Imagine a married couple’s bedroom. They’ve just had a wonderful dinner (perhaps candles and wine were involved) and the kids (if they happen to have them) are tucked into their beds. They start kissing and one of them brakes away saying: “Not tonight honey, I’m sorry but I have a headache.” Stop right there. Let me guess — you imagined the wife making excuses right? Her husband (or any other guy for that matter) is bound to be the one who wants sex, right? Women on the other hand are the ones who like it less and don’t need it as often – so they are thought of as the sex that always ends up making the ‘not this time’ excuses. Or so we’re told from about the time we learn what makes boys and girls different. We’re constantly being convinced that there are strong biological bases for men wanting (and pursuing) sex more than women. They mostly boil down to the same old “it’s about the testosterone” or “men evolved to pursue multiple sex partners”. Because these pseudo-scientific claims include words with more than three syllables as well as references to Charles Darwin’s tried and true theory, these explanations tend to sound like facts. For starters, though, do these “facts” explain real human behaviors or just perceptions about what human behavior is (supposed to be) like?
Ever since Dr. Alfred Kinsey gave up gall wasps and decided studying human sex is more interesting we have been learning more and more about the realities of our species’ sex life. However, we still have quite a way to go and there’s a number of reasons for which it’s pretty hard to learn what’s actually going one. Firstly and most importantly, the subjects themselves – i.e.’ regular’ men and women – are a bit of an issue. As anyone who has ever seen a single episode of House MD will know: “People lie”. Dr. Greg House is a bit on the cynical side (to say the least), but he is right about one thing: people tend to stray from being truthful when asked personal questions by people in white coats or with any authority. And that’s basically what sex research is. A bunch of professors with strings of letters behind their names signifying how important and smart they are, asking delicate questions about how often and how much… You might be thinking that anonymous questionnaires are a way out, right? They are – but only to a certain degree because it’s been shown that people will still give the answers they think they’re supposed to. This happens even when they’re guaranteed complete anonymity. Consequently, at the end of the day the result really might not be all that enlightening.
Secondly, it’s very hard to discern nature from nurture. As in any study on fellow Homo sapiens – whether it’s studying the causes of diabetes, breast cancer or musical talent – it’s really hard to tell what is innate and what’s not. In the case of sex studies, the real question is discerning socialization and conditioning from innate tendencies (some people aren’t even sure it’s doable). People still don’t really know how much of our sexual behavior is the result of what our families and cultures teach us and what is determined by our libido and innate characteristics. So, for example, when I was 12-years old, my Mom made me watch “Bridges of Madison County” with her. If you haven’t seen it, I assure you you’re not missing much. Basically it’s a movie about a wife who cheats on a husband and hates herself for it (or something to that effect). So when the movie was finally over and I was a little surprised by my dear Mother’s question “Maria, what do you think is the moral of this story”. I had absolutely no idea. As far as I was concerned, the moral was that making movie with the words “bridges” and “Madison” in the title is not a very good idea. Because my Mom could see the blank expression in my face, she proceeded to lecture my on how this movie really is about the merits of per-marital sex. I didn’t quite understand so she elaborated that it shows how one should make sure to experience sex before committing to a lifelong relationship, because otherwise we might wind up with someone with an incompatible sexual temperament. I was 12. I still thought boys gave you cooties and at the time I was slightly traumatized. Now, I think this incident (and the general attitude in my house) went a long way to making sure I have a pretty healthy relationship with both myself and my husband (the story also makes for pretty amusing dinner party conversations). I’m pretty sure that if I had spent my childhood and adolescence being lectured on the long list of things ‘good girls’ don’t do, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece right now. Would I still learn to enjoy sex and have a healthy relationship with my sexuality? Perhaps, who’s to say, but I’m pretty darn sure it would be very difficult. My story is just one example of how hard it is to disentangle the complicated factors which impact this very complex thing that is sex drive and sexual behavior in general.
