What’s the relation between love and sex? The neurochemical basis for both love and sex in females involves the hormone oxytocin, the same hormone released when a mother breast-feeds her newborn baby. “Oxytocin’s effects on both [romantic] attachment and sexual behavior are estrogen dependent and gender specific,” observes neuropsychologist Lisa Diamond, adding that there appears to be “more extensive oxytocin circuits in female than male brains.” In males, on the other hand, the hormone underlying sexual drive is not oxytocin but testosterone, the same hormone that mediates aggression in males.
Many researchers have used functional MRI to look at brain activity in women and men during sexual arousal. One consistent finding is that men show comparatively more activity in the older, more primitive areas of the brain such as the amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus, while women show proportionately more activity up in the cerebral cortex; that’s true even when the women report feeling more sexually aroused than the men. And these differences are apparently not affected by sexual orientation: reviewers found no significant differences in the patterns of brain activity of straight men compared with gay men but large differences between men and women, regardless of sexual orientation.
These sex differences suggest that women’s sexual experience is “happening” more in the cerebral cortex and is therefore more connected with the rest of what’s going on in their mind. The sexual experience in men is less connected with the cortex, less connected with the outside world. One recent study actually showed that in young men sexual arousal decreases functional synchronization between cortical areas of the brain. That’s a fancy way of saying that when a young man is sexually aroused, his brain literally comes unglued, and the different parts aren’t talking with one another.
The weight of the evidence strongly suggests that males and females experience sexual desire differently. As UCLA psychologist Anne Peplau observes, “women’s sexuality tends to be strongly linked to a close relationship. For women, an important goal of sex is intimacy; the best context for pleasurable sex is a committed relationship. This is less true for men.”
You can say that again. For boys and for some men, especially younger men, the sexual urge is closely tied to aggression. That’s not surprising when you remember that in males both the sexual urge and the aggressive urge are mediated by testosterone. In one carefully designed study, a surprisingly high percentage – 35 percent – of “normal” college men said that they not only fantasized about rape but would actually rape a woman if they had the chance and they were sure they wouldn’t be caught. In another study of “normal” college men, more than half said they would actually rape a woman if they were assured of not being punished. Researchers have found that more than 80 percent of popular porn videos include some form of degrading violence against women: most often the woman is slapped or gagged or spanked or has her hair yanked. But the men who watch these videos are not necessarily Neanderthals. In fact, researchers have found no association between a man’s gender-role beliefs and the likelihood that he finds rape sexually appealing. Some men who are strongly in favor of equal rights for women, who approve of women in leadership roles, and so on also say that they would rape a woman if they had the opportunity. In one recent study, men who watched pornography were actually somewhat more likely to endorse equal rights for women, compared with men who don’t look at porn. Nor is there any association positive or negative, between a man’s intelligence and the likelihood that he will be sexually aroused by depictions of rape. Highly intelligent men are no less likely to fantasize about raping a woman than are men of below-average intelligence.
Men and women experience sexuality differently. A significant number of men may feel tempted to engage in sexual assault, even if they are otherwise intelligent and believe in equal rights for women. Women are much less likely to feel a strong temptation to engage in sexual assault. These differences between women and men can be traced at least in part to biological causes, including the differences between testosterone and oxytocin. A sensible, commonsense approach to preventing sexual assault would begin by recognizing these hardwired differences.
Young men are much more likely to find pornography satisfying and fulfilling. Few young women would use the word “fulfilling” to describe the experience of masturbating over pornography. But pornography has gone mainstream. The pop star John Mayer proudly told Rolling Stone magazine that he is “the new generation of masturbator”: he would rather masturbate over pornography than have sex with actual women. I haven’t heard of any leading female celebrities who have boasted that hey would rather masturbate over pornography than have sex with real people.
The motivation for sex is different for most teenage boys than for most teenage girls. Many teenage boys want to have sex to satisfy sexual desire. It’s a gut-level, base-of-the-brain impulse not far removed from the need to have a bowel movement when you feel the urge. Many boys will tell you that the urge feels just that irresistible.
Not so for most girls. As psychologist Roy Baumeister has observed, “male desire aims at the sexual activity itself, whereas female desire aims beyond it toward other outcomes and consequences.”
Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters p.122