Dating or sex? Does effort equal love or lust?

There has long been a battle of the sexes- in so many more ways than the obvious. In the complex world of mating, sex and dating, the issue of resource investment is one which tends to be overlooked or dressed up as romance, commitment or inspiring certain feelings in one another. Call me cynical, unromantic or cold, but it all comes down to investment- and not just of emotions.

From a sociobiological perspective, we behave in much the same ways other primates do, with a wide array of variation between cultures and individuals. In our modern, educated and (often) reproduction-free lives of pleasure and quests for connection, do these basic tenets of survival and reproductive impetus from our primal brains still direct us? Let’s take a look.

closeup photo of primate looking in a mirror.  Our dating behaviours evolve from our early ancestors

Who should pay on a date?

There is a Youtube clip which has circulated for many years, of a young woman with a sexy accent talking about why men should pay for everything on a date. The reason, basically, that she gives is that the woman has already spent a lot on money on making herself into the creature that the man will desire.

How does this apply to the world of less conventional ‘dating’? Clearly, women will spend a lot of time and money on themselves before attending a swinger party or kink event. The outfit, the personal grooming, the designer lingerie (which will usually be lost at some point in the evening). All the necessary work to convert oneself from working woman or domestic housewife into sex goddess. Women will often have a lower entry price to events, yet still spend more on the evening.

black woman in white dress calling in telephone wearing white lingerie

Men and women investing in a date are different

This is not to say that men won’t also invest in themselves before an event. The difference is that, apart from the ticket price, the investment tends to have a longer and more personal payout. Perhaps they get themselves waxed, maybe even have a facial (I know men who do). Other investments in looking good will be things like exercise, a really nice suit and a good haircut. They are all things the man will benefit from for weeks or months afterwards. The investment is less quickly used up. A man may pay more at many events for entry than a woman (especially a single man). Yet a man who carries himself well and shines above the others will have a near-infinite choice of playmates.

person lying touching toes together. Man in black and white

What’s the real deal on getting ready for a date?

Let’s scale this down to a single meeting. Instead of a general investment in looking our best for an event, we are doing it for just one person. How much effort do we go to? Does it matter? And what does it mean.

In an effort to answer these questions, I did a tiny research study on the (very unscientific) population of my Instagram followers. Let’s take a look at the findings:

Apologies for the lack of non-binary data- Instagram quizzes have limited options for answers. As we can see, on average the women spend longer preparing themselves for a date. It was’t a huge sample size though (44), and our perception of what is meant be ‘preparation’ can vary. Do we count shopping for clothes, having a manicure that day? Or just shower, change and makeup? And who really sets a timer before they start?

person holding brown flower curtain in shower getting ready for dating

The women, on average, feel they spend more time in preparation for a sexy date than the men. Why is this important? Because time and energy is investment. The more we invest in something or someone, the more we believe we value it. That can take many forms, but preening for a date is just one. Who is therefore likely to feel more disappointed at a last minute cancellation? Logically, the women.

anonymous frustrated woman sitting on chair behind tiled wall - maybe her date just cancelled as she was getting ready

How do we deal with disappointment in dating?

The way people deal with romantic and sexual disappointments is very variable. In an age of seemingly busy lives, endless choice and last minute plan changes, how do people respond to a last minute cancellation? I again put it to the good people of Instagram to share their feelings. When someone cancels a date with less than six hour’s notice:

Slightly less than half of people would be okay with it. The reasons for not being okay will vary dependent on your personality, sense of self worth and ease of provocation (not to mention whether you have lined up your own plan B’s and how much opportunity you have for romantic or sexual frolics otherwise.) Once someone has invested time, energy or effort and there is no reward, they will usually perceive it as a loss of resources, much as any animal would.

man in black hoodie looking cross.  MAybe his dated cancelled on him

How hard this hits really depends on the abundance of resources we have. Someone with a great deal of free time, disposable income and numerous playmates will perceive less of a loss than someone without them. That doesn’t factor in ego, however. If ego is fragile (and ego is so closely tied to maintenance of social status in the animal kingdom) someone might react very badly even if it makes little real difference to them. Through principle of feeling rejected, rather than any objective significant expenditure.

