What if men and women experience sex differently?
This month, our series on the blog is going to focus on some new studies that have recently been published in peer reviewed journals. We like keeping up with research, and we shared four new studies on the podcast last week. I’d like to expand on what we said, and put them each in a blog post, for easy access.
Let’s start with this fascinating article in the journal, The Perspectives of Psychological Science, which was published in February 2022: Women Get Worse Sex: A Confound in the Explanation of Gender Differences in Sexuality
This one isn’t a study per se, but rather the authors suggest a new framework for thinking about gender differences in approaches to sex. And I love it!
Here is how the article opens,
Many products that we call by the same name vary widely in quality. Imagine if we randomly selected 2 dozen people who had never tried pasta and we gave 12 of them Chef Boyardee ravioli straight out of the can and 12 of them a plate of fresh ravioli hand-crafted by one of Italy’s top chefs. You will note that, on the semantic surface, our two conditions could be considered equivalent—after all, both groups tried “ravioli”! If we then asked the two groups, “how do you like ravioli?” one group would likely give a very different answer than the other—not because the groups are different in ways that affect their ravioli assessment but because the two groups experienced very different ravioli.
So we have two different groups of people eating two very different kinds of ravioli: cold Chef Boyardee right out of a can versus chef-perfected recipes.
The study goes on to say,
Now let us say that the dozen participants who received Chef Boyardee ravioli were women, whereas those who received the chef-crafted ravioli were men. Would we then conclude that women like ravioli less than men do? And that the women, if provided with the same chef-crafted ravioli that men received would continue to provide a tepid ravioli response? That, at least in parallel, is the question we address in this article. We argue that an analogous (though obviously sometimes tempered) dynamic plays out in the context of assessments of gender differences in sexuality. That is, women experience a different version of “sex” than men do.
(The best part of this article is this intro which you so rarely see in academic journals–and had me dying laughing).
Just for some more fun, before we move on to their findings:
Further, the sex that women get is not just different, but of lesser quality. Women and men who are having sex are not having equivalent experiences. One group eats, to invoke our parable, Chef Boyardee, and the other, chef-crafted ravioli. Of course, the differences are not always as stark. Women often really love sex. The differences between women’s and men’s sex might be like the difference between a serviceable red wine and a top-notch one. Some women have better sex than some men. But on average, women’s experiences of sex are of substantially lower quality than men’s. Viewed from this perspective, it is quite sensible that women would like sex quite a bit less than men do. Why is this an issue? Because when we’re trying to figure out why women don’t like sex, or trying to raise their libido, or wondering if women are just less sexual, we have to ask what their experiences actually are.
After talking about the podcast in our Patreon group, a member shared this photo from grocery shopping, and we all couldn’t stop laughing.
They were specifically looking at experience of sex as a confounding variable.
A confounding variable is something that you’re NOT studying, but that is actually affecting the thing you are studying. And so you’re not seeing what’s actually happening because you’re not studying the right thing. We talked about how confounding variables work on our podcast looking into Nancy Pearcey’s research (which was super interesting).
In other words, if most studies are looking at how diet affects libido, or how marital satisfaction affects libido, but they’re not actually looking at quality of sex, they may be missing the real story.
Realizing How Women Experience Sex Differently Than Men Opens The Door To Making Sex Good For Her Too!
Often in the sex literature, women are treated as the problem for having low libidos. So we give them more testosterone. Or we try to find another way to get her to be “fixed.” But that approach completely ignores that, on a societal level, women experience sex differently.
This is something that Rebecca and I have been talking about on the podcast too.
Let’s just look at orgasm rates between men and women first time having sex. For the vast majority of men, their first time having sex results in an orgasm. That is not the case for women. It’s just not–but we know that when women do reach orgasm in their first encounter, their libido rates are just as high as men’s. And when women have been orgasmic their entire sex life, the same way that men have been orgasmic their entire sex life, hey, what do you know? They like sex, and they want it!
Because it’s also not even just Chef Boyardee versus Nona’s ravioli, it’s also: what if you get Chef Boyardee and then you get Nona’s ravioli? And then next time it’s Chef Boyardee again and then Chef Boyardee again. And then you have three bites of Nona’s ravioli. And then they take it away. And then you can smell Nona’s ravioli coming from the kitchen, and then it’s Chef Boyardee in front of you all of a sudden. And it’s transmuted in front of your eyes. It’s not just that it’s always been bad. A lot of people remember tastes of it being good, and then it just never is like that again for various reasons. And it’s just complicated.
Now, back to the article:
The Four Ways Women Experience Sex Differently
In this article, they give four big ways in which sex differs for men versus women. Let’s look at what those are:
1. Anatomical Differences affect women’s experience of sex
The study talks about men and women’s difference in genitals. They acknowledge that a man’s penis is just right there and is easy to access, which means that boys often grow up with far more genital awareness than girls do.
Women face a risk of pregnancy which men don’t. We often experience painful sex differently than men do. Just physically with our anatomy, men’s experience is going to be very different.
