Sex Drive: Fantasy Sex Is Where To Find Id
Some people dream of octupuses. See here for a translation of the rather funny Japanese text.
Source: Katsushika Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife w/ Public Domain license, modified.
I'll begin with a spoiler: men's sex fantasy world is massively (or "significantly", to use the statistical term) greater (more populated and more varied and more frequently visited) than women's.
So if we imagine a person's fantasy world like that magical suitcase Newt Scamander carried in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, populated with all sorts of funny creatures (like that sex octopus up there), then men's suitcases have many more FantasySex Beasts inside them than women's (that would explain why Newt liked to spend so much time inside his suitcase!)
Here's some example numbers: An extensive University of Chicago study found that more than half of the men thought about sex every day or several times a day, compared to less than a fifth of women; another study reported men had 7.2 sexual fantasies a day compared to women's 4.5, and more than half of the men always used sexual fantasy during masturbation compared to slightly more than a fifth of women; yet another study found that men had one sexual fantasy per day compared to one per week for women.
As you can see, the specific numbers differ greatly from study to study, depending on methodology, and even year and location. But the differences in the absolute numbers are not really the point. The differences in the relative numbers of men compared to women is what this post is about.
But before we move on in earnest with the fantasy edition of this sex drive subseries, we need to ask: Why is fantasy a good measure, or even a better measure, of sex drive, compared to, say, actual sex acts?
Thoughts VS Actions
Source: carlos luque w/ CC BY 2.5 license.
When sex researchers measure sex drive, they rarely measure actual sex. Here's one reason why: since it takes two to tango, the results of measuring sex drive in action would be overwhelmingly skewed in favor of "no sex differences".
Plus, if you want numbers (to guard against results being randomly significant), then sex fantasies is your thing — I don't know about you, but I have sex fantasies far more often than I have actual sex. More numbers = better stats.
Plus plus — relating again to the "it takes two to tango" point — sexual acts can often be the result of a compromise, so they may represent the less sex-driven person as more sex-driven (who compromises upwards to satisfy his partner's greater urges), and the more sex-driven person as less sex-driven (who compromises downwards because of his partner's lesser urges), if not altogether mask the possible sex differences.
Plus to the third power, fantasies remove consequential thinking, like "if I do sexual act X, I will end up with a baby which I will have to support", or "if I pursue sexual act Y, I will end up in jail". Much like Gyges' ring (an ancient ring that granted its bearer invisibility, and hence impunity), the removal of consequences reveals more of our true self. Studying fantasies rather than acts therefore probes deeper into our true core.
Sex and consequence.
Source: kalhh w/ CC0 Creative Commons license.
We may also approach this from the other end of the stick. Consider that having lots of sex does not necessarily equal a strong sex drive: it might just indicate a strong money drive! That's probably the case with sex workers. Yes, sex workers might initially go into the field because of a stronger-than-average sex drive; but the specific things they do, and the frequency with which they do them, are probably not reflective of their desires: they probably wouldn't be doing those things if no money was involved. Tabulating their sex acts, then, wouldn't give you an accurate measure of their honest-to-God sex drive.
So this is where KISS got their costume ideas from.
Source: Ralfdix w/ CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
So it seems, for all these reasons and more, that desire proper is the more appropriate thing to study if you want to get an accurate measure of sex drive. It's not surprising, then, that research on the topic of sex drive has centered mostly on our inner world: our sexual fantasies.
A taste of the literature
Consider writing your essays on edible paper. Studies show satiated judges are more lenient.
Source: Kungfuman w/ CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
I could just quote you the one-line summary of a meta-study or two. But that won't give you a real sense of the massive and one-sided sex fantasy sex differences you'd get if you read the papers themselves, in whole.
So to give you a real taste, I decided it would be instructive to collect the fragments of several of the sex differences claims found in just one single paper (part-survey) in one long continuous quote. So here it is:
Men are more likely than women to have sexual fantasies and to be physically aroused by their sexual thoughts [...] American teenage boys are nearly twice as likely as teenage girls to fantasize about sex once a day or more [...] Studies in Japan, the United States, and Great Britain indicate that in each country men have about twice as many sexual fantasies as women do [...] Men are also more likely to have specifically sexual dreams while they sleep [...] Female sexual fantasies are more likely than male fantasies to contain familiar partners and to include descriptions of the context, setting, and feelings associated with the sexual encounter [...] Women are much more likely than men to be only emotionally, rather than physically, aroused by their sexual fantasies [...] women's sexual fantasies have been found to contain more affection and commitment [...] and are more likely to emphasize themes of tenderness and emotionality [...] Women's sexual fantasies are more implicit in sexual content, while men's are more explicit [think softcore VS hardcore, if that helps] [...] Male sexual fantasies specify many more sexual acts, more sexual organs, and a greater variety of sexual content than female sexual fantasies do [...] Male fantasies are more likely to contain visual imagery [...] are much more likely to focus on minute details of the partners' physical appearance [...] and to involve strangers, multiple partners, or anonymous partners [...] Men are more than twice as likely as women to experience sexual fantasies as a result of external stimulation (something encountered in the environment).
I know what you're thinking, and the answer is yes, I did indeed type all that manually because the PDF text was in fact an image. Feel free to express your commiserations in the comment section.
Secondly, wasn't I right? Doesn't that quote paint a more vivid picture than just giving you a one-liner?
I think it does.
And I left one out to treat it individually, because I think it merits it:
Women are more likely to imagine themselves as recipients of sexual activity, while men are more likely to imagine women as recipients of their sexual activity.
I think it's important, because it would seem to imply that women view themselves as objects of sexual desire just as men view them as the objects of their sexual desire. So a woman, in a sense, and surely to the consternation of many a feminist (myself included), objectifies herself. It's like a friend once said to us, a group of four males, while we were downing beers at a bar and philosophizing about women: "man looks; woman is-looked-at" (I tried to approximate the form and succinct brevity of what sounded much better in the Cypriot Greek dialect: "ο άντρας θωρεί, η γυναίκα θωρκέται").
Oddly, fantasies involving being forced or overpowered into a sexual act are fairly common and more equal among men and women compared to all of the above. Women only "probably" have these fantasies more often than men.
A possible sequel to Gerald's Game?
Source: Wiros w/ CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
What role does socialization play in these sex differences?
First, just as in my previous post, let me note that the authors of the long quote too found no differences in the feelings of women and men that accompany and follow their sexual fantasies regarding taboo encounters: men and women were equally likely to experience enjoyment/excitement and guilt/repression from fantasies involving relatives, in-laws, etc.
So socialization has had zero influence there, or the influence was in the direction of reducing sex differences.
Actually, let's just linger on that a bit: why is it always assumed that socialization increases rather than reduces sex differences? In my opinion, the invention of contraceptives alone probably dealt such a devastatingly equalizing blow, that any other attempts to create or maintain sex differences will pale in comparison. Especially in affluent Western societies, sex differences are probably much lesser than they were in a state of nature.
And there's anonymity too. In our times it's so easy to travel to a faraway location and/or use an app to have anonymous sex, that it's hard to pay much credence to the idea of social influences being an effective safeguard against it. Until we put our sex parts on a blockchain, Hell knows how much double-spending is going on!
Chains guarded against doublecrossing, presumably before the invention of fellatio.
Source: Flominator w/ CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
So studying people's sex drive in a world with contraceptives is comparable to studying fantasies instead of sex acts, in the sense that contraceptives have done much to eliminate the consequences of sex (just as consequences are eliminated in fantasy), so surveying people with access to contraceptives might yield far less, and truer, sex differences than surveying people with little or no access to contraceptives. People with no access to contraceptives might, for example, exaggerate sex differences, because it's usually women who bear the brunt of pregnancy and child rearing. With contraceptives, women might behave much more like men.
But people in nature had no access to contraceptives. This means that sex differences today are less; but also, oddly, more unnatural, in that they probably don't reflect how we really functioned in our primordial state. So don't think that removing obstacles gets us closer to "the truth", if by "truth" you mean "our natural state". I even have a pet theory whereby if women's sex drive was "kept in line" so to speak by external factors (like pregnancy or male violence), then the mental-check counterpart needn't have evolved, anymore than you needed to evolve the ability to make your own vitamin B12 when animal game was never far away. I don't know enough to argue for that at the moment, but the point here is that studying a person's mental state outside of the environs in which he evolved carries its own risks.
How can you report what you can't see?
Hard to see without a (glow) stick.
Source: PaulSBarlow w/ CC0 Creative Commons license.
