Men and Women Are Different When it Comes to Sex–but Thankfully It’s Not Because of Our Brains

by | Oct 4, 2021 | gsr, Libido | 16 comments

How Sexually Men and Women Are Different, but it's mostly cultural

Last week we were talking about how neuroscience does NOT say that men and women are different species when it comes to sex.

Rebecca and Connor talked on the Bare Marriage podcast last week about how we’ve been told by many evangelical authors that neuroscience shows that men think about sex in a way that women do not, and that men are visually stimulated in a way that women can’t understand.

The only problem? The neuroscience doesn’t say that. And on Friday I took you through a process to see how Gary Thomas’ claim in his new book Married Sex is easily debunked with a few minutes of research.

This does not mean, though, that there aren’t any differences between men and women when it comes to sex.

I explained this in two long posts on Facebook, and I thought I’d adapt them for this post, because they’re a great conclusion to our discussion of neuroscience–and a great introduction to our series for October on sexual confidence!

So let’s jump in:

Our survey of 20,000 women that we turned into our book The Great Sex Rescue found that 58% of men have the higher sex drive in marriage, compared with 19% of women (the rest were shared). We also know from other research that men tend to be aroused more easily and stay aroused; women take longer and are often easily distracted. In general, men are more likely to have spontaneous libidos, and women more likely to have responsive libidos.

But that doesn’t mean that ALL men are one way and ALL women another way; that we are different species; that we can never understand.

More than that, though, our brains are highly influenced by what happens around us.

Our culture forms us; our beliefs form us; our experiences form us; even our anatomy forms us. Think of boys: they are very, very aware growing up when they become aroused, because they get erections. So they learn to pay hyper close attention to arousal. One of the big meta-analysis studies that Rebecca was talking about on the podcast this week talked about how women and men can get to similar levels of physical arousal with visual stimuli (though we tend to be aroused by different things), but subjectively men say they’re more aroused than women do (I’m simplifying here, so forgive me. It’s dense to get through).

Men grow up in a culture where women’s bodies are everywhere and objectified; women, by and large, do not grow up in a culture where men’s bodies are similarly objectified. Boys are taught from a young age that enjoying looking at women is manly; girls are taught from a young age that they have to fear men looking at them.

All of these things will influence how we experience sexuality.

Then there are the messages we get at church. Boys are told that they will find pornography and women’s bodies incredibly tempting and challenging and that they have to fight lust which will be their constant battle; girls are told that they will have to be the gatekeepers and dress modestly to stop boys from sinning and put the brakes on in the physical relationship because it will be too difficult for boys.

So boys grow up assuming they will have ravenous sex drives; girls grow up hearing that they don’t really want sex, and instead that sex can be threatening.

When we’re talking about sexual differences between men and women, then, it’s a much better idea to stop talking about brains and start talking about culture.

What messages are we giving our boys and girls?

Our resources seem to take it for granted that men want sex all the time and women don’t, and so we have to convince women to have sex with their husbands.

Wouldn’t it be better to ask, “why don’t women want sex?” We’re the ones with the clitorises. We’re the ones who can have multiple orgasms. What has killed women’s sex drives?

The culprits aren’t hard to find: Our messaging around sex; a culture that makes sex threatening and dirty to us; and, of course, mental load!

None of those things have to do with our brains (though our brains are heavily plastic and can be influenced by all of these things). All of those things have to do with how we talk about sex and what we inadvertently teach our kids.

Here’s why it matters that our differences about sex are not primarily due to the brain:

People are claiming that God MADE men and women incredibly differently. But then what is the solution? They can never really understand each other, and women just need to give men more sex, knowing that it’s hard for them not to lust or watch porn; and they need to help men in this fight (I can’t think of a less sexy message).

If God made us this way, there’s really nothing we can do. Men have to settle for less than they want; women have to give more than they want; and neither is ever really happy. Men feel rejected. Women feel used. And that’s the best case scenario.

But what if our sex drive and our approach to sex is largely cultural–based on our experiences; our beliefs; the messaging we hear? Then things can be changed!

Biblically we know that sex was designed to be MUTUAL, INTIMATE, and PLEASURABLE FOR BOTH.

But those relying on neuroscience to say that men need sex in a way that women can never understand are already ditching the “mutual” part. In fact, they’re ditching “intimate”, too, because they’re saying his needs matter more than hers (you can’t be intimate unless you both matter). And often they’re ditching the pleasurable for both, because they’re asking women to give hand jobs while postpartum, etc. (Nothing wrong with that; more power to you! But it has to be at her choice, not because she’s pressured into it).

