The Dark Side of Casual Dating
How sexual history can pave the way for sexual assault.
Posted Oct 09, 2019
Many people grew up in an era where a date meant a young man drove to a young woman's house to pick her up in a freshly waxed car, walked up and rang the doorbell—which was often answered by the young father, eager to size the date up and concerned about his daughter's safety. Today, a date is more likely to involve meeting at Starbucks or some other public location. This is often because many dates are set up online, and both parties are playing it safe with their personal information—which, by the way, is a great idea.
But that does not necessarily mean that women (or men) do not want to be asked out on a date in person. Online dating does not appeal to everyone. Many people are far too busy to scroll endlessly through pages of prospective paramours, wondering about the veracity of information shared by potential prospects. Those who are technologically challenged shy away from online shopping of any kind—whether for commodities or companionship.
But regardless of time constraints or technological proficiency, research reveals that although we live in the present, when it comes to our attitudes towards dating, we are a product of our past.
Dating Versus “Hanging Out”
Dean M. Busby et al. (2019) did a study exploring the impact of past relationships on current relationship functioning.[i] Looking at the impact of three types of prior relationships: sexual relationships, romantic relationships, and cohabiting relationships, they found that all three types of prior relationships had a significant negative, shared influence on current relationships in terms of commitment, attitudes, sexual satisfaction, and stability.
Some of the background information they considered in their study informs the question of what dating “looks like” for young people today. Busby et al. note that young people today are more likely to describe “hanging-out” or “hooking-up” as opposed to “dating.” They cite research that found one third of senior college women had been asked out on a date twice or less, with only half asked on a date six or more times—over a span of three or more years in college.
But casual dating might have a dark side—when it involves casual sex.
Predatory Sex and Sexual Precedence
When it comes to sexual assault, many studies focus on women as the victims. I have also prosecuted plenty of cases where women were the perpetrators. Research corroborates the reality that women are perpetrators to, as discussed in one of my other articles, Women Who Sexually Assault Men.
But one thing all sexual assault cases have in common, is that most victims know their perpetrators... often quite well. Rhiana Wegner et al. (2014) note that studies show that over 80 percent of adolescent and adult sexual assault victims not only are acquainted with their perpetrator, but are romantically or sexually involved with them.[ii] They cite a nationally representative sample of adult women that found 62 percent of forcible rapes that occurred since the age of 18 were perpetrated by a date, boyfriend, cohabitant partner, or current or former spouse.
How does this happen? Apparently, because traditional dating and casual dating are very different both physically and emotionally. Wegner et al. note that unlike traditional dating scripts that link emotional and sexual intimacy, casual sexual relationships often include “sexual precedence”—defined as previous consensual sex. Unfortunately, the authors realize that research suggests that for many perpetrators, sexual precedence creates a sense of entitlement that fuels feelings of sexual aggression. In other words, a perpetrator might automatically assume that if sexual access has been granted before, it cannot now be revoked.
Research indicates that sexual precedence might also create a greater risk of sexual coercion. Citing one of the few studies examining the link between sexual precedence and sexual coercion, Wegner et al. note that sexual assault victims described perpetrators with sexual precedence as “more likely to use negative verbal persuasion including threats to end the relationship, seek sex elsewhere, swear, pout, or express dissatisfaction with the relationship.”
When More Partners Might Mean More Risk
Although certainly not something we can cite as a general proposition, Wegner et al. note that when it comes to proclivity to sexual assault, having more partners might mean more risk. They note that research found a preference for numerous casual sex partners to be a risk factor for committing sexual assault, and that “men who sexually assault a casual partner are more likely to enjoy and seek out casual sexual relations as compared to men who sexually assault a committed partner.”
Of course, this does not mean casual relationships will always lead to sexual assault, or that casual dating necessarily involves sexual intimacy. Many singles engage in casual dating in an attempt to get to know prospective partners at a relaxed pace without any early expectations or strings attached.
Putting it all together, singles are well-advised to take relationships slowly in all aspects, in order to learn enough about prospective partners to make smart choices, in pursuit of healthy, happy relationships.
[i]Busby, Dean M., Brian J. Willoughby, and Melissa L. McDonald. 2019. “Is It the Sex, the Romance, or the Living Together? The Differential Impact of Past Sexual, Romantic, and Cohabitation Histories on Current Relationship Functioning.” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 8 (2): 90–104.
[ii]Wegner, Rhiana, Jennifer Pierce, and Antonia Abbey. 2014. “Relationship Type and Sexual Precedence: Their Associations with Characteristics of Sexual Assault Perpetrators and Incidents.” Violence Against Women 20 (11): 1360–82.