Men and women: who wants sex more?

It’s an experiment that has been done a number of times, with similar results. An attractive male and female researcher go around a college campus asking people of the opposite sex if they’d be up for a one-time hookup. Or an assorted group of hetero men and women are asked to realistically assess their chances of getting someone they’d never met before to have sex with them that very night. In all variations, the result is pretty much what you’d expect: a man is likely to say yes to sex with a person he’s never met before, while a woman is likely to say no.

Statistics from experiments like these are usually cited to support the claim that men want sex more than women. I think this is a huge stretch. I would never argue that men aren’t more open — by a vast degree — to anonymous sex than women are: just compare the anonymous sex scene of gay men, lesbians, and heteros. (I don’t know whether lesbians typically have more or less anonymous sex than heteros… I would guess a little bit more, but I’d be interested to find data. Either way, gay men far outstrip both the other categories in frequency of anonymous sex.) But is openness to anonymous sex the most sensible baseline for overall sexual desire? I contend that it is not. (I’m using “anonymous sex,” meaning sex with someone you’ve just met, as distinct from “casual sex,” meaning sex without any additional relationship expectations.)

Sexuality is different for men and for women. Our bodies are built differently, the reproductive process affects us differently, and we are subject to very different cultural pressures. All these things lead to different sexual desires and different sexual behaviors in the typical male and typical female population. As with any gender-linked trait, there are plenty of men who fall in the female-typical spectrum and plenty of women who fall into the male-typical — you can’t tell what someone’s sexual desires and interests are by looking at their genitals. But overall, the differences are notable. And based on these differences, anonymous sex is the kind of sex least likely to appeal to women as a group.

First of all, sex is more risky for women. Biologically, intercourse puts us at risk of pregnancy and a greater risk of catching a disease. Since most women are physically weaker than most men, being alone and vulnerable with a man is risky. And there are social risks: promiscuous women are still looked down on, where promiscuous men are looked up to. There are plenty of men who commit the supreme dickery of wanting to sleep around as much as possible, but preferring to marry a woman who’s only had one or two sexual partners. And women… I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but women can be cruelly vicious to other women who destabilize the social structures they’re invested in.

Given all these risks, is it any wonder that women are warier of sexual encounters, especially with new partners?

Second, women’s sexual desire in general operates somewhat differently than men’s. Read these two excellent posts by Emily Nagoski on responsive vs. spontaneous desire and other differences between men’s and women’s sexuality. (Then go read the rest of her blog; it’s fascinating and informative about many different aspects of sexuality.)

As you know if you’ve read those two posts (c’mon, they’re not that long), women’s sexuality in general is more fluid, more responsive, and less obvious and direct than men’s. We don’t always know when we’re physiologically aroused; the “type” of person we’re attracted to is likely to vary more, even to the point of changing sexual orientations; we’re more likely to be turned on after sexual activity starts than before. Which means that a man is much more likely than a woman to be walking around knowing he wants sex and what kind of person he wants it with. If that state is what we mean by “wanting sex” then men will always want sex more than women, because we’ve defined the term as “wanting sex the way typical men want sex.” We’ve already loaded the dice.

I’m not typically feminine in a lot of ways, but sexually I seem to be. When I say I want sex, usually I don’t mean I am perceptibly horny (although that does happen.) It’s less like being hungry, where my stomach is growling and my ability to concentrate on other things is diminished. It’s more like wanting to be outside on a sunny day, or wanting to watch a movie, or wanting to go dancing: it’s an activity I know I enjoy, and once I start doing it I know I’ll be totally absorbed and delighted to be doing it. But if for any reason I’m prevented from doing it, I can shrug it off and move on pretty quickly to a different activity.

This difference means that women’s sexuality is much more responsive to external factors, especially factors that inhibit desire, such as all the social and biological risks I listed above. It also means that women are going to find it easier to tune their sexual desires to the cultural pressures around them. It’s easier for women en masse to believe the accepted wisdom about their sexuality: like, they don’t have any, or maybe they have some but sex is not satisfying unless it goes with True Love And Commitment, or maybe being a fun, experimentally sexual person is okay for when you’re young and frivolous, but doctors and lawyers and mothers only do once-a-month missionary. Women, collectively, are able not only to buy these lines, but in many cases to conform to the rules and feel fairly satisfied with their sex lives, because their sexual desires often don’t have the same urgency and immediacy that typical male sexual desire does.