At the end of Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin du Mez said, “what has been done can be undone.”

THAT’S our message in The Great Sex Rescue: We are in this mess where women feel obligated and pressured and don’t always want sex, and men feel rejected and helpless, because of the way we’ve talked about sex. Because of our culture. Because of our messaging–including, and especially, in these books that blame it on our brains and the way God made us.

But that also means that we can change!

It starts with realizing that any teaching around sex that does not emphasize MUTUAL, INTIMATE, PLEASURABLE FOR BOTH is not of God. Instead of starting with bad takes on neuroscience, let’s start with what we know to be true about what God made sex for.

Then let’s ask: What’s getting in the way of that? We should all have healthy sex drives. Our drive should be for intimacy, not just release. When those things aren’t present, we need to start digging and asking why, rather than just lecturing women on how much men need sex or they will sin.

Men were not made to sin. Men are equally in the image of God as women. Men are not more evil than women. And women were made with sex drives, too–those drives have just been pushed under the surface because of our messaging.

What’s been done can be undone.

So let’s have THAT conversation. Let’s learn to awaken healthy sexuality in BOTH men and women, rather than spreading a false narrative about how our brains are made in a way that makes us different species.

That’s really the point of The Great Sex Rescue (if you haven’t read it yet, you need to).

Let’s stop spreading stereotypes that don’t work, and start looking for intimate, mutual, pleasurable sex for both spouses.

I believe we can get there–and that’s why this month we’re going to look at sexual confidence: what it means, and how to get it. You may be surprised by what I suggest. Sexual confidence is far more about sexual acceptance of where you are and who you are than it is about feeling totally empowered. When we’re comfortable with ourselves, confidence can bloom. When we try to be something we’re not, we further cause shame.

So let’s embrace who you are, even if who you are has been heavily influenced by bad messaging! What’s been done can be undone. You don’t have to be angry at yourself. You don’t have to feel shame. You don’t have to feel hopeless.

Just be you–and the more “you” you are, the more you’ll find healing, growth, and confidence, because you’ll start where Jesus is, in the here and now. I’m looking forward to what He’s going to do for us this month!

 

As we get started on sexual confidence month, can I just say:

if you haven’t bought The Great Sex Rescue yet, you need to.

I know so many of you read what I write everyday, and listen to the podcasts, so you feel like you’ve already gotten it all. And you have gotten A LOT. I provide a lot of content for free, and I’ll always keep it that way.

But you haven’t seen the charts. You haven’t heard the stories. There’s power to having it all explained all in one place. It’s a gut punch and it’s healing and freeing all at the same time!

Plus it’s a great encouragement to all of us if you pick it up–and tell others about it!

Gender Differences Around Sex--How They're not mostly due to the brain

What do you think? Why do you think we’re so different? How does this conversation need to change? And if you’ve read The Great Sex Rescue, leave a comment and tell why the book is different from reading the blog!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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16 Comments

  1. Newly Married Church Girl

    I really appreciate this refreshing look at our perspectives on differences. This post in particular was gentle with where so many of us have been, but direct and tactful in showing a different view. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Jen

    Thank you , Sheila. I’m really excited to hear your thoughts on this topic specifically, but I also plan to apply the idea “what’s done can be undone” to many other areas of life. We can grow; we can relearn; we can adapt. My husband and I are walking through an extremely difficult time of dealing with both betrayal trauma and our individual childhood traumas (yep, Jesus said we’re tackling the whole shebang!). Remembering that we are not stuck in our current pain is key to moving through and processing. Unlearning wrong theology and psychology is a second key. Someone prophesied over us that we were going to get rid of the “false Jesus,” and your work has been instrumental in stripping away layers of lies in the marriage and sex department. Jesus does not have bondage for us. He does not add to our burdens. You are exposing Pharisaical teachings and helping to free those who have been ensnared by wrong thinking. Keep ministering! You are being the hands and feet of Jesus as you expose lies and reveal truth. Through your ministry, Jesus is setting captives free!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, wow! I feel like those words were like refreshing water to me this morning. Thank you!

      I’m sorry for the hard road you’re on, but it sounds like you’re both throwing yourselves into the work that needs to be done. That’s wonderful! I truly believe that when we yield to the Spirit, God can do tremendous things. It sometimes takes a while, but He is a God who loves healing and redeeming. That’s in His very nature.

