Men Want Sex with Girlfriends, Not Randoms

November 19, 2012

Good news! My theory that 80% of both young men and women are unhappy with hookup culture and struggle to form relationships just got some serious traction in the mainstream press. 

Wake-Forest professor Andrew Smiler has just published a new book based on his research on males and masculinity: Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male.  Though he doesn’t use the term, Smiler’s book exposes the degree of Pluralistic Ignorance around sex on college campuses by examining the data and attitudes of young males. He also offers some ideas for turning things around.

There is a widespread belief that guys just want to have sex and don’t care about relationships. In other words, “Men are dogs.”…Many Americans believe that boys and young men – especially those between about 15 and 25 years old – are primarily, if not exclusively, interested only in [hooking up]. We think this is normal. When we act as though this is normal, we may very well be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This stereotype tells us that guys are primarily interested in sex, not relationships. This contributes to the notion that guys are emotional clods who are incapable of connecting with their partners because, hey, they’re just guys, and guys are only interested in sex.

Interviewing Smiler at Salon (H/T JP and mr. wavevector), Tracy Clark Flory writes, “Smiler has an important question: “If Casonova-style promiscuity is men’s naturally evolved state, then why do most men want no more than one partner?” In “Challenging Casanova,” the Wake Forest University professor lays out the current data on young men’s sexual desires and behavior to make a case against this insidious stereotype.” Smiler:

It’s only a minority of guys who have multiple partners per year, and I typically talk about this as three partners a year because that’s the Casanova average. It’s actually a minority of guys who want multiple short-term partners — that even comes up in the evolutionary research.

The evolutionary argument basically goes that guys have the ability, theoretically, to produce hundreds of children per year, and they can never quite be 100 percent sure that any child is theirs, so they should spread their seed widely. But what gets left out of that is the fact that if you want your genes to go beyond that next generation — beyond your children to your grandchildren, then your odds are better if you actually stick around and help raise that kid until that kid is old enough to pass on his or her genes.

What is the Casanova Complex?

Peter Trachtenberg’s research on The Casanova Complex 25 years ago defined the behavior as “the compulsive pursuit and abandonment of women.” He also found that these men were not primarily physically attractive or high status, but they had developed a seduction skill set. I was amused to learn that Trachtenberg found that the most common observable behavior among would-be Casanovas was ignoring one’s female companion in public.

Smiler set out to learn how today’s college player differs. Undergraduates today describe campus players in the following terms:

  • Attractive
  • Flattering
  • Flirty
  • Self-centered, jerks, loudmouths
  • Well groomed and dressed
  • Very social, attend lots of parties
  • Heavy drinker
  • Lower GPA

In contrast, self-described players profess these traits:

  • Pride in having multiple concurrent sex partners
  • Competitive
  • Risk-taking
  • Invested in advertising heterosexuality
  • Sexist
  • Strong desire to be dominant over others
  • Not religious
  • Top 6 self-descriptors: jock, popular, prince, tough, criminal, rebel

What do players actually do?

  • 50% have more than one sex partner per year, compared to 20% of non-players.
  • 3-5% have 4 or more partners per year over a four-year span.
  • Having multiple sex partners concurrently becomes more common among men who have 5 or more partners per year.
  • In any given year, aspiring Casanovas may be up to 15% of the male population, but only about 5% of men sustain this behavior for three years.

So half of these self-anointed players have 0 or 1 sex partners per year? Only 3-5% of players rack up 16 partners in four years? Clearly, there is a massive disconnect between the way players perceive themselves and measurable results. At what point does this become fraud rather than myth?

What does everyone else do?

Men have three approaches to dating and sex:

1. Casanova: 5-15%

2. Abstinent/religious: 10-15%

3. Traditional Romantic: 70-85%

“[This] doesn’t mean that romantic men don’t occasional have one-night-stand-style hookups. Some of them do. But unlike Casanovas, and going against our general conception of hooking up, these guys often hook up with people they know.”

Smiler gives a typical example:

Mike and Jenn met sophomore year and became good friends. One night, they started making out and after a few times, they got drunk one night and “it just happened.” Mike felt regretful.

Your first time is supposed to be like really special or whatever but I just felt like it was just in a complete haze and like stupid decision making.

Mike is a Traditional Romantic. Smiler found common traits among this vast majority of males:

  • Experience low levels of family conflict around the time they enter puberty.
  • Raised in families that are emotionally expressive – showing feelings at about an average level.
  • As adolescents, experience moderate levels of “parental monitoring.”
  • Trusted by parents as teens.
  • Use alcohol and drugs, but at much lower levels than Casanovas.
  • Engage in low to moderate deviant behavior, e.g. shoplifting, vandalism, public nuisance making.
  • Punished by parents for poor behavior.