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2. Sexual Violence affects women’s experience of sex
There is a risk of violence for women, which men don’t have to the same extent. Men can be sexually abused and assaulted, of course, however the rate of that is lower than what women experience. And when we’re solely focused on heterosexual relationships, it’s ridiculously out-balanced. When you’re looking at the averages over a population, women are assaulted by men at a very high rate.
3. The Uneven Stigma of Sex affects women’s experience of sex
The stigma of sex is disproportionately put on women.
For those of you who read our book, She Deserves Better, you may remember us sharing a story from the book, When God Writes Their Love Story: You have this virginal couple, who ends up having sex and the conclusion of it is that she has lost her most precious treasure. Meanwhile, the man is still himself. He’s just Joe. She’s the one who carries the shame of what they chose to do together.
The stigma of sex is something that exists inside and even outside of conservative evangelical culture. You may have heard the trope of the woman who does what is called, “the walk of shame” after a night of hooking up with some guy. Men don’t do the walk of shame, but women do.
A lot of the stigma is based on the idea that sex can be a high risk of sex for girls and women, in terms of getting pregnant outside of marriage. And so because there is higher risk, there is this idea that girls who engage in it must be even more depraved than the boys, right? It’s based on that kind of misogynistic thinking where there’s something extra wrong with girls for doing something that is pretty human to experience.
So more stigma is being put on women, which means that women are naturally going to be more careful than men.
4. The Centrality of Male Sex definitely affects women’s experience of sex!
The biggest thing that this article talked about was the centrality of male centric sex. It’s great that this was the biggest focus, because this is our big thing that we talk about too (so it made us super happy to see this!).
They said this,
No evidence suggests that women are less skilled at bringing themselves to orgasm, less biologically inclined to orgasm, or that they experience orgasm more mildly than men do. Instead, the orgasm gap results from specific heterosexual practices, each of which privileges the male sexual experience.
And then they go on to look at some of those practices, which include lack of oral sex, lack of communication during sex, and a lack of respect in heterosexual encounters. So the fact is that women are far more likely to reach orgasm through oral sex performed on them, and yet, this is not prioritized in most heterosexual relationships.
This is interesting, especially when you consider the kinds of advice given in conservative Evangelical literature around sex, which prioritizes penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex over other kinds of sexual activities. They talk a lot about how other forms of sexual pleasure are seen as extra, so what often happens, unsurprisingly, is that men will prioritize penis in vagina and not the things that are known to bring women pleasure.
So glad they mentioned the orgasm gap, which is what we talk about in The Great Sex Rescue too!
Here’s what it boils down to: we shouldn’t be saying women like sex less than men do when women often haven’t even had a fair shot at experiencing good sex. It could just be that the sex that women are experiencing is very different from the sex that men are experiencing. And I think that the Christian community needs to really listen to this because the main message, when it comes to sex and women that is given today is:
“Hey, ladies. You need to want it more. What’s wrong with you that you’re not sexual enough? You know it’s just going to be awful, so just do it anyway. But also it’s such a gift, and you should love this, girl. Go get your sex on and just get through it.”
That’s the message that women are given in the church. It makes no sense.
Let me share the conclusion of this study with you,
At every phase of their lives, women encounter unique barriers that shepherd them to enjoy sex less than men. Because women are effectively punished more for participating in sex, they avoid sex more than men do. Because women orgasm less frequently during partnered sex with men, they enjoy sex less than men do. Because they enjoy sex less than men do, they are less likely to desire it. And because they desire sex less, they have less sex.
So why do women not want sex enough? Well, you have to go through all of those things which are very real barriers to pleasurable sex.
Think about how this relates to the Do Not Deprive verses
From now on, whenever evangelicals talk about the 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 verses about not depriving each other, we need to stop saying that these verses are telling women they have to have sex regardless of what they are feeling. We need to stop telling women these verses say you can’t say no to intercourse, for one simple reason:
You can’t deprive someone of Chef Boyardee.
Yes, you can deprive someone of first class Italian ravioli. But you can’t deprive someone of Chef Boyardee straight from the can, because that’s nasty and no one wants it. If what she is experiencing is Chef Boyardee, you cannot then turn around and tell her not to deprive him of Nana’s ravioli, because if she is getting Chef Boyardee, she is already being deprived.
See how that works?
And if sex for both of them truly were Nana’s ravioli, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation.
I want to get to the point where the evangelical church gets this.
Think about how much we have talked about men’s sexual needs and how women don’t even have sexual needs. It’s like that famous line from Emerson Eggerichs’ Love & Respect that got us started on our whole mission, “If your husband is typical, he has a need that you don’t have.”
What would happen if the church took this article to heart? Our emphasis is to berate women for not liking sex. What if, instead, we asked: Are women getting chef boyardee? And then what if we taught men to serve Nana’s ravioli?
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What do you think? Do you like the ravioli analogy? What’s the biggest factor to you in the difference between men’s and women’s experience of sex? Let’s talk in the comments!