Do we risk more for a bigger prize in dating?

Most people who replied to this study (38) believed they spent longer getting ready for a date if they knew/believed their date was going to be really attractive to them. This shows a willingness to invest more for higher stakes. If we go back to the primal animal kingdom, our opportunities for quality mating, are the difference between the survival of our offspring (and genes) and their disappearance. Finding healthy, attractive mates and succeeding in sex with them really is life or death, on a multi-generational scale. That’s not an innate trait that goes away just because we aren’t planning to conceive with our date.

photo of women kissing with rainbow lighting

AITA? Are we ‘that’ person when dating?

Given the busy lives people have these days (or before lockdown- the restrictions on time and danger of death or prosecution right now make the stakes of meeting for sex rather higher) most people develop strategies to overcome the issues with flaky dates. Ghosters. Last-minute plan changes. If we could be 100% sure our date would show up, how much easier life would be? How much more we might be willing to invest? Yet after even a few months of dating, whether vanilla and purposeful or purely recreational, most will have burnt out emotions other than annoyance at the endless cancellations and no-shows. We are smart, sensible and adaptable animals. However ethical we start out with our intentions, is there a time when ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ starts to take effect?

Surprisingly, most of the 42 respondents don’t double book their dates, with only a few doing it habitually. Though double (or triple, or quadruple) booking a date night does reduce the risk – the perceived waste of resources in preparing and prime dating time – if someone lets you down, it leads to a downward spiral where everyone is constantly having to do the same to each other, and nobody knows whether they are ever the first choice. Not until they are cancelled upon and realise they aren’t.

person holding black android smartphone selecting women on it for dating?

Sex or love?

Perhaps there is a difference in how we treat those who we plan to meet for sex and those we hope to develop something more intimate with. Indeed, an imbalance of investment between the two parties is the source of many frictions. Some people have a very clear ‘just for sex/dating material’ divide (often single men). Some have a more fluid outlook – more of a ‘let’s start with great sex and see if it develops from there’ attitude (often single women). I would not personally ascribe to the attitude that I have heard certain swing scene men voice before. That showing up, keeping one’s word and maintaining respect is unnecessary unless officially dating romantically. It is worth noting that some people do think this way.

women sitting on bed redhead looks to the brunette sadly.  Does sex lead to dating or is that all there is sometimes?

To a lesser degree, do we invest differently when we are seeking sex or seeking to date? Do we divide these in our minds? Here are the results:

How Instagram libertines alter their pre-dating prep

How does your pre-date routine differ? First date, hook-up, and someone you are hoping to get serious with?

More/less makeup. Or nicer shoes for serious dates! Thiskindagirl2020

Most time for someone I want to hook up with…GWB clean and tidy, normal effort. First date. GLDUUK

None. Beck-evil

I put so little effort into first dates now 🤣 kink.and.cuddles

apple applications apps cell phone - a crucial piece of hardwaer for dating, especially in lockdown

Perhaps our libertines are a little jaded? Fair enough. The thrill of preparing one’s mind and body for sexual excitement works best when there is a reasonable expectation that something will definitely happen and it will be worthwhile. Beyond the excitement of sexual hookups fading with experience, it may be that there is a ‘sweet spot’ for sexual anticipation. When we know the person well enough that we believe there is a good chance it will happen, but before we are so familiar with them that excitement wanes. If we examine how much effort we invest, do we have an objective meter for how much we actually like someone? Or does that say more about ourselves and the mental place we are in?

woman applying makeup perhaps before a date.  Will she spend longer if she likes them more or does it depend on her own feelings of self worth at the time?

Why does it matter how much we invest in dating?

