Indiana University’s recent sex survey found that men were more likely to climax if they were in a relationship. But women had more difficulty with arousal when they were in one.
Surprising! What’s up?
Today we’ll explore men. (A past post explored women.)
On the one hand, men say they’d like a lot of partners. According to The Male Brain, men report wanting 14 partners, lifetime, while women say they want only one or two. In my women’s studies classes many men felt that their friends would like to have sex with as many women as possible. Researchers at the University of Texas found that men were far less picky than women, and were more likely to have sex simply because the opportunity presented itself. An awful lot of porn (men’s fantasies on screen) revolves around sex with lots of random women, too.
So the Indiana University study doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. You’d expect that men would be more sexually satisfied with a lot of casual partners.
But that’s not what the data showed. Researchers asked men and women about the last time they had sex: Were you with a relationship partner or not? What activities did you engage in? Did you have an orgasm? How much did you enjoy the sexual experience?
When controlling for age and health, men aged 18 to 59 were more likely to enjoy sex and achieve orgasm when they were in a relationship than when they were with a new partner. They indicated greater arousal, greater pleasure, less pain, fewer problems with erectile dysfunction, and greater chance of orgasm.
So what’s up?
Imagination versus reality: Fantasy may seek novelty and variety, but men feel more comfortable and relaxed with their partners, who show patience and give reassurance if there are problems, leaving men with less performance anxiety. Partners who have been together a while may have honed their techniques, too.
Sure, men can feel relaxed with dream partners. Reality can be different.
Something deeper may be at play, too. Women often say sex is best in a context of love and connection. Men don’t talk about this as much, but sex can take on a deepness and richness in relationship that casual sex can’t match, whether you are male or female.
Popular culture sees women as out to trap men, becoming the old “ball and chain” when they succeed. But men need companionship. They rarely leave their partners unless they’ve got someone else lined up. After a death or divorce men are much quicker than women to remarry, forgoing an unfettered sex life. Partly because women care for men, support them, and create emotional closeness.
But relationship may also bring men better sex.
Researchers at Indiana University recently released the most comprehensive sex survey since 1994. They made some surprising discoveries. Among them: men are more likely to enjoy sex and reach orgasm if they are in a relationship than if they are not. But women have more difficulty with arousal and bodily response when they are in a relationship.
This goes completely against stereotype. It also goes against what women and men report about their preferences.
What’s going on?
Today let’s explore women. We’ll look at men in an upcoming post.
When I’ve asked who likes sex better, males or females, I repeatedly get the same response from women. It begins with “Women enjoy sex as much as men, but…”
Some of us prefer to be with someone we love and who loves us back rather
than some crazy one night romp with a random person.
Women place more emphasis on the emotional aspects of sex.
Women like sex more when it has depth and meaning. It is much more intense
and romancing to women when they are in a relationship.
Researchers at University of Texas, Austin concluded that for women, sexuality is more linked to love, emotional bonding and connection.
Yet recent data suggest something different.
Indiana University researchers asked women and men about the last time they had sex: Were you with a relationship partner or not? What activities did you engage in? Did you have an orgasm? How much did you enjoy the sexual experience?
Finding: Women were less likely to climax when they were in relationships.
What’s going on? Here are some possibilities.
Women who really love sexuality may be more likely to have sex with different partners, affecting the average.
What about more typical women? Women need to feel sexy and desired to get aroused. They want to feel chosen. With a new partner, a woman will feel she’s been chosen because she’s so attractive. But in committed relationships it can seem that her partner is simply trapped into having sex with her. Not a big turn-on.
Men also seem to experience a slight drop in interest over time with long-term partners, and women may sense that, leading to an even bigger drop in their own libido.
Why a bigger drop for women? Marta Meana, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says women have a lower sex drive (influenced by a culture that represses women’s sexuality) and need a bigger jolt to turn on libido. “If I don’t love cake as much as you,” she told a New York Times reporter, “my cake better be kick-butt to get me excited to eat it.” Something for men to think about.
At the same time relationship is helpful because women (and men alike) need to feel relaxed in order to climax. The Indiana University data isn’t clear on whether the more-aroused women were having sex with men whom they saw as potential committed partners – the beginning of relationship. In that case they might have felt an excitement at feeling chosen, but also safe enough to create the necessary comfort to climax.
But sex isn’t just about orgasm. The emotional component of feeling loved and connected creates a rich, multidimensional experience which may be what so many refer to when they say they want more than a quick roll in the hay.
Meanwhile, some advice for men: let your lady know she’s desired and chosen.
And how do we know this?
The same way we discover that many things aren’t biologically-based. By learning about other cultures. And the breast fetish does not exist in them all.
