The Gender Price Gap in Casual Sex

June 22, 2010

I’ve been busy and going easy on you recently, so today I’m giving you some real meat to chew on. Sorry if it reads like a class assignment – but this is the most important kind of academic research we talk about. Once we have scientific, indisputable proof that women are getting screwed by casual sex, the dialogue changes. That is very, very important, because that in turn has the power to change the culture.

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Steven Rhoads, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has an article in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education: The Emotional Costs of Hooking Up. (Hat tip: Teresa) While it doesn’t contain new information per se, it’s a good summary of much of the research that has been done around casual sex. It’s also another article that dares to question the effects of the Sexual Revolution, and drives another nail into the coffin of Gender as a Social Construct.

Those who are threatened by any notion of restricting female sexuality, either voluntarily or involuntarily, often scoff at the notion that hooking up causes depression or constitutes a bad deal for women. This has amounted to willful ignorance, as the research that has come out within the last ten years has shown clear cause for concern.

Rhoads begins by highlighting the change in attitudes toward premarital sex in the last half century. Not surprisingly, the larger shift has been among women:

% Approving of Premarital Sex

He notes however, that romance has all but disappeared from the equation, and he sees the effects in his role as a professor:

For the past 12 years, I have taught a course on sex differences to college juniors and seniors. When we talk about relationships and sex itself, most of the men, sometimes sheepishly, indicate that they enjoy hookups—but the vast majority of the women are unhappy with them. Time and again, women see their girlfriends’ post-hookup traumas, even if they themselves manage to avoid such outcomes. If the men call again, it’s often just for another hookup. But as soon as the women push for a real relationship, the men break it off.

Women don’t want sex for long without an emotional connection, a sense of caring, if not real commitment, from their partners. As one student wrote in a paper for my class:

We are told not to be sexual prudes, but to enjoy casual sex, we have to be emotional prudes.

Not every woman “gives it up” to men who offer nothing more than a proposition, but those who don’t accede often spend Saturday nights alone. At most American colleges today, more than 50 percent of the undergraduates are women, and they feel pressured to compete sexually for men. The result is a lot of angry women. As one told my class:

I live with 16 other girls in a big house, and whether we give men what they want or we don’t, we all agree that men suck.

Rhoads’ wife teaches Shakespeare at an all-male college. In a discussion about love, one student declared that he was too young for it:

I haven’t slept with enough women yet.

Another guy said:

Sleeping with a woman who has already submitted is like playing a computer game you have already won.

Rhoads continues:

These differences in motivation lead to a lot of pain for young women. Seventy-one percent of teenage girls report being in love with their last sexual partner but only 45 percent of boys do. And teen girls are far less likely than boys to report being happy with their sexual experiences and far more likely to report that they wished they had waited longer to have sex.

The picture doesn’t get prettier for more mature singles. According to the research of Syracuse University anthropologist John Townsend, the most sexually experienced single women, while still believing that casual sex is fine, find that their feelings will not cooperate. They feel used, hurt and demeaned after sleeping with men uninterested in relationships. Many of the most sexually active men, on the other hand, regularly engage in pleasurable sex with women they barely know and sometimes don’t even like.

Townsend’s studies also indicate that men are predisposed to value casual sex, whereas women cannot easily separate sexual relations from the need for emotional attachment and economic security:

Indeed, wherever men possess sexual alternatives to marriage, and women possess economic alternatives, divorce rates will be high.

However, Townsend’s research indicates that some men prefer an emotional bond. Twelve percent want an emotional involvement before having sex, and 25% get attached after several sexual incidents whether they planned to or not.

Rhoads also cites the work of Herold and Mewhinney, which showed that:

  • Women derive less enjoyment and experience more guilt from casual sex.
  • 63% of males and 28% of females positively anticipate casual sex.
  • 25% of males report enjoying it, while only 2% of females do.

Catherine Grello did a 2005 study of college students and found that:

  • 52% of the males and 36% of the females were having casual sex. All of them knew that the sex was casual.
  • Of those, 18% of the women expected the sex to evolve into a romantic relationship, while only 3% of the men did.
  • Casual sex is highly correlated with alcohol and drug use, so it was not surprising that nearly all casual partners had met in bars or at parties.
  • 20% of the men having casual sex were in a committed relationship with someone else at the time.
  • A majority of the men having casual sex had a Ludic (game playing) approach to relationships, while a smaller number and most of the women had an Eros (passionate) orientation.

The really interesting thing about Grello’s research though, is the correlation she found between depression and casual sex in women. She found that women having the most casual sex report the most symptoms of depression, and that those women have more partners and more regrets than other women. For men, the opposite is true – the men having the most casual sex were the least depressed. The research did not prove a causal relationship, but posed questions for further study.

Are women having casual sex is search of external validation?

Or are they caught in a vicious cycle of engaging in doomed relationships?

Or is the depression a manifestation of the cognitive dissonance a woman experiences when engaging in an activity she disapproves of?

Denise Hallfors also did a study in 2005 which looked at the role of substance abuse and casual sex in predicting depression, or vice versa.

She found that casual sex does predict depression in women, but depression does not predict sex.

From the Rhoads article:

In their book forthcoming early next year from Oxford University Press, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker report that having more sexual partners is associated with “poorer emotional states in women, but not in men.” The more partners women have in the course of their lives, the more likely they are to be depressed, to cry almost every day, and to report relatively low satisfaction with their lives.

Following the piece, there were a few comments that I thought raised interesting questions:

1. I do believe that women have to harden their hearts to have casual sex – it becomes an attitude of “I’ll use you before you use me.” But isn’t that what the sexual revolution is all about? The ability to make your own choices and live with the consequences?

Do you think that women are capable of  hardening their hearts in this way? Do you agree that women follow this strategy of being the f*cker instead of the f*cked?

Do you agree that casual sex as experienced today fulfills the goals of the Sexual Revolution?

2. So how do we differentiate “evolutionary psychology” — from side effects like “emotional sickness” that come from people’s unconscious adherences to patriarchal ideology? Where the genome project hasn’t yet ventured, how do we differentiate what is “natural” from the stubborn byproducts of prolonged cultural inequalities?

Is it possible that depression in women, and women’s preference for emotional intimacy during sex, reflects a patriarchal culture, and longstanding inequality of the sexes?

Is the sexual double standard a social construct or a biological reality?

3. “My female students tell me that the emotional pain caused by casual sex goes largely unreported by women, because they are often ashamed that they care about men WHO TREAT THEM LIKE STRANGERS the next morning.”

Does anyone see anything pathological in a male who can have sex with someone and then treat her like a stranger? A stranger? It seems to me the problem with hook-ups not about the number of partners or about the enjoyment of sex. It’s about the pathological ability of the males involved in hook-ups to shut off basic human empathy completely.A guy who might have an empathic reaction to a buddy in pain can completely turn off an empathic reaction to a girl he has sex with. Sociopaths lack empathy, which is how they can hurt others indiscriminately without any sense of wrongdoing. The behavior of males in hooking up seems exactly sociopathic.

Do you agree that casual sex promotes sociopathic behavior?

Are women engaging in this same lack of empathy?

What is a reasonable expectation for the morning after?

Rhoads concludes:

Feelings don’t change with the times in quite the same way that behaviors and attitudes do. If the evolutionists are right, those feelings are rooted in women’s evolutionary history and will not disappear anytime soon.

That leads me to share one of my favorite maxims about sex and relationships:

If it feels like crap, you should probably stop doing it.