What’s the real science behind libido? Georgia Platt discusses.
By Georgia Platts
While some women want more sex than their partners, generally the pattern goes the other way.
Researchers at Indiana University say,
Women had a wider range of response, with some loving sex, and others feeling uninterested. Generally, women have more difficulty with arousal for both anatomical and psychological reasons.
And that psychology is tied to culture. Some cultures are more sex-positive toward women than others. And surprisingly, even biology is tied to culture.
Let’s start with biology, or more accurately, the nature-nurture dance.
The brain, and its social construction
According to Louann Brizendine, author of the books, The Female Brain and The Male Brain, the area governing sexuality takes up twice as much space in the male. And the part that controls desire to pursue is 2½ times greater, and more quickly activated. (This is exaggerated and stereotyped in the accompanying photo.)
Brizendine tells us that when the male brain is sexually activated pretty much everything but thoughts of sex shut down. Women certainly can stay focused, but they are more likely than men to be distracted with concerns about the kids’ lunches, a scheduled business meeting, whether they look hot enough, or whether they’ll be labeled a “slut” the next day.
And therein you see the effects of culture, too. Like thoughts about the kids’ lunches. Or distracting worries about whether women will be labeled as slut. Or hoping they look hot enough for their partners. Men, not so much.
Dr. Brizendine’s book has met criticism. Dr. Cordelia Fine is a University of Melbourne professor who specializes in social psychology and neuroscientific research. She points out that 1) neuroscience is in its infancy, 2) you cannot determine whether any particular brain is male or female at the individual level, and 3) brain structure is affected by experience. If a woman’s sexuality is punished and repressed, the parts of her brain associated with sexuality will be affected. If a man’s sexuality is celebrated, his brain will also be affected.
Of course, men do have much more testosterone, crucial to sex drive. Even when women and men are both treated with testosterone for low libido, the hormone is less effective in women, according to Dr. Glenn Braunstein of Cedars Sinai Medical Center. But women are more sensitive to the testosterone that they do have.
So the effects of testerone are more confusing than you might expect.
But anatomy could have an effect. A penis must ejaculate on a regular basis to create fresh sperm. A penis is also larger than a clitoris. Both of these things might make its workings more obvious so that boys are more likely to masturbate, and girls are less likely to get to know their bodies and what arouses them. An erect penis also gives men a lot of feedback, while women’s genitals seem to provide less: Men looking at a naked body are much more likely to feel aroused than women doing the same thing. But women’s bodies are also much more sexualized by our culture — that may play a role. And the repression of women’s sexuality in our society may also affect genital feedback to the brain.
On the other hand, women seem to be more capable of multiple orgasm. Some think women’s sex drive could be innately stronger than men’s for that reason. Who knows?
Women’s sexuality is punished
Because psychology affects biology, I’ve already mentioned that women’s sexuality is more punished and repressed in our culture. Men who have sex have been variously praised as players, studs, Casanovas, Don Juans, and lady killers. They are “high-fived” for “scoring.” But women are called sluts, hoes, whores, skanks… Men sport a cocky cock, while a vagina is more unmentionably, “down there.”
And who gets screwed? Since women are thought the more passive partner (though they needn’t be), we are more likely to think of women as getting screwed, rammed, nailed, cut, boned, banged, smacked, and f’d, in street parlance. Not so nice.
In another sort of punishment, sexual violence also makes sex seem scary. And it’s something that more egalitarian, sex-positive societies lack. Among the egalitarian American Indian Iroquois, rape and battering were virtually unknown, for example.
Women are sexualized much more than men
Whether on billboards, TV ads, movies, Olympic ice skating, or professional football, women are more often half-dressed while men are more fully-clothed. The camera hones in on women’s breasts and butts and largely ignores men. Yes, we see more hot guys these days but scantily clad men are nowhere near the number of scantily clad women. Even the everyday clothing that women and men walk around in show off women’s bodies more. And, more often, hide men’s.
Then, because women’s bodies are so much more sexualized and sexually revealed, men get far more provocation on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, since women are so much more sexualized both men and women can come to see women as the sexier sex. So men can be with someone who’s very physically alluring. But women aren’t taught to see men in the same way. Men can focus on a breast fetish. What are women supposed to pay attention to? No fetish is attached to the male. No wonder we’re less interested.
In bed, women are likely to be focusing on how sexy they, themselves are. And they’re usually worried that they don’t measure up. (Eighty-eight percent of my female students say they spend at least some time in bed doing this.) Not erotic.
Women enjoy sex more in sex-positive societies
In societies where women’s sexuality is not repressed and not objectified, they greatly enjoy sex and behave in ways that are similar to men.
But in our repressive world, women experience more sexual problems. In fact, nearly half of American women report having experienced some form of sexual dysfunction. University of Texas, Austin researchers reported in Why Women Have Sex that one-third of women, aged 18-23, felt little sexual interest in the prior year. But only 14% of men did. Meanwhile, 30-40% of women reported difficulty climaxing. Among those in a relationship, 75% of men said they always had an orgasm, but only 26% of women did. This difference likely affects how much each gender desires sex, since one is more consistently rewarded.
Interest and enjoyment needn’t be such a problem for women. And culture, more than biology, seems to be the culprit. The University of Texas researchers note that women are easily orgasmic in cultures where women are expected to enjoy sexuality. But they aren’t in places where they are repressed.
While women are taught that they are “bad girls” if they like sex too much, men are taught the opposite. The male role casts men as being ever-desirous, which could propel them to live up to expectations.
Sex provides men emotional closeness
Sex also provides one of the few vehicles for men to experience both physical and emotional closeness. Men need that intimacy, yet the male role leaves them repressing their need for it. Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, feels that “For men, sex is the connection. Sex is the language men use to express their tender loving vulnerable side.”
So that may be another reason why men are typically more desirous of having sex.
By the way, sex is not a drive
By the way, there is no such thing as a “sex drive,” says Emily Nagoski in her book, Come as You Are. Drives sustain the life of an entity, and there is no tissue damage if you don’t get sex. Plus,
A drive is a biological mechanism whose job is to keep the organism at a healthy baseline—not too warm, not too cold, not too hungry, not too full.
Sexual desire is an “incentive motivation system,” she says. There is a hunger drive, yet desire for food can act as an “incentive motivation system,” too. That’s why we sometimes eat too much instead of sustaining a healthy baseline.
Why does it matter? Ms. Nagoski worries that when we think men have a sex drive — in the form of a hunger that must be fulfilled — we are more likely to promote the idea that men “have to have it” in a way that supports rape culture, discounting the suffering of girls and women and making sexual assault seem more okay.
How do women and men come together?
So how do women and men come together? Large cultural changes would help. Seeing women, primarily, as the sexy half of the species doesn’t aid women’s sexual desire. It would help if women lived in a less sexually repressive culture, while men would gain from a less emotionally repressive society.
But given that this is our reality, both women and men could probably use some counseling. Communication and acting from a place of love to accomodate each other would surely help, too.
Sure, some women really take pleasure in sexuality, but the heightened and more widespread enjoyment of our sisters who come out of non-shaming cultures tell us that women could be loving sex a whole lot more.
This article originally appeared on Broad Blogs.
Photo credit: Getty Images