Erotic Plasticity: How Female Sexuality may be shaped by Social Factors

Erotic Plasticity: How Female Sexuality may be shaped by Social Factors

By Maxxters

I read Roy Baumeister’s “Gender differences in erotic plasticity: the female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive” (2000) article just over a year ago. It has stuck with me ever since. Roy did a tremendous amount of research; reading through every relevant journal article from 1996 and back down to the very first volume of both the Journal of Sex Research and Archives of Sexual Behaviour. Additionally, he used the national Health and Social Life Survey and other sources suggested by his colleagues. What he came up with was a summary of a massive amount of data; all to support his theory about erotic plasticity. Basically, he believes that women are significantly more apt to change their sexual behaviour throughout their lives than men.  He has three main hypotheses: 1) individual women will display more variation than individual men in sexual behaviour throughout their lifespan; 2) female sexuality responds more to socio-cultural variables than male sexuality; and 3) women have less consistency between their sexual attitudes and their sexual behaviours than men. His article does include evidence against his theory, but he demonstrates why those arguments are flawed.

My ideas on this continue to change as I learn more and more about the topic. I want to give you the chance to read through the main points of the article and to form your own ideas on it. The most important thing to remember here is that he is discussing the majority of people. We know there are outliers at either end of the spectrum. But every finding here, and the theory Roy discusses, is based on how most men and women behave.

We know that biological factors, socio-cultural scripts, individual experiences, and a range of other factors (known and unknown) shape human sexuality. The main point Roy tries to make is that cultural and social factors influence female sexuality substantially more than male sexuality. He believes that female sexual behaviours and drives are better able to adapt with changing circumstances. He labels this as having high erotic plasticity. This includes changing the types of partners you have and the sexual activities you engage in, what acts you enjoy (which might be different from what you actually engage in), and your overall desire for sex. Most men, on the other hand, have low erotic plasticity. This does not include changing physical factors (like overall health and hormonal balances), as that can affect all genders equally. But once a man’s sexual tastes emerge, they’re much less likely to change than a woman’s. It’s important to note that in a follow-up article, Roy discusses how there’s evidence that men go through a phase of erotic plasticity during childhood.

Possible reasons for plasticity

  • it may be an evolutionary response to bonding with men, who are physically and socially more powerful. They can impose their desires on women, so women can protect themselves by being more plastic.
  • Most societies limit sexual activity by having women be the gatekeepers of sex. They’re the ones who are taught to refuse sexual advances. Yet if females refused all sexual advances from males, our species would die out. So women are negative to most sexual partners but will sometimes switch to positive. That switch requires at least some plasticity.
  • While politically unpopular, it’s theoretically plausible that women have lower sex drives than men. A weaker motivation for sex can be a lot easier to redirect and change. So it is easier to persuade women to accept different forms of satisfaction.

How erotic plasticity might be instilled

  • There are theories that many sexuality-based traits are carried on the X chromosome. The two X chromosomes that females have could carry different “prescriptions” for behaviour and it would then be up to the environment to establish which one is expressed.
  • Testosterone has a greater effect than any other hormones on sexual behaviour. Since men have much more testosterone, their behaviour may be controlled biologically. Environmental factors will not affect them as much as they affect women.
  • Men are better at being aware of their inner bodily states. Studies in labs and hospitals show they’re better at estimating their blood pressure, heartbeat, temperature, stomach contractions, and other factors better than women. Women rely more on social and situational cues, but men rely on physiological cues to judge their emotional and arousal responses.
  • Males have evolved to be driven stronger by genetic factors. There are theories that the Y chromosome might be a popular target of mutations. Evolution would target men for trying out new mutations due to the greater reproductive variance. So genetic factors may drive male behaviour more than females.

Evidence of Female Plasticity

Intraindividual Variability:  if women do have more erotic plasticity, then they will have more variation across each of their sexual histories than men.

  • Kinsey and his fellow researchers found that some women had significant swings in their degree of sexual activity over their lifetime. Hardly any men showed the same. Women would go through periods where they had lots of sex, then no sexual activity whatsoever for a period of time, and then return to a phase of high sexual frequency. When men were experiencing periods of low partnered sexual play, they tended to still keep their orgasm rate constant through masturbation and other activities.
  • Another study examined elderly individuals. Old men who masturbated were engaging in a pattern of masturbation that had been present in young adulthood. However, women who were masturbating in old age hadn’t done so in their 20s, and women who had masturbated in their 20’s had discontinued the activity later in life.
  • In a 20-year long study on married individuals, researchers asked about current sexual frequency and actual preferences for frequency. The wives continually felt like the frequency of sex was almost exactly the amount that they actually wanted. However, the husbands had significant gaps between what they wanted and what they were able to have. Roy stipulates that women are better able to change their expectations so that they correspond to what they’re getting.
  • Studies have shown that women change their sexual standards of being more permissive as they gain dating experience. Dating experience does not affect men in this way.
  • Multiple studies have demonstrated that lesbians are more likely to have had heterosexual sex than gay males. One study found that 80% of gay women but only 54% of gay men had previously had heterosexual intercourse. Additionally, 72% of lesbians and only 45% of gay men had experienced a meaningful heterosexual relationship.
  • The ratio of self-identified bisexuals to exclusively homosexuals is higher for women (.50) than men (.32). Bisexuality requires greater plasticity than homosexuality.
  • In a study of older adults, women who had never felt any attraction at all towards women prior to the age of 30 had begun having sex with women as well as men (in the context of swinging). Men did not.
  • Another study on unmarried individuals who participated in group sex found that 60% of women but only 12% of men engaged in homosexual activity.
  • A study on swingers found that wives had oral sex with each other 75% of the time but husbands had oral sex with each other less than 1% of the time.
  • When married couples meet up for mate swapping, the women begin having sex with each other, usually from the encouragement of the men who like to watch this. The reverse pattern is almost unheard of (ie. straight men engaging in homosexual acts in group settings, especially if done in order to entertain their wives).

