I need to thank Minerva for inspiring this post, since she was the one who sent me the 2001 meta-analysis examining difference in sexual desire between women and men (“Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive?” by Baumeister, Catanese and Vohs ) that so frustrated me I had to blog about it .
Now I realize there’s a difference between discussing personal experience and discussing the characteristics of a general population (thank you Emily Nagoski!). But I also think that, when it comes to human sexuality, that’s particularly difficult to keep this in mind. Why? In part because generally speaking we don’t speak publicly about our own personal sexual experiences. So instead of knowing (from hearing a bunch of individual stories) that peoples’ individual experience varies, and having that knowledge to compare to the population-level data, we usually have primarily our own experience and then this data which purports to be everyone elses’ experience. Or at least, the “normal” or normative experience.
So we hold up our own selves on one side, the study data on the other, and go: “Oh my God! I’m a fucking outlier!” When, really, it might be the data that’s total shite. Or, even if it isn’t shite, it is only going to have limited relevance in terms of your own sexuality being “normal” or not. Because part of being “normal” is having unique, personal experiences which are variations on the norm.
To counteract that, I want to share some of my own reactions to this (admittedly dated) meta-analysis and talk about how my own experience of sexual desires and practices causes me to be particularly skeptical of some of the study’s conclusions.
Note: Vintage nudity and discussion of sexuality after the jump; potentially NSFW.
So immediately, I want to point out the obvious. Which is that the authors of this study are taking an uncomplicated approach to sex and gender identity. Note the way the title of the paper refers to “gender” when what they’re actually talking about are studies exploring supposed physiological differences between male and female human beings. Further, the paper does not articulate how it is using the term “gender,” whereas it does trouble to define terms like “sex drive” and “sexual capacity.”
In other words, the authors of the study are not questioning the cultural baggage that comes along with the terms “woman” and “man.” They don’t stop to clarify whether they’re talking about people who are chromosomally, hormonally, physiologically, or some combination of the above “female” or “male,” or whether they are taking peoples’ self-reporting in terms of their gender identity, or what. My guess is they assume that self-reported gender identity aligns with assigned sex at birth aligns with primary and secondary sex characteristics aligns with hormones, etc. So in other words, assume they’re talking about cisgendered folks here, even though the study never says as much.
Their perspective is also a strikingly heteronormative one. The introduction observes, “The question of whether men differ from women in the average strength of sex drive is both immediate and elusive. It is immediate in that almost every person can have some direct experience through marriage and other sexual relationships.” Um … except those of us who aren’t involved in sexual relationships with other-sex people! In which case, the question of whether women (as a population) are inherently more or less horny than men (as a population) is perhaps intellectually interesting but not very personally relevant. As a woman partnered with another woman, the question of differential desire within the population of cis women is much more personally intriguing.
Another problem with the studies reviewed (and the reviewer’s commentary upon them) is that they see spontaneous thoughts about, fantasies of, and desire for sex as some of the best indicators of strength of someone’s libido. “Sexual fantasies are probably one of the best indexes of strength of sex drive because they are explicitly sexual and require conscious attention but are not constrained by opportunities, social pressures, or other external factors,” they argue. This makes a certain amount of superficial sense … until you stop to think about it. Someone can spend a lot of time thinking about sex without actually wanting to engage in sexual activity. I spent a lot of my adolescence thinking about sex, but I would have self-reported at that time as someone who had very few sexual fantasies and/or desire for relational sex. I also didn’t masturbate very much, certainly not to orgasm. It just didn’t interest me that much as a personal pastime. And yet I spent a lot of my adolescence and early twenties thinking about issues of sex, sexuality and gender. In retrospect, a lot of these thoughts about sex probably verged into sexual fantasy … but at the time, I would not have classified them as such.
Which leads me to another issue I have with the majority of studies that try to quantify “male” and “female” desire for sex. That is, they fail to adequately address the question of individual change over time. Women and men can experience huge fluctuations in their desire for sex based on context, on cultural expectation, on age, on health … in short, on issues that have nothing to do with some innate, gender- or sex-related baseline libido. I went for the first twenty to twenty-five years of my life without knowing how to masturbate to orgasm and not really caring all that much. I didn’t miss it. Then, in my early twenties something shifted (hormonally? emotionally? culturally? socially? … I’m still not sure) and suddenly, I was totally horny. I wanted to feel the rush of orgasm multiple times a day. One study reviewed in this argue points to a 1990 survey that found “45% of men but only 15% of women reported masturbating at least once per week.” I wouldn’t have blinked an eye at that number in my early twenties, and now I’m like, “Fuck. Only once a week?” Same with the studies on frequency of desire for (or engagement in) sexual activity.
Once again: I realize we’re talking about averages across populations here, but I’m troubled by the fact that the authors fail to raise questions about change over time in the populations which they are studying.
The other thing that such definitions of libido ignore is the desire for sex that is not spontaneous, but rather arises out of the interaction of the person experiencing the desire with sexytime contexts of objects of desire (thanks again, Emily Nagoski!). It’s possible that female-bodied persons more often than male-bodied persons experience a greater degree of responsive rather than spontaneous sexual desire. This type of sexual desire is no more or less valid than spontaneous desire yet is unlikely to show up in studies that outright define libido in terms of spontaneous sexual thoughts, fantasies, or desire. Duh.
You know you’re in trouble when queer folks only really turn up in order to reinforce the gender binary. In this case, they analysis refers us to studies of gay men and lesbian women as confirmation that men like to do it more. They even (headdesk) bring up — but fail to question — the myth that most long-term lesbian relationships are non-sexual in nature: “A lack of sexual desire and activity in women is reflected in the phrase ‘lesbian bed death,’ which has been coined to describe the low levels of sexual activity among lesbians in long-term relationships.” As if the language just developed, apolitically, to neutrally describe the lack of sex “among lesbians in long-term relationships.” I’m pretty sure our lack of sexual activity comes as news to a lot of queer women in long-term relationships (waves hand wildly).
There might be a statistical truth that female couples on average have less sex than male couples. Part of this might be due to the responsive vs. spontaneous desire thing I described above. Part of it might be social conditioning. I’d also be curious to know whether the definition of “sex” is at all heteronormative or penetration-centric, so that lesbian sexual activities fail to adequately register on sex researchers’ studies. (Scientists studying human sexuality: You’ve just proven how limited your imagination is. Really.) One thing I’m pretty sure is that there are a lot of variables to rule out before you use this data to conclude that men and women have innately differential desire to engage in sexual activity.
Similarly, they bring up same-sex partners again in reference to studies attempting to assess who is more likely to want multiple sexual partners (either simultaneously or serially). Again: findings miraculously support the cultural stereotype that men are much more likely to be adulterers or want open relationships and lots of hot sex than women? Might want to look into that again. Just to be extra-extra sure.
Any one of the studies reviewed in this analysis, when taken individually, may have solid methodology and offer some (limited) insight into how human sexuality is expressed right now in this particular cultural context. But I’m suspicious of any analysis this large in which all of the findings seem to line up like magic with the pervasive cultural narratives (what my history professor use to call “common sense” assumptions) that teach us what to expect about ourselves as sexual beings.
What stereotypes about sexual desire are particularly frustrating to you vis a vis your own personal experience? Are there stereotypes about human sexuality that make you feel invisible in these types of reports? Please vent in comments!
 Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen R. Catanese, and Kathleen D. Voh, “Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? TheoreticalViews, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Review Vol. 5, No. 3 (2001): 242–273.