Psychologists debunk 6 common gender-essentialist myths about sexuality

BREAKING: Science confirms what feminists have been saying forever. All those myths about innate gender differences when it comes to sex? Not actually true. In a new review of research, University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley and colleagues debunked six common gender-essentialist myths.

1) Men want “attractiveness,” while women want “status”

Sure, maybe on paper they do, but in the real world where actual relationships take place, attraction doesn’t fall into such simple stereotypes. Shocking, I know.

2) Men want many more sexual partners than women do

Turns out if you look at medians instead of averages to avoid skewing the data with a few Don Juan wannabes, men and women both say they want one sexual partner. (Just one! That is truly the most surprising finding of the whole study.) And if you get people to tell the truth, gender differences in actual sexual partners disappear too.

3) Men think about sex more than women do

Ok, they do. But only 18 times a day–not nearly the every seven seconds we were told! And they also think about other needs, like food and sleep, more than women do.

4) Women have fewer orgasms than men do

True, but the “orgasm gap” is clearly more dependent on relationship type than biology. While women orgasmed about a third as much as men during first-time hookups, that number jumps to 79% in committed relationships.

5) Men like casual sex more than women do

This is one of the most persistent myths out there. But the researchers say that women’s reluctance to accept an offer of casual sex is mostly because they’re not convinced the guy will be good in bed (see #4) and are afraid of being slut-shamed. If you account for these two barriers, the gender difference disappears.

6) Women are pickier than men

Everyone tends to be choosier when they’re approached by a potential partner, and less choosy when they’re doing the approaching. So it’s our lingering expectation that men do the asking and women the accepting–not some evolutionary bullshit about spreading seeds–that keeps this myth alive.

The researchers end with a nice little smackdown of evolutionary psychologists’ explanations for gender differences in sexuality. Instead of being rooted in our evolutionary past, such differences can be explained by “much more mundane causes: stigma against women for expressing sexual desires; women’s socialization to attend to other’s needs rather than their own; and, more broadly, a double standard that dictates (different sets of) appropriate sexual behaviors for men and women.”

Word. Now please let’s put these myths to bed for good.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • anyadnight

    Just so you know, this research has been going on for years.
    Psychologists have been saying all of this for a long time, but the evo-psych crowd –a crowd that my psych department loathes because a LOT of them often use bad science– gets more air time because that’s what people in the media choose to hear.
    Evo-psych draws on a narrow span of human development and evolution did not stop or start at one specific point. Evo-psych also relies on a lot of assumptions about what the actual environment of ancient humankind was and the assumption that that environment caused humans to have inflexible relationship models that are essential to our survival rather than flexible minds that can adjust behavior to expectations and our perceptions of the world. Because no experiment can replicate human evolution, evo-psych findings cannot claim causation and their findings and theories are speculative at best– many things can cause women to select for status and not just evolution. For example, our relative and universal lack of access to resources. Women who live in more gender-equal societies or who have more resources are less likely to choose partners based on their access to them.
    My department (and my education) is pretty female-dominated (by professors, anyway) so I don’t know about other psych departments in the country, but where I go to school evo-psych is taken with many grains of salt.

  • Christy

    Is it just me, or does thinking about sex 18 times per day still seem like a lot? That’s more than once per waking hour! No judgment either way – I’m just, y’know, surprised. Obviously I need to stop focusing on work so much and start thinking about sexytimes, lol.

    • honeybee

      Really? I think that number seems really low. I think my own is closer to 100 times a day. I.e., at least 5 times an hour for say 16 hours a day.

      But it suppose it depends what is considered an independent thought versus 1 long continuous thought.

  • Smiley

    Let’s get this straight.

    Of the six myths, acknowledges that two are true (#3 and #4), two are close to being true (#1 and #5) and the last two are not really true if you apply some mathematical corrections (#1 and #6).

    It looks to me that the myths are probably truths.

  • Bobby

    If you think this post was less than convincing, look at the story it was based on. Not much documentation at all, and a good portion of the data came from a study on speed dating college students. This really does nothing to debunk anything. In fact this seems a lot like how conservatives use bits of information to deny global warming. I’m very disappointed at the way this information was misrepresented as fact.

    • Maya

      Smiley and Bobby–

      The point is that these gender differences are often assumed to be innate–and this review debunked that assumption by showing how their own biases lead scientists to reinforce that myth, when, in fact, research shows that these gender differences can be explained by social and cultural forces.

      If you find the linked Live Science and Jezebel summaries unconvincing, I encourage you to try to get your hands on the actual review and make up your own mind.

  • figleaf

    Hmm… They don’t seem that far off to me. The factors affecting #5 seem to be the crux of the matter for a lot of the other discrepancies. The higher the likelihood that sex will be personally disappointing (not just non-orgasmic but downright bad) the more “reasons” you’re probably going to need to do it anyway regardless of gender.

    Meanwhile, to the extent “slut shaming” imposes external costs above and beyond personal enjoyment (or, conversely, to the extent that “stud-congratulating” imposes external benefits beyond actual enjoyment) you’d expect to see those being shamed limiting their activities.

    If you include in “slut shaming” awkward little historical tendencies like “honor killings” and “stone her if she’s not a virgin on her wedding night,” plus psychiatric treatment for “nymphomania” if she wants sex more than her long-term partner, and approximately 0% interest from authorities if you’re sexually assaulted then we’re not just talking about a little name calling being an inhibiting factor. You don’t need special “genes” to explain that — just the plain old ordinary genes for self-preservation.

    What I don’t get is why folks like Smiley and Bobby would want to hold on to those myths in the first place? From a man’s perspective they serve to enhance the “sexual scarcity” that patriarchy uses to control men!

    And even if you did want to be skeptical, it’s clear not just from this researcher but from plenty of others going back to Kinsey that to the extent the “myths” are borne out at all the impact, while possibly measurable, is much smaller than stereotypes and social scripting would have us believe.

    So, again, why perpetuate them?


    • Smiley


      I am not trying to perpetuate them.

      I am only pointing out that if one wants to attack myths, agreeing with two thirds of them is not the way to debunk them. Indeed, agreeing (or practically agreeing ) with them will actually perpetuate them.

      There are certainly good arguments against these myths, but Maya’s post did not mention them. Hence my reply.