The Indecipherable Modern Dude: Your Love and Sex Questions, Answered

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Like many other mid-20s women living in Brooklyn, I've made my way around the world of online dating. In the four years that I've been quick matching, rating, swiping left or right, and chatting up countless men online, I've been on two good dates with guys I was interested in (one found another girl, one found another job on the other side of the country).

But even with guys I'd never consider for more than casual dating, there's a frustrating dynamic I always seem to find myself in: We talk online, he's charming and interesting; we talk via text, he's funny and smart; we meet in person, he's respectful and fun. We go through all that, and then BAM, he just wants to have no-strings-attached sex. No more dates, no potential for a relationship, he just wants to bone. Am I doing something in the course of our interaction that makes him change his mind about me? At what point does the giant neon "Just hit that!" sign go on over my head? 

Don't get me wrong, I love a good, clean, casual romp in the sack, but what's a girl gotta do to stay on the relationship path?

-Bummed in Brooklyn

Dear Bummed in Brooklyn,

What you describe is not an uncommon heterosexual dating dilemma. Men and women have different mating strategies depending on whether they are looking for a long- or short-term mate, and that could explain some of what you’re experiencing. In other words, if you are looking for a fun, casual summer fling, you will be attracted to different types of partner characteristics (e.g., sexy and hilarious) than if you were looking for a longer-term loving relationship (e.g., caring).

Rejection can also affect mate preferences. For example, a laboratory experiment was conducted to see whether social rejection would make women desire short-term mates over longer-term mates. The researchers had women take a personality survey, and some women were told their scores indicated they would lose many of their friendships and end up alone in life. These rejected women indicated greater interest in short-term mates than women who were not rejected. Rejected women also preferred mates with physical characteristics that reflected good genes (e.g., muscular body type) rather than characteristics that indicated better long-term potential. In other words, feeling rejected by dating partners and feeling frustrated about not finding someone may, on some level, be influencing what you are looking for in a mate, and lead to preferences for men who lack long-term dating potential.

Mate availability also plays a significant role in your situation. New York City is a context where single women greatly outnumber men; when this happens we see much shorter-term mating strategies among men, which means they are not as likely to settle down because there are many attractive options to choose from. Why settle down when there are other beautiful, successful women to pursue? When men in cities like New York City do commit, they tend to do so when they are over the age of 35, and women often report being much less satisfied in their relationships because they have lowered expectations for finding a “good” match in such locations.

So what is a Brooklyn girl to do? I recommend employing something I have termed “the Rule of Three”: date three people at the same time. More than three can be too much to handle (who has the time?), but fewer than three makes it too tempting to put all your eggs into one basket too soon. Be honest to these men about dating multiple people; this makes your perceived “value” on the dating market higher, and therefore you become more valuable than other women who are comparatively more available, which could help guys take you seriously as more than just a potential casual sex partner. If, over time, you decide to get more serious with someone, you can start to drop numbers 2 and 3. Wait to start dropping the other guys until you are certain that “the one” has the long-term characteristics you are looking for because this takes time to discover. 

I've been good friends with this guy (let's call him Brandon) for eight years. Throughout our friendship, we've been flirty with each other, and recently, especially since we both ended long-term relationships about a year ago, we've become even more so. He's outright told me that he has wants to have sex with me and I want to, too. But I also like Brandon a lot and would love to be in a relationship with him. I don't know if he feels the same way. What I don't understand is how he can say he wants to have sex with me, flirt with me, and tell me I look "cute" and that I'm "gorgeous" without liking me or wanting to be in a relationship with me. We've been good, flirty, genuine friends for eight years and he only wants to have sex with me and not a relationship?

-Frustrated Friend

Dear Frustrated Friend,

Your eight-year friendship with Brandon has taken a flirtatious turn and you seem confused about what this means. Does he want to simply be friends with benefits? When selecting opposite-sex friendships, men tend to prioritize physical attractiveness in their female friends over other traits and sexual attraction between friends is very common, with 30 to 68 percent of people reporting some sort of physical attraction or sexual tension between friends at some point. You are both currently single and mutually attracted to each other, so your desire to have sex with each other is therefore not too surprising.

There are sex differences in motivations for having FWB relationships, with men generally being more motivated by sex, and women more by emotional connectedness. In addition, men are more likely to want the FWB status to remain the same over time; they are satisfied with indefinitely remaining friends who have sex, or until they find someone else to have a committed relationship with. In contrast, women are more likely to wish the FWB relationship would become “serious” over time — they add sex to the friendship with the hopes it will turn into a committed relationship. Many women report dissatisfaction and unhappiness when this change does not happen. The ambiguity of a FWB relationship may be difficult for some people to handle because there are few “ground rules” about what each partner expects from the relationship, and little discussion about what their hopes and expectations are. Women who experience a lot of anxiety in their intimate relationships also have a harder time adjusting to a FWB relationship than men because they perceive their FWB partners as being deceptive or misleading in their intentions.

My advice, which is similar to that provided by other researchers I know: Talk to him. You describe Brandon as a good friend, so a discussion about your desires and expectations from each other should not pose a threat to your friendship. If you want to have a more serious romantic relationship and he doesn’t, then A FWB arrangement may be difficult for you.

Why is it that guys seem to ignore everything a woman might be doing to say no or that they aren't interested? I'm the least flirtatious person on the planet, but it seems like if I'm anything short of head-bitingly rude to certain dudes, they assume I want to hop in the sack. Is there anything women can do to prevent these sorts of misunderstandings? Likewise, what is it with guys supposedly reading personal ads and then completely ignoring anything a woman says in them? I've heard it's supposedly that guys are biased to just ignore anything they don't want to see in dating — is that true? 

- Don’t Wanna Be Rude

Dear Don’t Wanna Be Rude,

Most people assume that flirtatious behaviors are intended to initiate a sexual relationship, but there are other reasons people flirt, such as to start a platonic cross-sex friendship, to have fun, or to just feel emotionally closer to the other person. Men consistently misinterpret women’s flirtatious behaviors; they believe a woman’s flirtatious communication means she wants to have sex with him rather than her just being polite or friendly towards him. These misperceptions are even greater when the woman is attractive. So, the more attractive you are, the more men will perceive any form of communication from you as meaning “take me, now.”

Short of telling these men flat out you are not sexually interested in them, there is not too much more you can do. Flirting for fun or to develop a friendship is fine, but just be mindful of how such communication can be easily misperceived by these individuals. As for men who ignore details about you in responses to personal ads: ignore them. They are likely writing the same exact email to all the other women they message in the hope that even one will respond. Someone who truly is interested in you will take the time to learn about you before initiating a personalized form of contact.

Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman is an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University who specializes in the study of sex and relationships. She's a regular contributor to Science of Relationships and a co-author of The Science of Relationships: Answers to Your Questions About Dating, Marriage & Family.