The year 2012 may be remembered less for apocalyptic endings (we hope) than for the apparent explosion of women’s sexuality in pop media. Magic Mike became the runaway hit movie of the summer, and Fifty Shades of Grey has rivaled Harry Potter at the top of all-time best seller lists. Social critics proclaim their surprise at this burst of female libido into popular consciousness. Despite what you may be led to believe, though, the truth is that women and men just aren’t that different when it comes to basic sex drives.
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Women are flocking to Magic Mike like bachelorettes to a Chippendale party. However, this isn't the first movie to appeal to women's lustier tastes. Though the story line may be lighter than its 1997 predecessor, The Full Monty, both movies share a fascination with the male body in motion. The Full Monty did exceptionally well in the box office itself, becoming the top grossing film in the UK until the release of Titanic later in the year. Novels with female protagonists demanding that their sexual needs be fulfilled are not new either. We only have to think back to 1928’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, written by D.H. Lawrence (and banned in its entirety until 1960), to realize that female sexuality has been the driving force behind the success of plenty of literature, from the so-called "bodice rippers" to Erica Jong's 1973 Fear of Flying, which introduced the unforgettable phrase "Zipless F***" into popular parlance.
So the sexually aware female protagonist is hardly new. However, the way she is portrayed in Hollywood is, ironically, mainly from the male viewpoint. When Hollywood first introduced explicit nudity in non-pornographic films in the late 1960s, the honor of baring it all was reserved primarily for women. The men who direct the films who assume that their audience–male and female–will share their fascination, if not obsession, with a woman’s nude body.
Many female directors may themselves decide to replicate this pattern (such as Jane Campion’s The Piano), a fact that I have always found hard to fathom. One exception is Diane English’s bold remake of a 1930s classic The Women. The novel feature of this movie was the fact that the cast consisted entirely of women (even the extras). Sex and the City, a creation of Darren Star after the books by Candace Bushnell, featured plenty of nudity, but the full frontal variety was reserved mostly for female characters, especially Samantha.
When you consider the behavior patterns of people who see movies, it’s not very hard to consider why both male and female directors cater so much to men’s tastes. On date night, it’s the man who pays, right? Therefore, from a cynical point of view, when you’re trying to sell movie tickets, make sure that the guy who’s buying will be satisfied with your product. It’s easier to get a man to take a woman to a chick flick if some of the chicks flick off their underwear.
Expect to further analysis of the “new” interest that women are showing in sexy movies. However, there’s nothing really new about their interest. It’s just that more women are paying customers. Whether it’s by themselves, with a bunch of their girlfriends, or even with their dates (for whom the women are now paying), women are becoming a force to be reckoned with in the movie marketplace.
Also expect to see evolutionary psychologists interpret these patterns of women’s “new” sexuality as evidence in favor of the need to keep the species afloat. You may also see twisted interpretations of the success of Fifty Shades of Grey regarding women’s inherited, deep-seated neurotic needs to be submissive to strong, dominant men who ravish them. You’ll probably not see many headlines that say “Women and Men are Basically the Same.”
In fact, an article appeared with just such a claim last year in the highly respected journal Current Directions in Psychological Science by University of Michigan researcher Terri Conley and her colleagues. Despite its provocative title (“Men, Women, and the Bedroom”), the article got relatively little press attention. Research that supports lack of sex differences is far less heavily touted in the media than claims that evolution makes men more manly and women more womanly.
Conley and team, rivaling a recent Mythbusters episode on “The Battle of the Sexes,” chose the six most prevalent myths about female sexuality and, one by one, put them to the test. In each case, they marshalled the best data from both experimental studies and surveys. Here are the myths and the reasons why they're myths:
- Women and men have distinct preferences, based on gender, for certain partners. According to this myth, women value men with powerful status, and men value women who are both youthful and attractive. Busting this myth was an experimental study showing that, in a real-life speed dating scenario, when potential dates were rated on their actual (not ideal) qualities, people of both genders equally valued both sets of qualities.
