Getting Creeped Out to Fit In

0_21_450_SexAddictionSometimes we’re confused about what’s “normal” and end up doing uncomfortable things — that may even creep us out — just to fit in

Take wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am (or sir) sex. Plenty of us are really into it. But usually, we think others are more comfortable with random sex than we are, ourselves.

University of Texas sociologists, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, studied sex on college campuses and found that many young people feel conflicted between their private preferences and their public behavior because they think everyone else — most importantly, “the popular” — want hookups. To not join in — or at least act like you want to — would be social suicide.

That, in turn, creates its own reality: a hookup culture that everyone thinks is real, but which is a figment of the collegiate imagination. Because while most say they’re for it, most don’t actually do it.

Researchers, Chris Reiber and Justin Garcia asked college students how comfortable they felt doing acts ranging from “first base” to “home run” (you might say) with someone they barely knew. Their findings were reported in “Hooking Up: Gender Difference, Evolution and Pluralistic Ignorance” In the journal, Evolutionary Psychology (2010).

Turns out, women and men, alike, tend to think that men are more comfortable in random carnal intimacies than they, themselves, are. AND, everyone seems to think that women and men are very much alike — with that alikeness tracking what is, in reality, more common for men.

The gap between women’s comfort level, and what men think it is, is especially striking. Also interesting that women believe men are more comfortable with all of this than they actually are — and that even men overestimate other men’s comfort.

The first graph below shows 1) how comfortable women say they’d be at various levels of physical intimacy, 2) how comfortable women guess that other women would be, and 3) how comfortable men guess that women would be. The second graph does the same for men. You can find more accurate renderings (labeled “Figure 2”) along with a discussion of the study here.

Women’s comfort levels

scale                                   -5    -4    -3    -2    -1    0    1    2    3    4    5

Touch, above                                                                         s  wm
Touch, below                                                                s     wm
Oral, give                                                  s              wm
Oral, receive                                            s                w     m
Intercourse                                             s                w m

s: a woman’s comfort level (self)
w: women guessing other women’s comfort level
m: men guessing women’s comfort level

And here are assessments of men’s comfort levels:

Men’s comfort levels

scale                                   -5    -4    -3    -2    -1    0    1    2    3    4    5

Touch, above                                                                            s   m w
Touch, below                                                                           s   m w
Oral, give                                                                  s m    w
Oral, receive                                                                          s       m  w
Intercourse                                                                        s        m w

s: a man’s comfort level (self)
m: men guessing other men’s comfort level
w: women guessing men’s comfort level

Feeling like we’re not “the norm” can leave us feeling weird, and like we should engage in behavior we want little part of.

And why assume we are all exaggerated versions of men, anyway? Besides the chatter on college campuses, porn as sex ed may “help.” We watch porn and believe what we see. And what we see are porn starlets acting out what we think of as male sexuality — on steroids.

Meanwhile, a feminist desire to squelch sexual repression is commonly misunderstood as promoting random and uncaring sex. Sexuality is best when it’s not repressed. That doesn’t mean everyone must do it just one way, or do things that are uncomfortable.

The chart can be misunderstood, too. Some mistake, men’s “comfort” for their “preference.” Men may be more comfortable than women with hookup sex, but most prefer relationship sex.

Turns out, hookup sex isn’t for everyone. But neither is relationship sex. And no one should feel pressured to be inauthentic to who they are.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Is Male or Female Sexuality Better?
Are Women Naturally Monogamous?
Hookup Culture

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 13, 2014, in feminism, men, psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. I am in my 20s and in college so the “hook-up culture” is all around me. But I have met a variety of people in college: some who are extremely open and comfortable with their sexual exploits, some who don’t want to talk about it at all, and of course those in the middle. I have seen the pressure that sex can have on people in college, which honestly is frustrating because in reality no-one should be judging you for your sex-life (and if someone is judging, odds are they aren’t a person whose judgment you should care about). It is so interesting to look at the charts of the comfort levels because in every case the individual is less comfortable than they believe others to be, illustrating that the hook-up culture isn’t as evident as it seems and is simply maintained by people thinking everyone else is more comfortable than they really are. Media may perpetuate the stereotype of college hook-ups, but obviously it is greatly exaggerated!
    It might take some time and experience to learn to ignore societal pressure about sex and to discover what works for you (hookups, being in a relationship, etc.) but I just hope people can understand what they are comfortable with and not be afraid to be honest about it.

