Psychology of unemotional sex
April 27, 2009 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Is there any academic research showing that men can have sex without emotion, i.e. just a "hook up"? Why would this be?

A female friend of mine doesn't believe that men can have sex without it being emotional. As a guy who has done this, I disagree vehemently but can't "prove" it except to say, well, *I* say I can.

I am hoping someone might have links to articles that draw on psychology or brain chemistry, etc. to explain why men may be different from women in this respect, or simply how this is possible. I'd like to keep this away from the realm of personal experiences if possible.

Thanks, guys!
posted by monkey85 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some men can have sex without forming an emotional attachment.

Some men cannot.

Some women can have sex without forming an emotional attachment.

Some women cannot.

There's a pattern here.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2009 [22 favorites]

What does your friend think masturbation is? An emotional connection and dinner date and mutual soul searching stares deep into each others' eyes, with the Centerfold of the Month?
posted by orthogonality at 7:39 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Googling around a few seconds got me this study, which shows that:
"Individuals who had experienced a one-night stand were asked to rate aspects of their 'morning after' feelings. Women were significantly more negative and less positive than men."
Google Scholar has some relevant articles.
posted by aheckler at 7:45 AM on April 27, 2009

[comment removed - questions is clear, articles not lulz please, thank you]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:46 AM on April 27, 2009

I think this is the kind of "proof" you are looking for. (Insert correlation does not equal causation argument here).
posted by misha at 7:47 AM on April 27, 2009

Doesn't it depend on your definition of emotion? Like in my opinion, they have the emotions of being horny and really wanting to have sex with that person.
posted by zephyr_words at 7:50 AM on April 27, 2009

I think this is the kind of "proof" you are looking for.

That article is somewhat speculative. But also the question is somewhat philosophical. What does "emotion" mean here? A romantic sense of attachment? But couldn't "emotion" mean something as simple as a sense of enjoyment? I think you and your friend might be using the word to mean different things, and therefore cause confusion.
posted by delmoi at 7:51 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think you two might be talking about different things. Is she mentally appending " will." on the end of the sentence?

If she just thinks it isn't possible, maybe point her to a study about sex during sleep (like this).
posted by ODiV at 8:06 AM on April 27, 2009

Uh, you still have emotions during REM sleep.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 AM on April 27, 2009

Don't you have emotions all the time?

I thought the question was about emotions relating to the partner or emotional attachment. It's probably just a matter of definitions.
posted by ODiV at 8:17 AM on April 27, 2009

That article is somewhat speculative. But also the question is somewhat philosophical.

Part of the problem of wanting hard scientific data on these sorts of things is that it's highly unethical to do anything approaching a controlled scientific experiment on it. The best you can do is find studies that gather anecdotal data in a controlled manner and apply what is known on a psychological level to make inferences on what is happening. It's always going to take somewhat of a leap to go from the findings of any given study to a claim about what differences exist between male and female psychology.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:17 AM on April 27, 2009

Google "social biology" or "evolutionary psychology". Popular authors on the topic include David Buss, Helen Fisher, Dianne Ackerman.

It's not just sex... there are rational and plausible explanations for male/female psychological and group-interaction differentiation. The difference is more than the fleshy parts involved in sex... there are structural differences in brains, as well, which implies functional differences. No judgment here on which mode is 'superior', they're just different. Considered as separate species, each sex faces different survival issues. Why wouldn't such issue be subject to selection pressures?

Folks like to resist the implications, but there's a fair difference between how the sexes view the world.
posted by FauxScot at 8:26 AM on April 27, 2009

