I’m very happily single. The ONLY thing I miss is the sex (with another person, ha!). A sexy, trustworthy man in whom I’ve got zero long-term interest has offered me a Friends With Benefits arrangement. I’m tempted, but I’m also a bit worried that the effects on my psyche might outweigh the pleasures and benefits. Is there any research on whether a Casual Sex relationship has detrimental emotional/psychological effects on women?
Your letter is insightful and highly relevant: Most women find themselves single for significant portions of their adult lives, and no matter how fab the Hitachi Magic Wand is reputed to be, straight women prefer Real Men. So your possible arrangement sounds ideal.
Except that it’s probably not. As your gut is telling you, the Bed Buddies arrangement stands a great chance of hurting your feelings and/or creating an unwanted attachment. As biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher notes in Why Him? Why Her? : “Casual sex is rarely casual.” And as just about every other scientist who studies the issue would add: “Especially for women.”
Then again, a minority of women can Fling Now, Play Later, and walk away whistling a happy tune. So, before further advisement—would you mind answering three questions?
1. If you’ve had casual sex before, did you reach orgasm?
Sorry to be quite so personal. But the Big O is at least part of the point, right? And since the days of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering studies of human sexuality, it’s been clear that most women don’t experience orgasm reliably, if ever, with a one-night-fling or an uncommitted thing. In fact, as evolutionary psychologist extraordinaire Dr. David M. Buss details in his joltingly informative book The Evolution Of Desire, over 75% of casually experienced women say they *never* have an orgasm in a one-night stand. Never! Doesn’t compare too well with the nearly ¾ of married women who reportedly reach Nirvana every or nearly every time, according to a 1994 Sex In America survey, does it? For most women most of the time, commitment is hot…casual, not.
2. Can you resist not only your own hormonal cocktail—but his?
Ever wonder why sex with a partner is so much more physically and emotionally fulfilling than sex with machinery? Dr. Helen Fisher knows: Drugs. Our bodies produce an abundance of chemicals in anticipation/response to sex—creating mood-boosting properties on a par with taking anti-depressants. Oxytocin, a.k.a. Chemical Relationship Glue, is released in greater and greater amounts the more we have sex with a particular individual. Other copulatory culprits include dopamine that is released pre-orgasmically, as well as post-orgasmic vasopressin and norepinephrine. Together, these help create a long-term bond even where none was intended.
You produce all of that yourself, as men do. The kicker is this: Every time you have unprotected intercourse, you’re getting a two-fer. Men’s semen is a potent love-potion comprising all that great stuff your own body releases—and much, much more (for a full list, see Jena Pincott’s blog or book Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? ).
So—a man’s ejaculate contains just 3% sperm. A lot of the other magic in the cocktail is specifically geared towards creating emotional attachment: Yours. Not his. As another column shows, it’s to his Genes’ advantage to ensure his paternity via your faithful attachment, while continuing his emotional freedom to pursue other procreative options. Fair? No. Effective? Apparently.
Which brings us to the final question:
3. Are you *really* square with the fact that most men are better at remaining emotionally detached post-casual-sex than most women are?
As question #2 implies, even if you can get around the orgasmic issues in question #1, it’s unlikely you’ll get away from the attachment deal. But he probably will. As seen in a former column, men— especially the most desirable—are biologically and psychologically primed to keep it casual, unless the romance builds up to the sex and not vice-versa. But numerous studies reveal that most women increase their feelings for a man post-coitally—even when they intend only short-term sex.
For instance, anthropologist Dr. John Marshall Townsend’s Sex Without Emotional Involvement research showed that ¾ of women—compared to just ¼ of men—found themselves becoming more attached than they wanted to after casual sex. This is particularly compelling because these women were in the classic Buddies With Benefits scenario: All were repeatedly having sex with men they explicitly said they did NOT want to be involved with at a deeper level. Exactly as you’re contemplating now.
Which brings us back to you. Jane, as a woman, it’s difficult for me to recommend celibacy. Sex with a partner is part of what gives life meaning and full expression and joy. But a lot of that meaning, full expression and joy, especially for women, is demonstrably based in sex that naturally turns to bonding that morphs to commitment—and you are very clear in not wanting commitment. Or, you could fall in love with a man who is just plain wrong for you, or one with little additional use for you. Ouch.
And so, the scientist in me recommends the following:
1. Using the questions above *and* your personal history, honestly assess the chances that you can keep cool. The vast majority of women find casual sex more distressing, attaching and less orgasmic than they’d hoped, but ¼ do seem able to respond and/or remain emotionally detached. Where will your responses and feelings be, according to your personal history?
2. Act accordingly. If your history indicates you can remain detached yet sexually responsive, you might chance it with your Friend. Even so, Use Condoms: They can protect you from unwanted pregnancy and disease, yes—and they can help stave off unwanted attachment, too. But if you are like most women in your tendency towards sexual bonding, we’re back to sex with machinery. In which case—I hear the Hitachi Magic Wand is fab.