  2. It makes sense that college aged people, and other youths, believe that everyone else is hooking up, even when that isn’t necessarily true. I think it’s mostly because of how the media depicts sex; extremely common and yearned by young people.
    I also think it’s unfortunate that women and men alike have this belief that others would enjoy sex with strangers, when it’s clearly not a factual idea. This wrong view leads them to want to engage in things that just don’t feel true to them. Once they feel uncomfortable with that they believe is the “norm”, they can start feeling like they’re the only ones who are weird enough to hate it. I think this isn’t only unfortunate for their social and sex lives, but it can potentially become a distraction from their school or work lives as well.
    Like the reading suggests, this may also be the result of having porn as sex ed. People who watch porn may learn that women are most excitable by random strangers, something that just isn’t true according to research provided. Additionally, women might also start to believe that they’re supposed to be into hookups because they are supposed to be mostly excitable by a stranger. I just think that porn as sex ed is terrible for everyone overall.

  3. I always hate when people feel as though they have to engage in certain acts in order to fit in. In reality, those who want to judge you will probably find some way to do so even if you play along perfectly. When I began college, I was a music major. I kept to myself and only was on campus for classes, going straight home afterwards. I became good friends with a guitar player, and didn’t find out until a couple semesters later that he, along with three other people I knew, would talk about me behind my back because they didn’t know me. They assumed that because I was good at piano, (I was in the college’s applied program and had the honor of performing with some of the faculty members at a faculty chamber concert), that I must be conceited and that the reason I was quiet was because I thought I was better than everyone else. After I felt more comfortable, I would talk to people more and instantly their premature opinions of me changed. One will be judged even if they don’t think they are doing anything offensive at all, and to do something outside of your comfort level for the hopes- not assurance- of acceptance seems really hurtful to the self. My mom always told me that for others to love you, you have to love yourself. If you don’t stay true to who you are and do give in to peer pressure, or do what “everyone else” is doing, how might that affect your feelings about yourself? I feel that is an important question because those feelings will influence how other people feel about you as well, for better of for worse.

  4. Being at the college age just leaving high school where you know everybody to college where nobody knows you is a big step. Nobody knows your sexual pass and many people this age have a minimal pass or not one at all. Being in a situation where there are so many of the opposite sex around makes many men nervous. This is especially when you are in a situation where you think there is a chance to be intimate. The signs could be there but many times you are not too sure so you take baby steps. I think the most uncomfortable situation is always the beginning especially if it’s the first time with the person. However I feel that after the physical connection with holding hands, then kissing makes most men feel more comfortable. Not knowing how exactly she feels about you and if she is interested weighs in the back of your mind. You don’t want to try something and she not being on the same page and feeling horrible. The older you get I think the more comfortable it is being with someone for the first time. Having no or little experience is nerve racking but it is a part of life.

  5. In my experiences growing up, I had troubled friends who either didn’t have a father or one that was too busy with work to give the kind of attention a girl would need from her father. They later seek for it from other men because they didn’t get enough of that male attention before and eventually find it in other ways. I wouldn’t blame all of it on that but that is just from my experience. Another I’ve dealt with is just the peer pressure and competition among other girls growing up. There’s always someone who wants to feel wanted and be the center of attention but when they get it and it goes past the comfort level, some people just don’t know how to say no. I’ve asked a couple friends what makes it so hard, and a popular answer would be “I don;t know, i just want him to like me”, which is unfortunate. I grew up being called prude, and the way it’s said by others makes it seem like a bad thing. I think people in their teens and younger, just want to be in a place where they feel wanted and liked because they feel their current life is going to be how the rest of it goes when they don;t realize things are a lot different once you get older.

  6. Establishing your confidence in who you are as a person goes back to our beginnings. Did you receive a lot of positive reinforcement from your parents, did men receive this from their mothers and did women receive this from their fathers? For instance,my dad would say to us, “there goes my girls…my beautiful precious intelligent girls”, and “Davis’s don’t follow the crowd we use our own mind”, and my mom would say, “you girls are going to make your mark in the world”; these are some of the things we were being fed internally all the time and it served as a foundation for who we were. Growing up as a teenager or even college student, you are going to face life and life’s pressures, but usually your foundation comes into play. So I only went so far to “be a part of things” before quickly realizing that’s not me and was good with it. Some people are trend followers and others are trend setters…but which ever group you find yourself associating with, your foundation should serve as an achor and core for your self identity.

