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Would You Have Sex with a Total Stranger? An Inside Look at the Study That Found Out.

IN THE MID-1970s, Florida State psychologist Russell Clark was giving a talk at a public forum on campus. In the ensuing question and answer session, he, in the words of his compatriot Elaine Hatfield, "dropped a bomb":

“A woman, good looking or not, doesn’t have to worry about timing in searching for a man. Arrive at any time. All she has to do is point an inviting finger at any man, whisper ‘Come on ‘a my place,’ and she’s made a conquest. Most women can get any man to do anything they want. Men have it harder. They have to worry about strategy, timing, and tricks.”

As you might expect, a great many women in the crowd took umbrage with those remarks. One even decided that her pencil would make a better spear than a writing utensil, and sent it flying in his direction.

But Clark quickly lowered the heat on the simmering situation with a reasoned compromise. “We don’t have to fight. We don’t have to upset one another," he beseeched. "It’s an empirical question. Let’s design a field experiment to see who’s right!”

And so he did.

CLARK AND A GROUP of students planned out a simple experiment, which played out in the spring of 1978: Five college-aged women and four college-aged men took turns standing at one of five quadrangles on the Florida State campus on a weekday. There, they'd wait until they spotted a member of the opposite sex, who -- in their judgment -- was attractive. They'd approach their target, and, in a cool, calm voice, state, "I've been noticing you around campus. I find you very attractive." The experimenter would then ask one of three randomly assigned questions: "Would you go out with me tonight?" "Would you come over to my apartment tonight?" or "Would you go to bed with me tonight?"

The results were fascinating. A total of 96 subjects -- 48 men and 48 women -- were propositioned, partitioned to 32 -- 16 men and 16 women -- for each question. Roughly half of the men and half of the women agreed to go on a date. But, when the suggestion turned sexual, the difference in responses between the genders was stark. None of the women agreed to go to bed with their male askers, and only one agreed to visit a male experimenter's apartment. On the other hand, roughly three-quarters of propositioned males were happy to oblige such titillating proposals.

Subjects' spoken responses amusingly matched the extreme differences in the data. Most of the male subjects replied easily and openly. "Why do we have to wait till tonight?" they'd say (undoubtedly accompanied by a toothy, foolish grin). Women, however, responded with incredulous disgust, rolling their eyes and uttering, "You've got to be kidding me," or replying with a question of their own, "What is wrong with you?"

DESPITE THE OVERT intrigue of the study, reviewers at three scientific journals were not tickled in the least.

"Apart from the rather comical nature and situations... there is no value to this study," one replied, harshly adding, "This paper should be rejected without possibility of being submitted to any scholarly journal."

With the savage criticisms in mind, Clark set the paper aside.

Later, while visiting Madison, Wisconsin, Clark shared his plight with his friend, Elaine Hatfield, then a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin. Incensed, she rewrote the paper and fired it off to two more journals. Again, it was refused, but this time more politely. Close, but no cigar.

BUOYED BY HATFIELD'S encouragement, Clark replicated the experiment in spring 1982: "same protocol, same time, same place," as Hatfield described.

"Whatever results we secured were bound to be interesting," Hatfield later reminisced. "Gender differences remain the same? That argued for the stability of cultural and evolutionary imperatives. Gender differences disappear? That would argue that social factors (such as the women’s movement and deadly diseases like AIDS) had had a profound impact on men and women’s sexual behavior."

The results were almost identical. Again 3 out of every four men were happy to have sex with a random woman, while not a single woman was interested.

For the next four years, the study endured many more rejections. But finally, in 1988, the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality acquiesced.

"The reviewers were not enthusiastic, but they were willing to publish," Hatfield recalled. The long and arduous quest was over.

In the published study, Clark and Hatfield mostly let the data speak for itself, but they did note the comical fact that men were less willing to go on a date with a random woman than to have sex with her! They also drew attention to the notion that both men and women could have been equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with the act. In 2011, Michigan psychologist Terri Conley presented data to back that interpretation.

Whatever the reason for the disparity, the data clearly supported Clark's offhand response at that forum over a decade earlier.

"All she has to do is point an inviting finger at any man, whisper ‘Come on ‘a my place,’"

(Images: Shutterstock, FSU, Elaine Hatfield)

H/T Mad Science Museum