Alex (not his real name) was a college senior when he agreed to be interviewed for my study of young men’s sexual lives. About a year earlier, he’d completed a paper-and-pencil survey on the same topic. On that survey, he said that he’d had sex with four girlfriends and that he’d had hookup sex with about twenty other girls and young women. I asked him to tell me about his most recent hookup; he told me a story from three months earlier.

It happened during winter break. A couple buddies and I rented a cabin at a ski lodge and were up there for about a week. There was one night when we had a party. Some of the guys were there with girlfriends, but I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time. We also invited some girls that we’d met while we were there.

I started talking to this one girl, Jess, and it was going pretty well. We’d both had a lot to drink. At some point, I asked if she wanted to go some place quieter to talk. She said OK, and we went back to my room. I guess we didn’t really talk very much at that point, maybe five or ten minutes. Then we started making out, and eventually we had sex.

We fell asleep together, and when I woke up, Jess was gone. I never saw her again. But we both knew that this would be a one-time thing. I was fine with that, and she was too.

I asked him why he chose Jess; she wasn’t the only girl in the room, after all. Alex told me there was no particular reason he picked Jess, that it was really serendipity—he happened to have been talking to her earlier while waiting to get another drink, and the conversation seemed to go well. He couldn’t remember what they’d talked about, but he was sure it was along the lines of small talk—favorite bands, college likes and dislikes, possibly college football, because her school might have been in a bowl game. Whatever it was, the conversation was easy enough. That was it. It wasn’t because Jess was hot or had been dancing suggestively or had been flirting with him all night. It was just because they happened to have started a conversation that went smoothly, and (Alex believed) Jess understood that this would be a one-time thing.

Alex never knew Jess’s last name and never asked for her cell number, email address, screen name, or any other contact information. She didn’t ask him either.

I’ve heard similar stories from many guys over the years. Most of those guys were looking for a girl to hook up with, but some were looking for another guy. The stories all share the same basic features: a bar or party with alcohol and possibly other drugs, an intention to spend just one night of being together, and little effort to get to know the other person or his or her sexual history.

When I think of someone like Alex, I sometimes think about famous—or infamous—men like Rep. Anthony Weiner and golfer Tiger Woods. They were both married and had children, yet they kept sleeping with people who weren’t their legally wedded wives. It was almost as though they just couldn’t stop having sex with new people. Retired NBA players Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain each claimed to have slept with hundreds, if not thousands, of women.

Maybe that’s what you think all guys are like. Reports like these contribute to the widespread belief that guys just want to have sex and don’t care about relationships. In other words, “Men are dogs.”

Alex’s hooking up (in current slang) or casual sex or having a one-night stand is not uncommon, and it’s what many people expect guys to do.1 In American culture, we are often encouraged to believe that guys think about sex all the time. According to popular culture, it’s every seven seconds. Or maybe you heard the recent report that half of young men think about sex at least nineteen times per day?2 That’s a lot less often than every seven seconds, but it still sounds like a lot.

Likewise, you may “know” that boys are always horny and that they don’t care much whom they have sex with—although we think they have a real preference for good-looking or “hot” girls. We think that guys “make the moves” and start all sexual encounters, from kissing through coitus, and we’re not entirely sure they’ll stop when a girl says no. Sometimes we even joke that teenage boys get a hard-on every time the wind blows. And many people believe that guys really aren’t interested in relationships.

Our cultural beliefs also tell us that boys and young men aren’t concerned about the consequences of hooking up and that they’ll take some pretty substantial risks in order to do so. This perception of young men is the central idea behind a subgenre of movies known as sex comedies. You may recognize some of the titles: Porky’s (1982), American Pie (1999), and Superbad (2007). There’s also the directly titled Sex Drive (2008). The common story line is about a boy or a group of boys who want or “need” to get laid. The boy or boys usually aren’t cool or popular.

