m going to do this more briefly than Conley’s paper does, but to do this right I have to briefly describe each study separately and state the key results.  This will take a bit.  Most of the analysis will follow.

Study 1a: this study was a pencil-and-paper version of the CSHP, but since it was on paper, Conley could also ask questions about how the participants viewed the proposer — not an actual person, as in the original, but the person the participants are asked to imagine for the sake of the question.  The basic scenario was this:

An attractive member of the opposite sex approaches you on campus and says, “I have been noticing you around campus and I find you to be very attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

[312.]

Respondents answered on a seven point scale from one (no) to seven (absolutely) the likelihood that they’d accept.  The also answered similar seven point scales  (many of which were created by combining multiple questions) for several other items, among them:

sexual capabilities

danger

likelihood of having an STD

mental illness

status

warmth

faithfulness

likelihood of giving gifts.

The thing to bear in mind is that there is no specific proposer, the proposer is just a construct.  Any cues the respondents are taking about the proposer are in the respondents’ heads.  The respondents have no direct information about whether the proposer has an STD, etc.  All they know is what they infer about a person of the defined gender category making the offer described.

These scales served different purposes.  Some were designed to determine how much pleasure the respondents thought they would get from agreeing to the proposal; some were designed to see how risky they thought it was; and some were designed to test the Sexual Strategies Theory (SST).  In later studies, Conley manipulated the scenario to examine what happened with changes in these factors.

In addition, Conley asked about the desire for the respondent to have a short-term relationship, as distinct from casual sex, with the proposer.

The sample group for Study 1 was 516 participants, college population, 62% women, 58% European American, 14% African-American, 16% Latin@, 6% Asian American, het only.

Study 1a results:  Conley summarizes the 1a results like this:

male proposers were perceived (by women) as more dangerous and less likely to provide them sexual satisfaction than women were perceived (by men). Male proposers were perceived (by women) to have lower status and to be less warm than the women proposers were perceived to be (by men). There were no gender differences in perceptions of the proposers’ sexual faithfulness, mental capacities, gift giving, or risk of STD.

[314.]  On the key question of likelihood of accepting the offer, women’s mean was 1.37 out of 7, with a standard deviation of .97 — generally not a chance with a smattering of not likely.  Men were at 3.74 with an SD of 2.16, so in the middle and all over the range.    Everyone’s interest went up for the short fling, women to 2.43 (deviation 1.18), men to 4.03 (2.16), but the gap remained large.

As for why, here’s the first headline: women rated sexual competence at 2.82 (1.25) and men at 3.83 (1.14).  Men thought the proposer — knowing nothing about her — would be a middle-of-the-pack sex partner, while women thought the male proposers would be mediocre.  Here’s the second headline: women rated danger at 4.19 (1.62) against 2.75 (1.52) for men.  Women rated danger in the top half of the scale, men in much lower, when all they knew about the proposer was the gender and that they had made the offer described.  There are differences on other scales, some statistically significant at some levels but none with a gulf like these.

Study 1b:  Conley used basically the same questionnaire on a different sample group, but instead of specifying a member fo the opposite sex, she specified the sex and handed them randomly, i.e. women were as likely to get a questionnaire where the proposition was from a woman as from a man.  the sample was n=212, college population, women-heavy at 78%, 37% Latin@, 24% European American, 8% African-American, 11% Asian American and 8% Arabic or middle-eastern, het only.

Results of Study 1b:  This is where it gets interesting. 

Women were equally as likely to agree to a sexual encounter with a man as with a woman, t(163) = 0.10, n.s., d = 0.02. Given that the means were extremely low, however, the complete lack of interest in either the female or the male proposer may be chalked up to floor effects. That led me to additionally consider the question of short-term relationships. When women responded about their desire for the proposer as a short-term relationship partner, the means across conditions were higher (just over 2.0), but the women still showed no preference for the male versus the female partner, t(163) = 0.43, n.s., d = 0.07. In other words, heterosexual women were just as likely to want a short-term relationship with the female proposer as they were to want a short-term relationship with the male proposer. Even though agreeing to have sex with a woman would mean engaging in an encounter with someone to whom they are presumably unattracted physically, this was equally as unappealing as having sex with a man who approached them to propose casual sex. These findings show just how undesirable the male proposer is to the female participants, a question I explore further below.

[315.]  Holy shit!  Het men, as one might expect in a sample of het folks, were mostly uninterested in men  — 1.5o on a seven point scale, and interested in women, 3.52.  Het women, however, were at 1.16 for women and 1.15 for men, basically a tie at “not so much”.  Maybe that’s so close to zero that it doesn’t mean much, but for the short fling, the pattern held.  The men were at 3.59 (2.35) for men and 1.76 (1.56) for men; women were at 2.14 (1.76) for women, and 2.20 (1.78) for men — still just about a dead heat.  Trying to walk over and pick up a strange female college student who identifies as het will be as likely to succeed for a woman as it will for a man.

The proponents of “inherent female bisexuality” can rejoice at an out-of-context data point to support their bullshit theory. (I’m not really kidding.) 

Now this, this requires explanation.  Here’s the explanation:

both women and men agreed that the female proposer would be better in bed, thought the female proposer was warmer and had higher status, and thought the female proposer would be more likely than the male proposers to give them gifts. Men and women also believed that female proposers were less likely to be dangerous than male proposers. In sum, both men and women agreed that the male proposers are less desirable than female proposers on dimensions of relevance to sexual encounters.

[315.]  So, says the sample group, if a woman walks up to you and proposes a random quickie, she’s likely more fun and less worry than a man who does exactly the same thing.

Study 1c, and results: Conley recast the question into the third person, so that the respondent wasn’t the person being propositioned.  She asked a sample ( n=62, 66% women, 66% European American 17% African American, 8% Latin@, 5% Asian American) about their perceptions of either male or female proposers.  They rated the men (knowing nothing about them but that they were men and made the proposal) as being less sexually capable and more dangerous than the women.

Study 1d, and results: Conley got a sample of bisexual women from GLBT online and campus communities (n= 103, 77% European American, 8% Asian American, 5% Latin@, 2% African American).  They answered proposition part of the 1a questionnaire, with either a man or a woman specified.  The bisexual women respondents responded to the offer from a woman at 2.37 (1.41) and a man at 1.39 (.83).  That’s a pretty good spread.  they were not asked the perception of the proposer questions.

Study 2a:  Conley substituted famous people for the strangers, on the hypothesis that famous people are more familiar and therefore perceived as less dangerous (whether accurately or not).  She selected the famous people by asking sample groups to name attractive and unattractive members of the opposite sex, and then picked a few that were common. (She ended up dropping African American women from one group because their attractive celebrities did not overlap at all with the other, mostly white, women in the sample and they didn’t rate the men the white women liked as attractive.  That’s a book of it’s own, or several books.) 

Based on pilot questions to the sample, Conley picked Johnny Depp as the attractive and Donald Trump as the unattractive man, and Angelina Jolie as the attractive and Roseanne Barr as the unattractive woman.  The respondents asked about the scenario with these people substituted as the proposing members of the opposite sex.  Because she wanted to pull apart the effect of Roseanne’s perceived unattractiveness from the effect of her age, she added in Christy Brinkley for the male respondents.  Brinkley was actually perceived as the older of the two.

Here’s how the Study 2a scenario went (using Johnny Depp as the celebrity):

You are fortunate enough to be able to spend your entire winter vacation in Los Angeles. One day, about a week into your stay, you decide to visit a trendy cafe´ in Malibu that overlooks the ocean. As you are sipping your drink, you look over and notice that actor Johnny Depp 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?”

[318.]  Conley also reformulated the scenario slightly differently to involve an unknown proposer.  She included the questions about a short fling.  And she added a question about how appealing the offer was, even if they were going to say no.

Study 2a Results:  Here’s the headline — differences between men and women in likelihood of taking the proposer up on the offer was a whole lot closer.  For the proposition by the attractive person, women were at 4.09 (2.16) to 4.16 (2.56) for men — just about a tie.  For the unattractive celebrity, men were at 1.43 (.84) to women’s 1.71 (1.61) — women were higher.  For the unknown person, though, no such effect.  Women were at 1.86 (1.38), men were still at 3.52 (2.06).  Women were only marginally more interested in the offer from a stranger than from a man generally thought ugly.  Men were almost as interested in the random stranger as Angelina Jolie.  The short fling results basically track this, with the fact of celebrity seriously closing the gap between men’s and women’s interest, and the gap for a stranger remaining wide.  The appeal of the offer follows the same pattern: little difference in men’s and women’s response to the unattractive celebrity, little difference in their reaction to the attractive celebrity, lots of difference in their response to the stranger.

