Difference and Sexuality
The old cliché that women are interested in love and men are interested in sex must be revised in the light of the post-sexual revolution era. Many women no longer expect to be "in love" to enjoy sex and many women have participated in one-night stands with great pleasure. It still seems true, however, that women prefer sex and understand sex in a relational context. Studies of college students continue to report that males find it easier than females to participate in sexual intercourse without an emotional commitment and that females want more psychological involvement. Lillian Rubin argues that among the married people she interviewed, emotional attachment calls up the sexual for women, whereas for men the sexual allows there to be attachment. She also maintains that women who seem to feel as men do about sex really do not, because even short-term encounters have some interpersonal meaning for them (pp. 113–14). The women she interviewed also spoke of half-consciously withholding orgasm with a man they did not trust, whereas many of the men she interviewed continued to have sexual trouble with women to whom they were emotionally close.
The most striking research confirmation to date that gender difference should not be confused with heterosexuality or dominance submission comes from Blumstein and Schwartz's large-scale study of married, cohabiting, gay, and lesbian couples. Examining these four couple types provides a unique opportunity to study the relationship between gender and sexuality. The authors report that their strongest overall finding is the continuity of male behavior, whether that of husbands, cohabitors, or gays, and the continuity of female behavior, whether that of wives, cohabitors, or lesbians. Blumstein and Schwartz found a need for dominance in men, but
they did not find a need for submission in women. What they found was a reluctance to dominate in women, which is not the same as passivity, acquiescence, or submission. Rather, it represents a different principle, which I have been calling relationality.
In the area of sexuality, Blumstein and Schwartz find that lesbians have sex far less frequently than any other type of couple, and they do not have a compensating rate outside the relationship (p. 195). These data could be interpreted as indicating the hyposexuality of females but they could also be interpreted as indicating that other forms of eroticism are more prized. Blumstein and Schwartz explain the finding in part by reminding us that "having sex" means genital sex. They report that the lesbians they interviewed are much more likely to consider foreplay as an end in itself. But such activities do not count as "having sex" as it is ordinarily defined. Another possible explanation for the low rates is that women want neither to dominate nor to be dominated. Thus, taking the initiative becomes problematic for lesbians. Neither wants to initiate sex.
Interestingly enough, Blumstein and Schwartz found that among heterosexual couples, intercourse, as opposed to other forms of genital contact, is more prized by women than by men. Even though intercourse is not as genitally stimulating for women as for men, it can be satisfying because of its intimacy and mutuality. Blumstein and Schwartz suggest that "intercourse requires the equal participation of both partners more than any other sexual act. Neither partner only 'gives' or only 'receives.' Hence women feel a shared intimacy during intercourse they may not feel during other sexual acts" (p. 227). Kissing is also popular with women. It is most frequent among lesbians and least frequent among gay males (p. 226). Again, kissing is a mutual activity and it is also personal in the sense of engaging the face.
Other evidence for women's relationality affecting their sexual life comes from the striking differences between lesbian relationships and gay male relationships. Public bath-houses, a common recreational site for gay males before the threat of AIDS, are not similarly attractive to lesbians, and sexual encounters in public rest-rooms are virtually unheard of among lesbians. Gay male bars are places to pick up "tricks" for men, but lesbian bars are places where lesbian women gather socially in couples and individually. What
Blumstein and Schwartz speak of as the "tricking mentality" among gay males is far less present among most lesbians. The word trick, derived from the world of prostitutes, means that the encounter is entirely sexual and highly impersonal. This is not to say there is no love between gay men, but love relationships can and often are separated from sex for sex's sake (pp. 295–98).
Blumstein and Schwartz's findings regarding gender differences in sexuality lend considerable support to the description of gender difference given by Donald Symons in The Evolution of Human Sexuality. Symons makes it quite clear that differences in male and female sexuality should not be construed as a matter of hyposexuality in women or hypersexuality in men. He is well aware of the studies showing that females as well as males are sexually aroused by depictions of explicitly sexual activity. His argument is, however, that female and male sexual responses are equally intense but occur for different reasons, with males' initial arousal being more impersonal than that of females, who put themselves into the situation rather than depicting males as objects. Symons notes that males' interest in pornography is clearly greater than females'; this does not necessarily mean more sexual interest but a kind of impersonal sexual interest that pornography can satisfy. He goes on to argue that "men and women differ far less in their potential physiological and psychological responses during sexual activities per se than they do in how they negotiate sexual activities and in the kinds of sexual relationships and interactions they are motivated to seek." I agree. I disagree with his sociobiological explanation, however, which seems simplistic. Blumstein and Schwartz note the compatibility of their findings to Symons's analysis but attribute them to "socialization", whatever this catchall term may mean, rather than to biology.
A note of caution is important here. One cannot assume that somehow lesbians represent "pure" femaleness and that male gays represent "pure" maleness, even if one says the "pure" femaleness and maleness result from "socialization" rather than biology. Lesbians and gay men may represent female and male behavior under conditions of stigma. For the female there is the stigma of the cultural definition of what a female is and the stigma of sexual "deviance." For the male there is the stigma of "deviance" but the freedom and power that being male makes possible. These facts
complicate the picture in ways that need to be more fully understood. For example, the reason lesbians may be less involved in genital sex could be related to not wanting to be like men, yet the stigma of the "bull dyke" says lesbians are like men. To the extent that lesbians are protesting male dominance, one might expect even more ambivalence about initiating than might be found among heterosexual women.
Finally, Blumstein and Schwartz report that having children in the home disturbs husbands far more than wives. In their interviews, husbands complained about the effect children had on their sex lives, whereas mothers accepted the disruptions caused by children more readily. In summary, they say, "Women do not feel less satisfied sexually when they have children. This makes them very different from their husbands and can introduce a serious marital issue." All of these findings and observations suggest that gender differences in relationality (women's more relational orientation) may cause males and females to differ in the meanings they confer on sexual activity and sexuality.
Eroticism is more of a female word than a male word because it implies diffuse bodily pleasure more than genitally focused bodily pleasure. It is hard to think of eroticism as being "driven," and it fits in well with mutuality and a more relational orientation. I take it as a good sign that the word erotic is being increasingly substituted for the word sexual. Perhaps its use is a way of bringing men more into the orbit of women. Men have tended to deny diffuse eroticism as they deny relationality in general and connect sex with aggression and degrading the object. In moving toward a society where heterosexual relations can be mutually pleasurable and empowering, it is all to the good to enlist the human capacity for eroticism as a counter to an exclusively genital focus.