I once asked a finance bro I was casually dating, who we’ll call Patrick*, if he was free to hang one night. Instead of giving me a straight answer, Patrick texted back, “um,” and asked me how I felt about pickles. He kept joking until I told him he was being annoying. He fired back that I was "overreacting," then added, "But maybe you’re expecting something different. I’m not ready for a relationship." I stared at my phone, confused. Why do guys always think girls want relationships? I scrolled through our texts to find the part where I asked for his hand in marriage, but it was nowhere to be found, obviously, because I didn’t want a relationship and hadn’t said anything to the contrary. The only thing I did was ask to hang out, and maybe for him to not be such a dick.
After mulling it over with some friends, I discovered I wasn’t the only heterosexual woman who’s dealt with this kind of assumption. My friend Katherine* met a guy at a bar and hooked up with him twice in one weekend. “Then, I asked him to hang [another night], and it didn't work out. I didn't hear from him after a week and a half,” she said. “So I texted him asking if he had just lost interest. And then he said, ‘I’m just not looking for something serious.’ As if me wanting to see him and initiating a text meant I wanted to marry him.”
My friend Alyssa experienced something similar: While talking to a new guy she met, she explained that she was looking to move to a new city for a job. After they had sex at her place that night, he hung around her apartment and she offered him her number. He responded by saying he wasn't "looking for anything serious." Alyssa recalls, "I was furious. If anything, my intention was to maybe get a casual hookup situation going. And I had just spent the night talking about how I’m looking to leave the city. Why would I want a serious relationship?”
I wanted to understand why this happens, so I went straight to the source: men. “I remember thinking as a younger person that things were more black and white, that most women were looking for relationships and most men were not,” my friend Joe says. Another friend, Robb*, agrees. "Girls never want to keep things casual," he says.
So, this misconception is clearly a thing. But why?
According to Pella Weisman, licensed psychotherapist and dating coach, one culprit could be attachment styles — a psychological theory that explains how a person behaves in relationships. “Lots of people (both men and women, but it tends to be more common with men) have an avoidant attachment style, which means they run away when someone gets too close,” Weisman says. “Any expectation or sign of affection feels like a demand.” Anita Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist, backs this up. “Guys who are higher on the avoidant attachment scale will more frequently think that every woman wants something serious,” she says. In her clinical experience, Chlipala sees more men who are avoidant-attached and more women who are anxiously-attached, which means they crave reassurance and intimacy. This gender imbalance can make some men believe all women are anxiously-attached — and thus, a stereotype is born.
There's also a stereotype about casual sex, itself — namely, that only men really want no-strings-attached flings. “Because hooking up is behaving sexually like we think stereotypical men do, there’s this underlying assumption that when men hook up, they mean it, and when women do it, they’re just faking it until they can get into a relationship,” explains Lisa Wade, sociology professor at Occidental College and author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.
For most of American history, though, women were actually considered the more sexual gender. People thought women couldn’t control their sex drives and were inherently more sexual than men. Remember the Salem witch trials? One of the main reasons women were burned at the stake is because people feared the power of female sexuality. All of this changed after industrialization, when an ideology called “separate spheres” became idealized. This theory attempted to use biology to determine the roles men and women were “naturally” best suited for. From this came the idea that women should stay home, in the private sphere, while men worked in the cities, in the public sphere. Soon, the workplace, which was now associated with the masculine, became tainted by capitalism: It was a selfish, competitive, dog-eat-dog world. People wanted to keep these values out of the home, and so gender roles were even further solidified. Wade explains, "The whole idea of women being nurturing, loving, kind, interested in relation[ships] happens at this moment, in response to the gendering of separate spheres."
Feminism has thankfully challenged all that. But that doesn't mean men have fully caught up. “‘Connected but casual’ is a fairly new concept for men,” says relationship expert Susan Winter. “For centuries, women sought the love of men to provide safety, financial security, and social status. It must be confusing to learn that a woman can enjoy a man's company and move on with her day, fully content and satisfied.”
Yet sometimes, even when women are crystal clear about not wanting anything serious, men don't quite believe them. I asked Robb how he’d react if the girl he was seeing wanted to keep things casual. His response? “I'd enjoy the ride until she inevitably catches feelings," he said. "Then,I'd either date her or break it off. Either way, it's gonna be messy.”
“So what you’re saying is,” I asked for clarification, “you wouldn’t believe her?”
“Nah,” he says. “Def not.”
Now, at the risk of perpetuating the same kinds of stereotypes that got us here in the first place, I should say that obviously not all men think this way. My friend Ian, 25, tells me if a woman he’s seeing says she wants to keep things casual, he doesn’t automatically assume she’s lying. “I usually wouldn’t think much of [what she said] either way,” he says. He believes she could be telling the truth, or testing his reaction to see what he really wants. Regardless, Ian says he’s comfortable having a conversation about the relationship status if necessary. “I try not to make intention-based assumptions,” he says.
For the women who experience these assumptions, though, dating can be frustrating. And according to Wade, this giant cultural misunderstanding between men and women might take generations to resolve itself. Part of the problem is a misunderstanding about how to inject casual sex with affection or even basic human decency. “Everything we think is supposed to happen in a relationship is not supposed to happen in hooking up, [including] kindness and accountability," Wade says. "Once you start acting tenderly in hooking up, your partner starts to interpret that as more meaningful sexual activity and the possible beginning of a relationship."
The men I spoke to confirmed that they viewed that as a problem. “Certain types of dates — a planned dinner instead of a party hookup, for example — come with that kind of subtext kind of already baked into them,” Joe says. Meanwhile, Robb worries about being introduced to a girl's friends or hanging out over the holidays. By making a point to not do these activities, guys ensure they aren’t held accountable if a girl catches feelings. “People want to say, ‘Whatever happens here, I don’t want to have to deal with it,’ and then if you do catch feelings, the other person has the right to say, ‘This is not my problem. Get out of my face,’” says Wade.
In reality, however, no matter what your dates or hookups entail, it’s impossible to predict whether or not feelings will arise. It’s part of being human. “We’re all assuming that we’re in control of our emotions, which we’re not,” says Wade. “But it should be OK that you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s just how life works.”
It got me thinking: If Patrick and I had continued hooking up regularly, would I have eventually wanted a serious relationship with him? Maybe. I can’t know for sure. But I don't want to date anyone who makes assumptions about who I am and what I want. I’d much rather get serious with a guy who prefers to — wait for it — listen to me.
*Name has been changed.