Because this study included factors like resources, status and age, it has a lot of implication for SST, which I’ll address below.

Study 2b and Results:  This study mapped 2a, in a different location and with a different sample group, and different celebrities created by a pilot question process.  The sample was from a university (n=118, 59% women, 20% African American, 27% Asian American, 21% European American, 16% Latin@).  The celebrity women were Jennifer Lopez and, again, Roseanne.  The men were Brad Pitt and Carrot Top.  Conley again included the stranger question as a control.  This time, Conley added in some other questions: “How likely is it that you would be harmed by this person?” and “How likely is it that this person would be a good lover?” These questions cut right to the heart of the risk and reward issues, and the responses are discussed later.  

This study replicated the main result of 2a, that celebrity largely eliminates the gender difference in interest in casual sex.  There is almost no difference for the unattractive celebrity, and the difference between men and women for the attractive celebrity was still present, but smaller.  Those difference shrink even further for the fling.  The differences for the stranger proposer, however, remain a gulf.  In fact, men’s reactions to the unknown woman looked a lot like their reaction to Jennifer Lopez, and totally unlike their reaction to Roseanne.  Women’s reactions to the stranger looked a lot like their reactions to Carrot Top, and not a lot like their reactions to Brad Pitt.  Conley conjectures, “In sum, when women conceptualized the unknown proposer, they appeared to be thinking of someone like Carrot Top. When men conceptualized the unknown proposer, they appeared to be thinking of someone like Jennifer Lopez.”  [p.320.]   Maybe that tracks gendered differences in optimism and pessimism, or maybe it maps preconceived notions about the kind of men and women who propose sex out of the blue, or maybe it has to do with risk.  There are a number of possible explanations.

Study 2c and Results:  Conley substituted the respondents’ best opposite sex friend for the celebrity in studies 2a and 2b.  The sample was n=109, 66% women and 82% European American, gathered online.  They put in an initial for this friend, and got the following scenario:

During a conversation with your male [female] friend, he [she] says to you, “I have been noticing how attracted I am to you. Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

[321.]  The respondents were also asked the characteristics of the proposer, e.g. sexual capability etc.  Most of these characteristics showed no real gender difference; gift-giving varied slightly, as did warmth and sexual capabilities.  Women thought their men friends were less sexually capable than men thought their women friends were.

Men were more likely to accept, 2.84 (1.92) versus 1.97 (1.61).  It is interesting to me that the perception of danger was equal, though the prevalence of acquaintance rapes calls that perception into question.  But the factor that drove the difference, in the absence of which the difference disappeared, was sexual capability.  That was the only covariate that moved the needle.

Study 2d and Results:  Conley collected a sample of gay men and lesbians online and through campus groups (n= 196, 47% women, 64% European American, 13% Asian American, 10% Latin@, 5% African American).  She used the 1d materials, but giving men the male proposer scenario and women the female proposer scenario.  There was no statistically significant difference in likelihood of taking the offer between men and women.

One thing that became clear is that the rates across the board for agreeing to sex under the classic CHSP scenario, a stranger propositioning cold in broad daylight, are really low.  They’re low for every demographic group studied.  Prior research shows that people comfortable with casual sex are much more common in gay male populations than most of the others, but the gay men’s response was still at a median 2.55 (1.62).  Says Conley:

That is, even though gay men are attracted to men and, on average, relatively open to casual sex, they did not find the CHSP any more appealing than lesbians did. It seems unlikely that the gay male participants in this study were less open to casual sex than most samples of gay men. Rather, this finding suggests that the CHSP is an unusual and suspicion-arousing sexual proposal even for people who are clearly open to casual sex encounters in other contexts.

[312, emphasis mine.]

Study 3 and results:  Study 3 isn’t really a separate study.  It’s a study of separate data taken from the Study 1 questionnaires, an analysis of all the proposer factors like sexual capabilities and danger, warmth and gift-giving.  Conley used hierarchical regression analyses and then a mediational analysis.  I’m no statistician, so I’ll quote her reporting:

Beyond gender, however, only the perception that the proposer would be a good lover (consistent with pleasure theory) significantly influenced participants’ likelihood of agreeing to the sexual offer. People who perceived the proposer as a better lover were more likely to accept the offer. Warmth was a marginally significant predictor of acceptance of the sexual offer, with those who perceived the proposer to be warm being somewhat more likely to accept.

In addition, the interaction between gender and sexual faithfulness was significant. An analysis of simple slopes revealed that the perception that the proposer would be faithful was significantly more predictive of women’s than of men’s acceptance of the CHSP. This would seem to contradict SST, which predicts that men desire women who will be faithful to them so that they will have the greatest likelihood of propagating their genes. Women may desire a faithful partner because they believe that his sexual faithfulness will increase the likelihood that he will provide support for their future children, but SST still predicts that faithfulness would be relatively more important to men (who strive to assure that any offspring are genetically related to them).

Contrary to SST, no interactions between participant gender and status or gift giving emerged in the analysis.

[322-23, emphasis mine.]  In the analysis of factors in desirability for a fling, there were gender differences in how much perceptions of danger, mental illness, and having an STD, affected desirability, as well as gender differences for sexual capability and gift giving.  But the strongest predictor was sexual capability, both for the proposition and the short relationship.

Study 4 and Results:  Having concluded that the classic CHSP scenario was not particularly attractive to anyone and was especially repulsive to women, Conley tried to construct a study of the more naturalistic scenario by asking respondents about an actual proposal for casual sex in their past.  Her sample was online through experimenters’ social networking accounts and Craigslist ads (n=463, 67% women, 74% European American, 11% African American).  The experimenters reviewed the answers to open ended questions to weed out any fake responses, but all appeared legitimate. 

The first result is that, as Conley predicted, proposals in the real world were accepted more often than CHSP scenarios were.  In the original paper, no woman accepted the CHSP.  In Study 4, 40% of women accepted the proposal.  Men accepted the offer 73% of the time. 

I do see a selection problem with this, though.  If people have received multiple propositions for casual sex before and they pick one to report for an experiment, I suspect they pick the most memorable or interesting experience, which will more often (though not always) be an offer they accepted rather than rejected.  I think the opportunity for the respondent to select one experience multiplies the self-report concerns.

Conley asked about personal characteristics of the proposer — not this time a mental construct, but the actual person who proposed casual sex.  Consistent with Conley’s findings in the studies of the imaginary proposer, women rated the actual male proposers differently than men rated women proposers.  They rated the men more dangerous and more likely to have STDs, and the female proposers were rated more sexually capable, warmer and more sexually faithful.

Examining the effects of the variables on likelihood of acceptance, the big winner was sexual capability.  And the big winner in interaction with gender was also sexual capability.  Conley writes:

Thus, concerns about the opposite-sex proposer’s sexual abilities partially mediate the relationship between participant gender and acceptance of a casual sex offer both in hypothetical situations (Study 3) and in real-world situations (Study 4).

[325.]

Conley’s Major Conclusions:

I’ll just quote at some length here:

First, male sexual proposers (who approached women) are uniformly seen as less desirable than female sexual proposers (who approached men). Therefore, gender differences in the original Clark and Hatfield study are due more to the gender of the proposer than to the gender of the study participants. Moreover, the idea that these gender differences reflect broad, evolved differences in women’s and men’s mating strategies was not supported. Across studies involving both actual and hypothetical sexual encounters, the only consistently significant predictor of acceptance of the sexual proposal, both for women and for men, was the perception that the proposer is sexually capable (i.e., would be “good in bed”). The perceptions of sexual capabilities also mediated the relationship between gender and acceptance of casual sex offers. Finally, indirect evidence suggests that perceptions of risk may play a role in gender differences in casual sex attitudes.

[325, emphasis mine.]  Her theoretical take-away is this: that the results as a whole support Pleasure Theory, the theory that pleasure itself is evolutionarily selected and a search for pleasure is the immediate animating drive that causes people to make sexual choices.  Women’s reluctance comparative to men to accept the CHSP wasn’t really a reluctance to have casual sex, but rather a response to a different offer than the men got — the didn’t think the men would be as much fun.  Conley notes other research for the proposition that women may actually not enjoy casual sex that they do choose to have as much as men, for a variety of reasons.