  7. I’m in my late 50’s, so my college years were much further in the past than most of your respondents. In MY time, the “thing to do” was jump naked into hot tubs with a group of strangers or nearly strangers – it seemed every party one went to there was a hot tub on the deck or in the basement. It was VERY uncomfortable for me (tho’ I was far from sexually repressed), but I did it to fit in and to seem “cosmopolitan” and cool (when I certainly felt nothing of the sort). I don’t recall ever being coerced into sex during these tub events, but I always felt exposed and visually assaulted and there was usually some (older) guy who’d make rude comments about the women’s bodies. Ugghh! As bad as that was, I can’t imagine today’s pressures to actually have intercourse under the same circumstances. IS there any way to educate young people so they don’t feel the desire to be more/different than they really are? Isn’t that effort to grow part of the maturing process? It just seems there’s always someone trying to take advantage of it.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Hopefully conversations can help people to be who they are and think more about doing things they’re uncomfortable with to fit in.

  8. Older Perspective

    Maybe age makes a difference in the perspective that you look at this topic from (I’m 39), but getting creeped out to fit especially as it relates to college age students can be the result of quite a few reasons.
    1. He or she has left the comfort of home to go to an out of state college, wanting to fit in to gain friends and forge relationships and bonds to have that sense of “family”.
    2. If they come from a conservative background and they go to college and find the freedom of exploration without the parental and/or authoritative figure.
    3. Creating and establishing their self-identity of who they are and becoming comfortable in their own skin.
    So many reasons for this, but with each decision especially with sexuality has come an even greater responsibility, which with most college age students sometimes still see themselves as invincible; believing that it would never happen to them, so they tend to take a greater risk with exploring their sexuality although sexually transmitted disease are at an alarming rate. However according to my human development class, the more established and comfortable they become with their own identity, the less need they have to “fit in”. There is a difference between exploring because the human mind is curious, and agreeing to do something that at the initial thought it creeps you out, is something totally different because at the base of the emotion is a negative cogitation that I’m not comfortable with this. You are confirming, not being true to whom you are to fit in with a group of people, as this article points out, who may not be doing this themselves.
    The hook-up culture is always short lived. I have a friend who met a guy on a website for a “hook-up” and after many times of “hooking up” emotions that were forming from the beginning and being repressed, reared themselves and now they are married. Also I have a friend who had a “hook up” after moving out here from her hometown, but was disappointed in the “duds” she chose to be physically intimate with and now she’s been celibate for 5 years because of the feeling that not only should I have not done that, but it wasn’t even worth it. It was like breaking a diet over a dry piece of cake…it just wasn’t worth the calories.
    Everyone is different and has the ability to do different things, for some sex isn’t good unless comfort levels are there and for some it doesn’t matter, but I question more the people for whom it doesn’t matter especially as they reach their thirties because it’s an indication that something could be wrong emotional or psychology. But when people hook up are they fooling themselves into thinking they are not going to form emotions? Or is it because if you are in college, you think I’ll only be here for four years so this whole seen is just temporary and you’re not thinking long term? Have you watched the movie Friends with Benefits? Okay it’s a movie I know but the design of the movie speaks about this very thing.

    • Yes, I have seen that movie. And I think it’s often true, Partly based on what my students say. But also interesting that a lot of college students simply decide not to have sex if hookups are their only choice.

      Interesting points. Thank you.

  9. I think sexual relationships are publicized in media way too much which kind of leads people to thinking that they have to do the deed early in age or they won’t fit in since “everyone else is doing it”. Not everyone else is doing it! I do agree with some people who have commented about having teenagers/young adults read/know this. I hope there’s a change letting others know that if they’re uncomfortable with anything they can say no to it. It shouldn’t be weird to say ‘no’ to something you don’t want!

  10. Wow. That’s interesting that the women went into the negatives but the lowest they got out guys was that zero on giving oral. This kind of makes me sad, that so many people’s first sexual encounters are likely to be under pressure– social or otherwise.

  11. I think that young people should know this stuff. this way they will have some sort of knowledge as to what they may be doing wrong. I know from personal experience, as one of my exs was very dominant. he would pin me down, and hog me all to himself. and he was also very demanding. I think that the whole male dominance factor that you have mentioned is strong. I also was shocked to hear what you had to say in class about males and rape. i mean, i understand that they want to be able to have pleasure for themselves, but the fact that they would make females suffer… and that movie where the girl didn’t like the rape at first, but then she liked it. i mean, that is clearly putting the wrong message into guys’ heads. I knew some things about males in this world, but i never thought male dominance over females would go to this extent. What you have said in class has really opened my eyes to the truth.

