Casual Sex: Are Men and Women So Different?

Co-Authored by Leah D. Smith and David J. Lick

“Sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive.”  For decades, psychologists have relied on this mantra to explain why women are sexually choosy and men are sexually promiscuous.  However, if women are so prudish, who exactly are men getting lucky with?  Perhaps “sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive” is only half of the story, and something besides the scarcity of their eggs drives female sexuality … In a classic study by Clark and Hatfield (1989), women solicited a one-night stand to male strangers and men solicited a one-night stand to female strangers on a college campus.  Results showed that men were much more willing to accept sex with a stranger than were women.  In fact, women declined casual sex offers 100 percent of the time; men only declined casual sex offers 25 to 31 percent of the time.  These findings dramatically demonstrated that men and women differ in their mating behaviors, with women appearing sexually prude compared to men.  The study became quite influential in academic psychology, and it has been cited in over 350 published reports.

Despite the startling results of Clark and Hatfield’s (1989) study, it is possible that differences in the solicitors influenced the results.  That is, women might have perceived male solicitors as aggressive and violent, while men might have perceived female solicitors as nurturing and warm.  Perhaps women avoid casual sexual encounters with unfamiliar partners because they want to avoid potentially unpleasant or dangerous sexual experiences, and men accept these encounters more readily because they expect women to be nurturing, pleasant sexual partners.

Psychologist Terri Conley (2011) recently explored these possibilities by reconstructing the Clark and Hatfield study with several new manipulations.  In particular, Conley (2011) found that women and men do indeed have different perceptions of one another in a casual sex scenario: female solicitors were considered warmer, more generous, and better sexual partners overall than were males.  To test whether these perceptual differences influenced peoples’ willingness to accept casual sex offers, she examined whether bisexual women were more likely to accept a casual sexual encounter with another woman than with a man.  As expected, bisexual women were much more likely to accept casual sex offers from women than from men.

Conley (2011) conducted a second study that asked participants to consider whether or not they would accept a casual sex proposition from their best friend of the opposite sex.  Initially, it appeared that women were less likely than men to accept such an offer.  However, when controlling for perceived sexual capabilities of the partner, women accepted the propositions just as often as men.  This finding suggests that one’s expected receipt of sexual pleasure is a strong determinant of human sexuality, and that differences in the perceived sexual capabilities of partners provide the best explanation for different mating behaviors between the sexes.  That is, men tend to be perceived as less sexually capable than women, which might be why most women might turn down casual sex offers from male proposers.

Conley (2011) also tested whether women would be more willing to accept casual sex with an attractive celebrity than with an unattractive celebrity.  Intriguingly, women were just as likely to say “yes” to Johnny Depp and “no” to Donald Trump as men were to say “yes” to Angelina Jolie and “no” to Roseanne Barr.  Thus, it appears that under the right circumstances, women are just as interested in casual sex as are men.  This is especially true if the proposer is female, perceived to be sexually capable, and physically attractive.

Boiling sexual behavior down to eggs and sperm suggests that women are less interested in casual sex than are men.  Indeed, classic psychological studies seemed to confirm this presumption.  However, more recent research shows that social factors play an important role in determining mating behaviors, and when we account for these social factors, women are not necessarily opposed to casual sex (see Conley, 2011).  In fact, if a sexual proposal comes from someone who is viewed as safe, familiar, attractive, and supposedly pleasurable, then women are as likely as men to accept a casual sex offer.  So dust off those Kama Sutra books, boys, because when it comes to getting a woman to sleep with you, safety and sexual prowess can be strong aphrodisiacs.


Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E.  (1989).  Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers.  Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55.

Conley, T. D.  (2011).  Perceived proposer personality characteristics and gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 309-239.