Conley also notes that the findings are somewhat consistent with the theory that women are less interested in casual sex because they perceive greater risk:

These studies demonstrated results consistent with risk perception, as women (but not men) perceived less risk from the familiar individuals than from the stranger making the sexual proposal. When women were considering the less risky (i.e., familiar) proposers, they were just as likely to agree to the CHSP as men were (after accounting for perceptions of sexual capabilities in the case of the best friend proposing sex to them). Likewise, when nonheterosexual women considered proposals from members of their own gender, women were equally as likely to accept the casual sex offer as men were (i.e., lesbians in Study 2d) and were more likely to accept an offer from a woman than from a man (i.e., bisexual women in Study 1d).

[326, emphasis supplied.]  Study 2, the celebrity and friend studies which introduce the element of familiarity to mitigate perceived risk, speak to this, though as I say below I suspect risk is a bigger variable than it apparent here for various reasons.

Sexual Strategies Theory did not fare well:

By contrast, this research demonstrated some of the limiting conditions of SST. Sexual strategies theory clearly predicts that higher status proposers should be accepted by women more readily than low-status proposers. The fact that status did not predict women’s acceptance of casual sex offers is therefore a problem for SST. Neither status, nor tendency for gift giving, nor perceived faithfulness of the proposer (nor, more precisely, the interaction of any of these variables with gender) predicted whether a participant would agree to the sexual offer, contradicting SST. Likewise, if men’s central goal, as suggested by SST, is to transfer their genetic material to future generations, men should have a greater base rate likelihood of accepting a sexual offer from any woman than women have of accepting a sexual offer from any man, regardless of the proposer’s attractiveness (i.e., women should be choosier than men). SST does not predict that women would be equally likely to accept offers as men when (a) the proposers are very attractive, (b) the proposers are very unattractive, (c) the proposers are familiar people, and (d) the proposer and the individual are of the same sex.

[326.]  Also, men were very positively disposed to Angelina Jolie (past peak childbearing age) and Christy Brinkley (well past childbearing age), whom they thought attractive, but not interested in Roseanne, whom they thought unattractive.  These are interests that can’t be squared with an evo-psych imperative to reproduce, but are perfectly consistent with an evolutionary imperative to seek pleasure.  Likewise, Donald Trump and Carrot Top could each provide plenty of material support for offspring, so SST predicts that women would be interested.  They were *ahem* not.  There’s a whole section in the paper on possible responses to SST theorists trying to save their model.  I found it persuasive.

My Additional Thoughts:

First, a note about the framework of the research.  Mainstream research on gender differences is hugely cisnormative.  The paper never even deals with the possibility that some men and some women in the respondent groups are transgendered, and never deals with the possibility that some people are outside the binary.  The author did deal with the existence of GLB folks, and in fact included gay men, lesbians, and bisexual women in different aspects of the study, but only to illustrate points about male-female attraction in a heteronormative model.  Large sample sizes might harder to get, but a more thoroughgoing look at responses to offers of casual sex across a range of gender identities and sexual orientations would be awesome, and I think really illuminating.

I have a gut feeling that this study didn’t really get to the root of the risk issues.  I think, and this is a conjecture, that many women deal with risk in a noncognitive way and make decisions based on risk analysis that they don’t attribute to risk when consciously explaining their motivations.  This is really, particularly an issue with the CHSP.  Entirely coincidentally, while I was reading this paper, Jill wrote at Feministe about offers of casual sex from strangers in broad daylight:

Quit using that study where strangers walked up to people on college campuses and offered sex as “proof” that men desire sex more than women. Perhaps consider that women may want sex just as much, but have spent their entire lives hearing about how sex with strangers is a terrible, dangerous idea, leading to the (probably correct) understanding that the only kind of men who would approach you in broad daylight offering sex are men who are either serial killers or sex offenders or at least total fucking creeps?

Whatever the empirical truth is, this is a frank statement of risk perception, and I suspect an accurate one.  Conley found that people — not just women — thought that the CHSP scenario (which Jill was clearly referencing) was “uniquely repulsive” and Jill says it communicates that the guy making the offer is some kind of creep.  (There is extensive discussion, including my thoughts, on that Feministe thread.)  I’ve heard these reactions before, where the time, place and manner of the offer convey a perception of the offeror — in this case, a very bad one.

My high-level takeaway, though, is that this is where men have the most work to do.  We’re perceived terribly by women, including but not only our potential sex partners.  This perception may be entirely based not on something we’ve done but things other men have done.  On my account, though, it is based as much on the social structures we participate in as men, and the ways they operate in the culture.  On my account, as long as there is a lot of rape and not a lot of remedy, as long as there is slut-shaming and double-standards, as long as the denial of the technologies women need to mitigate the risks of unintended pregnancy and disease, then they’re going to look askance at us, and they’re going to act like they have more risk and less to gain from sex with us, because in fact they do.  The only way to make a lasting peace between men and women in to make a world where the advantages and disadvantages are more evenly distributed.

This is long even by my standards, so I’ll end there, through I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on Conley’s fascinating research in future posts.

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117 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    March 3, 2011 12:58 pm

    Can you point me to some resources about Sexual Strategies Theory? I’m not much familiar with it, so I had to make some guesses based on the context here.

    • March 3, 2011 1:28 pm

      Conley cites Buss & Schmitt (1993) Sexual Strategies Theory: An Evolutionary Perspective on Human Mating, Psychology Review, 100, 204-232, and Buss’s later paper, How Can Evolutionary Psychology Explain Personality and Individual Differences?, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 359-366; and several other papers that cite Buss & Schmitt’s 1993 paper.

  2. March 3, 2011 4:32 pm

    I’m kind of disappointed in this study. I think they overlooked a huge variable.

    I think that the sexual aptitude questions are socially influenced in the way that the research didn’t evaluate. The idea was that a random man is more likely to be an unskilled partner than a random woman, because women are more likely to think poorly or more pessimistically of the character of random men propositioning them for sex.

    I don’t think that that is the entire explanation for that observed phenomenon, however. The questionnaires are worded thusly, “go to bed with me,” so the exact nature of the sexual acts proposed is vague. What I hypothesize is that participants (with the probable exception of women propositioned by women) likely assume that “go to bed”, in this case, implies penetrative sex, simply because this kind of activity is considered a priori the default definition of sex whereas all others may or may not be considered “sex” as such, and many are considered mere foreplay.

    I think the results would differ greatly if the propositions included the exact nature of the encounter in question. What I mean is that penetrative sex, for women with male partners and receiving men with male partners, is both risky (higher likelihood of STDs, and in the former, pregnancy) and less likely to result in mutual satisfaction in partners unsuited to the others whims. Penetrative sex can be performed between men or a man and a woman with the receptive partner remaining completely unmoved and unsatisfied (or even harmed) while the penetrative partner has a much higher likelihood of finding sexual satisfaction. This is because penetrative sex is centered around the performance and enjoyment of the penetrating partner — sex begins when their arousal is sufficient to perform penetration and ceases when their arousal is satisfied by orgasm. The initiation and completion of this kind of sexual act does not depend upon the enjoyment of the receiving partner, and wholly on the state of the penetrating partner.

    Of course, I do agree that there are social perceptions of the performance of men and women that differ greatly, but what I am saying is thus: men are almost always more likely to be evaluated in terms of their sexual dominance, i.e. their ability to pleasure someone else. Whereas, with the probable exception of homosexual encounters, women are almost always more likely to be evaluated in terms of their sexual passivity, i.e. their ability to be receptive and passive to the sexual whims of a penetrating partner who is much more likely to be satisfied by the default sexual encounter and faces much less risk.

    I’m not arguing that the rape culture and the stigma against women who engage in casual sex doesn’t have any effect on the results. What I am saying is that I think a huge factor in this study is the social perception of what constitutes sex, and how incredibly centered it is on the penis and the enjoyment of the penetrating partner, to the wholesale exclusion of the status, enjoyment, and agency of the non-penetrative partner. In short, penetrative partners are evaluating whether or not they could be sufficiently aroused by a random partner to have a pleasing experience, where receiving partners are evaluating whether they will wind up with an STD, pregnant, in pain, or achieve any sort of satisfaction at all.

    • March 3, 2011 4:55 pm

      That makes perfect sense to me.

    • Sara permalink
      March 4, 2011 12:57 am

      …penetrative sex is centered around the performance and enjoyment of the penetrating partner — sex begins when their arousal is sufficient to perform penetration and ceases when their arousal is satisfied by orgasm. The initiation and completion of this kind of sexual act does not depend upon the enjoyment of the receiving partner, and wholly on the state of the penetrating partner.

