Sex Drive: How Do Men and Women Compare? (cont.)

In his review, Baumeister found studies showing many ways in which women's sexual attitudes, practices and desires were more influenced by their environment than men:

  • Women's attitudes towards (and willingness to perform) various sexual practices are more likely than men's to change over time.
  • Women who regularly attend church are less likely to have permissive attitudes about sex. Men do not show this connection between church attendance and sex attitudes.
  • Women are more influenced by the attitudes of their peer group in their decisions about sex.
  • Women with higher education levels were more likely to have performed a wider variety of sexual practices (such as oral sex); education made less of a difference with men.
  • Women were more likely than men to show inconsistency between their expressed values about sexual activities such as premarital sex and their actual behavior.

Why are women's sex drives seemingly weaker and more vulnerable to influence? Some have theorized it is related to the greater power of men in society, or differing sexual expectations of men when compared to women. Laumann prefers an explanation more closely tied to the world of sociobiology.

Men have every incentive to have sex to pass along their genetic material, Laumann says. By contrast, women may be hard-wired to choose their partners carefully, because they are the ones who can get pregnant and wind up taking care of the baby. They are likely to be more attuned to relationship quality because they want a partner who will stay around to take care of the child. They're also more likely to choose a man with resources because of his greater ability to support a child.

5. Women take a less direct route to sexual satisfaction.

Men and women travel slightly different paths to arrive at sexual desire. "I hear women say in my office that desire originates much more between the ears than between the legs," says Esther Perel, a New York City psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity. "For women there is a need for a plot -- hence the romance novel. It is more about the anticipation, how you get there; it is the longing that is the fuel for desire," Perel says.

Women's desire "is more contextual, more subjective, more layered on a lattice of emotion," Perel adds. Men, by contrast, don't need to have nearly as much imagination, Perel says, since sex is simpler and more straightforward for them.

That does not mean that men do not seek intimacy, love, and connection in a relationship, just as women do. They just view the role of sex differently. "Women want to talk first, connect first, then have sex," Perel explains. "For men, sex is the connection. Sex is the language men use to express their tender loving vulnerable side," Perel says. "It is their language of intimacy."

6. Women experience orgasms differently than men.

While researchers find it tricky to try to quantify issues like the differing quality of male vs. female orgasms, they do have data on how long it takes men and women to get there. Men, on average, take four minutes from the point of entry until ejaculation, according to Laumann. Women usually take around 10 to 11 minutes to reach orgasm -- if they do.

That's another difference between the sexes: how often they have an orgasm during sex. Among men who are part of a couple, 75% report that they always have an orgasm, as opposed to 26% of the women. And not only is there a difference in reality, there's one in perception, too. While the men's female partners reported their rate of orgasm accurately, the women's male partners reported that they believed their female partners had orgasms 45% of the time.

7. Women's libidos seem to be less amenable to drugs.

With men's sex drives seemingly more directly tied to biology when compared to women, it may be no surprise that low desire may be more easily treated through medication in men. Men have embraced drugs as a cure not only for erectile dysfunction but also for a shrinking libido. With women, however, the search for a drug to boost sex drive has proved more elusive.

Testosterone has been linked to sex drive in both men and women. But testosterone works much faster in men with low libidos than women, says Glenn Braunstein, MD an endocrinologist and chair of the department of medicine at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a leading researcher on testosterone treatments in women. And while the treatments are effective, they are not as effective in women as in men. "There is a hormonal factor in [sex drive], but it is much more important in men than women," Braunstein says.

A testosterone patch for women called Intrinsa has been approved in Europe but was rejected by the FDA due to concerns about long-term safety. But the drug has sparked a backlash from some medical and psychiatric professionals who question whether low sex drive in women should even be considered a condition best treated with drugs. They point to the results of a large survey published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology last year, in which about 40% of women reported some sort of sexual problem -- most commonly low sexual desire -- but only 12% report feeling distressed about it. With all the factors that go into the stew that piques sexual desire in women, some doctors say that a drug should be the last ingredient to consider, rather than the first.

Edward O. Laumann, PhD, professor of sociology, University of Chicago.
J. Michael Bailey, PhD, professor of psychology, Northwestern University.
Glenn Braunstein, chair, department of medicine, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.
Esther Perel, couples and family therapist, New York City; author, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic.
Baumeister, R. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2001; vol 5: pp 242-273.
Baumeister, Psychological Bulletin, 2000, vol. 126, pp. 347-374.
Shifren, J. Obstetrics and Gynecology, November 2008; vol 112: pp 970-978
Laumann, E. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, 1994, University of Chicago Press. Reviewed on July 06, 2011
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