The difference in men's and women's attitudes toward sex are often taken for granted. Men want sex, women want commitment; men look for attractive mates and women go after social status.
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But not all psychologists are on board with these gender-essentialist statements.
In a new review, University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley and colleagues sift through psychology studies and find gender differences aren't always as black-and-white (or pink-and-blue) as they seem. Here are six gender differences that may not be innate after all.
1. Men want "sexy," women want "status"
An underpinning of evolutionary psychology is that men look for sexy women who are likely to provide them with attractive, healthy offspring, while women are more concerned than men about getting a high-status mate who can be a good provider.
When psychologists ask research subjects (mostly college students) to imagine their ideal mate, that is indeed what they typically find. But when people in an actual speed-dating event rated the importance of attractiveness and status, these gender differences evaporated, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
When the research participants met potential dates face to face, there was no difference in the way they rated their romantic interest based on those people's attractiveness and earnings. So it seems real-world attraction may go beyond simple stereotypes.
"Thinking about 'ideal' elicits more stereotypical thoughts about women and men — and what women and men 'should' do," Conley wrote in an email to LiveScience. "When someone evaluates a real person, it is a little different."
2. Men want many sex partners, women want far fewer
If you ask a lot of men and women how many sex partners they'd want in a given period of time, the numbers provided by men average higher than the women's numbers. But it seems that a few randy fellows at the top are skewing the results as a whole.
Calculating an average does not always give you the clearest view of the data. (If, for example, researchers asked 10 men how many sex partners they wanted in the next year and nine said "one" while one said "20," the average would be 2.9, and you might expect that any given man wants about three sex partners in a year.)
If you look instead at the "typical" response to the question of how many partners people want, you find that the majority of both men and women offer the same answer: one.
Again, survey responses may be more about what people believe they should say, rather than what they really want, Conley said. That issue may be exacerbated because most sexual preference studies are conducted using college students, she added, and the young men are eager to conform to expectations of masculinity.
How about how many sexual partners men and women actually have? Studies generally find that men report more partners than women. But in 2003, researchers reported in the Journal of Sex Research that if you trick research participants into believing that they are hooked up to a lie-detector test, men report the same number of sexual partners as women.
3. Men think about sex more than women do
The cliché that men think about sex every seven seconds is not true. And while it's true that men think about sex more often than women do, they also think about other bodily needs, such as food and sleep, more than women do.
In a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Sex Research, psychologists asked research participants to record their thoughts throughout the day. They found that men pondered sex 18 times a day to a woman's 10 times a day, but men also thought about food and sleep proportionately more than women. That suggests sex doesn't hold as vaunted a position for men as you might expect.
4. Women have far fewer orgasms than men do
Are women biologically doomed to a life of less sexual pleasure than men? Studies suggest that men do experience more orgasms than women, but Conley and her colleagues add a large caveat: The differences are largest in one-night stands and hookup relationships. Things look rosier for women in long-term relationships.
In a study published in the book "Families as They Really Are," (W.W. Norton and Co., 2009), researchers asked more than 12,925 people about their sexual experiences. They found that women reached orgasm only about a third as much as men during first-time hookups, and only half as often as men during repeated hookups. But in committed relationships, women has orgasms 79 percent as often as men.
The fact that the gap can shrink so much based on relationship type suggests that having a partner who cares about a woman's sexual satisfaction is more important than biology, Conley and her colleagues wrote.
5. Men like casual sex more than women do
For a 1989 study, researchers trained young men and women to approach opposite-sex individuals of a similar age and proposition them. In a striking contrast, 70 percent of the men approached by a woman seeking sex said, "Sure." Not a single woman agreed.
The result could be taken to mean that women aren't interested in casual sex. But there is evidence that cultural factors play a major role, Conley and her colleagues wrote. When women are asked to consider a hypothetical offer from someone more familiar or very attractive, they become much more receptive. Likewise, gender differences in one-night-stand interest evaporated when men and women were asked to consider sleeping with someone famous.
Conley, in yet-unpublished research, said she has found that women being propositioned by a strange man simply expect him to be no good in bed.
"Women accepted fewer casual-sex offers from men than vice versa," she wrote, "because male proposers were perceived to have relatively poorer sexual capabilities."
6. Women are pickier than men
Evolutionary theory holds that men want to spread their seed, while women are choosy about whom they mate with. But this may not be universal, according to Conley and her colleagues.
A 2009 study published in Psychological Science found that people are choosier when they're approached by a potential partner, and less choosy when they're doing the approaching. The experiment, conducted in a real-life speed-dating environment, showed that when men rotated through women who stayed seated in the same spot, the women were more selective about whom they chose to date. When the women did the rotating, it was the guys who were pickier.
Because guys are traditionally the ones who make the first move, women may simply get more of a chance to be choosy. Perhaps, Conley and her colleagues wrote, women's pickiness is tied more to dating rules than to innate desires.
Conley said that these against-the-grain studies highlight the importance of following the data to their conclusion, even when that conclusion isn't what you'd expect.
"Psychologists – including me – always have to be looking beyond their own biases. They need to avoid getting so attached to a particular theory or perspective that they go out of their way to protect the theory," Conley said. "Data should be the guide, and you have to look at data in every way you can think of to see if the story you are telling is really the best one."
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