In her book “Unprotected,” former campus psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Grossman introduces readers to Olivia, a college student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who had been valedictorian of her high school class and was planning to go to medical school. After she arrived on campus, Olivia had a short-term relationship with a young man. When it ended, she had bouts of bingeing and vomiting and ended up at the campus health center, where she met Dr. Grossman.
It turns out Olivia had had her first sexual experience with the young man, and she told Grossman she couldn’t stop thinking about him. She especially couldn’t handle seeing him in class. “Why,” Olivia asked her, “do they tell you how to protect your body from herpes and pregnancy, but they don’t tell you what it does to your heart?”
Kerry Cohen, author of the memoir “Loose Girl,” can relate. In her book, Cohen examines her promiscuous past, which included sleeping with almost 40 boys and men. “Loose Girl” analyzes in great detail all of the emotions that accompanied Cohen’s sexual experiences. She reviewed the reasons why she had sex, why she chose the boys and men she did, how she felt leading up to each encounter, how she felt afterward, and what she expected to happen compared to what actually did happen. At the end of the day, what Cohen wanted was for guys to like her. “I let these men inside me, wanting to make me matter to them.”
It’s difficult to imagine the young man Olivia slept with having bouts of bingeing and vomiting and winding up at the campus health center as a result of his time with Olivia, just as it’s difficult to imagine a young man authoring a book like Cohen’s. The average guy who engages in commitment-free sex doesn’t ruminate over who he had sex with or why he did it—he knows why he did it.
Nor will he typically have sex with a woman because he wants her to like him. Many men have sex for no other reason than it’s available. “For a man, this might be a peasant trip down memory lane, counting up one’s conquests,” wrote Cohen. “But for a girl, it’s a whole other story.” A whole other story indeed.
Where did the idea that women could and should have indiscriminate sex with men originate? And when? The perfect storm for this still relatively new behavior was the sexual revolution, which proudly promoted commitment-free sex, and the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the pill—both of which occurred in the 1960s.
Prior to that time, there was both a spoken and an unspoken narrative about sex: that it is meant for marriage—or, at the very least, for a committed adult relationship. It’s true people didn’t always agree on the marriage point, but they agreed that commitment was crucial. The idea that a person would go to bed with someone she just met or didn’t know well was absurd (and taboo as well).
No more. With a magic pill that would change literally everything, and the “free sex” mentality that swept the nation, a new idea was born: women can be just like men. With pregnancy off the table, women could be free to sow their wild oats, too. Problem is, most women don’t want to. And those who do quickly learn that their bodies won’t cooperate.
Indeed, contraception may prevent pregnancy, but it can’t do a thing about female nature. It can’t make a woman a man’s sexual “equal.” Yet we operate under the delusion that it does. From college campuses to our nation’s boardrooms, women try to pursue sex the way men often do: no commitment necessary. And they’re getting burned.
I wrote an article to this effect recently entitled “Why one-night stands don’t work for women.” It was not an argument for why one-night stands are “fine” for men but not for women. I don’t believe anyone should engage in casual sex. I agree 100 percent with Jordan Peterson’s assessment, whom I quoted at the end of my article:
People treat sex like it’s casual. It’s not. Sex is unbelievably complicated. It’s dangerous. It involves emotions. It involves pregnancy. It involves illness. It involves betrayal. It reaches right down into the roots of someone. You don’t play with something like that casually. Well, you can, but you’ll pay for it.
Peterson made this observation during one of his countless interviews, and it was unfortunately quickly forgotten. I believe it to be a truism that should be repeated over and over again, for it has never before been acknowledged by anyone in power. Instead, the assumption is that when it comes to sex, the birth control pill—in effect—turned women into men.
It didn’t. In a qualitative exploration of college hookups, the authors of the journal article “The Casualties of Casual Sex,” concluded (among other things) that women’s response to casual sex is very different from men’s:
The dominant notion of regret for females to center around shame and self-blame for engaging in sexual behaviors in the context of a hookup. Not knowing their partner and the lack of further contact with the partner seemed to compound their regrets and anger at themselves. The dominant notion of regret for males [emphasis mine] centered on disappointment over a bad choice of hookup partner. One female participant expressed this view: ‘During a hookup, females feel special, desirable, pretty; men feel hot and in control. Afterwards, females wonder if he’s going to call, what it means, did she do the right thing. Males feel nothing. Males don’t care, just as long as they get laid.
So many women today learn the hard way what their mothers or grandmothers have always known: sex for women is not the same as sex for men. Most men can have sex with a woman to whom they are not emotionally attached and not lose sleep over it. That is not the case for most women. Even the most sexually liberal woman is surprised to learn she cannot detach the way men can. She might appear indifferent toward casual sex, but her own reaction will often surprise her.
Take Alissa, 20, who has had six one-night stands and, within the past year, two different sex partners. When asked whether she thought she should be emotionally involved with someone before having sex with a guy, her contradictory views speak volumes:
No, sex is not that big of a deal. When you first have sex, it is a big deal, but once you’ve lost your virginity, it gradually becomes less important to be in love with the guy. The more you have sex, the less of a big deal it becomes … I get attached to guys I have sex with very easily because I’m very emotional; I think this is natural for all girls. If the guy is really a jerk, though, and I have nothing in common with him, then it’s a lot easier not to get emotionally involved than if I like the guy. Once I sleep with a guy, I feel that there is a bond between the two of us because we’ve shared our bodies and left ourselves vulnerable to each other. I think of the guy as being mine in a way, even though I know we don’t have a relationship.
Jessica, 21, has had six different sex partners within the past year and characterizes herself as strong feminist who “doesn’t need men in any way.” In speaking with Jessica, she gave the impression she found casual sex acceptable. But elsewhere in the interview, she admits she doesn’t engage in casual sex often because she doesn’t want to get hurt.
When I first go to bed with a guy, I wonder whether sex was all he was after and how he’ll treat me in the morning. If I like the guy, I worry about whether he cares about me; otherwise, I don’t care what he thinks. I’m not especially bothered by a one-night stand. I think of it as opening up; if it’s only for one night, that’s okay … I have to have control of myself. I can’t get so wrapped up in [my boyfriend] that I forget about myself.
That women tend to become attached after sex isn’t just limited to college women. In one of the sexual assault claims against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, lawyers unearthed emails between Weinstein and his accuser that confirmed the relationship was consensual. The most significant exchange was this one: “I love you, always do,” the woman wrote after the alleged attack. “But I hate feeling like a booty call.” Her message was followed up with a smiling-face emoji.
With uncommitted sex, women are playing a game they can’t win. Feeling “used,” or like a “booty call,” is the most common experience of women who engage in casual sex, or “hookups,” whether they’re teenagers or grown women. That just isn’t the case for most men.
It is true more women than ever are engaging in commitment-free sex—Lord knows they’re trying!—but this behavior does not in any way alter the unique sexual psychologies of women and men. In other words, women can try to act like men all they want. But the results will be drastically different for most of them.