      Reply
  3. Laura

    Excellent post as always! Even the way female Christian authors talk about the obligation sex message sure makes sex less desirable and more like a chore. In one of the links to related posts about the Transformed Wife, I’m reminded of one of her videos in how she compares cleaning the toilet to giving your husband sex which are both obligations and you do them regardless of how you feel. Like that’s supposed to make sex sound enjoyable?

    When you mentioned that women are “the ones with the clitorises. We’re the ones who can have multiple orgasms,” it made me wonder if that’s why a lot of girls in third world countries have their genitals mutilated. Are those men threatened by women having clitorises? They’re afraid that women can enjoy sex? Of the few Christian books I’ve read about sex, I don’t recall any mention of the word “clitoris” and when I got sex education in high school (early to mid 1990s), I never heard that word either. In my first (so far, only) marriage, I didn’t know that I could have an orgasm though I faked it because it made him happy.

    With all the evangelical sex teachings revolving around how husbands must have regular release or they might fall into sin and “supposed research” claiming this, the message seems clear that sex was made for men and women just have to “put out.” It also makes me wonder if these male evangelical authors (most of them who don’t seem to have the right credentials to teach “sex ed”) are so threatened by women’s sexuality that they are mentally mutilating it.

    I would be interested in hearing some thoughts about the reasoning behind female genital mutilation. While the Western World (US, UK, Canada, Australia, for example) may not practice female genital mutilation, isn’t what these evangelical sex teachings doing to us women mentally? Kill our sex drives?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Wow. now that’s a thought I’m going to have to sit with for a while. That may be even worth a podcast title (though I would never want to diminish the horror of FGM, so I’ll have to think about it), but yes–are we mutilating women’s sexuality mentally?

      Reply
    • NM

      To answer your question, yes. FGM absolutely happens because women are too “sexually demanding” without it. I don’t have sources off the top of my head but I remember learning about it in college.

      Reply
    • Lisa M

      Couldn’t have said it better myself! Excellent post, such important information.

      Reply
      • AJ

        When it comes to sex, although the neuroscience between men and women may not be any different, there is one very significant difference: TESTOSTERONE!! The average man’s testosterone level is twenty times greater then the average woman’s. Testosterone is the driving force behind men’s sex drives. It’s why men are more easily aroused and have such a seemly endless and spontaneous desire. In ancient cultures, particularly those who practiced polygamy, where the wives and prepubescent children children lived in harems, eunuchs (castrated men) were often put in charge of the harem because they wouldn’t be sexually distracted by the women. Being that 95% of the testosterone in a man’s body is produced in his testicles, removing them completely kills his sex drive. A eunuch would have testosterone levels about equal with a woman. A little research reveals that eunuchs are capable of having sex and reaching orgasm but overall arousal is much more difficult and their desire is much harder to awaken.

        Reply
    • S

      That’s a very interesting/sobering line of thinking. It lead me to do a tiny bit of research. I wonder how much these false/harmful teachings intersect?

      From the WHO website:

      FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behaviour. It aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed (Type 3), the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage extramarital sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.

      https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation

      Reply
    • CMT

      Wow. Heavy thoughts. There does seem to be a huge spectrum of ways that societies try to control women’s sexuality. Erasing body parts by refusing to name them is way less violent than physically altering or removing them, but the two might well be on the same continuum. In a relatively brief stint working in maternity care, I saw the effects of both kinds of erasure. Women often don’t know what is normal and healthy for their own bodies. Some have much more associated physical trauma than others, but the underlying lack of knowledge seems similar.

      One of the more insidious things about this is how women often become complicit. I never heard anybody compare having sex with her husband to cleaning a toilet (!), but most of the duty sex messages and boundary policing I’ve experienced has been enacted by other women, not men. Have others here noticed this?

      Also – wonder if TW’s husband knows she wrote that comparison and put it on the internet?? Even if it was a joke of some kind. Just…yikes.

      Reply
      • Andrea

        The journalist Peggy Orenstein uses the term “psychological clitoridectomy” in her TED talk. (If anyone is feeling really down about the state of Evangelical Christianity when it comes to female pleasure, this will show you that it’s not much better in the secular world.)

