What if you were sitting at a café, the park, or a beer garden (the latter being where you’re most likely to find me) and someone you’ve never met before approached you. Doesn’t seem too bad at this point, right? Now, what if this stranger then attempted to solicit casual sex from you? What would you say?
Perhaps, if you’re a man, you would jump on this opportunity ("where do I sign up?"). If you’re a woman, however, chances are you won’t be so enthused (“um...get away from me”). This is what Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield found in two classic experiments.1 They had confederates (research assistants who pretend they aren’t part of the study; in this case, the confederates were essentially pickup artists) approach students of the opposite sex on the Florida State University campus and ask these unsuspecting students one of three questions: (1) how about a date? (2) how about we go to my apartment? (3) how about we go to bed together? (which seems to be ancient 1970s/1980s slang for hooking up). In both studies, an equal number of men and women agreed to go on a date (around 50% in both studies). Why not, right? Maybe it will be fun.
As soon as the advances became more personal, however, the difference between men’s and women’s compliance increased. For instance, in their first experiment, whereas only 6% of women obliged to visiting the confederate’s apartment, about 69% percent of men readily agreed (Clark and Hatfield found similar results in the second experiment). When the confederate requested casual sex, no women obliged (as in 0%), but about 75% of men accepted this way too generous offer (with some eagerly asking: “Why do we have to wait until tonight?”). Those men who declined all gave an excuse to justify rejecting this amazing opportunity (e.g., “I’m married”). Women, on the other hand, denied the requests with more responses such as: “What is wrong with you? Leave me alone.” Indicating just how creeped-out they were. Clark and Hatfield opened the door to several speculations in interpreting their results. One such interpretation was based in evolutionary theory: men may have been more open to casual sex because they have less reproductive risks in “a night of fun” than do women (for example, men cannot get pregnant). Clark and Hatfield also speculated that these sex differences may have stemmed from differences in risk perception (it may be easier for men to fight off a potential abuser than for women) or even remnants of a sexual double standard (it’s more socially acceptable for men to get down and dirty than for women).
Several studies have replicated Clark and Hatfield’s results. More recently, however, psychologist Terri Conley challenged some of Clark and Hatfield’s findings and examined why men and women may have differed in their responses.2 Although she found a similar gender difference to the one Clark and Hatfield reported, Conley’s data opened the door for further explanation in the different responses by men and women. For example, women believe that their (male) proposer is more dangerous compared to how dangerous men believe their (female) proposer is. Interestingly, Conley also found that bisexual women (who reported to be equally attracted to men and women) were more likely – or really, less unlikely – to accept a casual sex offer from a woman compared to a man, and that men and women would be equally as likely to accept casual sex offers from celebrities. Conley attributed this further to her hypothesis that male proposers, especially strangers, are perceived differently than female proposers (e.g., more dangerous).
This study was recently cited by an opinion piece in the New York Times critiquing Clark and Hatfield’s – as well as other evolutionary theory based – studies. The author argued that social role theories better account for the gender differences Clark and Hatfield had found, citing some of Conley’s (as well as others’) findings to support his claim. Social role theories would collectively say that it is more acceptable for men to have "sexytime" than for women, and the author interpreted Conley’s findings (such as casual sex from celebrities) to mean that the variation in sex differences in acceptance of casual sex based on social situations (stranger vs. Brad Pitt) reflect socialization differences more so than biologically-driven differences.
So, would men and women really differ too much if someone came up to them and offered casual sex? If it’s a stranger, chances are they would. If the person, however, was a friend or a celebrity (or especially, a celebrity friend), then men and women may both be equally as likely to oblige. Undoubtedly, both biological (differences in short-term mating risks) and social forces (context of the offer and who is doing the offering) are at play in these decisions. So hey, who knows, maybe one day Ryan Gosling will notice you on campus, and the rest will be history.
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1Clark, R. D. III, & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2, 39-53.
2Conley, 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.
Stan Treger, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Stan is interested in (1) interpersonal connectedness and closeness; (2) attraction and relationship initiation; and (3) sexuality. He has published on infidelity, sexual attitudes, and women’s sexuality, and is currently investigating affective forecasting, humor, and transactive memory in close relationships.