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When Are Women Into Casual Sex?

Men are more interested and likely to engage in casual sex than women, right? From film, to music, to magazines-- it’s one of those things everyone (seemingly) “knows” about the respective sexes that is pervasive in popular culture. Visit your local bookstore’s self-help section and you’re likely to a see volumes (for example, the "Mars and Venus" series) dedicated to understanding how such sex differences should be understood if we’re to experience relational and sexual bliss.

New research, however, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that when great pleasure is expected, women are just as likely as men to say "YES" to casual sex. The innovative set of studies1 carried out by Dr. Terri Conley at the University of Michigan support predictions consistent with Pleasure Theory.2 This perspective argues that sexual reproduction is a bi-product of sexual pleasure, rather than vice-versa. We’ve evolved to seek pleasurable experiences; if enough people are having pleasure through sex, then the species will reproduce as a consequence. And herein lies perhaps the most pertinent sex difference of all-– women generally have a more difficult time achieving sexual pleasure from a casual encounter than men. For example, recent work3 has shown that women orgasm only 35% as often as men do in first-time sexual encounters.

Conley’s work suggests that when the conditions are right, women are more similar to men in how they respond to an offer for casual sex than previously has been thought. The greatest contribution to explaining if a woman will accept an offer for casual sex is her perception of how sexually pleasurable the encounter will be. Because men orgasm more easily, they tend to be less picky about whom the casual sex is with. For women however, the sexual prowess of the person offering the sex is highly relevant. If she doesn't expect to be satisfied, she'd be less likely to have casual sex.

We’ve often believed that some young women’s preference for slightly older men could have to do with status and resources on offer. Perhaps that's true. But perhaps the likelihood for greater pleasure from an experienced lover also plays a role. They always say it takes about 10,000 hours of practice, after all, to become an expert at something!

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1Conley, T. D. (2011). Perceived proposer personality characteristics and gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 309-329. doi: 10.1037/a0022152

2Abramson, P. R., & Pinkerton, S. D. (2002). With pleasure: Thoughts on the nature of human sexuality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

3Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. K. (2010). Sexual practices, learning, and love: Accounting for women's orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college hookups and relationships. Manuscript under review.


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Reader Comments (2)

Pleasure may be a proximate means by which ultimate functional goals are accomplished. Why are certain men and women presumed to be more pleasurable? That Conley finds women are likely to want short-term sex with Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt as much as men want Jolie or J-Lo is not at all unexpected from evo psy. Depp and Pitt are virtually perfect in their design for fulfilling women's evolved short-term mating desires (good genes, etc.), and this design is not random but is likely to be highly evolved. Had they measured their women participants at peak fertility (given women's short-term mating preferences for sexy men appear to peak at this time), perhaps even more pleasure/desire would have been evident! Most important, in the actual JPSP data women's difference between consenting to sex with a stranger and Depp is very large (d = 1.26), but men's difference between consenting to sex with a stranger and Jolie is relatively small (d = 0.28). That's the KEY difference of strategic design, in my opinion. It takes Johnny Depp in women, but really not much more than a random stranger in men.

May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid P. Schmitt

Thank you very much for the comment David. From my reading of the Conley paper, the issue of pleasure as “proximal” is dealt with in the general discussion. If pleasure were "proximal" then that would suggest that Sexual Strategy Theory variables should predict the pleasure variables -- which they don't in this paper. This is admittedly not my own area of research or expertise, but this is my take on the paper and findings.

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