The excerpt from the recently published book How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas by David Barash, PhD and Judith Eve Lipton, MD was a very interesting read. The chapter excerpted tangentially addresses this question, it's titled "The Enigmatic Orgasm" in reference to female orgasm. But the authors takes a biological and psychological approach to sexual responses in various species, and there is plenty of information in there that your female friend may find interesting. It includes the following:
Male mammals are, in a sense, roving inseminators. Sperm are abundant and cheap, and males, as a result, are primed by evolution to be quick on the draw and not terribly selective as to targets. Their modus operandi is shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. But in certain species, human beings most especially, males have more to contribute: they can be providers, protectors, helpmates, and partners, not just lovers. In addition, a man’s behavior as a lover may yield some clues as to his inclination in these other crucial dimensions. According to a simple game theory model, males can be caricatured as either Cads or Dads. Cads are superficially attractive, but lack parental follow-through; they’re inclined to love ’em and leave ’em. Dads are, as their name implies, more likely to stay the course and to take the kids to soccer games, but less flashy and perhaps with less instantaneous sex appeal. ...
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:30 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sure, there's science to support female reproductive selectivity, and male (shall we say) lack-of selectivity. But here's the argument you're having:
Your friend: I like dolls, and so do you. Nobody really likes trucks.
You: I like trucks.
You: Metafilter, how can I convince my friend that I do in fact like trucks?
posted by Methylviolet at 8:44 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I take it 'emotion' here means 'emotional attachment' as this is a typical question countless magazines have written countless articles about...

If you do a quick search for 'oxytocin' you'll come up with some possibly related theories about differences in brain chemistry - see here for instance: Researchers had long since detected the release of the peptide oxytocin during some of the key life experiences that involve intense emotional attachment: birth, breast-feeding, and sexual climax. In recent years, higher oxytocin levels had been linked to stressful experiences as well. While oxytocin was present in both male and female brains, evidence suggested that estrogen enhanced the peptide's effects, making it less powerful in males because of testosterone levels.

However, actual studies into hormonal response to orgasm don't seem to agree on what levels of this hormone get released, before or after arousal - see a couple references to studies with different results from wikipedia: The relationship between oxytocin and human sexual response is unclear. At least two non-controlled studies have found increases in plasma oxytocin at orgasm – in both men and women.[2][3] The authors of one of these studies speculated that oxytocin's effects on muscle contractibility may facilitate sperm and egg transport.[2] Murphy et al. (1987), studying men, found that oxytocin levels were raised throughout sexual arousal and there was no acute increase at orgasm. [4] A more recent study of men found an increase in plasma oxytocin immediately after orgasm, but only in a portion of their sample that did not reach statistical significance.

The first article linked also mentions oxytocin is apparently a bit more complex than just a "cuddle hormone" or a magic substance that creates instant attachment.

Conclusion - I don't think you'll find THE smoking gun in hard scientific terms here. If you widen the field of research into social sciences, you may get all sorts of more plausible explanations, but the vagueness and uncertainty level obviously goes up. Brain chemistry and psychology are very different matters...
posted by bitteschoen at 8:53 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Get Robert Wright's The Moral Animal. The first few chapters are relevant to your question. Page 39 describes a famous experiment that's directly relevant.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:07 AM on April 27, 2009

Some men can have sex without forming an emotional attachment.
Some men cannot.
Some women can have sex without forming an emotional attachment.
Some women cannot.

Some smokers die of lung cancer. Some do not. Some non-smokers die of lung cancer. Some do not. But we would be wrong to conclude that smoking is unrelated to the risk of lung cancer. The fact that a correlation is not 100-percent-all-the-time does not mean there is no correlation at all.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:24 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Except for a few shady studies that have been debunked to the high heavens, research continuously points to a lack of inherent difference between male and female brains. Myths of Gender is an example of a book that goes over this myth. Unfortunately books like this one are very dry and scientific, whereas there are lots fun, pop science books and news articles talking about supposed differences, which is why the myth prevails.

However, there are plenty of social differences between men and women's experiences, which could lead to men being more satisfied with "hook-ups" than women. One thing that springs to mind is that women get so many messages that they should be ashamed of their sexuality and it's hard to get off when you're ashamed. Women are also taught to be afraid of men, which could cause many women to need to trust a man before she has sex with him.

Overall, though, your friend is being silly. Obviously there are people who enjoy one night stands, and obviously there are both men and women in this group. I'm surprised such a notion would be up for debate.
posted by giggleknickers at 10:01 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Re: Cads and Dads

You'd thing that with greater availability of contraceptives, that the 'Cad' reproductive strategy would be significantly less effective. While cuckolding might still occur with the same frequency, I suspect the likelihood of that union producing a descendant would decrease dramatically.