Why is the Casanova myth a problem?

According to Smiler, teaching girls that all guys are only interested in sex has detrimental effects not just on girls but also on boys:

The idea that male sexual desire is powerful, ever present, and barely controlled has been a part of American culture for at least 200 years. (Rotundo, 1993). Taken to the extreme, it contributes to the possibility that any guy could be a rapist, child molester, or some other type of sexual predator.

…This isn’t just about changing how we raise boys and talk to them about relationships and sexuality, it’s also about changing girls. After all, if we continue to teach girls to be suspicious of boys’ and young men’s motives, then a guy who is honest about his sexual desires is going to run into problems.

Clark Flory asks “How does the Casanova myth impact female sexuality?” Smiler:

One of the ways it impacts girls and women is they get the wrong proportions. They’re told that most guys, if not all guys, just want sex, that they don’t want relationships. So we have a lot of stories and evidence that girls are putting their bodies out there and doing things sexually in order to entice guys into relationships. We’re giving girls the wrong percentages which makes them perhaps behave in ways in which they wouldn’t behave otherwise — starting your contact with somebody sexually instead of relationally, for example.

At the same time, he notes that the media enthusiastically promotes male promiscuity, which confuses guys:

In mainstream media we’ve had all of this stuff on TV since the 1970s that really promotes this idea of promiscuous young men. The history, as far as I can tell, really starts with Fonzie on “Happy Days” and “Hawkeye” Pierce on “M*A*S*H.” And it continues with guys like Sam Malone on “Cheers” and Charlie Sheen’s character on “Two and a Half Men” and Barney on “How I Met Your Mother.” For several years now we’ve had so-called good guys who were also promiscuous. If you looked at TV and movies from the ’50s and ’60s, the promiscuous guys were always very clearly the bad example.

Clark Flory correctly challenges the notion that men control the culture: “What do you make of the popular wisdom that in hookup culture, young men are pressuring young women into casual sex — that they’re setting the terms of these engagements?” Smiler rightly addresses this in terms of the apex fallacy issue, though like me, his focus is not on the disputably “lucky” 15%, but the far larger “normal” 85%.

I don’t buy it. When we interview adolescents or undergrads, the girls really have the impression that guys are just interested in sex, that they’re not interested in relationships. What we know is that most guys do get into relationships, they enjoy relationships, they do a lot of things in relationships that are not about sex and they’re not doing them just to put up with them in order to get sex.

Guys get something out of relationships; they like relationships. If you add in the fact that average age of first marriage is something like 28 for guys, a lot of guys have the sense that this girl they’re starting to date at 17 or 19 or 21 probably isn’t going to be the one — and yet they are choosing to date. They could easily choose to just hook up — or instead of spending that money in a bar you could get a prostitute — but they’re consistently choosing to be in relationships.

At the same time, Smiler says that “we need to stop assuming that girls are only interested in relationships, and acknowledge that some may be primarily (or exclusively) interested in sex.” He shares the story of an undergraduate woman who planned to enter medical school immediately after graduation, and didn’t see herself settling down until she was finished with medical school. In the meantime, she wants to get laid “every now and again.” This is the independent young woman championed by Hannah Rosin – the future of feminism, which depends on women not marrying and having children, so that they can make career strides.

What can be done about this wackness?

Smiler believes that we can change the culture by changing how we raise and talk to kids:

When we develop sex education curricula based on the assumption that Casanova is the norm and when we act as though Casanova is the reality for all boys and men, we’re giving our kids incorrect information. That’s irresponsible behavior by the adults.

Only a small percentage of guys follow the Casanova Complex script. But because we understand young men’s sexuality in terms of that script, we often fail to notice or emphasize the guys who aren’t Casanovas. When we do notice them, we think they’re exceptional and unusual, even though they are in fact the majority. One way to start changing the script is to get accurate information on what’s really happening.

The solution is not a return to a Happy Days America, impossible in any case. But there is real opportunity for change just by busting the myth and redefining normal based on the real distribution of behaviors and attitudes.

We know that most young people want to have romantic relationships. Smiler tackles the male side of the equation:

If we’ve changed our expectations once, to promote the Casanova Complex, we can change our expectations again. And change means change; it doesn’t mean going back to the 1950s. We can return to emphasizing responsibility, honesty, caring and respect as male traits without sending women back home to care for the house and family. And we can do this while holding onto such “traditional” male values as independence, loyalty and hard work.”

I’ll continue to tackle the female side of the equation, which is a return to the same traits while holding on to such “traditional” female values as nurturing, emotional intelligence, and femininity in both behavior and appearance.