Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gender Differences in Sex Drive: Top 25 Part 1

Many of us would probably agree that it is considered common knowledge that men have a stronger sex drive than women. But what kind of science exists to back that up? This is the question that Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Catanese, and Kathleen Vohs set out to answer using a meta-analysis of the literature on sex drive: 

Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? Theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 242-273.

Differences in sex drive can lead to problems in relationships. If one person wants it all the time, while the other partner is willing to do without for long periods of time, friction results. (Pun intended.) The authors consider this an important implication of studying sex drive - if we can figure out what's going on, we may be able to improve romantic relationships in that area, leaving couples to focus on other things. Other issues they list include the reliance on norms and societal expectations in self-evaluation, and deepening our understanding of social exchange and interaction in relationships. 

For the purpose of this study, the authors defined sex drive as the motivation for sex, more precisely defined as desire. They write, "A person with higher sex drive would be one more intense or more frequent desires, or both, for sex." They caution that they are not using the term "drive" to refer to instinct or an innate mechanism, writing "Any findings of gender differences in sex drive (motivation) should not automatically be interpreted as reflecting innate differences and especially not immutable differences."

They also delineate sexual capacity as the maximum amount of sex a person is capable of having, and sexual enjoyment (which on the face appears self-explanatory, but how does one measure this? More on this later). 

The authors performed a massive search of all articles published on the above concepts since 1965. They excluded studies on nonhumans, unpublished dissertations, case studies, narrowly-defined populations, and most studies that included only one gender. 

So, what did they find? Originally I wrote this post with a summary of every sub-topic they looked at, but then I decided it was not only BORING and predictable, but it was way too freakin' long. Therefore, I will summarize more succinctly (without the proper use of semicolons, I know).

The authors examined the following areas: Thoughts, Fantasies & Spontaneous Arousal; Desired Frequency of Sex; Desired Number of Sex Partners; Masturbation; Willingness to Forego Sex; Emergence of Sexual Desire; Seeking Versus Avoiding, Initiating versus Refusing; Liking for Various Sexual Practices; Sacrificing Resources to Get Sex; Favorable Attitudes Toward Sex; Prevalence of Low Sexual Desire; and Self-Rated Sex Drive. 

Across all of these areas, evidence strongly supported that men have higher sex drives than women. If you want specifics, ask me, but it was a 33 page article and summarizing it just got way too cumbersome. 

Some of the data cited in this paper that I find interesting:

  • Women tend to report that they are satisfied with the amount of sex in their marriage. Men, on the other hand, on average wish for a 50% increase. 
  • Gay men report a much higher frequency of sex than lesbians, regardless of length of relationship or other variables, eliminating risk of pregnancy as a possible confounding variable. (Theoretically.)
  • When college students were asked how many partners they would like to have in their lifetime if disease, legal implications, or anything else were not a factor, women on average said 2.7, while men said 64. 64!!!! Outliers were not deleted for this study, and the median for both groups was 1, but that still means that the "promiscuously-inclined minority" of men was still significantly different from that of the women. 
  • When asked to report actual numbers of partners, men consistently report higher numbers than women. Some believe this is due to men tending to overestimate to obtain higher numbers, where as women may undercount in an attempt to keep numbers low. 
  • 47% of women report that they have NEVER masturbated, compared to 16% of men.
  • 20% of men report orgasm as the most important part of the sexual experience, compared to only 2% of women.
  • 8th grade boys, on average, report having twice as many sexual experiences as 8th grade girls.
  • When men and women were approached by a moderately attractive confederate who invited them to have sex later that evening, 100% of the women refused, compared to only 25% of the men. 
  • 80% of men report having gone beyond kissing and hugging with a person they met the same day, compared to 59% of women.
  • 72% of men report having sexual intercourse with a person they met the same day, compared to 49% of women.
  • 45% of men, but only 29% of women said that they find receiving oral sex "very appealing."
  • 34% of men, compared to 17% of women, said that giving oral sex was appealing.
  • Men rate their penises and partners' vaginas more favorably than women rate their own sex organs and their partners.
  • Men report being slightly more eager than women to have to a baby, regardless of whether they are single, in a relationship, or married. 
  • The authors did not find a single study that found women to have a higher sex drive than men. Not one. 

So, WTF Ladies? 

The first thing that strikes me about some of the data included in this study is that numbers don't add up/make sense logically. For example, 80% of men are going beyond first base with someone they just met, but only 59% of women are. Either someone's lying, or there are some very busy women out there. Same thing with the 8th grade boys. 

The authors contend that societal standards are harsher against boys masturbating than girls, etc. They eliminate fear of pregnancy as a possible explanation by studying lesbians and gay men. 

No matter which way you slice their data, it looks like men have a higher sex drive than women. 

The question is, WHY? 

