When it comes to sex, you may have heard people talking about how men and women are supposedly very different. Our culture has a lot of jokes about these ideas. For instance, we often may laugh about men being too “quick to finish,” or falling asleep as soon as sex is done.
Of course, real life is usually a lot more complicated than stereotypes. Not all of us will experience a sex life that looks like the ones that get joked about at the bar or talked about on daytime TV shows.
So, what does the science really say about men, women, and sex? This article takes a look. Of note, the findings here focus mainly on heterosexual couples, though we’ll talk some about people in same-sex relationships, too.
Is it true that men have a higher sex drive than women? On average, this does seem to be the case. This difference has been found consistently around the world and seems to be true regardless of sexual orientation, largely due to higher levels of testosterone.
However, it’s important to point out that while men do report higher sex drives on average, women’s level of interest in sex seems to be a lot more variable, with much more range being reported. This means that there are plenty of women with a very strong interest in sex, as well as quite a lot with little interest.
It also appears to be true from the research that men tend to have more permissive attitudes towards casual sex, and say they have had more casual sex, generally. Women tend to be more interested in having sex occur within a committed relationship. They are also more likely to report having regrets about past sexual experiences.
Interestingly, research has also found that women’s sex lives seem to be more affected than men’s by outside factors, like religion, culture, and level of education. For instance, a woman in a very religious environment is more likely to live by religious principles when it comes to her sex life than a man. The degree of internalization of religious values, beliefs, and principles appears to be an important factor that shapes sexual behaviors for both men and women.
Men like porn and women are less interested, right? Well, yes and no. It’s definitely true that men watch and consume a lot more porn than women. (For many, this can become a problem, an addiction, and a deterrent to healthy relationships). When asked, men are also more likely to say they are aroused by porn than women are.
However, when scientists measure physical arousal in a lab, they find that women are just as physically aroused by watching porn as men. But women are less likely to report feeling this way when asked about it, which is a pretty interesting finding. Some scientists suggest that women believe they are not “supposed to be” aroused by visual representations of sex.
To get right down to it, how about orgasms? The news here isn’t so great for straight women. One recent large survey found that during sexual encounters, heterosexual men reached orgasm 95% of the time, while heterosexual women did so only about 65% of the time. (This “orgasm gap” may be news to many heterosexual men, however. About 85% of the men in the survey thought their female partner reached orgasm.)
By the way, gay men and lesbian women also reach orgasm during sex significantly more often than heterosexual women, though somewhat less often than heterosexual men.
A common belief is that women are more interested in or “need” more foreplay and cuddling. In this version of reality, men like to “get to it” fast and get done quickly. Is this true?
Actually, surveys tend to show that heterosexual men and women both want about the same amounts of foreplay and sex (averaging around 15-20 minutes for each). And both groups say that in reality, neither part of sex lasts quite long enough.
As for cuddling and nonsexual physical affection, these are important to both genders and improve relationship satisfaction overall. In fact, some research has found that physical touch and affection matters more to men than women.
It’s very common for both men and women to experience some type of sexual problem at some point in their lives. About 40% of women and 30% of men say they experience some kind of sexual dysfunction at some point. Common issues for men include inability to get or maintain an erection and problems with achieving or timing orgasm. Common issues for women include not being able to have an orgasm and pain experienced with penetration. Both genders also commonly experience lack of desire and lack of interest.
A well-known problem for couples of all types and orientations is desire discrepancy. This occurs when one member of a couple (in heterosexual couples, more commonly the man) wants sex more than the other. This problem can be serious because it can significantly reduce relationship satisfaction for both members of the couple. In long-term relationships, the frequency of sexual encounters tends to decrease over time. Some research indicates that the frequency of sex among these couples averages about once a week, but this isn’t always the case. When sex doesn’t occur for long periods of time, the phenomenon is known as a sex-starved relationship if at least one of the partners is not happy with the arrangement.
Knowing what we know about the science of sex, what can we do to help couples improve their sex lives? One factor that is associated with sexual satisfaction is being able to communicate clearly about sex. This can mean sharing likes, desires, and fantasies as well as being able to say when something is not working. This is also known as “sexual self-efficacy.” While this may sound obvious, the skill may not be something that comes to us naturally. We need to take the leap and learn how to communicate with our partner.
How about that orgasm gap? That’s definitely a real problem that couples can work on. Research finds that women are more likely to have an orgasm when sexual encounters include a variety of sexual practices, like oral sex and manual genital stimulation, instead of just vaginal intercourse.
As far as desire discrepancy, this common problem can be more difficult to solve. Many experts say that desire discrepancy is often about more than sex. It can be rooted in anger, frustration, or other problems in the couple relationship. Stress, medical issues, or dissatisfaction with the quality of sex may also play a role. Refusing to engage in sex can signal deeper issues in the relationship and often leads to additional relationship challenges and sometimes, dissolution.
When it comes to sexual problems, many, like pain with intercourse or inability to hold an erection, should be addressed with a physician, especially since some may be a byproduct of aging. While this may seem difficult, don’t forget that physicians have heard absolutely everything and are trained to be sensitive and compassionate listeners.
In other cases, it may be useful to invest in a short course of sex therapy. The best way to find a sex therapist near you is probably go through your physician. However, you can also visit the websites of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists or The Society for Sex Therapy and Research. Be sure that any sex therapist you see is licensed.
Many excellent science-based books and resources are also available for couples looking to improve their sex lives. Look for those written by an author with a degree and experience in this area.
While on average we do see some differences in men and women’s sexuality, you should know that over time, survey responses have changed, suggesting that it can be hard to know what may be biological and what may be cultural. Also, we all need to remember that all these tendencies and averages are just that. They don’t tell us anything about ourselves or the person we are partnered to. Tune into your own partner and your own body for the most satisfying experience. Only the two of you know what is right for you. Communicating with each other about our sexual needs, wishes, and expectations is the key.
Baumeister, R.F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126(3), 347-74.
Castleman, M. (n.d.) 7 steps to resolve sexual desire differences. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/home-family/sex-intimacy/info-06-2012/steps-to-resolve-sexual-desire-differences.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2018). Sexual dysfunction. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9121-sexual-dysfunction
Davies, S., Katz, J., & Jackson, J.L. (1999). Sexual desire discrepancies: Effects on sexual and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28, 553–567. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018721417683
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Peplau, L. A. (2003). Human sexuality: How do men and women differ? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(2), 37-40. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01221
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