March 10th, 2011
This would make sense if the consequences of sleep loss were more benign. But the penalties for what might be called catastrophic sleep loss are well known. Allan Rechtschaffen has done a famous series of experiments in which rats were wakened to death. Rats deprived of total sleep died in two and a half weeks, after their thermoregulatory systems collapsed. Rats deprived of REM sleep died in five weeks. (No one knows how soon a rat would die if, like the insomniac subgroup Mendelson described, it merely believed it had been deprived of sleep.)
Rats die after two weeks of total sleep loss. They can survive without food for about the same amount of time.
In a newly published paper describing a series of studies, University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley asserts that “when women are presented with proposers who are equivalent in terms of safety and sexual prowess, they will be equally likely as men to engage in casual sex.”
Her research suggests women, like men, are motivated by pleasure-seeking when they enter the sexual arena. It’s just that women are less likely to be satisfied by a short-term encounter, and they know it.
Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Conley describes a series of experiments that refine the results of a seminal 1989 study widely cited in articles and textbooks. That study, by psychologists Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield, found that when a female college student introduced herself to a male colleague and asked if he wanted to have sex with her, 69 to 75 percent of the guys said yes. When the genders were reversed, not a single woman was interested.
That huge difference has largely been explained in terms of Sexual Strategies Theory, an evolutionary approach that focuses on the desire, conscious or unconscious, to pass one’s genes to the next generation. If that’s our driving impulse, women need to be choosy about their sexual partners; they’re looking for men who are likely to stick around and provide support during their child-rearing years. Men, on the other hand, have an evolutionary incentive to spread their seed as widely as possible.
Although Conley also takes an evolutionary approach, her perspective is significantly different from that much-discussed thesis. She points to a relatively new approach called Pleasure Theory. It asserts “the pursuit of pleasure is the central force that motivates sexual behavior,” and that reproduction is a byproduct of this effort.
“If humans are having pleasurable encounters, enough instances of vaginal intercourse will occur to ensure the survival of the species,” she notes.
In other words, our motivation may be simpler than the first generation of evolutionary psychologists believed. Girls — and boys — just want to have fun, and biology takes care of the rest.
So why did the young men and women in the 1989 study — and in a repeat of that experiment that Conley conducted — react so differently to the offer of casual sex? After conducting a series of follow-up experiments, in which she tweaked Clark and Hatfield’s sexual-invitation scenario in different ways, she came up with an answer sports-conscious men should be able to easily grasp: The playing field isn’t level.
Men, after all, can almost be guaranteed a pleasurable sexual encounter if they’re with someone they find attractive. But Conley points to new, yet-to-be published research by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong which finds “women orgasm only 35 percent as often as men in first-time sexual encounters.”
A more detailed analysis is available at Yes Means Yes.