How Strong Is the Female Sex Drive After All?

Women may be more sexually omnivorous than men, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're as hungry.
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Daniel Bergner, a journalist and contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, knows what women want--and it's not monogamy. His new book, which chronicles his "adventures in the science of female desire," has made quite a splash for apparently exploding the myth that female sexual desire is any less ravenous than male sexual desire. The book, What Do Women Want, is based on a 2009 article, which received a lot of buzz for detailing, among other things, that women get turned on when they watch monkeys having sex and gay men having sex, a pattern of arousal not seen in otherwise lusty heterosexual men.

That women can be turned on by such a variety of sexual scenes indicates, Bergner argues, how truly libidinous they are. This apparently puts the lie to our socially manufactured assumption that women are inherently more sexually restrained than men--and therefore better suited to monogamy.

But does it really?

Detailing the results of a study about sexual arousal, Bergner says: "No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, [women] showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly--and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man--as they watched the apes."

Far from being more sexually modest and restrained than the male libido, the female sex drive is "omnivorous" and "at base, nothing if not animal" writes Bergner. He says: "One of our most comforting assumptions, soothing perhaps above all to men but clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale."

He goes on to write:

Monogamy is among our culture's most cherished and entrenched ideals. We may doubt the standard, wondering if it is misguided, and we may fail to uphold it, but still we look to it as to something reassuring and simply right. It defines who we aim to be romantically; it dictates the shape of our families, or at least it dictates our domestic dreams; it molds our beliefs about what it means to be a good parents. Monogamy is--or we feel that it is--part of the crucial stitching that keeps our society together, that prevents all from unraveling.

Women are supposed to be the standard's more natural allies, caretakers, defenders, their sexual beings more suited, biologically, to faithfulness. We hold tight to the fairy tale. We hold on with the help of evolutionary psychology, a discipline whose central sexual theory comparing women and men--a theory that is thinly supported--permeates our consciousness and calms our fears. And meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies search for a drug, a drug for women, that will serve as monogamy's cure.

Bergner thinks that monogamy is society's way of constraining female sexuality. He implies that this constraint is unjust and prudish. He is not alone. Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory hailed his book for revealing "how society's repression of female sexuality has reshaped women's desires and sex lives... Bergner, and the leading sex researchers he interviews, argue that women's sexuality is not the rational, civilized and balancing force it's so often made out to be--that it is base, animalistic and ravenous, everything we've told ourselves about male sexuality."

On its face, the flexible arousability of the female sex drive seems to be an indication of its strength, and that is what Bergner implies. But in truth, it is an indication of the very opposite, its weakness. Bergner's thesis that women are turned on by more stimuli than men does not mean that they are less monogamous than men. In fact, the very flexibility of the female sex drive implies that women are more willing to prioritize monogamy over their libido. For that to make sense, it's important to understand that the female sex drive can be simultaneously weak and "omnivorous."

That is the view of the highly cited psychological researcher Roy Baumeister, who this year won a major lifetime achievement award from the Association for Psychological Science. About a decade ago, he set out to determine if the female sex drive was indeed weaker than the male sex drive. He was inspired to do so when he noticed, in the course of his research, that the influence of "cultural and social factors on sexual behavior ... consistently turned out to be stronger on women than on men."

On measure after measure, Baumeister found, women were more sexually adaptable than men. Lesbians, for instance, are more likely to sleep with men than gay men are with women. Reports indicate that women's attitudes to sex change more readily than men's do. For instance, in one study, researchers compared the attitudes toward sex of people who came of age before and after the sexual revolution of the 1960s; they found that women's attitudes changed more than men's.

The sexual patterns of couples also indicate that women are sexually adaptable. The female libido fluctuates throughout the month, based on ovulation and the menstrual cycle. But couples do not appear to have sex more or less frequently based on what time of the month it is. Rather, couples have sex in weekly and daily patterns--in the evenings and/or on weekends. A 1991 survey looked at how the gap between how frequently men and women desire sex and how often they actually have sex; the gap is bigger for women, 82 percent of whom had sex when they did not desire it, compared to 60 percent of men.

What could explain this flexibility? Baumeister proposed that "Women might be more willing to adapt their sexuality to local norms and contexts and different situations, because they aren't quite so driven by strong urges and cravings as men are."

When Baumeister set out to compare the male and the female sex drive about a decade ago, the four leading psychology textbooks of the time either did not address the fact that the male and female sex drive were different, or they suggested that they were the same. When he presented his hypothesis--that the male sex drive is stronger than the female drive--to peers in his field, they were skeptical. They believed, as Baumeister puts it, that "the idea that men have a stronger sex drive than women was probably some obsolete, wrong, and possibly offensive stereotype."