      I agree with your wider point, but to me, this part just sounds like ‘sex: ur doing it wrong’. (Not meant as a personal insult, the ‘ur doing it wrong’ is an internet meme thingy that seems apt here.)

      I agree with you that some people seem to think that’s how penetrative sex works, but if the penetrating partner wants to be regarded well by anyone on the receiving end (whether we’re talking about PIV, PIA, fingering, fisting, objects, etc.) I would suggest they try this instead:

      Sex begins when the receiving partner is relaxed and lubricated enough for penetration to be pleasurable, and ceases when either partner has had enough (although if you really want to be considered great, finishing your partner off in some other way if you’re satisfied and they’re not really doesn’t hurt ;).

      Sorry if I’m telling you how to suck eggs here; just think it needs to be said that, even if a lot of people are out there doing it and think it’s normal, that’s really not how penetrative sex is supposed to work!.

      • AViescas permalink
        March 4, 2011 3:46 pm

        What “should” be and what’s “wrong” doesn’t have significance in this context. More people think in Jenn’s terms; therefore her descriptive phrasing is more correct, if depressing.

        It may be interesting to compare responses between people who hold different paradigms, though.

    • ggg_girl permalink
      March 4, 2011 1:31 am

      I 100% agree with this comment. If someone asked me this I would also assume that when they said “go to bed” they mean PIV sex. PIV sex is a higher-risk sexual activity for all the reasons you mentioned, and might not be very fun with an unfamiliar partner anyway.

      I would be much more likely to go for it if I was very attracted to the guy if instead of saying “go to bed” he said something like “I’d love to make out with you, see how things go, maybe fool around a bit”. (Usually I have heard the term “fooling around” to refer to things like manual sex, and other non-PIV activities. This is what I’d assume they meant if they said fooling around.)

      Proposing one activity (making out) and then following it up with the possibility of something else (fooling around) instead of a broad vague category (go to bed) is more appealing to me because it shows a greater understanding of consent and shows that they are safer to be with in terms of knowing and respecting boundaries. I would be more likely to accept because 1) there would be no PIV involved, and I agree with Jenn on the reasons for that, 2) I enjoy making out, 3) he made it clear that if it isn’t working out we should stop, but left open the possibility if we both do enjoy the making out to do other activities like fingering/handjob, etc. Just by phrasing things this way he has changed the tone of the interaction from “I want you, I’m thinking about myself” to “I want you and I really hope you want me too, let me think of some things we would both probably like”

      • March 4, 2011 2:35 am

        Agreeing with ggg_girl, and I’d hypothesize if the study had used the line ggg_girl cites, it would have given results so different as to look like someone spiked the punch. I would consider myself about as likely to engage in casual sex as to eat a live rooster, but ggg_girl’s line sounds tempting; it suggests a partner who finds me attractive, and would be attentive, and respect my boundaries.

        V. Curious to see how men would respond to the line, though. Would it be seen as a less attractive offer, given that piv sex is not guaranteed?

      • March 4, 2011 12:42 pm

        Speaking for myself, the “fooling around” offer would be more tempting. I am not at all sure how it would play generally, though.

      • Andrew permalink
        March 4, 2011 3:25 pm

        I have to agree that this would be an enlightening change.

      • Sam permalink
        March 6, 2011 10:32 pm

        ggg_girl, by the way, I do find that (make out, possibly fool around, and who knows what then) offer *A LOT* more appealing, and I’m a guy. Usually, girls don’t say a lot before they kiss, and they rarely do that at all, but I’d be much more relaxed, too, about knowing that there’s no definitive outcome in her head either (that I have to conform to – this study does put a lot of sexual pressure on guys, too). It would also be much more clearly about pleasure in the moment and a shared understanding thereof, and there would be much less confusion about differing emotional end-goals of the “game”. Need to find a clever way to use that… thanks.

      • Less Popular Time permalink
        May 24, 2011 2:30 pm

        I’m a man, and with Sam on this. The “fool around” construct would be much more appealing, probably primarily because it is slightly closer to the “flirting” end of the spectrum, as opposed to the frankness-possibly-being-indicative-of-mental-illness end of the spectrum. Asking somebody point-blank if they’d “go to bed” with you, well, for one thing, I don’t think anybody’s said anything like that with a straight face since the years of Dynasty [an 80's television program].
        From the female perspective, I’m not clear why it would change things, particularly since the “danger” variable seems materially identical to me. Contrary to, and with respect to, Betty, my impression is that any guy that is going to make any type of “broad-daylight” proposal like that and isn’t interested in bothering with social mores like how people usually start relationships (even short-term sexual ones), doesn’t strike me as the kind of person that would be particularly respectful of a partner’s boundaries even once they were explicitly set.

  3. InfamousQBert permalink
    March 3, 2011 5:51 pm

    thank you SO much for reading the study in whole and writing all of this out. i wish it were required reading for all people.

  4. Helen permalink
    March 3, 2011 8:34 pm

    hello, i just thought it might amuse you to know that i don’t read the names at the top of articles often, and until your last paragraph i assumed you were a woman.
    make of that what you will.
    x

  5. Hershele Ostropoler permalink
    March 4, 2011 1:16 am

    How is it that the sample famous unattractive man is famous for being wealthy while the sample famous unattractive woman is famous for (among other things) not being wealthy?

    (It’s a character, but no less so than rich Donald Trump)

    • MariaS permalink
      March 4, 2011 7:45 am

      Are you confusing Roseanne Barr the actor with the character Roseanne, that she is most well known for, in the series of that name? I doubt that Roseanne Barr is as rich as Donald Trump, but she has plenty of fame and success and I am sure she is financially well-off.

    • March 4, 2011 9:35 am

      Women’s wealth is not a component of SST. Men’s wealth and status and women’s faithfulness and fertility are.

  6. arcessita permalink
    March 4, 2011 1:32 am

    Really fascinating post; thanks!

    It seems to me that part of the reason that women tend to see the asking stranger negatively while men tend to see them positively is that requests for sex from complete strangers are part of the spectrum of street harassment. Women experience a lot more of it than men do, particularly in the college age group — I know when I was in college, it felt like it was all the damn time, and I know many of my friends were harassed even more than I was. It’s not just that we have a cultural judgement (that men propositioning women for sex are creepy), but that personal experience speaks strongly. After the tenth catcall, proposition, or compliment-turned-ugly, it’s hard to summon any sort of neutrality toward a masculine-presenting stranger asking for sex.

    • glitterary permalink
      March 4, 2011 7:18 pm

      That’s a really good point; studies like this tend to ignore the fact that being proposed to in this way isn’t a hypothetical situation for most women. And as such, women are responding to a “real life” question, rather than a “fantasy” one for men.

      That could be at the bottom of perceived unattractiveness of men, too; the very act of propositioning puts a hypothetical attractive man in the same category as unattractive, threatening ones.

    • Cin permalink
      March 6, 2011 1:11 am

      arcessita and glitterary stated this point so well that I doubt I can add much, but it’s such an important element that I feel it must be emphasized.

      The proposal of casual sex is more of a reality for het women than for het men, so the question of “What would you do in this situation?” is likely subconsciously translated to, “What have I done in this situation?”

      This skews the study drastically. Drawing more on experience than fantasy adds variables impossible to compensate. I suspect that given the questionnaire, my own answers would coincide with the study results–I would not accept the proposal–but even honest answers would not be representative of my interest or participation in casual sex (I love it, but experience tells me not to bother with the guy in these scenarios).

      If you’re not convinced, look at the results when the proposal comes from a woman (or Johnny Depp). Is it possible that’s less of a reality for most women and therefore closer to the hypothetical question the men are answering? (Of course it’s not entirely hypothetical, but it’s not happening day in and day out.)

      This is a very interesting topic, but the study is deeply flawed. It also turns in on itself; it “proves” that a woman can decline the proposal in the question then propose the same to the man of her choice with very good odds that he’ll accept. It also “proves” men don’t have this luxury. In this case, the woman has little reason to hook up with this character, but men do. It does NOT prove that women are less interested in casual sex.

      • March 6, 2011 8:41 am

        Cin, you said, “It does NOT prove that women are less interested in casual sex.” It didn’t purport to. In fact, just the opposite: the findings were the opposite: that controlling for risk and perceived pleasure made the gender gap in interest in casual sex disappear. The original CHSP constituted not a mirrored set of scenarios, but a much better offer for men than for women.

