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.