Advantage: Dad?
posted by leotrotsky at 11:46 AM on April 27, 2009

Many people are beginning to question the scientific basis behind the "roving inseminators" idea McGuillicuddy mentioned. I read this Jezebel post yesterday (Culture Has More To Do With Promiscuity Than Evolution). It had some nice links and excerpts to newer research that throws doubt on that idea that men are biologically driven to be more promiscuous than women. These studies are all worth checking out for an alternate view:

-Evolution of human sex roles more complex than described by universal theory.

-The long standing belief that men are promiscuous and women are choosy is a myth claim psychologists.

-Basis for Male Promiscuity Questioned.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:49 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mostlymartha, you just quoted the same study with three different links.

One study, especially a social science study, is just that: one study. What about all the other previous studies that has said something very different?
posted by Risiko at 12:36 PM on April 27, 2009

Here's a quick read on the sexy neuro endocrine signals: The Alchemy of Love and Lust. As bitteschoen mentions, oxytocin appears to be involved in pair bonding, and women release oxytocin in response to tactile stimulation of the breasts and/or clitoris. But using this information to say men can hook up unemotionally is less the scope of science and more the scope of Oprah. (Scoprah?)

If your are interested in sexual neuroendocrinology, you might find more specific information in this article Mechanisms underlying sexual and affiliative behaviors of mice: relation to generalized CNS arousal or in Don Pfaff's book Drive: Neurobiological and Molecular Mechanisms of Sexual Motivation. He mostly works with the signals leading to lordosis and mating rather than what happens after the fact, but it's all interesting stuff.
posted by ladypants at 12:57 PM on April 27, 2009

Yeah Risiko. I know that all the articles reference the same study, but I just thought that the three articles together gave a better perspective on the content of the study than one of the pieces on its own.
posted by mostlymartha at 2:48 PM on April 27, 2009

But but... with all the surveys about sex, from Kinsey to Masters and on, hasn't any of them provided the answer to this question?
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:45 PM on April 27, 2009

I think the argument can be phrased logically, without science, because it seems that your friend is perhaps having difficulty imagining being able to have sex without catching feelings for the other person.

So, you can posit this scenario:

You go on a few dates with a guy, and he's amazing. Lot's of making out but no other action, and you're crushing heavily. He seems to feel the same way, except he made plans to go to a wedding with his ex for the weekend months ago and refuses to cancel. You're heartbroken, but decide that you need a good night of debauchery. You go out with a group of friends, and one of them is cute and single, and obviously into you. You drink too much, take him home, and screw his pants off. The next day you say your awkward goodbyes, and a few hours later, your dream man comes home early from the wedding and professes his love and devotion for you. One night stand who?

Now, in her mind, this might seem like a rare occurrence, but it makes more sense to a man. Men are typically the pursuers. They have several potential options on the table, in a hierarchy of "best" to "if I'm wasted". They are used to rejection because they put themselves out there so often. Thus, sex with one woman, particularly one lower in the rankings, is not an earth-shattering experience. Yes, it was fun (hopefully), but maybe a girl a few rungs above is all of a sudden paying him attention.

Also, orgasm shmorgasm. One night stands rarely result in orgasm for women. My very unscientific theory is this: (most) Men can get off whenever they can, with whoever/whatever. Orgasms are not special. Women have sex for other reasons, particularly if they don't orgasm. They like feeling wanted, attractive, they're horny, they want the guy to like them, whatever. Most of these do not have the stated "orgasm" implied or as a main objective. Thus, a man knows what he wants and he gets it. Nothing to write home about. A woman might feel attractive, or wanted, but ultimately there will probably not be sexual satisfaction with a man who doesn't know her body (and may not really care). Thus there is the dissatisfaction, which I believe leads women to create emotional bonds to make up for the crappy sex.

"Well, that was terrible. But maybe if we have sex again it will be better." The investment is made. It's a slippery slope. Conversely, if the sex is great, and orgasm is achieved, then the woman is more likely to think, "Wow, that was amazing, I want more of that."

I would also add that watching porn is probably a factor for men. The more one objectifies a woman through porn, the less connection he will feel with a real live body next to him (as previous posts on MetaFilter have pointed to).

I think that social reasons should be given, not scientific, as different men and women can/can't have unattached sex. The realm of possibility should not be excluded for lack of proof, but simply based on human diversity.
posted by anniek at 6:38 PM on April 29, 2009

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