Of course there are many women — a minority, but a significant number — whose sexuality is more characterized by urgency and hunger, who know they want it and feel profoundly dissatisfied if they aren’t getting it. And I’m terribly thankful for those women, because they’re usually the ones that challenge the “women never want sex” assumptions, allowing the rest of us to more carefully consider our own desires. (I suspect that there’s also a fair number of men whose sexuality is more responsive and impressionable to cultural mandates, but since the cultural mandate for men is “be a horny dog” they pretty much blend in with the rest.)

So if your measure of “who wants sex more” is “who is more eager to jump at an opportunity for anonymous sex” the answer is always going to be men. By a huge degree. But men and women who’d like to be having more sex, with more different people, can use this knowledge to their advantage. Casual sex, with fuckbuddies or established booty calls, doesn’t have those fundamental qualities that make it less appealing to women. Men who want a busy, varied sex life will get much better results if they can establish friendly, ongoing connections with a handful of different women. Women will have a lot more fun if they recognize the way their own sexuality operates, and stop trying to fit it into a model that works for someone else. (Men will too.) And researchers comparing the desires for sex between men and women need to start looking at all kinds of sexual encounters, not just the ones that are skewed to male-typical patterns of desire.


– Ginny

Common pitfalls in discussions between atheists and believers

The discussion between atheists and believers is rife with personal attacks, defensiveness, accusations of rudeness, actual rudeness, and all manner of other debate-pollutants. Sometimes this is because one party or another is being boorish or disingenuous, but often two well-meaning people attempting to argue in good faith get entangled in the same mess. Both atheists and believers would do well to be conscious of a few exacerbating factors that can lead people to misinterpret the other’s intent.

1) Believers feel very personally attached to their beliefs, and therefore have a hard time seeing the difference between attacking their beliefs and attacking them.

If you say to an atheist, “I think it’s silly not to believe in God,” they’ll usually respond with something like, “I don’t see why… what’s your basis for saying that?” If you say to a believer, “I think it’s silly to believe in God,” the typical response is, “How dare you call me silly?” An atheist’s beliefs about the nature of reality are external to their core sense of identity. A believer’s beliefs about the nature of reality are usually part of their sense of identity, and challenging them feels acutely personal, like attacking someone’s ethnicity.

In addition, many believers believe in one or more personal, self-aware deities. They often believe they have a personal relationship with this deity, and/or that this deity has preferences about how, when, and by whom they are referred to. Hearing someone question their deity’s existence, or do something that for the believer is blasphemy, provokes a protective response, as if the atheist is speaking ill of a family member.

Believers need to remember that atheists don’t think their deity exists, and they feel no more need to respect said deity’s feelings than they do to respect the feelings of Harvey the 6-foot bunny. Also that, if you’re getting into a discussion about religion, it is going to be a discussion about ideas, with someone who rejects many of yours. Thicken your skin, and don’t take criticism of your beliefs personally. If hearing someone say, “I don’t believe your god is real,” is going to offend you, you probably shouldn’t be discussing religion.

Atheists need to remember that believers feel a personal, emotional connection to their deity and their faith, and that it is in the interests of a productive discussion to stay away from emotionally-laden words. For example, instead of “silly,” try “unfounded.” Strong, emotionally-laden language is good for galvanizing a crowd, but in interpersonal conversation with someone who is almost certainly going to be more sensitive than you, it’s only going to derail the discussion.

2) In a typical conversation between a believer and an atheist, the believer has had at most two or three similar conversations before, while the atheist has had dozens or hundreds. This is mostly just because there are so many more believers than atheists. Believers of the majority religion– in America, Christians — tend to live their life surrounded by people who share their religion, and only occasionally encounter atheists or people of other religions. Atheists, however, usually live their life surrounded by believers, and have no shortage of opportunities to talk about beliefs. So a believer may have an argument point that seems quite powerful to them, only to find that the atheist greets it with weariness and impatience.