The Benjamin Franklin effect is well documented. Beyond his lesser known and highly dubious penchant for keeping his ‘Mistress’ (an imprisoned slave) and his better known experiments and political aspirations, he has an effect named after him. It is a social manipulation effect. It is very simple. If you want to be liked, you get people to do things for you. Small things. And the more they do them, the more they come to feel they like you (it doesn’t work the other way around, although one might expect it to).

crop woman with heart on palms.  The more we invest effort for someone, the more we feel we like them.  this is important when dating for love or sex

This works well in D/s relationships as well as business and friendships. In terms of dating, our subconscious must surely be keeping some sort of tally of how much time, energy, money and effort (even how much brain space) we have invested. The more it is, the more we must like the person, right? Otherwise why did we do it?

Drop the dead dating donkey?

It all ties neatly into a phenomenon also known as ‘the sunk cost fallacy’. Once we have sunk money or effort into something, we feel committed. It is easier to keep sinking more and more hoping for our rewards, even if the odds seem less and less favourable, than it is to abandon our previous investment and walk away. And this, far more so than the lovely lady in the video at the start’s rationale, is why I believe a man should pay for the date (if you want him to value you and keep you around, that is. If you don’t feel free to go halves or pay the lot).

As shown above, women have already invested more than the man pre-date in getting ready. Perhaps this is why women have something of a reputation for being keener to seek commitment than men- we have already invested so much more before we even get started.

man and woman holding hands and running on a field.  Perhaps she is chasing him to date?

What women (and men) really want?

Are hookups and relationships really so different in terms of our goals and how we go about them? It may be that we judge them by different criteria. Someone you wouldn’t want to take home to your parents, or seems a poor match in terms of location, lifestyle, life goals or personality can still be a fun and exciting hookup. Depending on how fixed we are in our attitudes of what kind of committed partners we are seeking (if any), sometimes company, comfort and excellent sex can soften our boundaries and lead us to want to progress from FBs to FWBs to real partners. It’s not always a given that this will be mutual though. It very rarely is.

couple having sex and using smartphone - dating and sex aren't always the same thing.  We select partners differently for each

Let’s look at what matters to people when they are seeking a hookup, versus a relationship:

What have we learned about dating?

As we can see, the lovely libertine Instagram followers are pragmatists. The results indicate a few things:

  1. What you look like, face and body, may matter to some people, but for most they are not the most important thing (rendering much of the investment in pre-date preening a bit of a moot point)
  2. People select sexual playmates and partners to date seriously on very different criteria. Expecting to switch from a sex partner to a romantic partner is not a given if you get to like them.
  3. Sex-positive people are pragmatists- they are looking to select a sex partner to do the things they want to with, above and beyond other considerations
  4. People place a low priority on sexual compatibility for romantic partners. This certainly explains a lot of the problems that amatonormative society endlessly generates.
  5. If someone is going to love you, it really will be for your personality after all. Aww.

Thank you to all the participants in this little study, who joined in back in July. It’s been a tough year, the world of sex and dating is completely different. Everyone is a little unsure of what the future will be like. Here’s wishing you great sex, love or both, whether alone or with others.

Stay safe my lovely libertines


*I’m going to apologise here for the complete lack of non-binary participants and the binary way this information has been shown. That’s more of a traditional biological data presentation bias than a personal one. I did phrase some questions to be more inclusive but there was low uptake on the answering. If you are a non-binary person who would like your thoughts on this topic to be known please feel welcome to add them in the comments section should you wish.

*Photos from


  1. To me, the funny thing about dating is that men and women know that in order to find a mate/partner/whatever or to scratch the itch, dating is the way to accomplish both things… and few people actually like dating and I’ve heard so many folks these days talk about how much dating sucks or it’s not worth the time and effort one must undertake just to find someone to date, let alone actually having a date. I’d read an article about dating quite a few years ago and it mentioned that dating was more like interviewing for a job of and how it had changed from days gone by. As I recall, the article was mostly about the likelihood of sex taking place and that women, on average, decide within the first five minutes of a date whether they’re going to sleep with their date or not and it mentioned the classic “not on the first date” stuff that even I grew up hearing.

    This writing is an interesting take on dating and it’s food for thought…

Leave a Reply