        I’ve had the same thoughts as Sheila about how such phrasing might be too insensitive to women who have suffered an actual physical clitoridectomy, but I also agree with CMT that this is all on a continuum. Thinking of it that way also tamps down the racism/white savior complex of white women speaking about black and brown women’s experiences. We’re just not THAT much superior for the fact that ours is in tact if we’re discouraged from even naming it, let alone figuring out how it works, so that we can teach our husbands how to pleasure us. A woman who is being pleasurelessly penetrated by a husband who ignores her clitoris … well, as one of my friends put it, “I may as well not have one.”

        Reply
  4. Emmy

    This Neuro-Science-Tells-Us-to-do-it stuff reminds me of when I and my younger brother were little and our mom tried to tell us how our brains and nerves work together:

    “So, Emmy and Danny, when you want to do something with your hand, like picking up something or pointing at something, your brain sends a message to your hand through your nerves and tells your hand to do it.”

    So, next time my baby brother did something naughty and mom said No! No! my brother said: “My brain told me to do it”.

    This became the joke of the year!

    Reply
  5. Jo R

    So the church teaches everyone that sex is for men only, that women are to be—let’s use the correct words, shall we?—subservient and deferential to men in general (and not merely their husbands), and that women’s highest destinies are to be focused solely on their genitalia, first in the pleasure and second in the children they can provide to their husbands.

    For the church to now change directions and admit that the Bible actually teaches sex should be mutual, intimate, and pleasurable for both the husband and the wife, a whole bunch of men are going to be revealed as selfish, inadequate, lazy lovers content to focus on their own pleasure at the expense of their wives.

    And this quote hits it not only out of the park, but out of the time zone, and maybe onto a different continent: “A woman who is being pleasurelessly penetrated by a husband who ignores her clitoris … well, as one of my friends put it, ‘I may as well not have one.’”

    If a man says he wishes his wife were more enthusiastic about having sex, my first question would be to ask if her experience is like that quote. If it is, what the **** is there to be enthusiastic about? Then let’s flip the script. What activity IS she most enthusiastic about, and if he doesn’t particularly care for it, if he gets absolutely no pleasure out of it whatsoever, how willing is HE to be enthusiastic about doing it with her? Yeah, exactly. So his wishing she were more enthusiastic about sex means that it would improve HIS experience. HER experience is still not even on his radar. 🙄🙄🙄

    If women hear for several decades that sex isn’t for them, why are husbands so surprised that wives believe sex isn’t for them?

    Reply
  6. Angela

    Right on about changing culture. You might be interested in the fact that Dorothy Sayers says the “insatiability of wives” is the oldest joke in the world. I think maybe Chaucer and Shakespeare have jokes about it? So probably Victorian culture severely squashed the idea of the “angel of the hearth” wanting something so base as sex, lol! Although there may have been many long years building up to Victorian ideals.

    Reply
  7. SLS

    “But that doesn’t mean that ALL men are one way and ALL women another way; that we are different species; that we can never understand.”

    Very true. These kinds of cultural messages about how all men and all women are supposed to fit in stereotypical boxes goes beyond just sex.

    To take a trivial example I am the romantic in my wife and I’s marriage. That is the exact opposite of the cultural expectation.

    Forget flowers. My wife is happier if we get a new washing machine.

    Because I grew up with the opposite expectation it took me a while to adjust my thinking and do things that spoke love to her, not the “stereotypical woman”.

    Reply
  8. April

    I think something to keep in mind as far as the differences in men and women comes down to what is available to each gender in the way of healthcare that can help to boost libido especially for the age group of couples where the female is approaching menopause. What I’m seeing is a tremendous number of men in this age bracket using testosterone to elevate their levels to at least twice the normal level of a man that age. So you have a man with the testosterone level of a 30 year old and a woman whose estrogen/progesterone/testosterone levels are at age-appropriate levels. How can we expect to have the same sex drives based on that biology? It is unreasonable for a man in that situation to expect his wife to have a sex drive even closely resembling his. The pharmaceutical industry has made men’s sexual health a priority but what about for women? How many FDA-approved drugs exist for increasing sex drive in women………2. Yes. 2. And the side effects aren’t pleasant either. Compare that to the number of fda approved medications there are for sexual performance in men………at least 4 times as many. And just testosterone alone comes in eleven different dosage forms including injection, creams, gels, capsules, pellets, etc. I’m sorry but until the healthcare industry makes female sexual function a priority there will always be a disparity between the genders when it comes to sexual desire and function. Women deserve to have safe medications or hormone therapy available to them to ensure they can desire and enjoy sex for as many years as their male counterparts.

    Reply

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