      • Cin permalink
        March 6, 2011 1:27 pm

        Thomas, you are exactly right, and the conclusion is stated in your first paragraph! I think by the time I’d finished reading this I was conflating the SST findings with the new ones–my apologies.

        I should have left my comment alone after the first sentence, but I do find it frustrating that the controls are ineffective at dissolving the disparity between [mostly] hypothetical and [mostly] realistic scenarios.

        I stand corrected. You mention your own concerns about self-reporting, and I share those. The difference is that I got confused and carried away. Thanks for your post!

  7. think permalink
    March 4, 2011 3:56 am

    I don’t know why everyone is making such a meal of this.

    Women know (despite all the propaganda) that men see women as nothing more than a hole to relieve themselves into. *This is really not at all appealing* (again despite the propaganda that tells women how great it is to be used in this way).

    Women also know that men rape, and that most men would rape if they could get away with it (studies have been done on this too).

    So why is everyone so suprised ?

    Is it because once women are in a “relationship” with a man the delusion really kicks in – “oh but my Nigel is so lovely … !” – and the suprise is that women actually do retain knowledge of the reality of male hatred towards them ?

    See, women *want* men to see them as human, but any honest woman knows that they don’t (yes means yes is a happy mantra to ease this pain).

    But in a situation where there is risk , AND an escape route is possible, then NO means NO is the human choice.

    • March 4, 2011 9:32 am

      Most men? Maybe in some populations, but the studies I’ve seen are more like thirty percent. That’s pretty awful, but it’s not a majority. Are you looking at different research?

  8. Zes permalink
    March 4, 2011 8:59 am

    Here care of Shakesville just to say, well done and thank you for this. A friend of mine just posted on Facebook a link to a terrible slut-shaming article using evo-psych to back up its thesis and this was the perfect rebuttal.

  9. MariaS permalink
    March 4, 2011 9:10 am

    I think it’s important to stress that the increase in women’s enthusiasm for the imagined propositioners when they are asked to imagine a celebrity that they find attractive isn’t because of that person’s fame per se, but is because of familiarity. I know this is stated above, but want to draw it out a bit more for clarity.

    Celebrities in Conley’s studies serve as useful stand-ins for people that the study subjects actively find sexually attractive because they are widely publicly known in ways that non-celebrities aren’t. That is, the study subjects are likely to have seen the celebrities many times in photos and tv/film, and know a lot about them, albeit superficially. So, as someone who often finds Johnny Depp attractive, I have for many many years seen his picture in magazines and online, and see him move and speak and act on film or in interviews, in character and as himself. I’ve also probably read a few interviews and articles about him and his life. Seeing, watching and reading about him is already a pleasurable experience, because I find him physically attractive. I’ve already established that sexual interest in him, so the fantasy proposition is easy to say yes to. I’d also point out that my fantasy would assume that fantasy Johnny Depp felt safe to be with, was respectful, was easy for me to talk to, and that there were no awkward distractions or real world responsibilities or risks – all factors that, for me personally, would maximise my enjoyment of, and enthusiasm for, this fantasy scenario.

    The CHSP scenario totally ignores the highly individual nature of sexual attraction, factors out the whole feeling attracted to a particular person and exploring that attraction by spending time with them and getting to know them and seeing if the attraction is sustained, and of course reciprocated. Obviously you can’t design that into the real world experimental scenario – you cannot make it so that the person approaching the random subject is someone that, all other factors aside, the subject will find attractive. (And again, that’s why Conley’s use of imagined encounters with celebrities or friends, is such a clever way to approach this). The CHSP scenario assumes that sex is an activity or goal that can be satisfactorily achieved simply by the acquiescence and co-operation of any suitable person of the preferred gender, and this assumption is a very hetero-masculine assumption. That is, this is a way of regarding sex that is commonly positively attributed to straight men and which straight men are encouraged in by the dominant culture (not saying that all straight men view sex and women this way of course). So, attitudes of regarding conventionally attractive women as interchangeable, of regarding getting such a woman into bed as an achievement, of looking to “get” a woman, of seeing women as rewards, (or as targets), of seeing women a providers of sex.

    Jenn and ggg_girl, your comments make so much sense, and highlight the dimensions of people’s lived experience of sexual attraction and sexual activity that are ignored by the CHSP scenario and also by the most culturally dominant representations of sexual relationships. Exactly, if a man approached me, a woman, asking to go to bed with me, there is an assumption that he means PIV intercourse, and I would read into his approach a request to make myself available to him sexually, and not a request to explore an emergent mutual attraction open-endedly and without pressure.

  10. March 4, 2011 11:11 am

    First off, thanks for going through so much research to summarize it for us. An excellent job!

    While I don’t put much stock in SST, I do have one question: Lines like this; “Women’s reluctance comparative to men to accept the CHSP wasn’t really a reluctance to have casual sex, but rather a response to a different offer than the men got — the didn’t think the men would be as much fun.”

    I don’t see how this rebuts SST at all. One of the simplest statements in SST is that men are more desiring of casual sex, and women are more desiring of stable, long-term relationships. To repeatedly state that women simply don’t think that they’ll enjoy a casual sexual encounter, and that men will, is not a refutation of SST, it’s in agreement with SST.

    Though I should add that there’s more than enough elsewhere in these studies to refute SST, regardless.

    • March 4, 2011 11:23 am

      Precisely — women in SST are supposed to be inherently more choosy, not just more choosy when they perceive higher risk and reward, but in these studies, women and men did not have different choosiness when differences in pleasure and risk were factored out. Further, SST predicts that women will choose men based on their ability to provide — wealth and status — and that men will choose women based on their ability to produce offspring from the man’s genes, and their faithfulness which assures that any investment that man makes in supporting offspring goes only to his genetic progeny. Women were as interested in propositions from strange women as men, and were not motivated by the classic SST factors. Men were not motivated by the SST factors, either. Men focused on attractiveness (corellating to pleasure) even in women who were too old to be likely to bear them offspring — Christy Brinkley isn’t having more kids without serious medical intervention. So, if men were selected on the savanna for their desire to put their sperm where it would produce babies, Christy Brinkley gets a big “no thanks.” If it’s all about the fun, though, fiftysomething amazingly beautiful is a great partner, while fiftysomething doesn’t appeal to most guys get and no-thanks.

      • CTD permalink
        March 4, 2011 1:15 pm

        “in these studies, women and men did not have different choosiness when differences in pleasure and risk were factored out”

        This makes no sense. If you “factor out” things like perceived levels of possible sexual pleasure and perceived levels of risk, what is there left to really be choosy about in a partner when it comes to casual sex?

        It’s asking somebody how they’d respond to a sexual overture, but not to consider the risks or the rewards. Huh? What then is the realistic basis for the consideration?

        I’m highly skeptical of the value of survey research in contexts like this. What people claim they want/would do are often wildly at odds with how they actually behave in an experimental setting. This is doubly true when it comes to matters sexual.

      • March 4, 2011 1:56 pm

        I think you’re missing the point. Clark and Hatfield thought their research showed that women were less interested in casual sex than men, and subsequent theorists have taken this as intrinsically true and looked for an evolutionary selection theory to explain it. Conley shows that women are not averse to casual sex in concept, but merely like the offers less than men like the offers. That supports very different theories.

        About the experimental setting, the numbers broadly replicated CHSP under the original condition, and the original CSHP was in the field, not on paper, so that suggests that people are being accurate about what they’d do.

      • March 4, 2011 3:43 pm

        Or, to put it another way, and one closer to Conley’s own text, the CHSP doesn’t tell us much about whether men or women are more likely to want casual sex; what it tells us is that the offer of casual sex from a man on a campus in broad daylight, or from a strange man anywhere, isn’t generally very attractive for a variety of reasons, than the same offer from a woman, so the scenario tells us about the proposer, not the responder.

      • ryan permalink
        August 11, 2014 5:40 am

        We didn’t evolve to be attracted to bank accounts, and Donald Trump is so out of shape that he would make a bad hunter on the savannah. Christie Brinkley still looks young due to the miracles of plastic surgery and makeup, so she still triggers visual cues. I agree with you that the pleasure theory is plausible, but I don’t think these surveys discount SST.

  11. AViescas permalink
    March 4, 2011 3:55 pm

    This is an interesting study, but I’m not sure it “kills” SST. For one thing, the ugly celebrity was the ONLY place where women scored above men, implying that for women, status might rank above physical attractiveness. Pardon me if I missed something in this very thorough analysis.

    I’d also love to see more of Prof. Conley’s debunks of SST.