  12. I remember being a freshman in highschool and hearing about how girls started to lose their virginities, I told myself I wouldnt but sure enough sophmore year came around and I started to feel like I HAD to, like I had fallen behind and if I didnt catch up no one would take me seriously. It wasnt until after the deed was done did I begin to realize that I wasnt the only one fearing social exhile and that alot of girls who had said they lost their v-cards had either lied or entirely regretted it. Its crazy how society can make such a valuable thing like someones comfort zone seem like public domain for the rest on the world to decide upon.

  13. I wish more teens and young adults were aware of what you are writing about. Perhaps then there would be less confusion and people would engage sexually in a way that is authentic to them rather than feeling like they have to say yes to something–and thinking this “yes” is an authentic yes when really they are unconsciously succumbing to yet another construct. Also so key – that being free with your sexuality does’t mean you have to hook up with everyone unless that is what you want to do. Rather, it’s about having sovereignty over your sexuality and deciding who, what, when, where, how and why- or perhaps even not at all.

  14. My experiences with hookup sex, when I was in my 20’s in the 1980’s, were sufficiently bad to leave me soured on ever wanting to do that again. And yes, I did have some sense that this was something one was supposed to do.

    I have often wondered how many men understand that this kind of casual use of women, even when consensual, can result in a long-term unwillingness to experiment. If men really want women to be more sexually open, shouldn’t they be caring about whether we get anything out of the experience?

    YMMV. The graphs are interesting. Everybody thinks everyone else is more promiscuous than they are, and no women want to have intercourse with strangers. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    • You make a really interesting point about Women doing sexy don’t enjoy with strangers affecting sex with people that actually care about later.

      And of course, these are averages in the charts.

      • Yes, I understood they are averages. One question I’d have is how women who have been sexually traumatized answer, since one of the ways people react to such is to act out the abuse. Do they believe they are enjoying doing so?

        I am reminded of how sex workers’ groups tend to advocate for full legalization of the sex industry, but exited sex workers’ groups tend to advocate the Nordic model (decriminalization of prostitutes only and providing exit strategies). Point being that if one is invested in an activity, one is less likely to admit not enjoying it, whether it’s financially invested or psychologically invested.

      • Good question. I don’t know.

        I do know that, as you say, people tend to say they enjoy what they’re doing to avoid cognitive dissonance (which occurs when behavior and attitudes don’t match). I’ve had students who have talked about lying to themselves about enjoying random sex when they don’t really enjoy it. Their motivations weren’t abuse, though. They were basically having sex with men in an attempt to feel beautiful and valued.

      • Yeah, that makes sense. The social aspect is huge. A more conservative viewpoint has to do with being on the marriage track, a more liberal viewpoint is about being generally sexually available if one is not in an exclusive relationship. But if a woman chooses to do neither, she tends to get marginalized in a strictly social sense. Though in all fairness, men get pressured, too.

        It really does amaze me, in retrospect, how comfortable so many people are about issuing unsolicited advice on this subject, that mostly amounts to “You’re being too picky” or “You’re being resistant”, all of which has the underlying theme that celibacy and/or solitude are unhealthy. People have different comfort zones, and should be trusted to know what they are. Ideally one can be as picky or un-picky as one chooses, and not be judged either way.

  15. “Sexuality is best when it’s not repressed. That doesn’t mean everyone must do it just one way, or do things that are uncomfortable.”

    Hear, hear. When I was younger, I often felt like a loser for not being able to force myself into having sex (I was a virgin til age 22). Even now, I get teased by coworkers for only having had 1 partner in my life thusfar…but I’ve slowly and surely come to the conclusion that my sexuality isn’t repressed just because I choose to not engage in random/casual sex with strangers. The fact that I only desire sex with my FwB *isn’t* a bad thing, it’s what *I* feel comfortable doing. If other men and women prefer more casual sex…good for them! People everywhere should be able to express whatever type of safe/consensual sex they want to, without judgement! 🙂

    • Yes. And it goes both ways. Relationships aren’t for everyone either. But we seem to up have gone from expecting (for women) relationship-only sex to hookup-only sex. Instead, we should do what feels right/authentic/enjoyable. Not what’s merely expected.

  16. The men don’t like giving oral sex, do they 😦

    • No, but (giving us all some hope):

      1. This is regarding comfort giving oral sex to strangers. Could be different with someone they care about.

      2. Women are even less interested in giving oral to strange men.

      That said, women are more likely to give men oral in hookups, than vice versa. Women are more likely to make the sacrifice — more willing to get creeped out. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. Yet not unexpected in a culture where they’re taught to be secondary. Women, especially, need to learn to do sex the way they want, not what’s expected.

Thoughts? (Comments will appear after moderation)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: