From THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX by Kayt Sukel. Copyright © 2012, republished March 2013. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Do men and women have separate reasons for having sex?
Meston’s [Cindy M Meston, Ph.D., Professor, The University of Texas at Austin; Director, The Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory] lab recently examined that question. In a large sample questionnaire study, she and her colleagues looked at all the reasons folks from eighteen to seventy might have for getting busy. The results surprised them.
“You always hear that women are more likely to have sex for love, men for physical gratification. And we did see some of that,” said Meston. “For example, men were more likely to engage in opportunistic sex and women in sympathy sex. But across that age range, we found many more gender similarities than differences. The top three reasons for having sex were the same in both genders—they were having it for love, for commitment, and for physical gratification.”
You heard it here. Sure, gender differences are seen in a variety of studies. Many of them support the ideas we have about the ways men and women view sex. But there are a lot of similarities there too. Subjective reports of arousal, our reasons for having sex, show a lot of overlap between the genders.
“Some of these differences may be explained simply by differences are aroused. That is a pretty hard thing to ignore. It is a strong, apparent signal grabbing his attention, probably distracting him from other things that he may need to get done. With women, the sexual response is tucked away, and the vagina does not hold as much blood as the penis. It may not be as strong a signal. So in this case, it may be what is going on in the rest of the world that is the distraction, not the arousal itself. Those anatomical differences might explain a lot of the gender differences you hear about.”
Love remains the same
What about love itself? Is what I experience when I feel love qualitatively different from what a man experiences? If I consider Semir Zeki [Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College, London]’s hypothesis that literature and art across the ages show a common substrate for love in the mind, I might suggest that descriptions of sex by male and female authors and artists are sometimes different. But descriptions of love by writers of both genders? They aren’t all that dissimilar.
Although previous neuroimaging studies of romantic love by Zeki and Fisher included members of both sexes, a precise comparison of brain activation between the two was not undertaken. Zeki and his collaborator John Paul Romaya decided to take a closer look to determine whether there were gender differences in the way men and women experience love.
They compared cerebral blood flow in twenty-four people in committed relationships who claimed to be passionately in love (and scored high enough on a passionate love questionnaire to back that claim). Twelve of those participants were men, and six of those men were gay. The remaining group of twelve women was also made up equally of gay and straight women. The study paradigm was identical to Zeki’s initial romantic love study: each participant’s brain was scanned as he or she passively viewed photos of his or her partner and a familiar acquaintance matched in gender and age to their true love.
Zeki and Romaya found similar patterns of brain activation and deactivation across all participants, replicating the findings from Zeki’s original romantic love study. Once again measurements of cerebral blood flow support the idea that love is both rewarding and blind. But there were no significant differences between activation patterns in men and women. Considering the sexual dimorphism seen in many parts of the brain, it’s an intriguing result. It appears that love is love, no matter what gender you are.
When I asked Zeki if he was surprised by the finding, he chuckled. “To be honest, I was entirely agnostic,” he said. “I cannot say I was surprised by the results. But I think this is one of these studies where people would have said, ‘I’m not surprised,’ even if the results had gone the other way.”
So are Men and Women Different or not?
It is easy to fall back on old stereotypes, to simply say that men and women are poles apart. And perhaps those differences are enough to fuel those storms you commonly see in relationships. It would almost be easier if we could say that male and female brains are just too dissimilar, that they perceive and process love and sexual stimuli separately; it would give us something to hold on to when no other explanation for our love-related woes seems available. Alas, it is not quite so simple.
“When we talk about sex differences in the brain, people want to go all ‘Mars, Venus’ on you. They want to take these results and try to spread males and females way apart on function and ability,” said Cahill [Professor, Neurobiology and Behavior, School of Biological Sciences at UC Irvine]. “It is not like that. When you are talking about sex influences on brain function, you may have two bell curves that are significantly different from one another in certain instances. But those bell curves are still overlapping.”
Goldstein [Jill Goldstein, Ph.D., director of The Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory of Sex Differences in the Brain] concurred. “There is more variability within a given sex than between sexes in cognitive behavior and the brain. That is important. In fact, I always say it twice so that people really understand that,” she said. “There is more variability observed between women than between women and men in both the size of different brain regions as well as the function.”
Meston saw the same kinds of overlapping bell curves in her research.
“Every person brings their own individual history to any sexual situation,” she said. “The reasons why they are having sex, the way they feel about the sex, and the consequences of having sex are all very different across individuals no matter what gender they happen to be.”
That’s something to consider the next time you want to chalk up your partner’s quirks and shortcomings to his or her gender alone.