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Does Sexuality Differ for Men and Women?

What research shows us about gender differences in sexuality.

It is an age-old question: Do men and women experience sexuality differently?

For centuries, it was assumed that sexuality differed drastically between the genders, but from the 1970s, as feminism rose up along with other civil rights movements, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Any sexual differences between men and women were attributed to the impact of society. Newer research now challenges these assumptions, suggesting that men and women may indeed have different experiences of sexuality.

What does psychological research show about the sexuality of men and women?

In William Masters and Virginia Johnson's pioneering work on human sexuality in the 1960s and 1970s, it was assumed that the sexual response worked the same for both men and women. All people followed the four stages of sexual arousal: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.

More recent work has shown, however, that men and women differ dramatically in the nature of their sexuality.

Compared to women, men masturbate more, use more pornography, are more reactive to visual cues, and experience sexual desire more spontaneously.

Women, on the other hand, are less likely to become spontaneously sexually aroused and their sexual desire is much more reactive to their surrounding circumstances. For example, the quality of a woman's relationship with a potential sexual partner greatly affects her feelings of sexual attraction.

In this way, science supports the cliché that women like to be wined and dined and men like sexy outfits.

What does Baumeister propose with regard to gender differences in sexuality?

In a 2000 article, Roy Baumeister proposed that women's sexuality fundamentally varies from that of men. Men, he suggested, have a fixed, biologically-determined sex drive that is relatively insensitive to context. Women, on the other hand, have a much more variable sex drive, far more responsive to the surrounding circumstances.

He based these conclusions on a broad range of empirical findings. According to this research, women have greater variation both in the level of sexual activity and choice of gender over time. Moreover, women's sexuality is far more influenced by cultural factors, such as education, religion, and peer and parental attitudes.

Do men and women differ with regards to sexual orientation?

An explosion of research into female sexuality supports the notion that sexual orientation in women is different from that in men. Men seem to be more categorical in their sexual orientation; they are more likely to be either heterosexual or homosexual. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more flexible in their sexual orientation, less categorically heterosexual or homosexual.

This is supported by studies using the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation, in which women are more likely than men to fall in the middle of the scale, while men are more likely to fall on either end.

Fascinating new studies of men and women's physiological response to various sexual images adds support to this theory. Meredith Chivers, Michael Seto, and Ray Blanchard measured men and women's genital responses to different sexual images. While men's physiological response was for the most part oriented to either adult women or men, women responded sexually to a much broader range of images. In fact, women had a (small) physiological response to images of bonobo chimps mating. Moreover, women's physical response was often at odds with their verbal descriptions. In other words, what women said they responded to did not always correspond to their actual physiological arousal.

If you want to read more about the psychology of love, sex, marriage and family (plus many more topics), check out The Handy Psychology Answer Book, available at and Visible Ink Press.


Baumeister, R.F. (2000). "Gender Differences in Erotic Plasticity: The Female Sex Drive as Socially Flexible and Responsive." Psychological Bulletin, 126(3), 347-74.

Gangestad, S.W., Bailey, J.M., Martin, N.G. (2000). "Taxometric Analyses of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (6), 1109-21.

Chivers, M.L., Seto, M.C., Blanchard, R. (2007). "Gender and Sexual Orientation Differences in Response to Sexual Activities vs. Gender of Actors in Sexual Films." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(6), 1108-21.

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