Atheists are also generally much more informed about religion than believers are about atheism. Most vocal atheists have read a number of religious texts, as well as works of theology and apologetics. Very few believers have read the works of prominent atheists.

Atheists need to remember that the believer they’re talking to hasn’t had the same conversation fifty times before, and muster some of the same patience any teacher or customer-service worker has to employ in telling different people the same things over and over. If you’re going to engage in these conversations, you need to give each person the courtesy of a fresh answer, even if it sounds stale to you.

Believers need to educate themselves about atheism and atheist arguments. Read some Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett. (I don’t recommend Hitchens for a believer new to atheist writings; his polemic style is intended to provoke.) Even if the atheists you talk with don’t agree with those writers, you’ll have a frame of reference to start with, and you’ll be less likely to put forward an argument that they’ve heard and responded to fifty times already.

3) Most of the words we use when we talk about religion — “God,” “faith,” “Christian,” and “religion” itself, to name a few — are exceedingly roomy concepts. It’s all too easy and all too common to be having a debate about the existence of God, or the relative merits and demerits of religion, where the precise meaning of “God” or “religion” slides all over the map according to the convenience of the debators. Then everybody gets all huffy at each other.

The cure is simple: define your terms. If you’re discussing the existence of a god, decide at the outset whether you’re talking about Jehovah, Krishna, Allah, a self-aware pan-universal spirit, a projection of human craving for meaning and justice*, or what. If you’re talking about whether Christianity is harmful or helpful overall, decide at the outset whether “a Christian” is anybody who claims alliance with any sect of Christianity, or someone whose life reflects your own personal values and interpretations of what Christianity means (hint to believers: you’ll never get the atheist to agree to the latter, for very good reasons, but it’s good to go ahead and make that explicit.)

*I’m not trying to be flip here: near as I can tell, this is what Karen Armstrong means when she talks about God, and while I find it irritating, it is a working definition, so let’s put it on the list.

These are the big pitfalls I’ve seen in operation. Anyone have any more to add? (Please refrain from sniping at the other side in your comments: I really am trying to promote good-faith discussion. Clever quips and snide mockery have their place, but this is not that place.)

Should Atheists Be Respectful Of Believers?

Greta Christina has her take on this one, and its one of the few times I completely disagree with her. Now, if she was just talking about atheists having the right to disagree politely, or about having the right to protest religion where it actively harms them or others, it would be a different matter, but she was specifically responding to the idea among progressive, ecumenical and spiritual-but-not-religious people that everyone should be respectful of everyone else’s religious beliefs, just like they should be respectful of orientation, ethnicity and any other aspect of one’s private identity. She thinks that idea is nonsense. I think its common courtesy.

I’ve observed that when atheists converse with others about religion, their focus tends to be on actively disagreeing, saying “I think you’re wrong because of A, B and C,” which is a fine response if both people want to debate. That’s not what religious people typically want to do when they express their beliefs. They want to find points of connection. Its just like describing their family history, or their politics, or their favorite foods. “Do you agree with me? If not, do you disagree in a respectful way, or are you going to make me feel demeaned?” Ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people share their beliefs with a pattern of “I believe X, Y and Z,” “Oh, I see. Personally I think D, E and F.” Neither of them has to say “I disagree with you.” That’s obvious from the fact that neither one said, “yes, I think you’re exactly right.” Its just that the pattern of I-state-my-thoughts-then-you-state-yours helps both people avoid being insulting towards the other. There’s no reason atheists can’t respond in the same fashion. I do it all the time. Someone says, “I believe in destiny. I look at all the little things that brought me to where I am today, and I think there must have been a purpose to it all.” I say, “Personally I think life is what we make of it. I think things happen to us, both good and bad, and we do the best with what we’ve got.” Then we move on to a topic we do agree on, such as how awesome Firefly is.

I can think of at least five reasons why respect is better.

