I’ve mentioned that men and women differ, globally speaking, in terms of spontaneous v. responsive desire – i.e., men are more likely to be walking down the street and think, “Hm, I’d like sex!” while women are more likely to feel their partner kissin’ on ‘em and go, “Hm, I’d like sex!”
There are other differences, all of them population-level and therefore none of them are explanations for why YOUR sexuality is the way it is. But they might go some way in helping us understand cultural stereotypes and myths, eh?
Excitation and Inhibition. “SES” is the Sexual Excitation System, the system which notices sexually relevant stimuli in the environment (an attractive person, an erotic touch, a sexy smell, etc) and “turns on.” “SIS” is the Sexual Inhibition System, the system which responds to all kinds of threats and “turns off.” This is the “shut off” switch responsible for the male refractory period, among other things. If you’re in the middle of a passionate interlude with your partner, and your brother walks in the room, it’s SIS that slams on the brakes.
Overall, men are more sensitive to erotic stimuli than are women; that is, they have higher SES than women. And overall, women are more sensitive to threats which reduce sexual responsiveness; they have higher SIS than men. Of course there is wide variability, particularly among women, but on average, women have higher SIS and lower SES than men. As always, there is great variability in populations, particularly among women.
It might be easy to hear this and think, “Aha! Women want sex less than men! This proves it!” It’s easy to think this reinforces the standard line about men being sluts and women being choosy. But that’s not what this tells us. What it tells us is only that women are easier to turn off (globally speaking) and more difficult to turn on. Because, as I’m about to describe, for women in particular there’s not a clear-cut relationship between desire, arousal, and physiology.
Arousal Concordance. As I’ve mentioned before, women exhibit a lower correlation between physiological arousal and perceived arousal than do men. That means that if a man has an erection, the odds are high that he’ll tell you he’s feeling aroused. But a woman might be lubricating, her genitals swollen, and her vagina lengthened, and she might still tell you she doesn’t feel at all turned on. By the same token, a woman might be dry as a bone and her erectile tissue flaccid, and she still might tell you she’s feeling ready to go. Other times, women have higher concordance, where what their genitals are doing more or less matches up with what their minds are experiencing. Interestingly, arousal-concordant women are more likely to be orgasmic from penetration. No one knows for sure what the implications are of this arousal non-concordance, or why it might exist.
Sexual Orientation. This is a complex and socially sensitive one. More women than men identify as bisexual, and more men than women identify as gay. Again, no one knows why this is or what it might mean for male and female human sexuality. It’s also the case that women will respond (genitally) to a much wider array of sexual stimuli – images of non-human apes having intercourse, for example. Men respond to a relatively limited set of stimuli, depending on their sexual orientation.
There are more – in particular there are differences in orgasm. Maybe I’ll do a post about those too.