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Monday, August 01, 2011

Female Sexuality: Complicated (1/3)

"Science is a lot like sex. Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that's not the reason we're doing it." - Richard Feynman

***

Gender and erotic plasticity: sociocultural influences on the sex drive

"Female sexuality is inherently more amenable than male sexuality to influence by cultural events, historical circumstances, socialization, peer influence, and other social variables...

A man’s sexual tastes appear to be fairly well set by young adulthood, but a woman’s may change significantly...

Some heterosexual women may begin to experiment with lesbian activities in their 30s or 40s. Some lesbians begin desiring sex with men after many years of exclusive same-sex orientation. Far more lesbians than gay men have had heterosexual intercourse...

Women with advanced degrees were significantly more likely than women with just a high school education or less to engage in oral and anal sex, to have tried same-sex activity, to use birth control when appropriate, to enjoy a variety of sexual practices, and so forth. Men with advanced degrees were not much different from men with high school only. Highly religious women were less likely to engage in such practices than non-religious women, whereas again men’s sex lives did not differ much between the most and least religious men...

It appears that cultural differences in female sexuality are bigger than male sexuality (e.g., Barry & Schlegel, 1984), and there is also some evidence that when people move to a new country and embrace its culture, the women’s sexuality changes more than the men’s (Ford & Norris, 1993). Peer groups seem to affect adolescent girls’ sexuality more than boys’, and parents have more influence on daughters than on sons...

Genes play a more central role in male than in female sexuality...

Women and girls perform more sex acts that they themselves disapprove of. Women’s views about same-sex activity, or infidelity, or casual sex, or condom use in general are weaker than men’s views at predicting whether they will actually engage in those activities...

There are scattered signs that the male sex drive has a phase of plasticity during childhood. Paraphilias, for example, which are thought to originate in childhood experiences, are much more common among men than among women. And perhaps surprisingly, some very rigorous data suggest that childhood sexual abuse has a stronger and more lasting effect on adult sexuality in men than in women (Laumann et al., 1999). There are even some experimental studies with non-human animals suggesting that childhood experiences can affect male sexuality via a kind of imprinting, whereas female sexuality either does not have imprinting or has sufficient plasticity in adulthood that the effects of imprinting can be easily reversed...

When I first published my survey of findings on erotic plasticity (Baumeister, 2000), I offered several possible explanations and said there was no way of distinguishing among them. One explanation invoked the gender difference in physical strength and political power. Because women have long had to find sex partners who had more power than the women themselves, it may have been adaptive for female sexuality to be flexible so as to accommodate to the men. A second explanation was based on the idea that women’s sex drive is milder than men’s. A less intense motivation may have greater plasticity, whereas strong and powerful drives are less prone to socializing and civilizing influences. A third explanation was based on the gatekeeper role: In sex, women start off saying no to most advances, and so sex mainly occurs when the woman changes her vote from no to yes...

My views have come to favour the second explanation... that men’s sexual motivations are stronger than women’s. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that this conclusion is hotly disputed on political grounds, to the extent that most major sex textbooks either explicitly say it is wrong or at least present it as a quaint stereotype rather than an established fact. Popular wisdom is perhaps less questioning in this regard, and I recall the reaction of a female colleague when I mentioned that we had embarked on a literature review to see whether women desired sex less than men: ‘Anyone who’s ever had sex knows that!’ she insisted. In any case, we did survey a great many findings, and essentially every measure and every study pointed to the same conclusion, namely that men are more sexually motivated than women...

The general principle would be that weaker motivations lead to greater plasticity. The test case would be to find some motivation that is stronger in women than in men and see if in that case men exhibit greater plasticity. Most experts would assume that the desire to raise and care for children is stronger in women than men. And, sure enough, the father role seems to have much greater plasticity than the mother role... This suggests that higher plasticity is not simply a trait of women generally (as the differential power explanation would predict) nor something that pertains only to sexuality (as the gatekeeper explanation would suggest)...

The high level of erotic plasticity among women suggests that many of women’s sexual problems will not respond easily to purely physiological interventions, and therapists might instead find it useful to work with the woman’s interpretation and understanding of sexual events. In contrast, the lower erotic plasticity among men suggests that meanings play a much lesser role, and therapeutic interventions may do better by emphasizing body instead of mind. Put more crudely, the first step in dealing with a presenting complaint about sexuality may be to ask the woman about her thoughts and feelings but to perform a physical check-up on the man...

Second, sexual self-knowledge and self-understanding will prove far more elusive for women than for men... Even if she achieves a full and thorough understanding of her sexual self at age 20, this knowledge may be obsolete at 30 or 40.

Third, the prospects for successful sex therapy may be better for women than for men in many cases. As already noted, recovery from childhood sexual trauma appears to be more common and thorough among women than among men (Laumann et al., 1999). (It is even worth speculating that female erotic plasticity may have evolved in order to help women recover from childhood sexual events, insofar as girls are more likely than boys to have been targeted by adults for sexual exploitation during our evolutionary history.)"


His original paper, Gender Differences in Erotic Plasticity: The Female Sex Drive as Socially Flexible and Responsive, is also good. [Ed: Corrected wrong link]

I will post extracts in future posts.

Ed: Balderdash: Female Sexuality: Complicated (2/3)
Balderdash: Female Sexuality: Complicated (3/3)
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