Do Men and Women Think About Sex Differently?

Do Men and Women Think About Sex Differently?

Let’s just say it’s complicated.

Which isn’t terribly surprising; we’re talking about the intersection of biology and sociology, a subject that remains ill-defined and is prone to emotional takes.

This New York Times piece by Kim Tingley (great name, if you’re writing about sex!) tried to come off as neutral but the structure of the piece – specifically the beginning and end – make it clear that the author very much WANTS men and women’s brains to approach sex similarly and DOESN’T want to discover that men and women are different.

The problem with this, of course, is that men and women ARE different.

The problem with this, of course, is that men and women ARE different. Look between your legs and take a few hormone readings and you’ll see. But people seem to have a vested interest in erasing these differences in the name of equality. I don’t see why we can’t be equal but also be different, but that seems to be a bridge too far for some.

Anyway, Tingley’s article begins with damning evidence, making her case that men and women’s brains respond similarly around sex:

“What Noori’s team found was that image type — whether it was a picture or a video — was the strongest predictor of differences in which parts of the brain became engaged. Unexpectedly, the weakest predictor was the subjects’ biological sex. In other words, when men and women viewed pornographic imagery, the way their brains responded, in the aggregate, was largely the same.

To her credit, Tingley walks this back in the next paragraph. Indeed, it’s complicated.

“The science of sex is inherently paradoxical. For centuries, social stigma, prejudice and misogyny have condemned as aberrant sexual pleasures we now know are healthy. Yet despite the growing realization of how much outside views shape even our most private behavior, we can still experience the mechanics of our own desire — never mind that of others — as a fundamental mystery. Noori’s team is trying to shed light on a big part of that lingering mystery: If men’s and women’s brains respond similarly to sexual stimuli, what accounts for the apparent differences in how they approach sexual practices?”

There’s a lot more but this is the crux of it.

I’m no biologist; just a keen observer of human dating and relationship behavior. What confuses me is that, if, in fact, men and women are the SAME sexually, why are their behaviors so radically different?

The author seems to believe that the fact that women don’t sleep around as much as men, engage in as much porn use, and generally have a harder time separating sex from emotion is institutionalized misogyny and shaming women for sexual thoughts and acts.

I’m more of an Occam’s Razor kind of guy. The simpler answer is that men and women are biologically different and the presence of testosterone is a more likely explanation for the gap in sexual beliefs and behaviors – even if we concede the article’s very valid point about societal misogyny and shame.

The author ends with a call for more research that may one day abolish “categories like “desire” and “arousal” or “male” and “female” in favor of descriptors that better capture how those concepts intermingle and connect with others.”

I’m all for more data in search of a more objective truth. I’d just be surprised if that research discovers that men and women are exactly the same in all areas.

Your thoughts, below, are greatly appreciated.

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  1. 1

    I imagine 100 years from now the idea that people thought men and women would be exactly the same (about sex and other things) if not for “societal constructs” will be thought of as truly laughable.

  2. 2
    Harry Palms

    I would not feel obligated whatsoever to meet a woman’s expectation of sex after she invites and buys me dinner.

    It would be my pleasure!

    1. 2.1

      Yes, it would be a change, wouldn’t it, for a woman you find sexually attractive to want to buy you dinner………..
      More likely a woman whom you find repulsive, but who finds you attractive enough to want to spend money on you……………….

  3. 3

    I think it’s both. I think the author is trying weigh more in favor of misogyny and shame because these things are often under-emphasized. I think it’s always been nature and nurture. But arguments usually tend to lean more heavily on biology.

    Both, both, both.

  4. 4

    What the author of this article misses is that one cannot infer much at all from viewing brain scans of neuronal activity. It was unfortunate that Hamid’s paper contained the phrase ‘sexual arousal’, which means one thing to neuroscientists (arousing neurons) and something altogether different in the general audience. So non-experts just scan the article title and assume a finding that was completely different from the actual study results.

