The standard view of male and female desire, currently promoted by evolutionary psychologists, is that men are libidinous and promiscuous animals who are hard-wired for sex (a reproductive strategy designed to spread their genes as far as possible) and women as hard-wired for intimacy and babies, wanting to enforce marriage (monogamy) on men. Thank goodness there are a growing number of female scientists, a “gathering critical mass”, who are venturing into the field of female sexuality, a historically male-dominated field.
Daniel Bergner’s What Do women Want?” Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, reviews much of the recent scientific research, conducted primarily by women scientists, designed to challenge traditional notions of female sexuality. None of these scientists are claiming that women’s sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm are exactly like men’s. Instead they are arguing that women have a stronger sex drive than commonly thought. These researchers are challenging several long-held stereotypes of female sexuality:
- That their sex drive is lower than men’s
- That they’re aroused by love, not sex
- That they’re not naturally sex agents but responders
- That women are not as interested in new and different partners as men (both men and women struggle with being interested in sex in long-term marriage)
- That women are not visual creatures (i.e. they don’t get aroused by visual images) when it comes to sex
One group of researchers at the University of Michigan lead by Terri Conley1 reviewed various theoretical and empirical approaches to gender differences in sexuality in order to shed light on the very prevalent misconceptions noted above. Here are a selected few of their findings:
- Do women desire and actually have fewer sexual partners than men? Bottom Line: No. When women thought that their true sexual history could be revealed by a polygraph (nonfunctional for purposes of the research), differences in reported sexual partners disappeared.
- Do women orgasm less frequently than men? Bottom Line: Yes, but. The orgasm gap (men experience more orgasms than women) diminishes greatly when sex occurs in committed relationships; and it may disappear entirely when committed partners “are more generous in providing noncoital sexual attention (‘foreplay’)”.
- Do men like casual sex more than do women? Bottom Line: Yes, but. A greater willingness to engage in casual sex is one of the largest documented sexuality gender differences. Such previously documented discrepancies evaporate when female subjects considered sexual offers from very attractive or famous individuals. Women were also equally as likely as men to accept offers of casual sex from close friends whom they perceived to have high sexual capabilities (would provide them with “a positive sexual experience”). Conley concludes from her findings that the only consistently significant predictor that women, and men, will accept a proposal of casual sex is the perception that the one who is making the proposal is sexually capable (i.e., would be “good in bed”). She also found indirect evidence in her work that women are less interested in casual sex because they perceive greater risk than men do in this kind of sexual encounter.
Considering the research they reviewed and their own research, Conley et.al. suggest that gender differences in sexual behavior, which are the bread and butter of evolutionary psychologists, rather than being biologically rooted in our evolutionary past, are rooted in much more mundane causes:
- Stigma against women for expressing sexual desires
- Women’s socialization to attend to other’s needs rather than their own
- A double standard that dictates different sets of appropriate sexual behaviors for men and women
The Conley et.al. article is a well-presented, easy-to-read research report. Bergner’s book covers some very interesting research. In addition, he has a number of anecdotal stories from individuals, often pretty provocative. He, like Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity have interesting discussions about dominance and submission in sexual activities.
One reviewer noted that Bergner’s book is a testament to the very existence and celebration of lust in women. Bergner does acknowledges that people may marry not because it is the best possible arrangement for vibrant sex. But it is the best way to have emotional stability and long-term companionship, which appear to be something both human males and females want.
Elaine Blair (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/books/review/what-do-women-want-by-daniel-bergner.html?_r=0) who reviewed the Bergner book, asks why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this time. Is it because of women’s and men’s evolving social roles, because of women’s increasing economic and political power, feminism? Many of the scientists are women which in itself is a novel situation. As Blair notes, and I agree, the old story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense anymore. Don’t you, the reader, buy that old shibboleth either. Claim your own sexual desire and fulfillment!
1Conley, Terri , Amy C. Moors, Jes L Matsick, Ali Ziegler, and Brandon A. Valentine. (2011). “Women, Men and the Bedroom: Methodological and Conceptual Insights That Narrow, Reframe, and Eliminate Gender Differences in Sexuality.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5) 296-300. (http://www.newsucanuse.org/wp-content/bedroom.pdf)
2Conley conducted several projects challenging a very famous paper published by Clark and Hatfield in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, “Gender Differences in Receptivity of Sexual Offers.” The purpose of this 1989 study was to provide support for what is called the Sexual Strategies Theory, a mainstay of evolutionary psychology, that men would be more responsive to an offer of casual sex than would women. Conley embarked upon a project of four studies designed to determine under what conditions women are willing to agree to a casual sexual encounter. Her research has been widely covered in the media. One good review of the work can be found in the blog Yes Means YES!.