Another argument against the data might go something like this: for women, sexual arousal is less salient — nothing pushes against their pants — and since the fantasy data is based on self-reports, females might under-report their arousals.
First, one could address this data-wise. For instance a study that found almost all the males but only half the females to have experienced sexual desire several times a week or more, has also found that "men and women endorsed essentially the same indicators of desire."
But secondly, and more theory-wise, why does "less salient" immediately invoke the thought "maybe they are under-reporting it"? If it's less salient, they might be over-reporting it! If I'm asked how often I eat strawberries, the question itself might lead this witness to over-estimating my consumption of strawberries, because now they're on my mind, and I'm only remembering the times I eat strawberries, and am failing to take into account, or give proper weight to, the times when I don't eat strawberries. Therefore, salience or no salience, it's best to just take the results we have at face value for now. (Not to mention that it might be somewhat condescending to think women can't know when they're aroused. They know they're aroused at least sometimes, which might undermine the argument altogether.)
Ramifications in everyday life
Polygamists in prison. Women are said to want marriage, but apparently there's a sweet spot where more than one marriage concurrently will land you in prison.
Source: Charles Roscoe Savage w/ Public Domain license.
It doesn't take a sex differences wizard to know that these kinds of differences might lead to conflict in real, lived, life.
I mean, just consider men's vs women's level of agreement with the following statement: "My imagined partner has the power to stir my emotions and excite me physically as no one else can." 75% of females agreed with that statement, vs only 35% of males.
Not conflict-inducing enough for you? Then consider this. Researchers have understandably thought that a person with a stronger sex drive will want to have sex with more people. So they went ahead and asked young males and young females how many sex partners they would ideally like to have over the next N number of years, or over the rest of their lives. In one study, men were hoping (poor things) for an average of 8 partners over the next 2 years; women wanted 1. Over a lifetime, women wanted 2.7 (it's nice to see they don't mind dating handicapable people); men wanted 64.
That's not a typo. It's a 6 followed by a 4.
You don't have to be a mathematician to see that these desires might lead to conflict. As in, women might want to settle, because they already got their 2 in the bag and they're dating number 2.7, whereas men be like "but I got 62 more to go, and I'm already in my late twenties!"
Cue pre-midlife crisis.
For the romantics out there: do not despair! The large difference in the over-a-lifetime study was almost entirely due to a minority of highly promiscuously-inclined men who greatly outnumbered the minority of highly promiscuously-inclined women. The median for both sexes was 1 partner over a lifetime. (Such idealism!) It's still true to say though, if we consider all studies together, that men want to experience sex with more partners overall compared to women, and that's of course fertile ground for conflict.
Still thinking about them strawberries...
Source: Pixabay w/ CC0 license.
Today's post can be summarized thusly:
In brief, male sexual fantasies tend to be more ubiquitous, frequent, visual, specifically sexual, promiscuous, and active. Female sexual fantasies tend to be more contextual, emotive, intimate, and passive.
There are two main points to remember. First, the differences do not appear to be the result of socialization, and exist in all countries ever surveyed.
Second, it's not all just constrained to imagination. Our fantasies spill out into the real world. According to one study, there is "a significant correlation between sexual fantasy and sexual behavior".
And that means conflict. If a skinny person is married to a big person, they can get along as each can cook and eat what he desires. Not so with sex. Sex is shared. It's not easy to go off and do it by yourself without someone getting hurt. The result in many cases might be people being starved or force-fed.
Or, to unpack the metaphor: men might get frustrated sexually, and women might get frustrated emotionally. According, for instance, to some studies, men get more sexually bored in long-term relationships, while women feel greater attraction because of the emotional closeness that develops; when men start a new love affair, their attraction toward other women increases, the opposite of what is true for women.
Even old people are not safe from the ever-prying sex differences researcher! A Duke university study found that older men report a higher chronic sexual arousal when they are not partnered, while women report more sexual needs when they are partnered. And a study of old couples in Sweden found that men wanted sex more often than women. The conclusion of the authors of the Swedish study (now is a good time to recall the stereotype of Sweden as a very sexually egalitarian country) was that "men are significantly more sexual than women, in all ages and in all respects".
In the next post we'll get to the actual sex practices of the two sexes: sex drive in action! Stay tuned.
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Earlier Sex Differences episodes: