26 thoughts on “Nice little history of beliefs about women’s sex drives

  1. Question–no snakiness intended. Why is the claim that women need or want sex less then men something of a feminist taboo, while other claims of la difference, whether we agree with them or not, socially acceptable?

    I have no sympathy at all with Other Voice or Earth Mother feminism etc. but like most of us I recognize the Other Voicians and Earth Motherists as misguided fellow feminists and allies. But I sense a taboo when it comes to conjectures about differences in male and female sexual interests and appetites.

    Cultural assumptions about male/female differences in sex drive and sexual preferences are trivial and innocuous compared to assumptions about differences in “caring” , in “communications styles” etc. which lead to pigeonholing women into “appropriate” work and expectations about social behavior. Am I missing something?

  2. I’m not sure, Harriet, but it is worth keeping in mind that the article cited here, on “AlterNet”, flies in the face of the actual research, which has consistently shown that men do in fact have a stronger sex drive than women. For example:

    “Across many different studies and measures, men have been shown to have more frequent and more intense sexual desires than women, as reflected in spontaneous thoughts about sex, frequency and variety of sexual fantasies, desired frequency of intercourse, desired number of partners, masturbation, liking for various sexual practices, willingness to forego sex, initiating versus refusing sex, making sacrifices for sex, and other measures. No contrary findings (indicating stronger sexual motivation among women) were found.” (Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs 2001).

  3. But…Happy Philosopher, isn’t that research done with contemporary subjects and hence reflective of how gender norms, as they are currently constituted, affect sex drive? What would that have to do with historical notions of gender and sex drive?

  4. Well, it’s a metaanalysis, so it’s done with both contemporary and noncontemporary subjects.

    In any case, I was just responding to Harriet, who asked “Why is the claim that women need or want sex less then men something of a feminist taboo, while other claims of la difference, whether we agree with them or not, socially acceptable?”

  5. I’m not disputing the claim that men want sex more often, want it more intensely, etc. (I’m inclined to think it’s true). My question is why are claims about male/female differences in sex drive taboo, or at least more strongly resisted by many feminists than claims about differences in “voice,” caring, management style, etc?

  6. Harriet, I think the reasons for the claim being seldom discussed (I doubt it’s taboo) are related to the reasons I disagree with your initial comment. I disagree that “cultural assumptions about male/female differences in sex drive and sexual preferences are trivial and innocuous,” either when compared with the others you list or taken alone. Presumptions that women ‘are’ lower in sex-drive or appetite inform attitudes that women *ought to be* less interested in sex or desirous, and can therefore be used to justify beliefs that women who ‘seem to want it’ should not, and deserve punishment, want to be raped, or secretly consent, or deserve what we ‘get’, etc. (Of course, I hope it is clear that I’m not saying you, Harriet, believe such things. I am saying that the cultural assumptions support the shaming of victims of rape, assault, and harassment.)

    I realize that taboos are bad to us philosophers, since we like to think all claims are fair game for critical evaluation and discussion. But the claims that women want sex less or that women want sex more are claims that — as the OP argues — have been so badly misused for so long. Whether or not Baumeister’s is the last word on fact, since the outsized claims about gender difference in sex-drive have been weapons in the hands of punishing people, I’m fine with keeping discussion of it to a minimum. I’ve never missed the presence of definitive research on this, as it’s not even slightly clear to me why some generalizable difference in sex drive is helpful to any discussion.

  7. First of all, I don’t see any reason to believe that conjectures about make/female differences in sex drive are responsible for shaming rape victims, assault or harassment. Secondly, and more importantly SEX IS TRIVIAL! Very little hangs on assumptions about the character of women’s sex drive. When it comes to quality of life, what matters are bread and butter issues–the kind of work one does and how much one gets paid.

    I do in fact think that women on the average want/need sex less often and are less interested in sex. According to one study (sorry cannot find reference) same sex male couples have more sex than male-female couples who in turn have more sex than same sex female couples. So heterosexual relations are a compromise between the differing taste of men and women when it come to sex. But so what? What hangs on this? Another study I saw indicted that women on the average at a better sense of smell than men. This, everyone recognizes, is trivial. And differences in sex drive and sexual tastes are equally trivial.

    So I just suggest stop stop sweating the small thing, in particular, sex and put that energy into fighting against sex segregation in the labor market–the big thing.

  8. Harriet, you and I agree that next to nothing hangs on the fact of the matter. I take you to be saying that since nothing very important hangs on the factual claim, then therefore discussion of gender difference in sex drive shouldn’t be taboo.

    I’m not sure if you’re saying that (1) it is not reasonable of others to believe normative justification exists for shaming and violence based on assumptions about sex-drive or (2) I have no reason to connect them as I do. If (1), then we agree completely. If (2), then I guess we agree to disagree. My reasons are the same as those in the column in the OP, more or less; heinous normative claims have at times presumed empirical claims about women’s natures. This seems clear to me.