    • March 4, 2011 4:48 pm

      If I get free for a bit I may do a separate post on the SST issue.

  12. W47 permalink
    March 5, 2011 12:47 am

    Thanks for taking the time to do such a detailed analysis! I would also imagine that perceptions of a possible sexual partner’s sexual competency, particularly at the college level, is dependent upon personal history. Many college students (men and women) are still figuring out what makes the other gender tick, so to speak. There seems (admittedly speaking only from the experiences of myself and my friends), to be steeper learning curve for men learning about women. If, when I was a college student, I had been approached by a random male propositioning sex, even if I hadn’t immediately labeled him with “creeper” status, I would have been very doubtful that such an encounter would be anything but frustrating and unsatisfying. Whereas most of my male friends say that the majority of one-night stands are at least pleasurable enough that they have little difficulty achieving orgasm, whether through penetrative sex or oral, the same can not be said for most of my female friends. Along the same lines, most women I talked to in college said that giving a blow job is pretty much the norm for casual encounters, but getting eaten out is vanishingly rare.

  13. March 5, 2011 12:27 pm

    Thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking analysis.

    I would add one minor point. The study as analysed here does not seem to take into account people’s readiness for sex that particular night. I realise this is a hypothetical study, but there are several gender-related factors that may make ‘tonight’ not such a good option. Menstruation (on average 3-7 days every four weeks for women of reproductive age – that’s somewhere around 7 years if taken continuously) is one circumstance that at least in my view is not entirely conducive to one-night stands. Other cultural factors (e.g. I didn’t shave my legs for the past week. Let’s not shatter the fantasy.) may also be at play. Not to mention perceptions of being easy or a slut tainting the proposal – much more so for women than men. This is in addition to all the excellent points above.
    Also – sleeping with your best friend seems more complicated than allowed for here. And does the respondent’s being in a monogamous relationship at the time of the proposal feature as a factor?

  14. Sam permalink
    March 6, 2011 11:16 pm

    Thomas,

    thanks for this analysis.

    I’ll have to read the paper itself, but a couple of points off the top of my hat (and you may address them in the bit about non-cultural sexual strategies – as we are clearly dealing with *culturally* mediated sexual strategies in the paper – sexual strategies) –

    one, as far as I understood, status is not overly relevant to casual sexual encounters, precisely because the benefits of the social and financial status of the mate are relevant in the longer term. I think there is already evidence that women do prefer a males (for their non-social evolutionary fitness indicators) for casual encounters (which, in real life, not rarely seem to happen during fertile days) and men providing emotional and material support for longer term mating. I suppose a study designed to look at casual sex is not capable of addressing the term-problem.

    Two, I’m not sure this is possible to address at all (I really woudn’t know how to, this is probably the defintion of incommensurable), the comparison of pleasure levels is logically sort of impossible, any attribution must thus be indirect. This is probably the area where BDSM people can be particularly helpful to the rest of humanity, because they, more than others, have had to deal with understanding differing desires and learning to act upon them in ways that’s both respectful of one’s own and the other desire.

    Three, your conclusion –

    this –

    “both women and men agreed that the female proposer would be better in bed, thought the female proposer was warmer and had higher status, and thought the female proposer would be more likely than the male proposers to give them gifts. Men and women also believed that female proposers were less likely to be dangerous than male proposers. In sum, both men and women agreed that the male proposers are less desirable than female proposers on dimensions of relevance to sexual encounters.”

    – seems like a fair summary of the pleasure part of the study. I think it’s mirroring pretty much what I have said about the attributed value of male vs. female touch in Clarisse’s manliness thread as well as here (http://www.realadultsex.com/content/shorter-no-sex-class-paradigm#comment-17675). I even agree with your statement that the “probably correct” in Jill’s post on feministe is very likely a fair representation of risk assessment.

    I understand that, as people living right now, the burden of dealing with the circumstances as they are falls upon each of us. In this matter, that puts a particular burden on me, on men, irrespective of individual responsibility. I have to, and I can live with that. If I want to be with a woman, I have to understand that she will be more concerned about her safety (and apparently be more concerned with estimating my sexual abilities) than I will be. And that’s her prerogative and all I can do is try to become better at being what she wants. But I don’t think it is fair t0 state that dealing with common social expectations about men or women should only be a burden that falls on men, which seems to be what you are saying in your conclusion. “Probably correct” is probably correct as a description, but it’s not fair to keep proposing it as null-hypothesis about men (as such), particularly if the idea is to open up such generalized notions.

    Again, thanks for the analysis. I suppose it will be more thoroughly discussed on the web, but this is a great start.

  15. March 7, 2011 3:25 am

    This study definitely makes me skeptical that the CHSP is a good measure of people’s responses to casual sex. However, various conclusions by the researcher aren’t actually so well supported by the study:

    Therefore, gender differences in the original Clark and Hatfield study are due more to the gender of the proposer than to the gender of the study participants.

    If so, then why did lesbian women in study 2d have such a dim view of hypothetical women approaching them (2.27 out of 7, vs. the female-male proposal that was rated 3.74)? And why did gay men respond so much better to male proposers than straight women did (2.55 vs 1.37)? Clearly the gender of the person receiving the proposition is still quite important.

    There is no contradiction between male strangers being judged as sexually repulsive when they make sexual propositions, and women being more selective in general (per SST).

    Based on a number of findings from the current studies, it appears that the Clark and Hatfield paradigm is a casual sexual proposal that is uniquely repulsive to women being approached for heterosexual encounters, likely because of what it conveys about the male proposer’s sexual capabilities and safety.

    Actually, it wasn’t women’s preferences that were most unique, but heterosexual men’s. Everybody was lukewarm or repulsed by the proposal… except heterosexual men (the highest ratings outside straight men were 2.55 for gay men, and 2.37 for bisexual women with women). At 3.74, heterosexual men stick out like a sore thumb.

    As Conley points out, it seems like when straight guys imagine someone hitting on them in public, they are thinking of someone like Jennifer Lopez. Why are het guys so idealistic? Perhaps they treat the CHSP like a fantasy, because for them, it is a fantasy… whereas everyone else but straight guys knows that getting hit on by strangers isn’t always fun.

    Across studies involving both actual and hypothetical sexual encounters, the only consistently significant predictor of acceptance of the sexual proposal, both for women and for men, was the perception that the proposer is sexually capable (i.e., would be “good in bed”).

    I don’t know why Conley makes this claim, because in the study of gay men and lesbian women, she didn’t ask them about their perceptions of the proposer. And it’s unclear whether the bisexual women every made it into one of the studies where she asked those questions. We actually don’t know whether queer folks accepted or rejected the hypothetical proposal for the same reasons as heterosexual women, and what variables predict acceptance/rejection.

    When women were considering the less risky (i.e., familiar) proposers, they were just
    as likely to agree to the CHSP as men were (after accounting for perceptions of sexual capabilities in the case of the best friend proposing sex to them).

    Yet in one of the celebrity studies, Jennifer Lopez was preferred to Brad Pitt (5.18 vs. 3.63), so Conley seems to be overreaching.

    • March 7, 2011 6:51 am

      “If so, then why did lesbian women in study 2d have such a dim view of hypothetical women approaching them (2.27 out of 7, vs. the female-male proposal that was rated 3.74)? And why did gay men respond so much better to male proposers than straight women did (2.55 vs 1.37)? Clearly the gender of the person receiving the proposition is still quite important.”

      I’m not saying, and Conley didn’t say, that respondent gender was irrelevant. I think, though, that the CHSP is measuring gendered differences in reaction to CHSP, which can’t be generalized to more naturalistic proposals.

      “Actually, it wasn’t women’s preferences that were most unique, but heterosexual men’s. Everybody was lukewarm or repulsed by the proposal… except heterosexual men”

      I agree with you here. I also wish we had perceived capability data for all the studies. I’m also not sure how well the perceived capability scale captures the upside risk of the encounter. I may write more about that later.

      • March 8, 2011 1:15 am

        Thomas saying:

        I’m not saying, and Conley didn’t say, that respondent gender was irrelevant.

        I’m not saying that either you or Conley are saying that. I just think that by saying that “gender differences in the original Clark and Hatfield study are due more to the gender of the proposer than to the gender of the study participants,” Conley is under-selling the importance of the gender of the receiver of the proposal.

        I think, though, that the CHSP is measuring gendered differences in reaction to CHSP, which can’t be generalized to more naturalistic proposals.