- Women want fewer sexual partners. Conley and team reviewing relevant studies found that yes, some men do want a large number of sexual partners. However, when appropriate statistical controls were used, it turned out that the most people (male and female) wanted the same number of partners. Guess what that number was? One! How about actual number of partners? It turns out that when it comes to counting number of partners, men like to claim huge bragging rights. In a novel experimental twist, researchers managed to convince participants that their lies were being detected when they were asked about the number of partners they actually had sex with. Under these circumstances, men adjusted downward their previously exaggerated claims to numerous conquests.
- Men think about sex more often than women do. The study defying this myth actually did receive some attention when it was published in 2011. Men (college men, at least) did in fact report that they think about sex more often than women do. However, our lusty college men also thought more about food and sleep over the course of an average week. Men, especially those in college, are simply more likely to think about their physical needs than are women. Whether this is biology or socialization is another question that I’ll return to later.
- Women have orgasm less frequently than men do. Conley and team next tackled the myth about the big O. In other words, when it comes to male-female differences, is there actually an “orgasm gap”? It turns out that studies show women to be less likely to report experiencing orgasm than men, but this is only part of the story. The other part has to do with commitment. When in committed relationships, women and men experience orgasm with equal frequency. The answer is less biological than psychological—in committed relationships, men are more attentive, on average, to the sexual needs of their partners.
- Women don’t like casual sex as much as men do. For years, the considered wisdom in psychological research on sexuality supported this myth. Previous studies showed that something like 70 percent of men versus 0 percent of women were willing to take up a hypothetical offer of a sexual encounter in an experimental situation by a research confederate (needless to say, the sex doesn’t really happen). Countering this conclusion was research by Conley herself showing that women will accept hypothetical offers of casual sex if they think the man will be sexually adept. That 70 percent difference vanished entirely when Conley controlled for the perceived role of stigma—the socially held belief that women who engage in casual sex are “sluts.” Women will accept an offer of casual sex if they believe that they can avoid being stigmatized for their behavior.
- Women are choosier than men. The speed dating study mentioned in Myth #1 provided fuel to douse this next myth. It turns out that if men are doing the approaching, their potential female partners are choosier. However, if you turn the tables and have women do the approaching, it’s the men who now become the more discerning gender. Simply approaching a potential dating partner causes that someone to look at you in a new light.
Where do these ideas come from in the first place? Why are people, even those who should know better, so ready to jump on the sex-difference bandwagon?
Unless someone figures out a new way to control for socialization, we can never untangle the inevitable confounds between cultural and biological factors. How would we ever know if a woman is genetically programmed to prefer thinking about being dominated by a man in a sexual scenario, real or fantasized, when women are socialized from birth to see men as the dominant sex? There aren’t enough statistical controls in the world to make up for the fact that all studies on sex differences reflect the social values absorbed by every member of a culture. Women are socialized from an early age into believing that romantic partners should be strong, dominant, and powerful. However, social media seem more likely to accept the Freudian explanation that "anatomy is destiny," the underlying basis for his views about penis envy. We are much less likely to hear the argument put forth by one of his only female followers, Karen Horney. According to Horney, it’s not the penis that women envy about men, it’s their social power.
I should point out that a rejoinder was published by a team of authors (Schmitt, et al., 2011) countering the Conley study, which you can read about here. As I mentioned above, the issue will undoubtedly continue to remain controversial well into the future, until the truly controlled studies can be conducted.
As women’s lustful natures become increasingly socially accepted, these discussions, including mine, will eventually become outdated, or so we can hope. When that day comes, we no longer will need to wonder “What women want” but instead “What people want."
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Valentine, B. A. (2011). Women, men, and the bedroom: Methodological and conceptual insights that narrow, reframe, and eliminate gender differences in sexuality. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 20(5), 296-300. doi:10.1177/0963721411418467
Schmitt, D. P., Jonason, P. K., Byerley, G. J., Flores, S. D., Illbeck, B. E., O’Leary, K. N., & Qudrat, A. (2012). A reexamination of sex differences in sexuality: New studies reveal old truths.Current Directions In Psychological Science, 21(2), 135-139. doi:10.1177/0963721412436808