  9. But surly the argument that men “need” more sex than women fuels the whole “boys will be boys” excuse when it comes to sexual harassment, as Kate said earlier? If in the culture that we live in today says that men have a higher sex drive than women, then surely that is what will think and believe, even if it is subconscious, so then would suggest that men feel the need to play into this, and women feel the need to play into the role of having a lower sex drive. Women who are open about their sex lives are branded sluts and whores, so isn’t it just convenient for the time of the culture to shame women for their sex drive, for men to have sexual control, regardless of whether it is true or not?

  10. I do not believe, and have not been persuaded by the brief AlterNet article linked here, that conjectures about female sex drive–whether Victorian notions about women’s asexuality or Greek notions of hypersexuality–have much to do with rape-shaming or any of the other bad stuff. The driver is the economic status of women. If all women have to sell are housekeeping services and sex then you’re going to get rape-shaming, and honor killing by families whose daughters have trashed the family assets by having sex. Conjectures about male-female differences in sex drive and sexual preferences don’t play much of a role–it’s economics.

    I’m personally disturbed by the interest in sex, which takes away from activism on the important, central issues: i.e. WORK, and in particular sex segregation in employment. My beloved Toyota was just totaled, and I’ve just got the junk out of it from where it was at the tow lot. I DID NOT SEE A SINGLE WOMEN TOW TRUCK DRIVER!!! This is damned important. Women cannot get jobs driving tow trucks, or jobs in a wide range of other blue collar occupations. As a consequence we are forced into a narrow range of pink-collar shit work which is, because of over-crowding, poorly paid, and more importantly miserable, physically constrained and boring.

    What the f is feminism doing for me if I can’t get a job driving a tow truck? I couldn’t get this kind of work, and neither can my daughter. Meanwhile you’re worried about sex drive, and all this peripheral stuff? While we spend our days behind check-out counters, or confined to smarm work? And are absolutely locked out of manual labor? I’m furious. If I had this, the possibility of blue collar work, as a fallback I would have organized my life very differently and done much better.

  11. What, me, worried? :-) No, I’m not worried about sex drive. Like I said, I’ve long thought the attention of the many to gender differences in sex drive is overdone, and punitive. As I said, it’s not even slightly clear to me why some generalizable difference in sex drive is helpful to any discussion. The reason I’ve discussed it here is because you asked a question, and I offered an answer to it.

    However, if you don’t think that conjectures about women’s sex drive have ever had much to do with overt control of women’s bodies, then I don’t know what to say, except that maintaining this position would require ignoring what women’s oppressers have explicitly stated as justification for our regulation.

  12. Really? Does this have anything to do with why women can’t get jobs driving tow trucks? Or in my case way back, why I couldn’t get a job driving a sweeping machine in a factory? Or why women, particularly working class women are locked into pink-collar shit work?

  13. Nope, it has not one thing to do with pink-collar shit work or tow-trucks, nor does your initial question at comment #1, to which I have been responding.

  14. And that is the problem. If it doesn’t have anything to do with pink-collar shit work or enabling women to get jobs driving tow trucks I AM NOT INTERSTED. And any feminist activity not directed to these goals is to me a distraction, that undermines our attempts to enable women to get guy jobs, at guy pay, and guy lives.

  15. Yes, it seems that Harriet’s initial question was rhetorical and intended to make just ^that^ point.

    However, sexual objectification and expectations about our sexual behavior are among the things that keep us from living those totally awesome and way more fun guy lives- which include getting guy jobs at guy pay.

  16. Argument for this? Show me the case for regarding sexuality and ‘objectification’ as a source of discrimination in employment. Show me. IMHO feminist preoccupation with sexuality issues and ‘objectification’ doesn’t promote, and only distracts from activism that could get women tow truck drivers jobs.

  17. Maybe focusing on it is in fact counterproductive. But look, when women are seen as objects, then they’re not seen as equals.

    Anecdote: I was working in warehouse doing shipping and receiving. I accompanied my boss to a wedding last minute when his girlfriend broke up with him. He tried to put the moves on me and I turned him down. A few weeks later my friend died, and I was 15 minutes late to work. He fired me for that. Sure it was within the parameters of the law for at-will employees, but I can’t help but think he was motivated by hurt feelings or fear that I was trying to manipulate him.

    True story. I’m sure I’m not the only one with a story like this.

  18. Another one: a friend of mine was working for a tree service company. Her boss came on to her. She rejected him. He found a reason to fire her. She was back in pink collar work pretty quickly. It’s an old story. You must have heard one like it before, Harriet.

  19. Ha! Sure it is. What was their excuse to deny you that gig with the sweeping machine?

  20. I called up. the person at the other end asked if it was for ME. I said it was. Hold on–and muffled conversation. He got back to me and told me that there was a mistake–the job had been filled. OK? That’s the way it is.

  21. Yup. That’s the way it is. But since you asked for an argument:

    (1) if men don’t see women as equals, then men will deny women the keys to the good life.

    (2) men (not all, of course) don’t see women as equals.

    By MP, we’re out in the cold.

    One explanation for (1) is that they see us as objects. Another is that they think we can’t cut it. But these two explanations cohere pretty well.

    But yes, your focus is %100 the right one. I know a number of tough as nails chicks who would LOVE to have a union job but are stuck either working for minimum wage or slinging drinks in nightclubs- where sexual harassment is just par for the course.

  22. If it doesn’t have anything to do with pink-collar shit work or enabling women to get jobs driving tow trucks I AM NOT INTERSTED.

    That’s fine, of course, but thankfully feminism is a big thing, and there’s room in it for lots of different interests and for many problems to be considered. I hope that’s obvious, but maybe not.

    (As someone who has done lots of both “inside work” and “outside work” over his life, I can say that it’s also far from obvious that one sort is better than the other. Both sorts can be “shit work” [though you’re much more likely to have a piece of your body ripped off, or have traumatic joint injuries in one sort.] Of course, discrimination in getting these jobs is bad, but the idea that one type is obviously better than the other strikes me as seriously confused. If that were so, I wouldn’t know as many rafting guides and professional kayakers who are working very hard to become nurses.)

  23. I did NOT suggest that all guy work was inherently better than pink-collar work. The issue is having a wider range of options. Even it it’s just the option to choose between different kinds of shit work–a matter of choosing the lesser of evils (given one’s tastes). Most importantly, the fact that women–I’m thinking in particular of the 2/3 who don’t have college degrees–are locked into narrow range of occupations keeps wages down in these occupations. This ‘overcrowding hypothesis’ is widely accepted.

    Personally, sex segregation benefitted me. I had no use for book-learning and did badly in school until college. If I were a guy I would never have bothered going to college much less grad school. And I have no doubt that if I were a boy with my package of preferences and aptitudes I’d have been shunted onto a non-college vocational track early on. (‘Harry’s really not academically inclined, but very good with his hands…’)

    I’d rather be a tow-truck driver than a supermarket checker, but I’d MUCH rather be a philosophy professor than tow-truck driver.

  24. I agree with #23 about feminism. Views on women’s sex drive probably have nothing to do with the bread and butter issue of pink collar vs. blue collar jobs, the gender division of labor, sex discrimination in hiring etc. But since feminism is about FAR more than that, I’m not sure I see why that matters.

    I would have thought it obvious that views about women’s sex drive are very much related to expectations and norms about what sex should be like, how much sex is appropriate, who is permitted to have sex in what situations without being shamed, shunned, etc., who has most of the power in deciding what sort of sex one has, etc. So it’s easy to reason from the assumption that women just don’t want sex as much as men, don’t have a strong a desire, etc. that it is okay if a lot of the sex women have isn’t that satisfying to them–they’re just taking one for the team after all, to satisfy their male partner, as it has to be since women just don’t need/want sexual pleasure like men do. And I would have thought the presumption that women ought regularly engage in sex they don’t want or find satisfying would be a BIG feminist issue! (Now of course the mere existence of those differences does not *justify* the leap of reasoning just described; but given the tendency to make such leaps of reasoning, but given the history, given our societal context, etc. such leaps are going to be made, and that should absolutely be of feminist concern. For that reason, differences in sex drive are not like differences in smell. Sex has a gendered meaning in our culture that smell does not have.)

    Relatedly, on the issue of comparing hetero, male same-sex, and female same-sex couples, mentioned upthread, I happened to just come across a piece from Marylin Frye I plan to use in my gender and sexuality course on this topic. (Yes an entire course devoted to thinking largely about sex.) It’s an older piece and is referring to research back from the 80s I believe that finds that female-female couples have much less sex than male-male couples. Frye points out that it’s not even clear what counts as sex for a female-female couple, since the traditional way of counting–each episode defined by a male orgasm–is not available. She also notes that something that is not played up in all the talk about male-female differences in drive, intensity of desire, etc. is the amount of time each “episode” of sex takes. At least in the research from the 80s, for hetero sex it was an average of 8 minutes. Frye then says essentially, whatever this “sex” is that hetero couples are doing, sounds pretty different than the sex that she and her lesbian friends seem to be having, which is more of a 30 min to an hour type affair. And if you count the amount of time, rather than the episode it really no longer seems that hetero couples are having more sex than lesbians does it? It’s just that there are differences in how the sex is spaced out over time. And perhaps this time difference explains why women in female-female couples are much less likely to report regularly not having orgasms during sex in comparison to women in male-female couples. (Not that orgasm is everything, but it sure is *something*!) I’m curious if there is empirical data on the length of time an average “sex” session lasts for female-female couples and male-male couples as well and whether the newer research is any different in its findings than the research to which Frye is responding. (Somehow I doubt it!)

  25. Does it make sense that women, who lived in an era without contraceptives when surviving childbirth was far less likely than now and basic subsistence was tough, would threaten their own lives and those of their existing children by seeking frequent sexual intercourse? Perhaps, today’s high abortion rates in spite of the availability of low-cost, accessible contraceptive technologies, that allow a worst-case undesired pregnancy rate of no more than 8%, suggest that the answer is “Yes”.

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