Sex Lives, Male and Female

Sex is something that women have and men want. Or is it?

I caused a bit of comment in a blog on another website when I wrote, “Your mother told you men only want one thing, and you may have rolled your eyes, but she had a piece of the truth. Biology and common sense both tell us sex is something women have and men want. We can try as hard as we want to talk our way around this, but we can’t make it any less true…”

“Julie” quoted this and said, “I really hope that was meant to be a joke.”

I answered, “It’s shorthand, and it’s an exaggeration, but it’s a useful one, and it’s certainly no joke. The difference between males and females in both sex drive and, more importantly, choosiness, is a fundamental insight of evolutionary biology, a fact of life in cultures throughout the world, and a finding confirmed by countless studies by sex researchers (male and female) from Kinsey to the present. Of course women want sex too, but all evidence shows that men want it more.”

The exchange continued; Julie accused me of not citing any studies and pointed out that socialization biases them. I’ve learned that there are a lot of people one can’t convince with any amount of evidence that some of the differences between the psychological realities of men and women are due to biology. But Julie did inspire me to read some of the more recent research.

For starters, I recommend a 2001 overview in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Catanese, and Kathleen Vohs. They review more than 150 studies and ask the question, “Is There a Gender Difference in Sex Drive?” Their conclusion:

Across many different studies and measures, men have been shown to have more frequent and more intense sexual desires than women, as reflected in spontaneous thoughts about sex, frequency and variety of sexual fantasies, desired frequency of intercourse, desired number of partners, masturbation, liking for various sexual practices, willingness to forego sex, initiating versus refusing sex, making sacrifices for sex, and other measures. No contrary findings (indicating stronger sexual motivation among women) were found.

In a typical study 90% of men but only half of women experienced sexual desire at least a few times a week. In another the typical young man experienced sexual arousal several times a day, the typical young woman “a couple of times a week.” In an Australian study the category of people who were in a committed relationship, wanted to have sex, but were not having it consisted almost exclusively of males. In another study men expected to have sex after 8 dates, women after 12.

Sex differences in masturbation are consistent and large. Women are much more likely to have never masturbated and women who do masturbate do so much less frequently at all ages than do men. Men begin to have sexual intercourse earlier in life, are less willing to forego sex for any phase of life, are more permissive and favorable toward sex, initiate sex much more often in longer relationships, and show more interest in every sexual practice, including cunnilingus. Hypoactive sexual desire, whether by diagnosis or self-report, is in statistical terms overwhelmingly a female issue.

Another comment on my blog pointed out that men sometimes want men, and women, women. Clearly, and most instructively. Lesbian relationships are less sexual than gay male relationships at every stage by almost every measure. In fact, on many measures, such as frequency of intercourse and of sexually transmitted diseases, heterosexual relationships are intermediate between lesbian and gay male ones. So when you remove the complex issues of male dominance and women’s oppression within heterosexual relationships, the differences between men and women are exaggerated, not reduced.

As for common sense, who pays cash for sex? Almost exclusively men. Estimates of the proportion of men who have paid for sex range from one in ten to one in six, and half of the men who have paid for sex are involved in other relationships. A few women pay for sex, but it’s a newsworthy man-bites-dog story. Also, despite many commercial efforts, women do not buy much pornography and have little interest in pictures of naked men; porn customers are overwhelmingly male.

The first, simple, italicized sentence above is one I initially heard from Donald Symons, whose excellent book The Evolution of Human Sexuality set all these facts in evolutionary context. In a nutshell, women invest much more in the care of individual offspring, partly from biological necessity, and therefore are a scarce resource for which men strive, compete, and pay.

This is true in all known cultures and historical periods, and the evidence was brought up to date recently in a 2004 paper by Baumeister and Vohs, “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” also in Personality and Social Psychology Review. In evolutionary terms, so much more is at stake for women in a casual encounter that they can and must ask for something beyond pleasure in return.

Symons’ statement, which resonates with clarity and simplicity, occurs in his book, but I first heard it when he appeared on a television documentary about sex. I recall him standing with the interviewer in a singles’ bar, where men of course are more likely to pay for the drinks and where there is no such thing as a “men’s night” to keep the sex ratio balanced.

Symons pointed out that the ideology of the sixties had convinced many women that his statement is untrue, with the result that they temporarily tended to give away their precious resource with abandon. He saw this (reasonably I think) as a successful deception campaign by men. But in its extreme version it didn’t last long.

Some women do want sex as much as men; the more power to them and their partners. Some men want little or none. There is nothing superior about wanting it and nothing superior about not wanting it. But denial of the facts of human sexual nature as it applies to most men and women can only lead to confusion and ultimately to suffering.



  1. Brendan Flynn says:

    Lowly pre-med student

    Let’s get Mrs. Konner’s input haha. Perhaps Julie wanted you to cite her!

    I’m not sure if my email got through, but here it is just in case:

    I’m a freshman at Cortland State in upstate NY. I’m
    a biomedical science/premed major and a part of my curriculum is a biomedical
    seminar class. The class project involves being assigned a job in the field and
    doing research and interviews for a powerpoint presentation to the class. I was
    assigned “medical/science writer” and was wondering if you’d be willing to
    answer a few questions regarding how being a physician influenced the writing of
    “Becoming a Doctor” (and vice versa?) There would be maybe 10 or so
    questions covering pretty basic topics (Training, pay, working with publishers)
    about the writing process. I’m quite a fan of your writing.

    Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated

    Many thanks

    Brendan Flynn
    (1917) 837-0863
    SUNY at Cortland

  2. Clare says:

    I’m curious what you make of the ethnographic accounts from cultures where widows are considered to be insatiable sex fiends? Is this how fear of women expresses itself, that they become more interested in sex than is considered usual? Or is there some truth to the folklore? Is there any evidence that sexual interest waxes and wanes (so to speak) over the life course of men and women?

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