Women are from Venus, men are from Mars. Women use sex to have relationships, men use relationships to have sex. Women want partners, men want something else that begins with “p.”
We’ve all heard these little nuggets of conventional wisdom—but how insightful are they, really? Men and women are different, of course, and the two genders feel differently about sex. But most discussions of the male-female divide claim the differences are as vast and unbridgeable as the Grand Canyon, that men and women cannot possibly understand each other.
A recent study of gender differences around sexuality paints a much different picture. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison used statistical techniques to combine the results of more than 500 studies published from 1943 to 2007. Then they combined those results with the findings of several other large ongoing surveys that together include tens of thousands of American, English, and Australian adults. The time span and enormity of these studies suggests valid, reliable results.
And what were the results? While men and women do, indeed, show gender differences with regard to sex, their differences are much smaller than the Venus-Mars dichotomy suggests.
The myth is that men are eager to jump into bed with any woman who seems halfway interested, while women pick and choose very carefully. As a result we would expect men to report a great deal more intercourse than women (in part because many men patronize sex workers).
Gender differences in reported intercourse are, indeed, large among teens and those in their twenties. But over time, the differences decrease. Considering adults of all ages, rates of heterosexual intercourse reported by men and women are roughly equivalent. Men report slightly more frequent intercourse with a slightly larger number of partners, but given the broad belief in huge gender differences, the actual differences are surprisingly small.
Age at First Intercourse
The myth is that testosterone-crazed young men lose their virginity much earlier than timid young women. Again, the actual differences are much smaller than the mythology suggests. Before 1970, the average age at first intercourse for men was 18, for women, 19. But since the mid-1990s, the average age of first intercourse for both men and women has been 15 to 16.
From World War II through the 1960s, oral sex (cunnilingus and fellatio) represented the sexual frontier. Today, oral is far from ubiquitous, but most people have tried it, with very little gender difference. Most of the studies in this analysis did not distinguish between providing and receiving oral, but the National Health and Social Life Survey did, and it shows that 77 percent of men report performing cunnilingus, while 73 percent of women report receiving it, and 68 percent of women report performing fellatio while 79 percent of men report receiving it. Again, the differences are statistically modest.
The myth is that horny men have lots of affairs, while more demure women do not. It’s very difficult to study extra-marital sex because, even in anonymous surveys, many people are reluctant to admit affairs. But the studies in this analysis are fairly consistent in showing that about 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women report affairs. This is a significant difference—but it’s smaller than many people imagine.
Like extra-marital affairs, solo sex is also difficult to study because many people are reluctant to admit it, or admit their actual frequency. Compared with older studies, more recent research shows less difference in admissions of masturbation. However, auto-eroticism is one of the few elements of sexuality that show substantial gender difference. The best estimate is that during the past year, 63 percent of men and 42 percent of women have masturbated.
One indication of this difference is use of pornography. Porn is huge on the Internet, and according to porn industry sources, 80 percent of it is viewed by men solo—typically with one hand busy.
Historically, women’s sexuality has been more socially regulated than men’s—with women’s violations of perceived sexual propriety more severely punished. As a result, we would expect women to experience more sexual guilt than men. In studies before 1960, this was the case. But since then, women’s sexuality has been less stigmatized in the media, and women have become less confined to the home and more fully engaged in the world. As a result, women’s sexual guilt has plummeted, and today, men and women report much smaller differences.
The studies in this huge analysis show little or no gender difference in sexual satisfaction.
I want to emphasize that these findings come not from a single study, but from more than 500 studies published over the past 68 years involving tens of thousands of participants. They may not be perfect, but as a group—a huge group—they strike me as persuasive.
Women are not from Venus and men are not from Mars. The two genders are increasingly finding common sexual ground between those to planets. Women and men are both from Earth.
The study: Petersen, J.L. and J.S. Hyde. “Gender Differences in Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors: A Review of Meta-Analytic Results and Large Datasets,” Journal of Sex Research (2011) 48:149.