    For all we know, those particular neurons firing could just mean that someone happened to see human bodies (just as our brains react in a certain way when we see a pencil or an apple). It doesn’t mean that someone felt turned on.

    1. 4.1

      “For all we know, those particular neurons firing, could just mean that someone happened to see human bodies…It doesn’t mean that someone felt turned on.”

      @ jo,
      Precisely. What neuroscience can do (currently, anyway), is observe and measure the level of activity in a given region of the brain, However, the fact that increased neural activity occurs in an area of the brain when the subject is sexually aroused, does NOT necessarily mean that other forms of stimuli cannot produce that same increased level of activity in the same part of the brain, for very different reasons. The human brain is extremely complex, and while we understand much more about how it functions, today than we did 20 years ago, there are many mysteries yet to be unlocked and understood, This is one of those.

  5. 5
    Yet Another Guy

    The difference is due to testosterone. However, it is not that simple. In reality, it is testosterone-to-estradiol (T/E2) ratio that determines a one’s sex drive (some women have much higher testosterone levels than others, which is why they have much higher sex drives). When men are young, their T/E2 ratio is very high, often ridiculously so. As testosterone drops and estradiol (E2) rises later life (which is the result of increased aromatization of testosterone to E2 due to increased body fat), so does a man’s sex drive. The opposite happens to women as they pass age 40 and their bodies prepare for menopause (it is kind of like the last hurrah before the baby making machinery shuts down permanently). E2 declines faster than testosterone, resulting in a higher T/E2 ratio until menopause sets in and testosterone also declines significantly for some women. If you ever wondered why some women start to take on more masculine features after age 40, here is your answer. If you ever wondered why some women go absolutely crazy sexually in their 40s, here is also your answer.

    1. 5.1

      What about the effect of estrogen on sexuality?
      I remember reading about some study somewhere that suggested women with higher estrogen levels were more likely to report dissatisfaction in their relationship.
      If true, that’s definitely gonna cause a change in how they are thinking about sex (at least while in a relationship).

      1. 5.1.1
        Yet Another Guy


        Higher estrogen is not a problem if it is offset by higher testosterone. What matters is testosterone to estradiol ratio. Women who are high estrogen are easy to pick out of a crowd once a guy understands the effect that it has on a woman’s shape. Just as high testosterone makes a man muscular, high estrogen makes a woman pear shaped. In both men and women, high estradiol (E2) causes bloating via water retention. A lot of guys who go on testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) have to take an aromatase inhibitor off-label to keep E2 conversion in check. Aromatase inhibitors are normally used in the treatment of breast cancer.

        A crazy thing about E2 is that it affects a man’s ability to achieve an erection. Having an E2 level that is too low or too high can result in erectile difficulties. High testosterone to E2 conversion via aromatase in a man can also setup a feedback loop that results in low testosterone because the brain signals the production of testosterone based on the amount of E2 in the body. As increased body fat results in increased aromatase activity, testosterone level drops as a man increases in weight. That is why it is important for a man to keep his weight in check as he ages. Testosterone normally declines with age. Packing on the pounds increases the conversation of testosterone to E2, which exacerbates the problem.

  6. 6

    30 year old woman here.

    To my knowledge I have a normal level of testosterone. By ‘normal’, I mean, a median level that is commonplace for a female my age.

    I would like to voice the following so we realize how damaging this commentary is.

    Somethings about me.
    1. I do not get attached from sex. More often than not, I lose interest once I go there.

    2. I get bored easily, and it’s a big factor in why I dread marriage.
    The sex will tend to get boring the second time I sleep a man I’m not into *GASP*.

    3. I watch porn every day and masterbate every day *GASP*.

    I say this because I see so much creepy, sexist sexual wiring normalized because, TESTOSTERONE.


