The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Sexual liberation: Whose sexuality is liberated, men's or women's?

Sexual revolution caters to men or women?

Sexual liberation means more sex outside marriage (pre-marital, extramarital), particularly for women. Today, most young women are sexually active outside marriage. Their grandmothers mostly reserved intercourse until after marriage. Such generational differences are referred to as the "sexual revolution," or "women's liberation" because women's behavior changed more than that of men. Women's liberation often strikes me as semantically troubling, implying that females are finally getting what they have long wanted. Who have been more sexually liberated men or women?

The evolutionary background
Gender differences in sexual motivation are accepted among biologists who recognize that females are more discriminating in the choice of a mate because they invest more in the offspring from the outset because the egg is always much larger than the sperm. Among mammals, females also bear the huge energy costs of gestation and lactation. For these reasons, females are considered a resource over which males must compete. Compete they do.

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Men's eagerness to mate is highlighted by the sex industries of pornography and prostitution that cater principally to males. In every country studied, men also want more partners in uncommitted relationships although a minority of women are more interested in casual sex than the average man.

Whereas men are generally more interested in casual sex, women look for greater emotional commitment in a relationship. This sensibility is reflected in romance novels read mainly by women and it would have helped our female ancestors to select faithful partners who stayed around to help them raise children.

The historical background
As early as 1870, contraceptives (rubber condoms) were widely used in the U.S. and Europe (1). Before then, extramarital sexuality carried a huge risk of unwanted pregnancy and consequent abandonment. Most women were sexually active only after marriage, keeping the single parenthood ratio to below 5 percent over many centuries of English parish records.

A similar picture applied in the U.S. until the sexual revolution of the 1960s when many young women began having sex before marriage. Sex researchers also document increased interest in sexual pleasure, variety of sexual acts, time devoted to making love, number of sex manuals purchased, and so forth.

What caused the sexual revolution?
Many factors may have been implicated, such as improved contraception (the pill which gave women more control), but effective condoms had been widely used for a century. Marriage prospects and careers were the key. Women's marriage prospects worsened steadily throughout the sixties and there were only 80 men of marriageable age for every 100 women (2) thanks to an echo effect of the baby boom a generation earlier. Women also postponed marriage as they developed careers.

The net result was a large and increasing population of women who were sexually active outside marriage. Facing stiffer competition for men, women upped the ante by offering increased levels of sexual intimacy outside marriage.

In addition to complying with the masculine desire for sex without strings, women today adopt a more masculine sensibility regarding issues of number of sexual partners, sexual variety, and sexual satisfaction.

Which gender is more pleased by those circumstances? Whose evolved psychological needs are being catered to? From an evolutionary perspective, the so-called sexual liberation of women looks more like sexual liberation for men. i.e., men get more sex and more sexual variety without making an emotional commitment.

Because they are over supplied, and less in demand, women enter into the spirit of men's penchant for recreational sex. This psychology is at an extreme on U.S. college campuses where there are only about 75 men per hundred women and hooking up (some level of physical intimacy that lasts for just one night) has largely replaced dating (3). As women's bargaining power declines, they must behave more like men if they wish to remain active in the romantic sphere. Women certainly gain in sexual freedom compared to their grandmothers but they lose out in emotional commitment.

1. Langford, C. M. (1991). Birth control practices in Great Britain: A review of the evidence from cross-sectional surveys. Population Studies, 45, S49-68.
2. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. Guttentag, M. & Secord, P. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
3. Bogle, K. (2008). Hooking up: Sex dating and relationships on campus. New York: New York University Press.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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