It is quite possible that this is a question you have asked yourself a couple of times or it might be an intriguing topic of discussion between you and your friends. Having both male and female friends, I often noticed that there are apparent differences in the way each group describes their sexual experiences; how they think or feel about sex, what are their motives behind it and how they value sex in life.
However, being aware of the standards that society imposes on each gender, it could also be that these differences result from what men and women believe that they should feel or think about sex and not how they truly feel or think about it. So, is there really a difference in how males and females experience sex?
Sex and the Brain
Although females have been underrepresented for most of the history of research on sexual arousal, findings up until now show that active brain areas during sexual arousal are highly similar for both men and women. However, an interesting difference concerns the type of stimuli that activates the brain; women seem to prefer erotic stimuli that are more related to the emotion and include either sex (male or female), whereas men tend to prefer more physical stimuli, depicting their preferred sex. Similarly to the brain regions related to sexual arousal, men and women have similar brain activity patterns while they are experiencing orgasm (Clark, 2014).
Sex and Physiology
Contrary to the studies related to brain activity, findings in this area of physiology (the field of study of functions and mechanisms in a living system, e.g. organs, hormones e.t.c. ) show that there are significant gender differences in the relationship between physiological and subjective arousal; There seems to be a very high correlation between men’s erectile response and their subjective feeling of sexual arousal, whereas women appear to have very low (if any) correlation on the respective measures.
This difference could result from the fact that male genital arousal is simply easier to notice compared to female genital arousal (Benson, 2003). Nevertheless, another socio-cultural theory might also explain why we notice this discrepancy. According to the social acceptability/unacceptability hypothesis, males and females receive differential social reinforcement in regards to their sexual expression; The males typically have received positive social sanctions for identifying and expressing their sexual arousal while most often this is not the case for females, for whom this behaviour might be considered inappropriate (Steinman, Wincze, Sakheim, Barlow, & Mavissakalian, 1981).
Sex and Motivation
Research indicates that women and men have similar levels of sexual needs when they do occur, but men are more likely to experience spontaneous and consistent sexual urges irrespective of the nature of the relationship. For women, the sexual desire tends to be more relevant to feelings about a particular partner. However, men can choose not to engage in sex despite genital arousal and subjective excitement. Women, by contrast, are able to choose to engage in sex for reasons other than feeling psychological or physiologically aroused, such as avoiding upsetting a partner or becoming pregnant. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense as women need to be aware of careful partner selection for reproductive and child-rearing purposes. (Hiller, 2005).
Research so far has not been very clear whether there are indeed significant differences in biological/physiological factors that could explain the different behavioural and cognitive patterns that men and women follow regarding their sexual experiences. It might be that women are generally underrepresented in the studies related to sex leading therefore to biases in the results or might be that social and cultural factors, such as the pressure that society puts upon women to be more restrained about their sexuality, explain better these differences. What do you think?
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Kleopatra Chousou is working as an intern psychologist at the Willingness. She obtained her BSc in Psychology in Greece and completed her Master’s in Clinical Psychology at the University of Leiden. Kleopatra’s main research interests focus on the field of psychopathology and psychoanalytic theory and therapy.
Clark, C. (2014, May 20). Brain sex in men and women – From arousal to orgasm. BrainBlogger. https://brainblogger.com/2014/05/20/brain-sex-in-men-and-women-from-arousal-to-orgasm/
Etienne, B. (2003, April). Sex: The science of sexual arousal. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr03/arousal
Hiller, J. (2005). Gender differences in sexual motivation. The Journal of Men’s Health & Gender, 2(3), 339-345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmhg.2005.05.003