Alex could be called a player (in current slang) or a Casanova, stud, Don Juan, or a variety of other names. Whatever you call him, he certainly fits some of the prevalent expectations about young men’s sexual behavior. And he’s often looked up to by other guys; Joe, a college junior, told me that he was “impressed [by players] because they know how to play the game.”

But let’s take a step back and view this from a different angle. Many Americans believe that boys and young men—especially those between about fifteen and twenty-five years old—are primarily, if not exclusively, interested only in this kind of hookup behavior. Let me say that again: we think this is normal. When we act as though this is normal, we may very well be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just before I started writing this book, my wife and I were shopping for our infant daughter at a national retail store. I noticed a blue bib that said “Chick Magnet.” Do we really want our baby boys to wear this message?


Casanova’s Problems

As long as guys like Alex are finding willing partners and nobody’s in a monogamous relationship, what’s the problem? For some, sex with strangers sounds like fun.

On some levels, there may not be a problem, especially if everyone really is being honest about what he or she wants and about what else is going on in his or her life, and if Casanova and his partner truly have equal say.

Yet there are costs, for Alex and his partners and also for you and me. Some of these, like unplanned pregnancies and STIs, are fairly obvious. The research tells us that Casanovas are less likely than other guys to use condoms,31 which means they’re regularly at risk of catching or passing on an STI. In the year 2000, approximately nine million Americans ages eighteen to twenty-nine contracted an STI, with an estimated direct cost of at least $6.5 billion (in the year 2000).32 As you might expect, the odds of contracting an STI increase with each new partner; one study reported that 27 percent of men who’d had eleven to twenty partners since age eighteen, and 37 percent of men who’d had twenty-one or more partners, knew they’d contracted an STI at some point.33 This means that even though only a minority of young men contract STIs, Casanovas are among those at greatest risk for doing so.

If these young men aren’t using condoms and if their female partners aren’t using contraception correctly, then these guys are also running the risk of getting their partners pregnant. According to a 2004 World Health Organization report, the United States had sixty pregnancies for every thousand female teenagers, the highest rate of teenage pregnancies of any industrialized or postindustrialized nation.34 The WHO used figures from 1998, not quite ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were doing worse than every country in Europe, including the countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain. We were worse than the average of fifty-six pregnancies per thousand girls among the countries of the Middle East and North Africa and of the East Asia–South Asia–Pacific region. In fact, our rates of teen pregnancy were so high that if the United States were in sub-Saharan Africa, a region wracked by poverty, numerous wars during the last hundred years, and poor development, we’d be only third best.

Those unwanted pregnancies have long-term financial costs for us as a nation. When a teenage girl gets pregnant, the likelihood that she’ll graduate from high school drops substantially,35 especially if she’s not yet in her senior year. If a teenage boy is the father of that child, the odds that he’ll finish high school also plummet dramatically, whether the boy intends to help raise the child or not.36 Over the last thirty years, one of the best indicators that someone will end up on welfare or in prison is whether he or she completes high school by age twenty. Regardless of your moral stance, your tax dollars pay the costs of those welfare checks and that jail.

There’s also a loss of human capital. As a nation, we tend not to look kindly on teenage parents. They’re not particularly likely to graduate from high school, and many never get their GED. Without that, it’s very difficult to get a job, which means it’s difficult to become a “productive” member of society. What might those people have contributed to society if they had waited even two years before becoming pregnant?

Some costs are less obvious, such as those related to development and personal growth. What happens if you’re a guy and everyone keeps saying you should have sex with lots of girls, but you don’t think that’s right, or you prefer other guys? Do you start to feel as though you’re not normal? Do you change your image so that people think you’re sleeping around? Do you take other risks, like the guys from the TV show and movie Jackass, in order to prove that you’re “the Man” so that everyone will ignore the fact that you’re not screwing a different girl every week?

Several gay athletes told sociologist Michael Messner that part of the reason they pushed themselves to excel at sports during high school was to gain some protection against charges of homosexuality.37 After all, when those guys were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, “everyone knew” you couldn’t be gay and be good at sports.

