How different, really, are men and women’s erotic minds?
As a sex therapist, my first answer would be that they’re as different as night and day.
Men, whether they're straight or gay, tend to respond automatically to attractive body parts. Women's desire tends to be more context-dependent. When assessed in the laboratory, there are well-established statistical differences in the erotic response patterns of populations of men and women.
Men and women's experiences in relationships tend to differ as well. Heterosexual women in my office tend to complain of feeling ignored or neglected. Heterosexual men tend to feel criticized. Gay men tend to be okay with open relationships. Most lesbians, not so much.
These are just average tendencies, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions. But the exceptions, as they say, tend to prove the rule.
What do these male-female differences mean, really? What causes them?
In my office, I don't particularly care. But outside the office, questions about the meaning and origin of gender differences tend to matter a lot. One place in particular where these questions can get pretty heated is among people who study men and women’s brains.
You’d figure brain science would be more objective and less biased. But to study lots of brains, you need to feed massive amounts of data into a computer. And the questions you decide to ask the computer involve lots of high-level mathematics and data science. So experts can and do disagree strongly about what the results mean.
As brain researcher Daphna Joel reports in her 2012 TEDx talk, scientific studies have documented many statistical differences between the brains of women and men. Female brains tend to be smaller, to have more grey matter but less white matter, and to have smaller amygdalae but larger hippocampi — to cite just a few examples.
But as Dr. Joel and colleagues report in their 2015 article, “Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic," few men or women have absolutely male or female brains. Most are what she calls “mosaics” — combining brain features typical of your gender with those more typical of the other gender.
Dr. Joel has an interesting hypothesis for how this “mosaicism” might come into being. She cites a 2001 study that showed that 15 minutes of psychological stress caused certain features of certain neurons in male rat brains to look entirely “female,” and those in female rat brains to look entirely “male.” In her TEDx talk, Dr. Joel wonders whether a similar phenomenon might occur for humans in utero, where patterns of maternal stress might influence the development of fetal brains into “mosaic” patterns, depending on its specific timing and duration.
That’s highly speculative, of course. And some experts have challenged Dr. Joel's claim that gender-typical male and female brains are as uncommon as she and her research associates claim. Machine-learning programs can accurately detect whether a human brain is male or female 93 percent of the time.
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But as a sex therapist, I find Dr. Joel's idea of "mosaicism" appealing. Many clients in therapy, if you look hard enough, turn out to be mosaics — combining classically male and female patterns in novel ways.
In the office, of course, we don't deal with brains. We deal with minds. And minds, as opposed to brains, are highly influenced by culture. But culture can’t absolutely prevent your mind from expressing its own tendencies. Culture might disapprove of your being gay, for example, but culture can’t do much to change that fact.
As a sex therapist, I’m confronted all the time with what appear to be the fixed tendencies of my clients’ erotic minds. Aside from the question of whether someone is gay, straight, or bi, there are a host of other characteristics that can make or break a sexual relationship.
In a previous PT article, “What Turns a Man On? For Some, It’s Feeling Desired,” I discussed how some heterosexual men's desire tends to be "responsive," rather than "spontaneous." These men's strongest turn-on comes from being the object of a partner's passion — which of course can be extremely confusing to their female partners since it completely inverts the conventional script for heterosexual mating.
Women, after all, are commonly assumed to have a monopoly on responsive desire. Many women report that feeling passionately desired by a partner is more important than orgasm. Men aren't ordinarily supposed to have those kinds of feelings. But if you listen carefully enough, you find that some men do.
These men aren’t gay, and they’re not trans. Their sexual nature just happens to be gender-atypical in this one important respect. Perhaps, to use Dr. Joel’s term somewhat out of context, these men's erotic nature is just a bit “mosaic” — largely male, but with one or two "female” pieces thrown in.
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Men with "responsive desire" are just one example. Overall, men tend to masturbate more than women. But I know women who do it every day, and men who do it only rarely.
Other men report that they don't just respond automatically to a partner's naked body. They require an intriguing context, just as most women do.
Some sexologists argue that we should just chuck “male” and “female” as labels altogether. These labels, they argue, are ultimately more trouble than they’re worth.
Speaking as a clinician, I disagree. I think it’s more productive to tell someone their partner may be a bit of a gender-bender than to tell them gender doesn’t matter at all.
Brain science will probably take a long time before it catches up with the complexity of human erotic behavior. But if and when it does, my guess is it will confirm that most of us are in some way a bit of a sexual mosaic.
The more we learn about human sexuality, the more we realize that people are more erotically diverse than we ever suspected. My guess is the "mosaic" idea will turn out to be an important piece of the puzzle.