    Ask myself if they’re f***able every time a meet a new man, play a film reel in my head of their body parts whenever I meet a new man, constantly rate them out of ten, comment on their looks or sex appeal to their face without being asked. Oh, and when I see a 17 year old about to turn 18 I don’t get hard, I see a baby that’s way too young for me.

    Before you hit me with the evo biology, I’ll add that *status* indicators such as wealth, confidence and ambition play zero part in my attraction to males.

    I’m not an exception; there are plenty of women like me.

    I REALLY question how big a part chemical release and hormones play.

    CASE IN POINT: That ‘study’.
    You know, the one that found a chemical is released whenever women have sex, that makes us attached to everyone who gives us an orgasm….. LOL. At least, I definitely do not see it reflected in my sexuality, if there is indeed that alchemy of chemicals at play.

    You’ll find a lot of porn fetishizes brutality against women, and barely legal teens (to appeal to men). It takes a long time to find porn that doesn’t gross us out, let alone turn us on. Perhaps this is why women habitually don’t watch as much?

    1. 6.1

      “2. I get bored easily, and it’s a big factor in why I dread marriage.
      The sex will tend to get boring the second time I sleep a man I’m not into *GASP*.”

      I don’t know why you think this would be surprising to men (GASP). In fact it’s a fairly typical female trait that most men know about or have experienced. This is the exact trait men hope doesn’t come out in their wives.
      It may well be your estrogen causing this not your testosterone. Studies show that women with higher levels of estrogen (but within the normal range) report higher levels of dissatisfaction within relationships, both short and long term.

      You may be right about the porn men watch (at least some of it) not turning women on, but I don’t think there’s ever been a single romance/sex novel aimed at women ever published that a man has made it to the end of. Too full of generic rich, brooding, mysterious bad boys ya know?
      And yet men don’t feel the need to complain about those.

      1. 6.1.1

        It is not estrogen. It is dopamine. Our hormonal and neurochemical relay systems are far more complicated than testosterone /estradiol ratios. Else every older woman with a hairy upper lip would be a sex fiend.
        Dopaminergic personalities have a hard time with marriage. Nothing to do with male vs female in such a case. Less able to bond via other chemical systems (the one you referenced, Teresa, was oxytocin, not that it matters).

    2. 6.2


      I’m with you, although I’m extreme high-testosterone for a woman.

      When it comes to porn, though, the misconception of what the women like is rather strong as well.

      Rape fantasies and most of the “degrading” stuff you see if actually mostly a female fantasy. The reason you don’t see much “softer/more romantic” porn or erotica (written porn, the woman’s preferred version) is because there isn’t a big market for it, believe it or not. And not because women don’t consume as much porn, but because the women who do mostly prefer stuff that is harder, more brutal and degrading than vanilla sex. As a matter of fact, men are the ones who are much more easily satisfied with vanilla fantasies. It’s often an outlet for women to “live out” their dirties, kinkiest fantasies safely – and without actually having to do it.

      In the erotica/smut (written porn) market, we actually have am 85%+ female customer base. And once again – the more monstrous/brutal/perverted, the better. That’s what sells. You can have some success with vanilla/romantic/lighter stuff, but if you want to go that route, you’re better off sticking to writing romance with sex scenes. Around 75-80% of female buyers of smut want the hard/degrading/brutal stuff.

  7. 7

    I’m on the fence on this one. I do think it’s mostly mental programming and societal/cultural influences. The attitude between European and US women toward sex shows a drastic difference, for example. Iceland is in a whole other realm. Those women don’t have any of those “I get attached” or “I need to care about a man” hang-ups that women in other places have. The sex first to decide if you even want to date the person thing would never work otherwise.

    The more acceptable it becomes for women to act like men when it comes to sex, the more they do. And not just the ones looking for boyfriends. Just look at the drastic changes over the years/decades, etc. Heck, in Ancient Rome, is was a free-for-all, and women were known to be just as sexual, if not worse, than men. So I do believe the majority of the difference is caused by what a woman has been taught is “normal” or “acceptable.”