So Baumeister and two (female) colleagues set to work reviewing hundreds of studies about human sexuality and found consistently that women are less motivated by sex than men are.

For men, they found, the goal of sex is sex itself. One 1996 study found that seven in ten men--compared to four in ten women--said the goal of sexual desire was simply having sex. In the same study, 35 percent of women said that love and intimacy were important goals of sex compared to 13 percent of men. Men also think about sex more, according to studies. When men and women monitor their sexual urges over a seven-day period, men report having twice as many sexual urges as women do.

Bergner and others might chalk these findings up to society's sexual double standard: Men are allowed to be more sexual than women and, therefore, they are more forthcoming about their sexual urges. But this doesn't seem to be the case.

Men feel guiltier about sex. They feel guiltier about masturbating than women do (13 percent versus 10 percent) and they feel guiltier about thinking about sex than women do. For instance, men report having more unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts about sex. In one survey, men responded more affirmatively to the following statements than women did: "I think about sex more than I would like" and "I must fight to keep my sexual thoughts and behavior under control."

The sexual patterns of Catholic priests and nuns are relevant here. Catholic clergy are a group of people who have imposed the exact same constraint of chastity upon themselves, removing any sort of double standard. A 1995 survey found that most priests masturbate. A 1992 study of several hundred clergy found that 62 percent of male clergy and 49 percent of female clergy had been sexually active since taking their vows, and the men had had more partners--about a quarter of the clergymen had five or more partners while only three percent of the women had that many.

In marriage, where women are encouraged to have sex, they still want to do so at lower rates. A 1977 survey of couples who had been married for 20 years found that men wanted more sex than their wives. As Baumeister and his colleagues write, "Wives consistently reported that they were quite satisfied with the amount of sex they had in their marriages, but men on average wished for about a 50 percent increase." A study of elderly couples from Sweden, a country that is sexually progressive, also found that married men wanted more sex than women. "Men are significantly more sexual than women, in all ages and in all respects," wrote the authors of that study.

One way to examine the sexual differences between men and women is to compare the amount of sex gay men and lesbian women are having. The research here indicates that women are far more monogamous than men. In one study, 82 percent of gay men reported having had sex outside of their relationship whereas only 28 percent of lesbians did. Over 40 percent of gay men in relationships reported having had more than 20 partners outside of their relationship while only 1 percent of lesbians did. In a 1978 study, four out of ten gay men reported having over 500 sexual partners while no lesbians did. This was, of course, before AIDS changed the equation.

So men, without the constraint of a woman saying no, appear to be far more promiscuous than women. "Females," Baumeister writes, "constitute the restraining force on sex. That is, they refuse many offers or chances for sexual activity. When sex happens, it is because the woman has changed her vote from no to yes." In a classic 1989 study, for instance, attractive research assistants approached men and women of the opposite sex on a college campus and asked: "I've been noticing you around campus and I think you're attractive. Would you like to go to bed with me tonight?" Three quarters of men said yes. Exactly zero women did.

One important thing to understand about monogamy is a point that Bergner misses. Monogamy is not meant to satisfy the female libido. It would be far-fetched for anyone to argue that, especially when the evidence runs in the opposite direction: Monogamy kills eros. But monogamy is a cultural constraint aimed at protecting the natural result of sex--namely, children. As Robert Wright explains in The Moral Animal, "The genetic payoff of having two parents devoted to a child's welfare is the reason men and women can fall into swoons over one another, including swoons of great duration."

Bergner dismisses evolutionary biology, bizarrely equating it with fundamentalist Christianity. But he gives a wonderful example of it in action when he presents the case of Isabel, a lawyer in her early thirties whose sex life with her boyfriend falls flat, a defect in their relationship that does not prevent her from agreeing to marry him. "The issue was that despite his good looks, his intelligence, his kindness, and his skill in bed, she rarely wanted to make love with him," writes Bergner.

Isabel may have craved better sex with her boyfriend-turned-fiancé, but she ultimately decides that she could live without it. After all, Isabel's relationship with her previous boyfriend Michael, a man ten years older than her, was far more erotic, Bergner tells us. But Isabel broke it off. Why? "The relationship with Michael had ended only because she understood he would never commit to her, never marry her or even live with her."

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New York. She is an editor at The New Criterion, the managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and the editor of Acculturated.

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