Cui Bono

Human behavior unpacked

Are Women as Driven by Sexual Desire as Men? Part I: New Research Says “Yes”

Could conventional wisdom about male and female desire be wrong?

Man flirting

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I bet that if we asked ten people (men or women) off the street whether men are generally more eager for sex than women, nine out of ten would say, "Of course!" This commonly accepted sex difference has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies, one of the most famous being the Clark and Hatfield study, "Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers," published in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality in 1989. In this classic study, attractive college students who were confederates of the researchers approached students they did not know and asked them one of three questions: (1) "Would you go out with me tonight?" (2) "Would you come over to my apartment tonight?" or (3) "Would you go to bed with me tonight?" For the first question, 50% of both sexes said "yes." For the second question, 69% of the men but only 6% of the women said "yes." For the blunt sexual proposal, 75% of the men-but not a single woman-replied "yes." A number of replication studies have yielded similar results.

And nine out of ten people off the street would yawn and say, "So what? Everyone knows that men are more eager for sex than women. It is not surprising that more men than women would accept an offer for casual sex."

Desire

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But then there's the one person out of ten who disbelieves the common sentiment that men are more interested in sex than women. Terri Conley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, would be one of those one out of ten persons. She also disagrees with the various forms of scientific evidence indicating that men have a stronger, biologically-evolved sex drive than women. Her alternative explanation, based on "Pleasure Theory," is that both men and women are motivated by an equally strong interest in the physical pleasures of sex. It is just that men anticipate that casual sex will usually be pleasurable, while women do not anticipate that casual sex will be physically pleasurable unless a number of conditions are met (she must feel safe; she must have reason to believe her partner will be good in bed). Those conditions were not met in the Clark and Hatfield study, where research participants were approached by strangers. In her own set of studies, Conley constructed scenarios in which participants were to imagine an opportunity to have a casual but safe sexual encounter with a familiar person. As long as the female research participants anticipated that the safe, familiar, potential partner was likely to be good in bed, they indicated they would have sex with that person as often as male participants indicated they would have sex with a similarly familiar person. (In one study the familiar person was a celebrity such as Johnny Depp or Christie Brinkley; in another study the familiar person was the participant's best friend of the opposite sex.)

I had read Conley's study when it first appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. I am blogging about it now because someone recently pointed me to a popularized (but accurate) account of the research on Miller-McCune. When I read the original article, I considered the research to be a thoughtful effort to specify the conditions under which women are most likely to engage in pleasurable, casual sex. To my mind, the research had useful practical applications for both women and men. The research is a service to women because it teaches women who are not sure when casual sex might be good (and reminds women who know when casual sex is likely to be good) about the conditions under which casual sex is most likely to be pleasurable. The research is also a service to men who are looking for casual sex because it instructs them about the importance of creating the perception of safety, familiarity, and their own sexual prowess.

In case it was not clear, the previous sentence was written tongue-in-cheek. I think the last thing that Dr. Conley intended to accomplish with her research was to improve men's short-term mating efforts. Rather, I sense that Dr. Conley was unhappy with the common notion (and scientific evidence for the notion) that men enjoy sex more than women, and she wanted to find ways of leveling the playing field. Nonetheless, I can imagine many men appreciating what seems to be a message that encourages women to be as eager for casual sex as they are. After all, the more women who believe the implications of Dr. Conley's research, the more women who will be out there looking for casual sex, which increases men's chances of finding a casual sexual partner.

Edward and Bella
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Before men start donating to Dr. Conley's research fund, however, they might be wise to take a closer look at the science underlying the research. The Miller-McCune summary of the research reminded me of some howlers I had noticed in the original article. Some of the problems with Dr. Conley's research have already been addressed by Rob Kurzban. I intend to separate the wheat from the chaff in Conley's research in a follow-up post in the near future.  After that follow-up, I intend to post on a related story in which I examine a claim that the patriarchy is responsible for Bella Swan's desire to have sex with a vampire. Really.

 

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

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