1. Empathy is good. You might not like a particular religious belief, but you aren’t talking to the personification of that belief. You are talking to a person. You know, one with feelings. Respecting those feelings is just part of acknowledging them as a person.

2. Alienating people without good cause is not a good idea. There are plenty of awesome people who are well worth having in your life, who just happen to have religious or spiritual beliefs. In my own life this includes my best friend from when I was a kid, the family I’m staying with while my parents adjust to the trans thing, my favorite teacher, my second favorite teacher, my gender therapist, and several of my classmates. If I wasn’t respectful of their beliefs, they would still be in my life, but it would be a different relationship. They wouldn’t feel as comfortable with me, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable with them and we wouldn’t be as close. That would suck, both in a sentimental sense and a practical “its really good that me and my therapist have a great rapport despite her belief in psychics and my well-beyond-skepticism of them.”

3. Unless someone’s beliefs aren’t directly harming me, or other people I care about, they really aren’t any of my business. Belief is complex. Its influenced by family, ethnicity, personal experiences, what a person genuinely thinks to be plausible, what a person currently needs to believe to get up in the morning, etc, etc. Its private. Its personal. Its not my job to police other people’s minds or decide whether a person would be better off as a progressive Christian or an atheist.

4. I like the person I am when I’m being respectful better than the one I am when I’m not being respectful. I’ve had plenty of the “I’m right and you’re wrong and I get to tell you why you’re wrong” approach from when I was a Christian. In order to be respectful now, I have to suspend judgment and think of things from the point of view of others. I like being that person.

5. Being disrespectful isn’t actually all that conducive to a good exchange of ideas, shockingly enough. Ideas flow much more freely when people feel they won’t be judged for them. There are more ideas that can be found in a discussion on religion than just arguments and counterarguments. There is information about culture, history, ethics, and the individual’s personality, for example. Its also easier for me to share things like why the idea of no god or afterlife doesn’t utterly terrify and depress me. That’s what ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people mean when they talk about religions as a rich tapestry of perspectives. Sure, some of them probably literally think that all religions have some literal truth to them, but that’s just another area where I can state my views, politely. “I think when it comes to statements like the number of gods or the existence of an afterlife, not everyone can be right, but when it comes to ethics and philosophy all religions have something interesting to say.” I like being able to hear those interesting things without insulting the person or agreeing with them.

Its not that atheists should never be allowed to criticize beliefs or explain why they disagree with supernatural explanations of the world. What qualifies as respectful or not does depend on context. In particular, the rules for online and in-person communication are completely different. I have met atheists who don’t seem sensitive of that difference, and criticize people’s beliefs just as harshly at a family gathering as they would on an anonymous forum. Expecting atheists to show some sensitivity to private beliefs of others isn’t some suppression of non-religious viewpoints. Its just asking for basic courtesy.

– Lane

Straw men, Scotsmen, and NALTs

Arguing on the internet is, at times, like being part of the biggest family reunion in the world. Inevitably, someone you’re related to is going to behave in a horribly embarrassing way, and just as inevitably, someone from another branch of the family is going to lump you in with them. The knee-jerk response to this is to do everything in your power to distance yourself from them.

In the world of internet debate, this comes in the form of three common objections: accusing your opponent of committing the strawman fallacy; committing, yourself, the No True Scotsman fallacy; or plaintively crying “We’re not all like that!” I’m not terribly interested in breaking down the difference between the three, especially since they can often be used interchangeably. I’m more interested in a collective call to sanity. We’ve all got our drunk uncles, and we will never succeed in silencing members of our group whose ideas or manners are embarrassing to us. I’d much rather we concentrate on voicing our own attitudes and viewpoints (which of course are entirely reasonable, entirely civil, and could never be seen as an embarrassment by another member of our family!)