        I agree. While I am convinced that women are globally more selective than men (except perhaps for long-term relationships), ~70% vs. 0% is a really stark gender difference, more stark than I would predict, even assuming the SST (unless the male confederate was actually below average attractiveness, or exclusively approached women who would view themselves as “out of his league”).

        Conley’s sub-studies also have trouble generalizing to more naturalistic scenarios: the celebrity approach isn’t naturalistic at all. Furthermore, I suspect those results might be marred by other baggage and judgments that people have of celebrities, and may not generalize well to people’s evaluations of non-celebrities.

        The only naturalistic sub-study was the one where she asked people’s responses to past proposals from friends (or hypothetical proposals from friends, if they hadn’t yet received one). In this case, the numbers were 72% vs. 40%. Although women’s rate of “yes” is much higher than in the CHSP, it’s still much lower than men’s.

        A more interesting naturalistic test would be to see how people respond to sexual proposals in a bar or a nightclub, after various degrees of conversation. Or to see how they respond to sexual proposals in a dating scenario on the first or second date. My prediction would be that women would still be substantially more selective than men, but not as much as in the CHSP, and the gap would narrow the longer people knew each other. Of course, such an experiment would be very hard to pull off.

      • March 8, 2011 11:19 am

        It would be really hard to pull off. And it would be really hard to control for the risk and reward factors. I suspect the risk is a larger but unspoken factor because women deal with the calculation of rape and boundary violation at a sub-cognitive level that either they are unwilling to disclose, or that they are unaware of themselves. (I also think that a lot of this drives the use of subjective terminology, the discourse of preference or seemliness, to replace the terminology of assessment of danger – i.e. “creep” means “guy who may be a rapist, or at least can’t be trusted to observe boundaries without uncomfortable policing.”) But given how much the night-and-day difference of the CHSP collapsed in these studies, I think we can say that it appears that the gap in interest is much narrower than C&H thought, that CHSP is not very useful as a protocol and conclusions drawn from it are therefore suspect, and that any understanding of intrinsic gender differences in casual sex have to cope with different upside and downside risk calculus.

  16. March 12, 2011 12:01 pm

    Really quite nice, both the study and your analysis of it. Although something I hate about psych studies is that they always seem, for convenience, to use college students as a representation of the psychological norm of society. Maybe I went to an abnormal college, but I recall a high incidence of not only mental health problems but especially heightened and/or aberrant sexual behavior on my undergraduate campus.

    Clark and Hatfield thought their research showed that women were less interested in casual sex than men, and subsequent theorists have taken this as intrinsically true and looked for an evolutionary selection theory to explain it.

    The above is why I hate evolutionary psychology. The entire field is an exercise in tracking back poor psych studies and trying to map them on to the actual grown-up science of evolutionary biology to form a nice little just so story.

  17. Renee permalink
    March 13, 2011 8:24 pm

    “It strongly contradict[sic] the theory that pop-evo-psych spouting people think of (though they often don’t know what it’s called), the Sexual Strategies Theory. And, for once the science reporting wasn’t awful, and the paper really did conclude what the press report says it does: that most of the gender difference in women’s and men’s propensity to agree to a broad-daylight, out-of-nowhere proposition for casual sex is driven by women’s perception that their risks are higher, and their likely enjoyment is lower from the proposer.”

    This is not contradictory at all. You’ve confused a proximate explanation of behavior with an ultimate explanation of behavior. This is a common, albeit rather novice mistake. If you go find a college biology textbook and read the chapter on behavioral ecology, they invariably start out with the 4 levels of analysis. (i.e. Tinbergen’s four questions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinbergen%27s_four_questions )

    The mistake you’ve made here is that you’ve confused levels of analysis. The question “why is it adaptive for women to be more reluctant to have sex with men” and “what are the psychological reasons women are more reluctant to have sex with men” are two separate questions and therefore their answers are not contradictory!

    Here’s a simple comparable situation. One person says that a skunk sprayed because it was scared. The other person says the skunk sprayed because it’s a good defense against predators. Who is right? They’re both right! The skunk experienced fear, which triggered the spray. The spray evolved to be triggered by fear because skunks that did it got eaten less. These explanations are not contradictory because they explain two different questions- the psychological reason skunks spray (it gets triggered when they’re fearful) and evolutionary adaptive reason why skunks spray (less of them get eaten, spreading the spray genes!)

    If it is maladaptive for a women to be promiscuous, then evolution can accomplish this in a a number of ways. But in all likelihood it isn’t hardcoded. Even snails with 40 neurons do some learning, for crissakes! One way to make a women less promiscuous is to make sex for her less consistently pleasurable so she’ll avoid having it with random guys who probably aren’t very good in bed. I’m not saying that this is the case, only that this study in no way contradicts anything having to do with evolutionary biology.

    I mean it’s not so far out of line with how sex + evolution play together to begin with. People proximately don’t have so much fucking sex because they desperately want to pass on copies of their alleles. Most people, proximately, do it because it feels good. And WHY does sex feel good? Because people for whom sex feels good make babies. The “ultimate” (i.e. evolutionary) reason people have sex because sex furthers their genes, some of which are the very genes that are responsible for make sex feel so good. The “proximate” reason people have sex is cause it feels good. And maybe the “proximate” reason women don’t have sex with random strangers is because they’re correctly assessing that said random sex with stranger will probably suck, and the “ultimate” reason is because more of their alleles get passed to the next generation if they fuck a guy that’s got good genes and will be nice and stick around when the baby is born and bring it food.

    • AViescas permalink
      March 13, 2011 11:11 pm

      We’re not talking evolutionary biology; we’re talking evolutionary psychology. Sexual Strategies Theory is an evolutionary psychology theory which, by definition, establishes a relationship between psychological behavior and evolutionary pressure.

      Although you may not agree with the premise behind evolutionary psychology and prefer to deal with evolution and psychology separately, accepting its existence is necessary for this discussion to make sense at all.

      • jessica permalink
        May 7, 2012 7:21 am

        Evolutionary psychology is a subfield of evolutionary biology. (I say this as a professional evolutionary biologist.)
        Evolutionary psychology involves different challenges and different practical tools than the evolutionary study of nonhuman animal behavior (e.g., you can’t expect elephants to fill out a survey), but the proximate/ultimate distinction is just as valid, and for exactly the same reasons. The long-term reason a behavior evolved and the short-term mechanisms that trigger the behavior are two different questions. These different ‘levels of analysis’ do not, and indeed cannot, contradict each other.

    • jessica permalink
      May 7, 2012 7:05 am

      Exactly, Renee! I was tempted to explain the proximate/ultimate distinction, but figured most readers would have insufficient background in evolution or psychology to understand it. (Indeed, A Viescas read your comment and still doesn’t get the difference between proximate and ultimate.) But kudos to you for trying to explain. Your skunk analogy was excellent.
      I encourage anyone who wants to understand the studies described here to go read about Tinbergen’s “4 questions.”

  18. dungone permalink
    March 22, 2011 11:14 pm

    I’m not trying to defend or condemn SST as I’m not sure if i agree with it, but just this study isn’t compelling. I don’t see how it is possible to ask this sort of question without running into a strong cultural bias. For instance, more people say that they go to church on Sundays than church attendance numbers indicate. They do this even on anonymous surveys. I wouldn’t be surprised if heterosexual men were the only group to answer the survey in a way that reflects their actual behavior – they face the least amount of stigma. In general people have a propensity to make themselves look good while lying on surveys. These questions don’t seem to be designed to eliminate the social stigma that women face about sexual promiscuity.

    You said, “Women were only marginally more interested in the offer from a stranger than from a man generally thought ugly. Men were almost as interested in the random stranger as Angelina Jolie.” But you said that the study question was actually, “An attractive member of the opposite sex approaches you on campus…” Did I miss something here? It seems as if the wrong comparison is being made. It looks as if women are more likely to sleep with Donald Trump (ugly, reprehensible man) than with an attractive member of their local community, whereas Johnny Depp is overwhelmingly chosen over an attractive member of their local community. This seems to strongly corroborate with SST or else indicate a huge flaw in the methodology (there could be more flaws than just the ones I briefly brought up, too). As for the men, it seems as if they’re being honest – they want to sleep with Angelina Jolie (a stunning woman) and with attractive members of their community, but don’t want to sleep with unattractive women even if they are rich and famous. This also seems to corroborate SST rather than refute it.

    • March 23, 2011 7:16 am

      You read it too quickly; you’re conflating the questions from different parts of the studies. There were multiple different samples, which I’ve described at length.