I want to open this up for discussion. My thought is, if evolutionary forces have anything to do with it (which they likely do), it doesn't matter if you're a lesbian or not. Evolution has reduced a woman's sex drive due to pregnancy investment. What I wonder is when the advent of birth control is going to affect evolution - will the Pill stop being as effective? Will women get super-duper sexual to counteract the effects of using birth control?

But I don't think it's that simple. Why aren't women masturbating? Sure, you could use the same evolutionary argument and say that it's to keep a woman's sex drive in check, but that's the simple explanation. 

And here's the kicker - women are capable of having sex more often, for longer, and experiencing multiple orgasms without a refractory period. Why would we have this ability if it wasn't meant to be used? 

AND - you can only get pregnant ONCE at a time - WTF would it matter how many times or with how many different partners you had sex? 

The authors talk about prostitution, the porn industry, the sex toy industry, and magazines when referring to sacrificing resources to get sex. One thing I noted - most magazines talking about sex to women have headlines including lines like "How to Please Your Man" and the like. 

I THINK (as the social psychologist that I am) that women are socialized to believe that sex is something we do for men, not ourselves. I think that's why there are so many who don't masturbate (or don't admit to it), why we report not liking oral sex as much, why most of us don't watch porn, etc. If you watch movies that are considered "sexy" or even pornography, most things that women would do for pleasure are done for the benefit of men. Think of "Girls Gone Wild" - all these college girls getting it on with other girls for the cameras - rather than enjoying it as sexual experimentation, they do these things to get attention from the guys. 

I think many of us are stopped by the idea of being a "whore" and don't engage in things that we might enjoy because of this label. But I do believe that it is very likely a combination of biology and socialization - not one or the other. 

What do you guys think?


scicurious said...

"I think that's why there are so many who don't masturbate (or don't admit to it)"

I would say that SOME of this would result from people not reporting their numbers correctly. Even on a survey where they know data is confidential, I'm sure many women are probably too ashamed to admit that they masturbate. Or that they would like more than 2 sexual partners in their lifetime. We are very socialized to believe, not only that sex is something we do for men, but that we shouldn't WANT to have sex, that we shouldn't WANT to be promiscuous, and I bet that will comes through in the data.

It's not just the implication that sex is something we should do for men, it's the implication going along with it that we shouldn't want it for any other reason.

Becca said...

A meta-analysis isn't really very useful for this- glomping all the data together make a more compelling case that male sex drive > female, but those data don't tell us much about what's going on.

In what cultures is the female:male sex drive ratio highest? In which is it lowest? What are the self-reported explainations for sexual preferences? To what degree could some findings be explained by things that have little to do with sex drive per se (e.g. if women are less interested in receiving oral sex, is it due to the *idea* of oral sex being less appealing, or men being more inept/female anatomy making cunninglingus more challenging than fellatio?)
And, for the love of all that is sexy, won't somebody please run a study in such a fashion where we can tell if there really *are* "some very busy women" out there? I suspect the 8th grade boys are little liars (because, well, I remember 8th grade), but at the same time there is some possibility the numbers are true.

Also, of your highlights, the most interesting to me was that men were slightly more eager to have babies. This might well support your notion that a lot of sex drive by evolutionary necessity stemming from reproductive cost:benefit.

Isabel said...

47% of women report that they have NEVER masturbated, compared to 16% of men.

This can't be true. It's not possible. Is it???? I thought 100% of people masturbated.

For a number of reasons the women seem very conflicted in this survey. All this reservation, and then 59% have gone beyond first base with a near stranger?

JLK said...

Keep in mind that I'm not making an argument here. My interest is not so much in whether there is a difference, but why there might be one. The data in this study though do not even begin to touch on the question of why.

I'm glad you guys noticed the contradictions in the data. It concerns me - who's lying and why? I'll accept that 59% of women are hooking up with 80% of the men when they just met. But how are men sleeping with an average of 18 women, while women are sleeping with between 4 and 5?

Yes, there are more women than men on this planet. But not THAT many.

And the masturbation thing kills me. Of my 3 closest female friends in jr high/hs/college, 2 of them SWORE they had never masturbated, and they said "It's just so gross!"


Comrade PhysioProf said...

There is no way that there is a single human being alive who hasn't masturbated.

JLK said...

@CPP - My sentiments exactly. But why lie about it?

Isabel said...

But how are men sleeping with an average of 18 women, while women are sleeping with between 4 and 5?

I wonder if prostitutes are included?

I just can't believe that 6 out of 10 women are so easy they will do more than make out (even the fact that they will do that is a bit surprising) with someone they just met, yet by middle age most women have only managed to have had a handful of sexual partners. It seems like the women are literally conflicted, not just the study.

I just reread your post and realized that the authors included studies dating back to 1965 for their meta-analysis, which may explain that contradiction to some extent. In fact that seems like an odd choice on their part for this subject especially...

and I still say 47% of the women and 16% of the men are lying about the masturbation;-)

Isabel said...

>and I still say 47% of the women and 16% of the men are lying about the masturbation

not to mention 2 out of 3 of JLK's closest female friends in jr high/hs/college!

chall said...

wow. I really liked this post. Thanks! I might even ask you for the references since I find this very interesting.

I think you are spot on with the "social stigmata" that might make us "lie" more in the research. You know, answering like we "should". Men overstating their numbers of women and women might be underrating.... or not? I find it interesting that among my closest girl friends it was more common that the girls wanted sex more than their/our boyfriends... Maybe we/they were the odd ones out? But it was very obvious among the 6 of us... (anecdotal I know.)

Not to mention the mastrubation. I just can not believe it, but maybe so many women are not comfortable touching themselves and therefore they do not like sex/want sex either? After all, if you are not aware of what you like - is it not going to be less likelihood of enjoying sex? And if you do not enjoy sex, do you not get a lower "sex drive"?

I wonder if it is something underlying that men are more easily satisfied with "regular fast sex"* whereas women more often need "something more" and if that does not happen then they kind of are happier without???

This would expain some of the "cougars" out there, older women who have figured out what they like and want and therefore go "hunting" for more sex. If you understand what I refer to?

(sorry about the long comment)
*not mean about men but if you think of teenagers and/or first time sex, I think there are more men who are happy about their first time than women.. then again, I might be anecdotal again?!

Toaster Sunshine said...

Maybe part of the contradictions/weird results can be explained by differing definitions/standards between men and women. Men are socialized to brag about sex and flaunt their experience with no penalty. Our anatomy is also such that satisfaction is quicker and simpler to obtain. As such, as a whole, our threshhold for desire, satisfying sex, and what counts as sex are considerably lower. Women's anatomy and socialization means that more is invested in being sexual for women, except for masturbation (but this may again be socialization at work).

Becca said...

"I just can't believe that 6 out of 10 women are so easy they will do more than make out (even the fact that they will do that is a bit surprising) with someone they just met" and with that, you've revealed another possible wrinkle in interpreting the data. JLK said "59% of women report having gone beyond hugging and kissing"... now here's the question... if the survey in question used that exact terminology, might women tend to define "beyond hugging and kissing" as "beyond making out" and men tend to define it more literally? I mean, if boys spend more time arguing over what constitutes second base, a little rub or fondle and *boom* you're "past kissing and hugging". Now, this is kind of assuming women are more inclined to present themselves as more sexually restrained- but this isn't necessarily a "men are lying" or "women are lying" (or both) issue.
(I could even see grounds for a couple having different answers to "have we had intercourse?" particularly when it comes to oral sex)

DuWayne Brayton said...

I wonder how sexual abuse might come into play. While it wouldn't explain all the numbers, I think it could manage a significant impact.

In my anecdotal experience, women who have been sexually abused often lack any kind of sex positivity, especially when they're young. And depending on the type and level of abuse things can get very ugly indeed. At the very least, I could see how many women who have experienced some sort of sexual trauma suffering an almost, if not actual pathological expression of distaste for sex.

And unfortunately, there are all too many women who have suffered sexual trauma.

I will think on this some more and probably have more to say later.

leigh said...

hmm, i found this study intriguing, but imo lots of self-reporting accuracy issues and contradictions to find here. i think they've mostly been covered in the comments section.

one thing i wonder about is the effect of religious belief upon the factors they measured. also, i would imagine there is an effect of the "generation" you were raised in, which makes me wonder about the effects of including studies back to the 1960s. maybe they accounted for that in the statistics?

JLK said...

@Leigh - you make a really great point. It had occured to me that it could be generational, but most of the data they use is either more current, or has an older study and a newer study to back it up.

However, after reading your comment I went back through the article and looked specifically at the section on masturbation. What I found there was that every single study cited is from the 1970's.

That's a problem. My mother could have been part of those studies when she was a teenager - and I guarantee that she and I do not share the same ideas and values about sex, especially not when she was 14 compared to when I was 14.

This is making me want to do my own study to look at generational effects. Break up responses by generation to get a preview, then continue to do the study with a couple of successive generations (as many as I could do), to eliminate the confounding variable of age gradually.

It surprises me that they didn't address the fact that we know kids are becoming sexually active at earlier and earlier ages. It seems to be a huge question left unanswered - there is something that is affecting both boys and girls and we should know what it is before we start presenting as fact the idea that women have weaker sex drives than men.

Simon Jones said...

There is a Gender Differences in Sex Drive but it can be equal by using the increasing and decreasing the sex drive. Differences in sex drive can lead to problems in relationships.

Sex Drive

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