If you’re interested in “winning” a debate in the eyes of some easily-dazzled onlookers, then citing the ugliest and stupidest examples of your opposition is a smart way to go. If you’re interested in increasing collective wisdom and insight, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. I don’t need you to tell me that some atheists are assholes. Nobody else does either. The only people that need to hear about the extreme idiocy or assholery on a given side of a debate are the people on the same side who carry a starry-eyed naïveté about how their own ideas infallibly produce virtue and wisdom. Those folks need a harsh awakening, which any visit to an appropriately-themed message board can provide. For the rest of us? Let’s grow up and move on, hmm?

But growing up and moving on means not only refusing to attack the worst versions of my opponent’s ideology, but refusing to engage with people who attack the worst version of my own. If someone writes a long blog post which amounts to saying, “Gee, some atheists sure are smug assholes aren’t they?” I think my best response is to ignore it. Because they’re right: some atheists sure are smug assholes. I’m not, so I’m not going to respond as if they’re talking about me. I will only respond if their attack hits nearer to home: for example if they say, “Gee, it sure is smug and assholeish to believe that your understanding of the universe is better than someone else’s.” No, it’s not; I do believe that my understanding of the universe is better than some people’s, I don’t think that makes me a smug asshole, and I will readily argue that point. And if my opponent, in the course of an argument, points to some smug asshole on a message board who happens to agree with me, I will say, “Yeah, but we’re not talking about them. Tell me what smugness or assholery I have been guilty of, or stop wasting both our time.”

Anyone from a big family knows, or has had ample opportunity to learn: there’s really nothing you can do about your drunk uncle. Can’t silence them, can’t control them, can’t stop other people from unfairly comparing you to them. The best you can do is resolutely maintain your own commitment to reason and civility. Anybody worth your time will appreciate it.

Gender Dysphoria

Gender Dysphoria is not hating your body. Hating your body is thinking you’re too tall, too short, too flat, too pimpled. Its worrying you are not beautiful enough, or athletic enough. Its fear of rejection. Gender Dysphoria is the sneaking suspicion that your body is a liar.

If you’ve ever told a lie about yourself, as opposed to about someone else, or about something unimportant to your identity, you know how afterwards you must imagine the lie was true. Actors do it all the time. They step up on stage, say “I am King Lear,” and from there on they can either behave as they think King Lear behaves, or break character, and to break character is to offend the audience. For actors it is an easy choice. This is their passion, and possibly their profession. For trans people its different. For one, our role does not last hours, but a lifetime. For another, the audience of theater knows it is being lied to, and is only pretending it doesn’t know. The audience of real life thinks it knows the truth. We are walking around in a costume we were born with, playing a role we never auditioned for. Our audience did not wait for us to announce who we are. Instead they looked at us. They saw breasts or lack of them, heard a high or low voice, saw a feminine or masculine face, and decided our role for us, and when we break character they are as offended as any audience. They even take the liberty of adding to our costume. A barber cuts our hair to masculine or feminine fashions. Relatives buy us gender-appropriate clothing. Or is that gender-inappropriate clothing? We can try to explain ourselves, but a public uneducated about transgendered people doesn’t even know how to listen. They think you’re a boy or a girl, and what you are born as is what you are. They want to listen to our lying bodies, not to us. They corroborate our bodies’ stories, until we ourselves are confused about what we are.

Hormones and surgeries, if they are opted for, are not like plastic surgeries. They are not an attempt to conform to some standard of beauty. They are disciplines. When we were children, if we lied, we were reprimanded and told to change our stories to the truth. Our bodies cannot be told to tell the truth. We must remold them ourselves. Then, when we shift roles to Cordelia or the ambiguous Fool, if someone comes and says “weren’t you Lear?” it is no longer our word against our bodies. We tell the truth, and our lying friend amends their lie, and hopefully the audience believes.

A Re-Introduction; The Other Brunette

So why was this called a sibling blog when only Ginny has been posting? And why did it suddenly change from “sisters” to “siblings”? Well, here’s the other sibling, back from a quest of self-discovery and all that goodness. I’ve recently worked out that I’m transgender, specifically trans male, although I think I’ve got a genderqueer streak as well. We’ll see how all that develops. Anyways, to re-introduce myself, I’m Lane William Brown, rejoining my awesome and brilliant sister for bloggy goodness.