Men and women both resist the claim until they’re reminded of tribal societies. We’ve all seen pictures from National Geographic. And we all know that among tribal people women’s breasts are no big deal.
By the mid-1980s, topless beaches and overexposure to nudity in advertising had a similar effect in Europe. Topless women were plastered all over billboards, magazine and television advertisements because both men and women looked. But by the mid-eighties, no one paid much attention anymore. It was all so blasé. European men studying in the U.S. asked why American men were so obsessed with nudity. What’s the big deal, they wondered.
Even men who are overexposed to porn can lose interest, according to Pamela Paul, who has studied porn’s effect on male sexual arousal. As one man put it,
At first, I was happy just to see a naked woman. But as time has gone on I’ve grown more accustomed to such things.
Now he seeks more extreme stuff.
Meanwhile, studies show that even women learn the breast fetish, with images of a nude woman creating greater blood flow to the vaginal area than images of a nude man. More on that later.
How odd. Breasts turn on Western women, but not tribal men? And hetero women get more aroused by a nude woman than by a nude man?
Fetishes are created by selectively hiding and revealing — making that which is hidden enticing. Both men and women become intrigued. (Women do experience all this a bit differently from men, which I’ll discuss later.)
Meanwhile, a student of mine lived in Iran after the Islamic revolution when women strictly covered themselves except for the face. She told me that every now and again she would pull her veil back a little and watch the men go wild over her “hair cleavage.”
In America around the turn of the last century even seeing an ankle was sexy because they were always covered. In some old family photos one of my grandmothers is pulling her skirt up above her ankle to look scandalously sexy. I couldn’t even comprehend what she was doing until someone explained.
Covering is captivating. If you see the same thing all the time, it’s no big deal.
We always hear that “men are visual” (but that women are not). This isn’t based in biology. Men learn to become visual, while hetero women are left with nothing acceptable to look at. Culturally, we don’t sexualize the male body.
The fetish feels real enough, but then, much of what is learned feels biological.
As we shall see, all this can heighten bedroom excitement. Or it can have the opposite effect. More later…
If you would like to tell me why you disagree with this post, please read this first and comment over there: The Breast Fetish Is Natural? Afraid Not.
British actor, Stephen Fry, has created controversy with a claim that women don’t like sex as much as men, in a recent interview with Attitude Magazine. He feels sorry for straight men because women only have sex with them as the “price they are willing to pay for a relationship.” More proof of women’s sexual disinterest: they don’t go off having random sex in churchyards and restrooms, like he apparently does, to “get my f’ing rocks off.”
One woman questioned equating sexual enjoyment with random restroom meetings, “Most of us prefer intimacy with men who understand trust and respect, and give time to the art of seduction. And the men who want us are not dupes or dogs on heat. Trust me — more erotic pleasure and excitement is experienced with a true love on clean sheets than a quick one with some sad, unwashed, unnamed bloke on a gravestone.”
Meanwhile, British feminists like Germaine Greer have publicly denounced him.
At the same time, anyone who looks at social research will know that there is a kernel of truth to what Frye says. On average, women do report liking sex less.
Cross-cultural research and survey data suggest that while women have the capacity to be extremely sexual and sexually interested – probably more so than men with their capability for multiple orgasms – our culture does dampen women’s sexuality.
Frye feels sorry for men, but it’s a patriarchal culture that has created this situation.
Sex isn’t so appealing when society and religion send signals that women’s sexuality is sinful, or when women are slut-shamed and seen as devaluing themselves when they “give it up,” and blamed for not controlling men’s sexuality. On some college campuses men take the walk of fame Sunday morning, while women take the walk of shame.
And who gets screwed, f’d, banged, nailed (the list goes on)?
Meanwhile, a cock is proud. But “down there” is shameful.
Rape and incest also dampen women’s sexuality. As one of my students related, “I was molested by a family member for seven years of my life before I could tell anyone, and it repressed me to the core. I didn’t want to be touched by anyone, and I wanted to look ugly. I still fight some of these battles today.” Rape and incest are higher in patriarchal societies. In cultures where men value women, there is little violence against them.
Surveys show that women who don’t feel sexy can also have a harder time enjoying sex. With narrow notions of what sexy is, a lot of women find the bedroom something less than fun.
With all of these negative forces in play, it’s no wonder women are so often repressed.
For women to fully engage and enjoy their sexuality, we as a culture must start loving women.
Responses to my post asking why women like sex less than men included:
- Says who?
- I think it’s the opposite – I think women like it more
- I don’t think anyone can know who likes sex better
Or as one man put it, “The overwhelming majority of men and women get their attitudes and desires for sex primarily through the natural, healthy desire to have sex… Women are equal to men and thus capable of every form of behavior that men engage in.”
