By Amy Alkon
Q: When I was in my 20s, watching Sex and the City, I saw the Samantha Jones character as a sexual role model—thinking I could have love-’em-and-leave-’em sex like her. However, even when I only wanted sex, I always had a sense of loss when one-nighters didn’t evolve into something more. I reflected on this while reading your recent column about how women often wake up after casual sex wanting more from a guy—even a guy they don’t want. But I personally know two women who prefer casual sex. They have it often and don’t get attached. Why can they do this?—Not Teflon
A: There are those women who, in bringing some himbo home for a hookup, really go that extra mile—taking a lot of turns on the way so he’ll never again find his way back to their apartment.
So, no, Sex and the City’s Samantha isn’t a completely fictional character in how, after sex, she brushes men off herself like large, penis-equipped crumbs. However, in that column you mention, I referenced research from anthropologist John Marshall Townsend, who discovered that Samantha’s post-sex detachment is pretty atypical—that many women who intend to use and lose a guy often find themselves going all clingypants the next morning.
Understanding what allows the Samantha type to escape this takes separating the women who have casual sex from those who feel OK about it afterward.
Women have casual sex for various reasons. For some, it seems the feminist thing to do—to prove that they can do anything a man can do, whether it’s working on an oil rig or dragging home strangers for a little nail-and-bail. Townsend notes that women hook up because they aren’t ready for a relationship, because they’re trying to punch up their sex skills or—as with rock groupies—to get some small piece of a guy they know is out of their league. Other women see hookups as the “free candy!” they can use to lure some unsuspecting man into the relationship van.
There’s a widespread belief, even held by some researchers, that higher testosterone levels in women mean a higher libido, but testosterone’s role in female desire is like that Facebook relationship status: “It’s complicated.” Research by clinical psychologist Nora Charles, among others, suggests that “factors other than … hormones” are behind which women become the Princess Shag-a-Lots.
Personality seems to be one of those factors. In looking at what’s called “sociosexuality”—what sort of person has casual sex—psychologist Jeffry A. Simpson finds that extraversion (being outgoing, exhibitionistic and adventure-seeking), aggressiveness and impulsivity are associated with greater willingness to have an uncommitted tumble.
However, once again, all the reasons a woman’s more likely to have casual sex don’t stop her from getting tangled up in feelings afterward. The deciding factor seems to be where she falls on what the late British psychiatrist John Bowlby called our “attachment system.” According to Bowlby, how you relate in close relationships—“securely,” “anxiously” or “avoidantly”—appears to stem from how well your mother (or other primary caregiver) sussed out and responded to your needs and freakouts as an infant.
If she was consistently responsive (but not overprotective), you’re probably “securely attached,” meaning that you have a solid emotional base and feel you can count on others to be there for you. This allows you to be both independent and interdependent.
Being “anxiously attached” comes out of having a caregiver who was inconsistently there for you (perhaps because they were worn thin) or who was overprotective. This leads to fear and clinginess in relationships (the human barnacle approach to love).
And finally, being “avoidantly attached” is a response to a cold, rejecting caregiver—one who just wasn’t all that interested in showing up for you. Not surprisingly, perhaps to avoid risking all-out rejection by being too demanding, the avoidantly attached tend to adapt by becoming people who push other people away.
It’s avoidantly attached women who social psychologist Phillip Shaver and his colleagues find can have casual sex without emotional intimacy—and, in fact, tend to see their “discard after using” attitude as a point of pride. (It sounds better to be a “sexual shopaholic” than a person with unresolved psychological problems.)
Other women—those who didn’t have a really chilly caregiver—are likely to have that “sense of loss” you feel after casual sex. As Townsend notes, female emotions evolved to act as an “alarm system” to push women to go for male “investment”—that guy who’ll go to the ends of the earth for you … and actually come back afterward instead of growing a beard, getting a passport in a fake name and starting a new life in some remote Japanese fishing village.