Let’s imagine that a woman — we’ll call her “you,” like they do in relationship advice land — is trying to calculate the odds that a man will call back after sex. Everyone tells you that if you sleep with a guy on the first date he is less likely to call back. The theory is that giving sex away at a such a low “price” lowers the man’s opinion of you, because everyone thinks sluts are disgusting.* Also, shame on you.

So, you ask, does the chance he will call back improve if you wait till more dates before having sex with him? You ask around and find that this is actually true: The times you or your friends waited till the seventh date, two-thirds of the guys called back, but when you slept with him on the first date, only one-in-five called back. From the data, it sure looks like sleeping with a guy on the first date reduces the odds he’ll call back.

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So, does this mean that women make men disrespect them by having sex right away? If that’s true, then the historical trend toward sex earlier in relationships could be really bad for women, and maybe feminism really is ruining society.

Like all theories, this one assumes a lot. It assumes you (women) decide when couples will have sex, because it assumes men always want to, and it assumes men’s opinion of you is based on your sexual behavior. With these assumptions in place, the data appear to confirm the theory.

But what if that those assumptions aren’t true? What if couples just have more dates when they enjoy each other’s company, and men actually just call back when they like you? If this is the case, then what really determines whether the guy calls back is how well-matched the couple is, and how the relationship is going, which also determines how many dates you have.

What was missing in the study design was relationship survival odds. Here is a closer look at the same data (not real data), with couple survival added:

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(Graph corrected from an earlier version.)

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By this interpretation, the decision about when to have sex is arbitrary and doesn’t affect anything. All that matters is how much the couple like and are attracted to each other, which determines how many dates they have, and whether the guy calls back. Every couple has a first date, but only a few make it to the seventh date. It appears that the first-date-sex couples usually don’t last because people don’t know each other very well on first dates and they have a high rate of failure regardless of sex. The seventh-date-sex couples, on the other hand, usually like each other more and they’re very likely to have more dates. And: there are many more first-date couples than seventh-date couples.

So the original study design was wrong. It should have compared call-back rates after first dates, not after first sex. But when you assume sex runs everything, you don’t design the study that way. And by “design the study” I mean “decide how to judge people.”

I have no idea why men call women back after dates. It is possible that when you have sex affects the curves in the figure, of course. (And I know even talking about relationships this way isn’t helping.) But even if sex doesn’t affect the curves, I would expect higher callback rates after more dates.

Anyway, if you want to go on blaming everything bad on women’s sexual behavior, you have a lot of company. I just thought I’d mention the possibility of a more benign explanation for the observed pattern that men are less likely to call back after sex if the sex takes place on the first date.

* This is not my theory.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
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