Having said all that, scientists do keep having a go at studying the underlying causes of human sexual behavior and the determinants of our sex drive – and good on them! A recent study in Current Directions in Psychological Science by a Michigan psychologist Terri Conley and co-authors actually looked at some of most common myths about sexual differences between genders:
1. Men have more sex partners than women
Yes, men talk about their sex partners more than women do, but there’s no real data to show that it’s because they actually have more to talk about. It might be that they feel they can talk about it, because they won’t be called ‘sluts’ for doing so or…potentially they sometimes just make stuff up. Previously, sexologists largely based their studies of human sexuality solely on what subjects were telling the scientists (and remember there are some issues with that). Now, this really isn’t the way science should be conducted. If fictional doctors from fictional hospitals know that people don’t always tell the truth, surely super smart scientists should come around to that conclusion as well, right? Well good news – they did. Conley and colleagues came up with an interesting (if somewhat sneaky) way of getting their subjects to tell the truth about their sex partners – they hooked them up to a fake polygraph. Obviously, their interviews had no idea the thing didn’t actually work. The results were illuminating: Conley et al write, “When participants believed that their true sexual history could be revealed by the polygraph, gender differences in reported sexual partners disappeared.” Basically, it’s back to what I mentioned earlier – people tend to say what they think they should say, so women claim to have fewer partners and men tend to exaggerate the number of women they slept with. If you get them to speak truthfully it turns out that the differences in the number of sexual partners aren’t real.
2. Women aren’t into casual sex, men like nothing more
This assertion (scientifically) goes back to a now-famous study in which men and women approached subjects and offered to have casual sex with them. No women agreed to the proposition, but 70% of men did. According to a lot of folks, this was the ultimate proof that men were biologically hardwired for random sex and women avoided it. But, surprise surprise, things aren’t that simple. As it turns out, men and women were both more likely to accept a proposition if they thought the proposer would be good in bed — and women were much less likely to think that a random guy would have the skills to make it all worth the hassle. Plus there is the issue of safety – a random hookup is much less likely to turn violent for the guy involved. And not to be forgotten- the ghost of moralities past ‘slut-shaming’ – which is still doing pretty well for itself.
3. Women are “picky,” but men will have sex with just about anyone
Conley et al point out that “assumptions about women’s choosiness have been based on our culture’s traditional gender dynamics” — particularly, the expectation that men should approach women while women should wait and silently bat their eyelashes at potential sex/romantic interests. One research team decided to turn the tables by asking women to approach men and a speed dating scenario. Here’s what happened:
“The mere act of physically approaching someone (i.e., simply rotating through potential partners and introducing oneself during speed-dating) caused individuals to evaluate potential partners more favorably (e.g., reporting greater romantic chemistry and increased likelihood of a romantic relationship developing). Moreover, when women approached men, women behaved more like men (becoming less choosy), and men behaved more like women (becoming more choosy). Thus, this research suggests that “choosiness” may be an artifact of gendered social norms concerning who approaches whom.” The review goes on to conclude that “gender differences are in fact 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; and, more broadly, a double standard that dictates (different sets of) appropriate sexual behaviors for men and women.”
So, studies conducted so far suggest that there probably are some biological differences between men and women which may (or may not…) go beyond the anatomy of the sexual reproductive organs. The thing is, it’s currently an incredibly difficult exercise to actually dig through societal influences and get to the ‘biological core’ and the ‘true explanation’ of our behaviors. I wonder though how useful that would really be?
As just about anything, humans have complicated the relatively simple biology of sex with a lot of cultural influence. Simple things like eating and sleeping are no longer obvious to considerable numbers of human beings (notably insomniacs and people suffering from eating disorders). Why would we think that sexual intercourse is a simple act and we’ll all just follow our ‘biologic blueprint’ when we get around to it? And that’s assuming there really is one. Obviously, sex takes up a whole lot of people’s lives (doing it, thinking about it, watching card ads with nude ladies…) so we want to know as much as possible about it. In essence, this is a good thing – as applicable a science as any which may tell us something useful/enlightening about our nature. However, as I hope I have shown, the study of human sexual behavior is fraught with difficulty. Also, we need to keep in mind that it’s just that – the study of general human behavior and not research into what an individual human being should like/do. Really, the important take home message of most of this research is simply this: differences in sexual temperament are individual and not gender differences and it’s about time we got over this whole biological determinism thing and let people enjoy their sex lives without making thing difficult with gendered expectations.