      • dungone permalink
        March 23, 2011 4:14 pm

        Yes, I realize that different study groups were used for the 4 study parts. But it’s the summary itself that compared the results from the different study parts to reach its conclusions. Again, the summary compared different study parts by saying, “Men were almost as interested in the random stranger as Angelina Jolie.” But the question in 1a indicated that it was not a random stranger at all, but an an attractive stranger. I don’t see anywhere in 1a, 1b, 2a, or 2b that a question was posed to men or women where the proposal came from just a random stranger whose attractiveness was not defined. So what exactly is this summary based on and why does it omit the much more obvious comparisons between the study parts that corroborate SST? My question remains, is there something I missed?

      • dungone permalink
        March 23, 2011 4:32 pm

        Incidentally, the study parts which were done in the third person and to non-heterosexual groups were not relevant to the comparisons that were made about heterosexual men and women with attractive strangers vs celebrities. I only saw those 4 parts as potentially relevant to those conclusions. Again, I could be wrong here, but I think that I read it carefully.

      • March 23, 2011 4:57 pm

        No, contrary to what you said, women did not prefer Trump to Stranger. Women are higher for the stranger than Trump in 2a, showing that his status did not overcome his unattractiveness.

        Also, you’re conflating the attractive stranger in 1 (attractiveness is specifies) with the stranger in 2. The attractive celeb and unattractive celeb are specified by name, but Conley merely says that the scenario was written differently to incorporate an “unknown proposer”, she doesn’t say (nor do I) how it was written and it’s not clear she said the proposer in 2 was attractive. The proposer in 1 was described as attractive; 2 we don’t know for sure.

        Finally, as to the assertion that all self-reporting is unreliable (that’s where your argument ends up, anyway) the figures broadly track the original CHSP findings, which were not self-report, giving some indicia of reliability.

      • dungone permalink
        March 23, 2011 7:07 pm

        Thomas, you’re trying to grill me here using the numbers you gave but which I have no reason to trust. On what basis did the study authors reject the null hypothesis, given that their sample sizes look really small? What p-values did they calculate? The idea of using a seven point scale on sample sizes as small as 40 men seems very ambitious, but very naive! One should avoid compounding the problems of a small non-representative sample by throwing in a subjective ratings scale on top of it.

        But if you won’t accept a comparison between 1a and 2a, then at least we can use it to test for potential problems. So look, women in 1a preferred the attractive stranger less than the the ugly celebrity in 2a. They even preferred the (supposedly) ambiguous stranger in 2a over the attractive one in 1a. But look, men preferred the attractive stranger in 1a over the ambiguous stranger in 2a. What gives? The trends are going in the wrong direction.

        And then there are other problems. Given the small sample sizes, there doesn’t seem to be room for controls (such as asking the same question to all study parts, changing the wording or the order of the questions to account for those factors, etc). Look at part 2 and how there were three different questions being asked to a small sample size – they must have either been asked across the board to everyone or else the individual groups were as small as a baker’s dozen.

        I’m just saying, given these issues, I’m willing to throw out any conclusion that could be made from it as nothing more than the bias of the person coming up with the conclusion. It’s just not compelling enough. You’re putting this up against studies that used thousands of participants from all over the world. I’m just not convinced that this study is onto something meaningful.

      • dungone permalink
        March 23, 2011 8:52 pm

        Thomas, I realize that I started to talk past you and I want to apologize and recognize that you are correct about 2a not specifying whether the unknown stranger was supposed to be attractive or not. Either way I see that the conclusions I questioned were almost certainly based on 2a and not from a 2a vs 1a comparison, which is what you were probably pointing out and I missed that.

        Obviously, my overall take on the study is that it seems to be very poorly designed and could possibly allow the experimenter’s bias to influence the results. But to be fair to the study, if the purpose was to show that CSHP-style questions are ridiculous, then it probably succeeded in convincing me. The more I think about all the potential problems with it, the more faults I find with a CSHP style question coupled with a ratings scale. I wouldn’t agree with a similar survey that claimed to validate SST, either.

  19. October 6, 2011 6:15 pm

    Just wanted to say thank you for dissecting this piece so clearly. My business is all about this stuff, and I’ve always had a suspicion that SST wasn’t the full picture. A thoroughly interesting and enjoyable read.

  20. October 6, 2011 6:45 pm

    Really interesting stuff man. Hmmm, I gotta see about getting the book.

  21. Nerd permalink
    October 23, 2011 2:28 pm

    I don’t know how the author can conclude this: “The fact that status did not predict women’s acceptance of casual sex offers is therefore a problem for SST. ”

    The study where women were asked if they wanted to sleep with Johnny Depp/Brad Pitt saw a dramatic increase in willingness to have a one-night stand compared to with a stranger. I understand that the author says this is due to perceived safety, but it is absolutely wrong to not take note of the fact that Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt have more status than just about any other males in our society.

    • fireandair permalink
      November 3, 2011 6:49 pm

      Because they turned down Donald Trump and Carrot Top, both of whom have lots of money.

  22. fireandair permalink
    November 3, 2011 6:49 pm

    Interesting — I only just found this. I’d interject another wrinkle in it, though. You stated toward the end that the men were as likely to accept from Jolie as from Brinkley, even though Brinkley was middle-aged. You then stated that it’s very likely that this is explained by them being pleasure-driven.

    I’d say that it’s more driven by them being status-seeking. Whether she’s 30 or 50, landing a supermodel will look good to their male buddies. They seek to maximize their status with their male friends. Pleasure I think has less to do with it than we think; for most men, one orgasm is as good as another, and they forget they had them three seconds after they’re done anyway. They’re not pleasure-seeking, just status-seeking.

    I’d like to see a study that asked the men to pick between the following two options:

    1) You get to fsck Angelina Jolie, but you can’t tell your friends you did.

    2) You don’t get to fsck her, but we’ll tell all your friends you did anyway.

    See which one they pick. Pity you can’t actually perform this test, and then go back to the guys in question three months later and see which ones are happier. I’ll bet my retirement that it’d be the ones in the second group.

  23. March 21, 2012 12:16 am

    So, the lesson here is: if you’re going to approach women with casual sex offers, you better be wearing a T-shirt that says “Great in Bed”?

    But seriously, great article and analysis. I really appreciated it.

  24. Krystal permalink
    August 16, 2012 11:25 pm

    This study is fascinating. I would be interested in seeing research on how males and females differ in likeliness to propose casual sex.

  25. August 19, 2012 8:16 am

    You are talking about slut-shaming. Now i know that for a lot of wmomen the idea to use the term slut in a new way with a new meaning, thereby trying to reclaim it is very important. and maybe it is a good strategey. But as a former student of history and philosophy who later in his life also worked in marketing i would question that approach
    I came here through a link on the website of the singer Carsie Blanton:

    http://brighterthanabuoy.blogspot.de/2012/08/on-women-who-like-sex.html

    This singer makes a point of not using the word “slut” for women who like sex: “A woman who likes sex … is just a woman who likes sex.”

    I agree totally with that because using the word slut in an attempt to “reclaim” it and give it a positive meaning is still using a word that was invented by women-haters and sex-haters.
    My suggestion to women: dissociate yourself from the women- and sex-haters by not using their terms at all.

  26. Littlehampton permalink
    October 5, 2012 6:17 am

    I don’t see what this study is supposed to refute.

    The idea is that the differential reproductive cost means you’d expect women to be more choosey about when and with whom they have sex – which this, if anything, confirms.

    Not that they’re somehow averse to sex.

    • October 24, 2012 9:43 am

      It’s a refutation of the Sexual Strategies Theory, which postulates that men and women use specific criteria that point towards wanting a long-term commitment to decide when to have sex. The study supports the Pleasure Theory, which offers different criteria (but not necessarily a specific goal). That’s all.

      The difference is in the choice, not the “chooseyness.”

    • October 31, 2012 5:34 pm

      Right, so this study is refuting someone else’s previous study that concluded that women are more averse to casual sex (or perhaps to sex in general) than men are.

  27. Average NY Woman permalink
    January 10, 2013 1:35 pm

    Good for you Thomas. I can see by your conclusion that you really get it, and it’s good to see a man putting the realities of the risks women face to other men. Keep speaking your truth.

  28. November 3, 2013 4:58 pm

    “Men thought the proposer — knowing nothing about her — would be a middle-of-the-pack sex partner, while women thought the male proposers would be mediocre.”

    Mediocre is generally taken to mean “either average or below average”. So I’m not sure that this distinction is a particularly striking one as written.

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