Sex & Relationships

Why Do We Vilify Male Sexuality? 3 Myths About Men and Sex Debunked

The falsehood that men are brutes who can't control their sex drive is harmful to everyone.

This piece is crossposted on the Sexademic.

The tired trope of aggressive male sexuality is pervasive. The story goes like this: because men are full of testosterone and sperm as well as unhindered by the consequence of pregnancy, their sexuality is naturally brutish and promiscuous. Testosterone fuels aggression, billions of sperm want hundreds of outlets, and nature failed to offset these desires with physical dangers associated with reproduction.

The complement to this heterocentric sex story is that women, with their limited eggs, lack of testosterone and pregnancy burden are naturally chaste and self-protective. Any sexual adventurousness or licentiousness is only done to please men and keep them around so they will help with the child-rearing.

A simple and neatly packaged explanation of human sexuality. But it’s wrong. Let’s do some debunking.

Myth No. 1: Testosterone makes men aggressive.

Origins:The idea that testosterone is an aggression correlate comes from an experiment that found castrating male mice reduced combativeness. Naturally, culture extrapolated these findings to humans and claimed testosterone had the same effect on male humans.

Reality: In a 2009 study, European researchers administered either .5 mg of testosterone or a placebo to male participants before engaging them in a game of cooperation that involved negotiating money distribution with other players. They could make an offer as fair or unfair as they wished and those on the receiving end could choose to accept or decline. The findings? Testosterone recipients made fairer offers, a direct contradiction with common beliefs about testosterone and aggression. Researchers suggested that testosterone influences a sensitivity toward status which is expressed as cooperativeness in pro-social situations.

The relationship between testosterone and sexual desire is a slightly different, albeit unclear story. There is evidence to suggest that testosterone influences sexual desire in males and somewhat less in females. However, our desires are also regulated and influenced by a myriad of psychological and external factors. Stress, diet and sexual beliefs likely have more of an effect on our sex drives than this hormone.

Myth No. 2: Plentiful and easy sperm production encourages promiscuous behavior in men.

Origins:The biological definition of male and female has to do with size of gametes, where male gametes are always smaller than female gametes. Male gametes are often mobile and easily replenished, especially in the case of humans. The theory -- known as Bateman’s principle, from Angus Bateman’s 1948 fruit fly research that studied phenotype distribution via genetic mutations among offspring -- states that females are choosier when selecting mates because of their limited lifetime gamete supply. To simplify Bateman's assertion: male reproductive success is positively correlated with number of female mates.

Reality: Modern researchers invalidated Bateman’s findings when they reanalyzed the original data. None of the findings were statistically significant and the study had many methodological flaws. In 2010, researchers in the UK put forth a contradictory reading on fruit fly sexual behavior that posited female promiscuity as essential to some species’ survival. The press release on EurekAlert says it best:

This study suggests that polyandry reduces the risk of populations becoming extinct because of all-female broods being born. This can sometimes occur as a result of a sex-ratio distortion (SR) chromosome, which results in all of the Y chromosome ‘male’ sperm being killed before fertilisation. The all-female offspring will carry the SR chromosome, which will be passed on to their sons in turn resulting in more all-female broods. Eventually there will be no males and the population will die out.

Of course, these are studies on insects. What about humans? Overall, social factors influence promiscuity and choosiness for both genders greater than any biological factors such as gamete production. Most people have multiple partners over a lifetime, though it is hard to discern true numbers as self-reporting of partners is often misleading. (For a more in-depth explanation, check out this Livescience article.) Basically, there is no evidence that human sexual partner selection patterns are directly influenced by biological gender.

Myth No. 3: Risk of pregnancy mitigates sexual desire and behavior.

Origin: Likely extrapolated from the Bateman principle stating that reproductive costs influence sexual mating patterns.

Reality:Once again, sexual behaviors are not influenced solely by biology, especially in highly social species. The idea that women are choosier about sex because of the physical ramifications of pregnancy ignores birth control, social aspects of fatherhood (such as negative views of “deadbeat dads” or legislation aimed at combating absent fathers), and non-reproductive sex acts. Considering that 49 percent of U.S. pregnancies in 2001 were unintended, I really question pregnancy avoidance as a motivating factor for sexual selectivity.

What I think is more likely: social ramifications for females. In the face of a social narrative positing females as naturally sexually selective and males as naturally aggressive, any female with a higher number of sexual partners violates common wisdom and is perceived as deviant, whether or not this behavior really is deviant. (Remember, we don’t have any reliable data on number of sexual partners in populations because the data is always self-reported and there is a strong social bias for people to misrepresent their numbers.)

Why does this any of this matter? In social debates about sexuality, this narrative is repeatedly employed to inaccurately discuss porn, justify rape and reinforce restrictive gender stereotypes.

Here are some other ways that the myth of "male brutishness" is harmful.

In my teen years I regarded romance as something created by men to convince women to have sex with them. My very few unsatisfying sexual experiences combined with a rabidly sex-negative culture reinforced my viewpoint that sex was solely a man’s prerogative.

Then I grew up. I cast off my body shame. I discovered masturbation. I had sexual encounters that left me wild-eyed and breathless instead of shamed and unhappy. Every orgasm incited the desire to have another. A world of pleasurable possibilities opened before me. Never before had I felt my capacity for sexual sensation with such clarity.

At the dawn of this new sexual self I saw nothing but potential and was eager to make up for lost time. But I encountered an unanticipated problem with my male partners: their sex drives.

I couldn’t fathom why a guy would stay at a party when he could be having sex. I couldn’t understand how a guy would want to finish watching a movie when he could be sweaty and naked. The phrase “not right now” was incomprehensible coming from a male mouth. I mean, weren’t all men shameless horndogs who were only after one thing?

In the absence of evidence to refute that myth I felt angry, undesired or resentful when I was turned down. I retaliated by challenging their masculinity or engaging in some serious shit-talking with female friends. More than one snarky conversation about undersexed men has conspired between my friends over drinks.

And I’m not alone in this. A close female friend of mine once cried at a Girls’ Night In because her boyfriend had spurned her sexual advances. “I don’t understand!” she moaned to us, “It just makes me feel fat and unattractive and horrible. Why doesn’t he want me?” Another friend simply went behind her boyfriend’s back instead of trying to talk things over. Her defense? “I have needs.”

The insidious flipside to the lie about aggressive male sexuality is the assumption that women are incapable of sexual aggression. (Personal note: I have experienced more aggressive sexual predation at lesbian club nights than at mixed or hetero clubs. A woman once shoved her thigh between my legs and began rubbing my vulva with it before she even told me her name. Not cool.)

The only sexual aggression I see from men is culturally encouraged, not biologically inherent. We raise them on this idea that a defining character of their masculinity is uncontrollable sexual behavior and that man points can be had with every (female) orifice their penis enters. This so-called natural “struggle between the sexes” is born from our social mythology of sexuality.

Now, some of you reading this may think: “Hey! I’m a guy and my sex drive is overwhelming!”

Welcome to the club, buddy. High sex drives are an equal opportunity maddener. Your genitals and chromosomes do not determine your horniness.

Jessi Fischer is a writer, public speaker and sex educator for universities, high schools and outreach organizations. She is the 2009 Jim Brogan Teaching Scholarship recipient and a fund-raising organizer for San Francisco Sex Information.