Teaching people that all or most guys are Casanovas also has bad implications for women, and not just the women who sleep with these guys. One problem is that you can’t sleep with a horde of strangers (or try to) and genuinely respect them. Again, the research tells us that adolescent boys and undergraduate young men who demonstrate or believe in Casanova-like promiscuity tend to be more sexist and to have a lower opinion of women in general than other guys.38 Although sexism isn’t the only factor or even the biggest factor, research shows that it contributes to the idea that sexual assault and rape may be justified if the girl was provocatively dressed or “leading the guy on.”39 However, these results coexist alongside data indicating that the average college male has become less sexist over the last few decades,40 one of many contradictions between the myth and reality of young men and their sexuality.

Further, when we teach girls and women that all guys are Casanovas and only interested in sex, we encourage girls to develop what researcher Deborah Tolman calls a “defensive sexuality.”41 This means we teach girls that sex is about saying yes or no instead of teaching them that sexuality should be about their own desires and pleasure. In other words, we teach girls to ignore their own desires in order to keep boys’ sexual desires in check.

By teaching girls that all guys are Casanovas, we mislead girls into thinking that there are few “good” guys who will be monogamous. There’s little doubt that young men are more likely to cheat on their partners than are young women,42 and guys who adhere to the Casanova Complex are the ones who are most likely to cheat.43 But when we behave as though all boys and young men are Casanovas, we’re teaching the girls the wrong odds.

The idea that male sexual desire is powerful, ever present, and barely controlled has been a part of American culture for at least two centuries.44 Taken to the extreme, it contributes to the possibility that any guy could be a rapist, child molester, or some other type of sexual predator. On some levels, that’s absurd; we know that very few guys commit sexual crimes. Yet if we believe that male sexual desire is just that common and that powerful then the idea that any guy could be a rapist or a child molester does seem to make sense.

The idea that “any guy could do that” appears in various elements of our culture. Fear of sexual molestation was used against African Americans during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras.45 Similar claims have been made about gay men raping straight men in the last few decades.46 When the Riverview Center, a rape crisis center, ran a video campaign against child sexual abuse under the title “It Could Be Him” a few years ago, the ad was criticized for tapping into this belief.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Challenging Casanova: Beyond The Stereotype Of The Promiscuous Young Male, by Andrew P. Smiler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew P. Smiler


1. Brooks, 1995; Fein & Schneider, 1995; Levant, 1992; MacCorquodale, 1989; Mahalik et al., 2003; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 2004

2. Mikkelson, 2011; Fisher, Moore, & Pittenger, 2012

31. Dariotis et al., 2008; Humblet, Paul, & Dickson, 2003; Pleck, SOnenstein, & Ku, 1993, 1994; Sinn, 1997

32. Chesson et al., 2004; Sanfield et al., 2011; Weinstock et al., 2004

33. Laumann et al., 1994

34. World Health Organization, 2004

35. Snow Jones, Astone, Keyl, Kim, & Alexander, 1999

36. Dariotis et al., 2011; for discussion of teenage boys vs. adult men who father children with teenage girls, see Kiselica, 2008; Marsiglio, 1988.

37. Messner, 1992

38. Mahalik et al., 2003; Pleck et al., 1993, 1994; Smiler, 2006a; Tokar & Jome, 1998

39. Locke & Mahalik, 2005; Murnen, Wright, & Kaluzny, 2002

40. Twenge, 1997a

41. Tolman, 2002

42. Buss, 1995; Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Oliver & Hyde, 1993

43. Dariotis et al., 2008; Humblet et al., 2003

44. Rotundo, 1993

45. Herbert, 2002

46. Gutmann, 1997; Kimmel, 1997


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Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Challenging Casanova: Beyond The Stereotype Of The Promiscuous Young Male, by Andrew P. Smiler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew P. Smiler