You know how men want sex all the time whereas women just want diamonds and babies? It turns out that if you look closely at the science behind these claims, a lot of gender differences disappear. A new review of existing research by psychologists at the University of Michigan deconstructs six common Mars/Venus claims.
Men and women may express differences in priorities when talking about hypothetical dating partners. But a speed dating study found that the same isn't true when people are considering actual humans they might really date. In a paper recently published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Michigan psychologist Terri Conley and co-authors write,
Contrary to conventional wisdom, when the object of one's potential affection shifted from ideal to actual, gender differences in preferred qualities of partners disappeared. Specifically, attractiveness and status were found to be equally important to men and women when considering actual dating partners (both in initial speed-dating encounters and a month after those encounters) across a variety of dependent measures (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008). Moreover, gender differences in preferences for status and attractiveness were absent in the judgments of current romantic partners as well (Eastwick, Finkel, & Eagly, in press).
It's true that if you ask men and women how many partners they want over their lifetimes, the men's average response will be higher. This may be because a few men are aspiring Wilt Chamberlains and report that they want to bed thousands of ladies. Using medians instead of averages eliminates the skewing effect of "grossly large numbers of sexual partners desired" by a few men, and yields a surprising result. Say Conley et al, "The use of medians revealed that the majority of men and women desire a similar number of sexual partners: one."
Men also tend to claim they've had more actual sex partners, on average, than women. To test this further, scientists hooked men and women up to a polygraph — it was actually fake, but subjects believed it worked. 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." So people may adjust their "number" up or down to conform with social expectations — but make them think they have to tell the truth, and the numbers even out.
Okay, it's true that men seem to think about sex somewhat more often than women. When scientists asked male and female undergrads to use counters to record the number of times they thought about food, sex, and sleep during a week, guys did count up more sex thoughts. However, they also counted more thoughts about food and sleep. Conley et al explain,
Fisher and colleagues suggested that men are more attentive to their own needs than women are. This is consistent with objectification theory, which suggests that women's focus on others' perceptions reduces women's attention to their own physical needs (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) and with ample research demonstrating men's socialization to be agentic and self-focused (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Women are socialized to be both more attuned to others' needs and are pressured to inhibit expression of their own desires (Helgeson & Fritz, 1999).
So guys may just think about all their physical needs more than women do — or be more comfortable admitting to these thoughts.
Again, this has a basis in fact — in one study, "women orgasmed only 32% as often as men in first-time hookups and 49% as often as men in repeat hookups with the same sexual partner." But when the same study looked at people in long-term relationships, they found the "orgasm gap" much narrower, with women coming 79% as often as men did. One reason: women were more likely to get clitoral stimulation during relationship-sex than during hookups. There are probably a lot of factors here, from communication to comfort levels, but memo to dudes: even if you're not going to put a ring on it, it is polite to attend to the clit.
In a now-famous study, men and women approached subjects and offered to have casual sex with them. No women agreed to the proposition, but 70% of men did. Plenty of people have argued that this means men are biologically hardwired to seek random play, but the truth may be more complicated. As it turns out, both men and women were more likely to accept a proposition if they thought the proposer would be good in bed — and women were much less likely to think dudes would be sexually skilled. This might have to do with that clitoral stimulation finding — if women don't expect to have orgasms with their hookups, they may be less likely to want to hook up in the first place. It's tempting to insult dudes here, but bad first-time sex could be a result of complicated gender norms: if women feel like men just naturally enjoy sex more, they may be less likely to ask for the things that get them off, until they're in a relationship and feel comfortable.
Also a relic of fucked-up gender norms: slut-shaming. Women who thought they might get slut-shamed were less likely to have accepted actual past casual sex offers, or to accept hypothetical ones in the present. And in fact, "when both proposer sexual capabilities and stigma associated with participation in casual sex are accounted for, the giant gender differences in acceptance evaporate completely."
Conley et al point out that "assumptions about women's choosiness have been based on our culture's traditional gender dynamics" — especially, the expectation that men will approach women. 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.
Conley et al conclude their review thus:
Within psychology, perspectives that draw upon adaptively evolved mechanisms (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Eagly & Wood, 1999) are typically utilized to explain gender differences in sexuality. That is, the behaviors we see today are presumed to be relics of our evolutionary past. The research reviewed suggests that these 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.
That is, some pretty simple experiments reveal that far from being hardwired into our brains, differences in sexual behavior may be conditioned by our very different gender roles. Imagine that.
Women, Men, And The Bedroom: Methodological And Conceptual Insights That Narrow, Reframe, And Eliminate Gender Differences In Sexuality [Current Directions In Psychological Science]
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