    Are there differences? Sure. But I don’t think they would be anywhere near as great if we didn’t constantly bombard people with “you’re a man/woman, this is how you should feel/act/etc.”

    Even in men you see the great differences in attitude toward sex. Of course all the ones who don’t agree with what society deems normal need to hand over the man-card. There are plenty of men in cultures around the world who were brought up deeply religious who would NEVER behave the way our men do. Heck, we have men in the US who’d never leave the missionary position lol.

    1. 7.1

      Sylvana, I’m skeptical that ancient Roman women were as free as you claim. What is the source of information for that? Even if there were no social stigma, there would still be biological and economic reasons women would not want to be as free with their bodies – they would be the ones risking their lives with pregnancy and childbirth (and I think they’re also at higher risk than men of STIs’ harmful effects), and would bear most if not all of the cost and labor of raising the children.

      There are good reasons for women to be more cautious that have nothing to do with blame or shame. Other than that, I agree with you that beyond biology and its broader implications, we should not limit males and females with strict patterns of how they should behave. And modern medicine is reducing risks that make the burden heavier on females. But for the current discussion, sex differences have been relevant for millennia.

      1. 7.1.1

        Jo, there are a lot of historical source that outlined the behaviour of women in ancient Rome. Weren’t there women of high birth who were openly prostitutes ? I think one of the Emperor Claudius’s wives – Messalina was very well known for sleeping around, including offering her services to commoners. So yes, Sylvania is correct that the behaviour of women is subject to the strictures of society at the time. HOWEVER, while women may enjoy hedonism just like any man, a large majority (not all) still crave security that family and extended family can provide, still yearn for a baby or babies of her own to nurture. And she will modify her behaviour, including promiscuity, to achieve those aims. And while she rages on about feminism and how her hedonsim should not stand in her way of achieving family and family security, she knows deep in her lizard brain that the two lifestyles are not compatible. A strong, resilient and nurturing family environment cannot co-exist without discipline and trust and sacrifice.

  8. 8
    Emily, to

    “Before you hit me with the evo biology, I’ll add that *status* indicators such as wealth, confidence and ambition play zero part in my attraction to males.”
    Couldn’t agree more although most men will tell you otherwise. I think women who are independent and don’t want marriage or children don’t care about money, status, job title, etc. Although I would argue about confidence, which is a quality I find appealing. They’ve done studies across gender and culture. Confidence is the one universal attractant.

    1. 8.1

      Most heterosexual women would be attracted to “masculinity” however she defines it. So yeah, a woman with the ability to generate wealth and status herself is not going to be drawn to wealth and status for the sake of it. Instead, she would be drawn to those qualities a man possesses, not only to obtain that wealth and status, but to do so in a way that she admires – ie more appetite for risk than she does.

  9. 9
    Emily, to

    “Instead, she would be drawn to those qualities a man possesses, not only to obtain that wealth and status, but to do so in a way that she admires – ie more appetite for risk than she does.”
    I don’t agree. Theresa’s point was that women can be drawn to men, at least initially, for the same reasons men are drawn to women — looks and sex appeal. Independent women don’t need wealth and status. They don’t need either and don’t care about either. Some men have posted on this site that they don’t care about what a woman does for a living or how educated she is. There are women who feel the same way about men.

  10. 10

    Like someone noted here, it’s not testosterone/estrogens hormones that dictate sexual behaviour and pleasure- they may play part of the role. They are hormones that circulate through our body, but the central role in the forming of feeling of pleasure is in the brain. New research suggested that serotonin and nor-adrenaline pathways in the brain for arousal and sexual pleasure, social contacts or some addictions are all similar/ the same. Although the whole topic is still a huge unknown. Add to it social and environmental influences on one’s developing body, and we get a large number of variables that is impossible to control for. Overall, complex and still poorly understood construct.

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