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Why Women Have Sex

abstract: Sex holds a universal fascination. From our basic limbic drive of "preservation of self and species" to the furthest extremes of sexual practice, everyone wants to know how it works and where they fit into the spectrum. Starting from our first sexual stirring and tracking behavior to the oldest fornicators, researchers are gathering information to determine what stimulates our sex drive, the mind-body connection and social-cultural differences for normal and abnormal behavior. In 1998 when Viagara came on the market for men, the push was on to discover the pink pill equivalent for women. Female sexuality, these studies show, is even more complex and nuanced than male sexuality. Researchers Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, both psychology professors at the University of Texas at Austin discovered some fascinating new information, which is contained in Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between). I am particularly interested to read the section talking about the sex practices of young women today. What are these third generation feminists up to? You'd be surprised to see the frank level of experimentation and use of sex, almost as a tool in their armanentarium to get what they want. Seems like a good book to purchase for anyone who wants to understand the sexuality of women better. (Uh... who doesn't that include?)


December 14, 2009
— Here are excerpts from the New Yorker magazine interview with the authors:

What are the basics of female sexuality?

Meston: Women’s sexuality is more complex than men’s. For example, women are more contextual than men—they are more easily distracted from sexual cues by what is going on in their environment—and this necessarily means that sexual desire is more multifaceted in women. Also, women are less connected with their genital cues than are men—when a man has an erection he generally feels sexually aroused and wants to have sex. Not so with women. Genital cues are often not noticed and, even when they are, they don’t necessarily make women want to have sex. That isn’t to say that men are so simple they have sex simply because they get an erection, but it does mean that women are, quite frankly, more complicated.

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Up until that point, it was assumed that men and women were very similar—physiologically speaking. What the research told us was that you could not simply apply a male template to understanding women’s sexuality.

Buss: For example, whereas men’s sexual orgasm tends to be fairly predictable and reliable in the sense of its occurrence, women’s sexual orgasm is highly variable. It’s variable from woman to woman, and variable within the same woman from partner to partner, circumstance to circumstance, etc. Sexual attraction provides another example. Men’s sexual attraction tends to be based heavily on visual cues. Women’s sexual attraction tends to be far more nuanced. It’s affected by olfactory cues (how a man smells), personality of the partner (such as sense of humor and confidence), social status (how he is regarded in the eyes of his peers), other women’s judgments of how attractive he is, and many other factors, in addition to the visual cues. The qualities women find to be sexually attractive in a man also vary across the ovulatory cycle, such as a shift toward finding more masculine features (faces, bodies, and voices) attractive at ovulation.

Meston: The upsurge of research did a number of good things for the field of women’s sexuality. It got people talking about women’s sexuality more openly, and more women felt comfortable admitting to, and seeking help for, their sexual concerns. It also brought attention to the fact that there are important differences between men and women that need to be studied if we are to ever find effective treatments for women's sexual concerns.

If women are indeed more open, that probably made for some interesting findings.

Meston: We knew that sexual motivation was more complicated than had previously been assumed—that people have sex for love, pleasure, and procreation. However, the sheer diversity of responses astonished us—they ranged from the altruistic to the borderline evil.

Buss: Some women reported having sex to give someone else an S.T.D. or to extract revenge on someone who had wronged them, for example by sleeping with the offender’s partner. Although infrequent, these sexual motivations can have dramatic and sometimes tragic consequences that are disproportionate to their frequency. vMeston: It was also interesting to see how young women today strongly defy the gender stereotypes of even a decade ago: they had sex just for the pleasure of it and if the partner wanted commitment it was often viewed as negative; they were embarrassed of, and wanted to get rid of, their virginity; they wanted to be sexually experienced and add “another notch on their belt”; they had sex because they were competitive with other women—they wanted to win; and they were curious—they had sex just to see what it was like with men of different ages, ethnicities, careers, and penis sizes.

What’s the next frontier in sex research?

Buss: If I were to single out one domain, it would be the female sexual orgasm. There needs to be more research to determine whether it has an evolved function, or possibly several evolved functions (or possibly no function, as some argue). When this is discovered with definitive scientific evidence, it will make for big news. I’m personally betting on the “Mr. Right Hypothesis,” which suggests that women use sexual orgasm, in part, as a mate selection device. Men who are attentive to the woman, sexually unselfish, take the time to learn what turns her on, etc., tend to make good partners and possibly good dads. But we need a lot more scientific research to test this, as well as competing hypotheses about the potential functions of female orgasm.

Meston: There is so much left to be learned about women’s sexuality—sex drive in particular is of great importance, given that one-third of US women report a lack of interest in sex, and if there are mismatches in sex drive within couples, it can lead to all sorts of relationship problems.

So what’s the takeaway?

Buss: For women, I would say that it’s important to realize that each woman has tremendous sexual potential. We found, for example, that some women came to the conclusion, after being with one partner for several years, that they were just not very sexual creatures. Then when they switched to a different partner, all of a sudden they started to blossom sexually. Most women have far more sexual potential than they realize.

Meston: Women are all different in their sexual needs. Don’t assume that what worked in the last relationship will be as effective in the next. Read more.



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