In the popular imagination, the erotic worlds of men and women are wildly divergent. But an intellectually stimulating analysis of 15 years of research concludes that "stereotypes about gender and sexuality provide a largely inflated view of gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors."
Synthesizing the results of more than 700 studies, psychologists Jennifer Petersen and Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison report "men and women are more similar than they are different in terms of sexuality." They found only small differences between males and females in 22 of 30 common sexual behaviors and attitudes — and no differences at all for another four.
"Male participants reported more sexual activity than female participants for 13 of the 14 sexual behaviors," as well as "more permissive sexual attitudes than female participants for the majority of sexual attitudes," the researchers note in the Psychological Bulletin.
But they add that the differences were typically small, noting "there was about 85 percent overlap between male participants and female participants for age at first intercourse."
The sexual behaviors surveyed included frequency of intercourse, number of partners, extramarital sex and condom use. A separate list examined sexual attitudes, including permissiveness, anxiety and guilt, satisfaction with one's sex life and views regarding homosexuality.
The researchers found substantial gender differences in two categories: reported masturbation and pornography use. They note this "might suggest that men prefer more sexual activity than women and frequently engage in these autoerotic behaviors" due to the lack of an available partner.
On the other hand, "gender differences in masturbation and pornography use may be due to differences in self-reports," the researchers write. "Social stigma continues to surround female autoerotic behavior."
The studies represent 87 countries on six continents. The researchers found that "nations with larger gender differences in power had larger difference in sexual behaviors than more egalitarian nations."
Overall, the report provides at least qualified support for several theoretical models — including evolutionary psychology, which contends that men have evolved to desire multiple sex partners because it increases their odds of passing their genes down to the next generation. (Women, on the other hand, "have evolved to disapprove of casual sex because it may yield fathers who do not provide for them and their children.") The fact that men reported more permissive sexual attitudes and engaged in more sexual behavior is consistent with this notion.
What's more, the researchers add, "evolutionary psychology proposes that short-term mating strategies are associated with significant gender differences, but that long-term mating strategies, especially in adulthood, are associated with a shift toward gender similarities. Results from the current study support this theory."
Nevertheless, gender-based differences in sexual attitudes have sometimes been exaggerated in books and magazine articles popularizing evolutionary theory. And Petersen and Hyde argue that an overemphasis on such distinctions may be problematic for both men and women.
They conclude with the hope that "the discovery that men and women are similar in terms of most sexual behaviors and attitudes reduces the ... pressure to conform to gendered norms of the sexually submissive female and dominant male."
So to sum up: Men and women do tend to differ in terms of their sexual desires and behaviors. But these differences are relatively small.
And size matters.
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