It’s common knowledge that men are more interested in casual sex and women are more interested in commitment, yes? According to Hallam, De Backer, Fisher and Walrave (2018), the data from prior research is clear. It is “men’s documented tendency to prefer sexual variety and casual sex, and to desire an increased number of partners, as compared to women”. We are told this is evolution. Men want to have as many offspring as possible, so their selfish genes will have the best chances of spreading far and wide, and women want to keep their mates around to make sure their offspring have the best chance of survival. Because women invest a lot more than men when it comes to gestation and child rearing, naturally (so goes the reasoning) when it comes to online dating, women will be looking for long-term romance. Men, not so much.
Are men and women really innately different when it comes to sex and dating?
But what if (biological) sex isn’t the only determining factor? What if evolution wants women to try out as many potential mates as possible in order to select the fittest one? What if evolution needs some men to be more involved with tending to vulnerable, pregnant mates and their offspring, in order to keep the species going strong? We have to watch out when making assumptions about sex differences, because we may invent reasons to justify our socially-determined beliefs. Perhaps many of the observed differences in mating are due to cultural factors, and assumed to be principally genetic? Other factors may be programmed into the genome, but we are only beginning to sort out what is what—and sex isn’t either/or anymore.
What is “sociosexuality”?
In order to look more deeply at an under-recognized yet crucial dimension of modern mating which may shape our increasingly online dating preferences, Hallam and colleagues repeated prior studies with an important twist. In addition to teasing apart the nuances of online dating the way earlier research has, they added “sociosexuality” to the usual suspects, like sex, age, reported motivations for online dating, and so on. “Sociosexual orientation” (Simpson and Gangestad, 1991) is a concept developed which extends the work of Kinsey, referring “to individuals’ tendency to have sexual encounters with or without commitment, feelings and intimacy.”
Sociosexuality is measured using the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI), which boils down sexual attitudes and behavioral tendencies into a single dimension ranging from restricted (leaning toward having sex only in emotionally close, committed relationships) to unrestricted (leaning toward having sexual relationships with less commitment and emotional intimacy). Researchers wondered if sociosexuality determines motivations for online dating, and if so, how much of a role do these sexual attitudes and behaviors play above and beyond biological sex.
The current study
In the current study, Hallam and colleagues surveyed a group of 254 people, 57.9 percent women, heterosexual, average age of 30 years. They had all used online dating sites and apps to meet people, about a third were in a serious dating relationship, or married, with over 55 percent were single at the time of the study. They responded to survey items about online dating experience, sociosexual orientation, online dating motivations, and relationship status. To understand participants’ online dating motivations, researchers used a version of the “Tinder motivations scale” (Sumter et al, 2017), which estimates six fundamental reasons for using dating apps and website: love/long-term romance, casual sex, ease of communication, self-worth validation, thrill of excitement, and trendiness.
What did the researchers find?
First of all, there were sex differences in what kind of platform people report using for cyberdating. Men were more likely to use dating websites, whereas women were more likely to use dating apps. This is curious as dating apps are more stereotypically associated with casual sex, but women are thought to be more interested in committed relationships. Unsurprisingly, researchers found that those with unrestricted sociosexuality were using online dating more for casual sex than love, and those with restricted sociosexuality were more often seeking intimacy and commitment. Moreover, with increasing age came increasing motivation to use online dating for both love and casual sex, bolstered by ease of communication but less driven by excitement and self-validation. They also found that the older participants were, the more likely they were to use an online dating website versus an application. I expect this last finding to change as apps become more dominant and familiar, and as younger people, who use apps now over online dating websites, age.
But what about the question of biological sex versus sociosexuality in determining motivations for using online dating? Researchers first ran the data without including sociosexuality in the model. The found that biological sex was a statistically significant predictor of what people wanted to get from online dating, following the expected pattern of men wanting more partners and women wanting more commitment. But here’s the kicker—when they ran the data and included sociosexuality in the statistical model, the sex differences vanished. Only sociosexuality—and not whether participants were male or female—predicted their motives for using online dating.
Your place or mine?
The take-home message is that while it remains more common for men to use online dating for hooking-up and more common for women to use online dating to meeting that special someone, the reason may not intrinsically be due to biological sex. Wouldn’t it be interesting if sociosexual orientation were the determining factor? Unrestricted women and unrestricted men are more likely to use online dating platforms for casual encounters, irrespective of biological sex—whereas sociosexually restricted women and men are more likely to be looking for enduring, exclusive love. Future research will have to replicate or refute these findings, and further investigate important factors including gender identity, shifting sexual norms, and in-person dating motivations.
What if men have a higher rate of unrestricted sociosexual orientation underlying greater motivations for casual sex? To what extent is this really genetic and evolutionary, and to what extent is this from unidentified social, environmental and cultural factors? Alongside biology, socially-learned and intergenerationally-transmitted factors (including possible epigenetic effects on mating and child-rearing passed on from our parents and grandparents generations for how our genes are translated), are important in understanding modern relationships.
As conventional, binary notions of sex and gender morph, becoming fluid and multidimensional, looking only at biological sex to understand why we seek the relationships we seek is ever more misleading and inaccurate. Looking at factors like sociosexuality, which cuts across gender and biological sex, will help us better understand our motives for dating and mating. Next time you think about going on a date, try this experiment—instead of making assumptions about what the other person wants as a function of their sex, ponder sociosexual orientation… and maybe even bring it up in conversation.