Socio-cultural Factors: If women are more socio-culturally flexible, they will vary more than men from one culture to another

  • One study on 186 cultures found greater cross-cultural variation occurred among females than males on all measures of sexual behaviour.
  • Women who move to the US who are from other cultures significantly change several of their sexual behaviours and attitudes, but men do not.
  • Sex ed affects women’s age of first intercourse more than men. One study examined the proportions of people who were still virgins on their 21st birthday. Only 18% of women who had not had sex ed were still virgins, yet 43% who had received sex ed were still virgins. Yet for men, it only varied from 19% to 25%.
  • The NHSLS showed that sexual health education produced only about a 1/3 increase in the likelihood of men engaging in anal sex, yet it more than doubled the women’s likelihood. Additionally, more education was associated with less sexual dysfunction in women, but there was no significant effect for men.  On both giving and receiving oral sex, education level predicted bigger differences in women’s than men’s sexual behaviour.
  • Another study on university students enrolled in a human sexuality course found that women changed their attitudes towards greater sexual permissiveness. These changes did not occur for men.
  • Church attendance and religious belief have a stronger (negative) effect on female than male sexuality. One study found that church attendance strongly predicted not masturbating in elderly women (19% of attenders masturbated, versus 83% of non-attenders). No significant effect was found among men. Female sexuality is better able than male sexuality to conform to highly non-permissive standards in a religious context
  • Peer group approval is linked stronger in female sexual behaviour than male. In one study, 55% of the non-virgin females had peer groups who encouraged sexual activity, yet only 3% of the virgin women were associated with these groups (a 52% difference). For men the percentages were 88% versus 50% (a 38% difference).
  • In a 2-year study, women who were virgins at the start who had a non-virgin best (female) friend were six-times more likely to lose their virginity by the end of the 2 year period than virgins who had a virgin female best friend. No such effect was found in males
  • Parental and family environment has a stronger effect on daughters than on sons. For example, living with a single parent increased the likelihood of early loss of virginity for girls but not boys. Additionally, sex ed from parents predicts less sex and less promiscuity in young women but not in young men.
  • In one study, self-identified homosexuals were interviewed and it was found that 31% of the lesbians but only 18% of gay men described their sexual orientation as having been a matter of conscious, deliberate choice.
  • Another study found that lesbians felt they had more control than gay men over their sexual orientation. Additionally, lesbians were more likely to believe they could renounce their gay orientation and were less likely to view their orientation as being something beyond their personal control.
  • Studies have found that heritability of sexual orientation is significant in men but not in women. There is greater overall evidence for a genetic contribution towards male homosexuality than there is for females.

Attitude-behaviour consistency: If they have higher erotic plasticity, women will show lower attitude-behaviour consistency as compared to men, with regard to sex

  • One study examined 3 separate cultures (which ones were not detailed in the article) and found that 2/3 of women whose values were against premarital sex had engaged in premarital sex, whereas only 1/3 of men had this discrepancy.
  • Greater inconsistency exists among women in reporting favourable attitudes towards condoms and consistently using them than found among men. Women report a higher intention in using them, as well as being more afraid of STIs, but actual condom use was the same for both genders. Additionally, condoms tend to be viewed as detracting more from male than female pleasure, so theoretically, it should have been the men who were more willing to go against their pro-condom attitudes.
  • In a survey about participating in sex without desiring it, 82% of women reported having experienced this, compared to 60% of men. When examining the women who were over 25, 97% had engaged in sex when they hadn’t desired it.
  • A similar study examined participants who were in committed relationships. Half of the women, but only a quarter of men had engaged in unwanted sexual activity at least once during the last 2 weeks.
  • In studies examining sexual orientation, less than half of the women who liked the idea of same-gender sex had engaged in sex with a woman in the last year. However, 85% of men feeling this way about men had had sex with a man in the last year.
  • Another study found that 22% of lesbians had discrepancies between their homosexual feelings/desires and their homosexual behaviour, yet only 3% of gay men displayed this discrepancy. Additionally, lesbians were more likely to have tried to “go straight”, yet they also had fewer regrets than the men about their homosexuality and were less likely to wish for a “magic pill” to turn them straight.
  • Women are more likely than men to have submissive and masochistic fantasies, yet they are less likely to have actually taken part in these activities.

 

The primary question discussed in the article was whether or not the female drive for sex is more fluid and malleable than the male’s (in a socio-cultural and situational context).  The evidence outlined above demonstrates that the average woman is much more likely to change her sexual patterns over time than the average male. Socio-cultural factors (eg. education, religion, peers, etc) have stronger effects on women and there is less consistency between female’s sexual attitudes and behaviours as compared to men. Roy states that this inconsistency is most likely due to sex depending on many specific contexts, circumstances and meanings. So, for women, broad attitudes are poor predictors of behaviour.  He concludes that the balance between nature and culture is different for men and women when it comes to sexuality. Men’s sexuality is centered around physical factors, but for women, it’s the social and cultural factors that are central to their sexuality, with biological factors playing a relatively small role.

One of the main implications of this theory is that it demonstrates that sexual self-knowledge should be easier for men than women. The average male will form his sexual identity by puberty and it will remain constant, whereas women’s are constantly changing throughout their lives. Additionally, sexual decision-making is likely to be a lot more complicated for women. Social context and situation can significantly affect a woman’s desire for sexual activity, what acts she wants to engage in, who she wants to engage in them with, etc.  Men, in comparison, remain quite constant in their desires, unless biological factors come into play.

 

 

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