Alternative Explanations for the Gender Gap in Sexual Desire
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In a new paper published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science (2022), psychologists Terri Conley and Verena Klein of the University of Michigan contend that the consistent finding that women desire sex less than men do can be explained by the fact that women have a decidedly different (and worse) sexual experience with intercourse than men do. The researchers begin by asking whether we would expect individuals who ate “Chef Boyardee ravioli straight out of the can” and those who ate “fresh ravioli hand-crafted by one of Italy’s top chefs” to respond similarly when asked how much they like ravioli. This comparison illustrates how different the experience of intercourse may be for men and women.
Physical Differences in Sexual Experience
Conley and Klein argue that there are many reasons to expect that women will experience intercourse much differently than men, starting with the very different physical experiences of intercourse for each gender. Because most people define sex as penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI, which the authors argue is the definition that “best suits men”), the bodily experience of sex is necessarily different for men and women. Even the experience of oral sex differs greatly for heterosexual couples. However, the authors note that when researchers measure gender differences in satisfaction with sex or sexual desire, they do not take into account the different corporal experiences each gender undergoes. The authors contend that “the sex that women get is not just different, but of lesser quality.” The authors argue that to avoid this confound, researchers should only directly compare behaviors that can be equivalently experienced by both men and women. Kissing might qualify as an equivalent experience across genders, but most activities that match our typical definitions of “sex” are not equivalent across genders.
A Woman’s Stigma
Despite cultural changes over the past few decades, women’s sexuality is still judged more harshly and negatively than men’s. In our society (and in societies with even greater gender inequality), sexual double standards persist. For example, parents may attempt to control their daughters’ sexuality more stringently than their sons’, and women are evaluated more negatively for participating in the same sexual activities as male counterparts. Women are particularly stigmatized for engaging in casual sex. No equivalent stigma exists for men, who are typically lauded by peers for engaging in casual sex. The authors argue that we should recognize the potential role of stigma in women’s reduced sexual desire. Women might choose not to participate in a sexual encounter, or might enjoy that experience less, simply because of the stigma associated with it. Over time, the repeated association of sex with stigma might even cause women to desire sex less in the future.
Negative Associations with Sex
Another reason that women may express less sexual desire is that women are socialized to expect negative consequences as a result of sexual behavior. The authors acknowledge that parents discuss the risks of sex more frequently with their daughters than with their sons. When discussing their first sexual experience, parents warn girls that sex will be painful and involve bleeding. Another potential negative association for women, especially regarding casual sex, is the fear of pregnancy or sexual violence. Expecting or fearing sexual pain, pregnancy, stigma, sexual violence, or coercion can increase women’s negative associations with sex. Because of these associations, women may desire sex less or even fear sexual experiences. As the authors state, “a person of any gender would be more likely to avoid sex if sex entailed a major risk.” Conley and Klein suggest that free and reliable access to birth control might help to mitigate the fear of pregnancy and improve women’s feelings of sexual desire.
The Orgasm Gap
When engaging in heterosexual intercourse, men are much more likely to experience orgasm than women, a phenomenon known as the “orgasm gap.” Conley and Klein assert that because women are less likely to experience the pleasure of orgasm, sex is inherently less rewarding for women and women’s lessened sexual desire may be a consequence of those reduced rewards. The authors argue that “no evidence suggests that women are less skilled at bringing themselves to orgasm, less biologically inclined to orgasm, or that they experience orgasm more mildly than men do.” Conley and Klein believe that the orgasm gap directly proceeds from defining sex as PVI, which “privileges the male sexual experience” instead of other behaviors such as oral sex which might be more likely to lead to orgasms for women. In fact, the authors maintain that after statistically controlling for the presence or absence of orgasms, gender differences in sexual satisfaction disappear. The authors further contend that “if men orgasmed as rarely as women do in partnered sexual encounters, they might have an interest in sex equivalent to that of women.”
In short, men’s and women’s experiences with sexual intercourse are not equivalent, and therefore, researchers introduce a confound when they attempt to assess gender differences in the quality of or satisfaction with that sexual experience. However, many of the factors discussed above are not immutable. Interventions designed to make sex less painful for women, adequate access to birth control, reducing sexual stigma, increasing sex-positivity, and changing the definition of sex to include behaviors that are likely to increase women’s rates of orgasm can help to not only improve women’s sexual experiences but also to reduce the gender gap in sexual desire.