To which I respond: no and yes.
Women are certainly capable of enjoying sex immensely. As much as men. Given their ability for multiple orgasm, possibly more. In some societies women are highly orgasmic and inclined to engage in sex with great frequency, as with Tahitians and American Indians before contact with Europeans.
But highly orgasmic women in America? Not so much – at least not by comparison. 30-40% suffer sexual dysfunction. That is very different from sex-positive cultures.
Of course women are capable of having great sex. But the extent to which they actually do depends on factors other than just what nature brings them. Repression plays a role, and so do sexual objectification and male dominance (all will be explored later).
Do women like sex less? Consider this research on sexuality in America:
On the orgasm front three-quarters of men say they “always” have an orgasm, but just 30% of women do. One quarter of women don’t usually have orgasms. In the casual sex of hook-ups the rate is lower, especially for women. Sociologist Michael Kimmel (Guyland) surveyed college students on their most recent hookup. Only 44% of the men reported having an orgasm, and only 19% of the women did.
The more orgasmic a person is, the more they report enjoying sex. Not surprisingly, women report liking sex less than men do. A Chicago University study found that men have more interest in sex at all ages. And an ABC News Primetime Live survey found that 83% of men “enjoy sex a great deal,” while only 59% of women do. That same study found that while 70% of men think about sex every day, only 34% of women do (and they do so less often during the day).
Women also experience weaker sexual drive, compared with men, with more than one quarter of young women feeling weak desire according to the Archives of Internal Medicine. Research at the University of Chicago found that 32% of women (but only 15 -17% of men) have low libidos. Added to difficulties with orgasm, women experience more sexual dysfunction than men.
Not surprisingly, 40% of men say they would like to have more sex than they do now, but only 28% of women feel the same way.
For more evidence of gender difference in sexual interest that arises in broad patterns of social behavior, see my post: Sex Research: It Doesn’t Fit Me, It Must Be Wrong
I wonder if men ever sit around confiding to friends that sex ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve listened to these kinds of conversations with many groups of women, yet it’s hard to imagine men doing the same thing.
The difference in the male and female experience is due mostly to cultural forces. The difference in the female experience between modern Americans and ancient Tahitians is entirely due to culture.
Yet many people think our society has no negative effects on women’s sexuality.
Maybe that’s why we don’t do anything to create change.
A couple of people who joined the discussion on how women and men “do sex” questioned research findings I had cited because the data didn’t fit their experience.
There is reason for concern. Often, people want to look good, normal and acceptable, even when they are anonymous.
Prudish people are more likely to throw sex surveys in the trash. People who have more interest in sex are more likely to fill them out.
Men exaggerate the number of partners they’ve had, while women under estimate theirs.
Some people who are gay or lesbian may be in denial, or they may fear someone finding out, so their numbers may be underestimated.
Trying to look normal, most people say they have sex with their spouse once a week, since that’s the number they always hear.
At the same time, the data is based on a larger swath of the population than most of us interact with.
Most of us are friends with people who are like us, and who share our views. That’s why they are friends. And our group may not be typical.
One person who felt the studies didn’t fit his experience is in an open marriage, which constitutes less than 1% of the population. That’s not your typical group. Another is a feminist, also not typical of the population. A group of Southern Baptists would probably see things differently from these two.
Keep in mind that research reflects averages. You and your friends may not be typical.
We also tend to project our own views onto others. If we love sex, we don’t get that others don’t. If we think sex is dull, we have a hard time believing that others love it.
From the comments I’ve posted, it is clear that there is no one way that men or women behave. There is no one attitude.
But there are some strong social patterns:
- Surveys say men want, on average, 14 partners over a lifetime, while women say they want 1 or 2
- Women report enjoying sex less than men
- While prostitution finds plenty of male customers, female customers are in short supply. Gigolos are practically a myth
- Playgirl is perennially bankrupt, yet the male porn audience is huge
- Hooking up: College women get bored quickly and exit the scene, but college men want to continue casual sex even after leaving college
- Men are usually more enthusiastic about open marriage or swinging, and more often initiate the idea
- Male fantasies are more x-rated; female fantasies revolve more around romance
- For more survey data on how much women and men say they enjoy sex, see: DO Women Like Sex Less Than Men?
Is this conversation dated?
One woman commented:
- I came out of the feminist 70’s and this conversation seems a little dated. Really, we can do whatever we want to do and who cares?
Yet this issue still comes up with my 18, 19, and 20-something students. They still feel the conversation is relevant.
Another woman’s perspective:
- While we are free to do what we want, what good is the freedom when you feel used and discarded?