Gender Differences in Sexual Behavior and Partner Choice

Many researchers have found that some differences exist between men and women in sexual behavior and partner choice, though all men and all women do not behave the same way or feel the same things.

More interested in sex; initiate and think about sex more oftenLess interested in sex
Want sex with more partnersNot as interested in sex with many partners
Desire sex without emotional commitmentDesire sex with emotional commitment
Focus on youth and physical attractiveness when choosing a sex partnerFocus on social and economic status when choosing a sex partner
Feel more jealous when partner is physically unfaithfulFeel more jealous when partner is emotionally unfaithful

Evolutionary Explanations

Some theorists use evolutionary theory to explain these gender differences. Their explanations are generally based on Robert Trivers’s idea that men and women make different parental investments in order to produce offspring. From a biological standpoint, men invest no more than the energy required for intercourse. Women, on the other hand, invest time and energy in pregnancy and breast feeding. Because of these biological differences, females can produce only a limited number of offspring, whereas males can potentially produce virtually unlimited offspring.

Males can increase their reproductive success by producing as many offspring as possible. Evolutionary theory predicts that men tend to choose attractive, youthful partners because these qualities imply good health and an ability to reproduce successfully. Females increase their reproductive success by being highly discriminating when choosing mates. They try to select males who have the most access to material resources, because such males can contribute the most to caring for offspring.

Furthermore, men must contend with paternity uncertainty—they can never be certain that they are the fathers of their partners’ offspring. Evolutionary theorists predict that men would therefore tend to have concerns about their partners’ sexual infidelity. Women, on the other hand, can be certain that their offspring are their own, though they cannot be certain that their partners will provide for their offspring. Therefore, they are more likely to be concerned about the emotional fidelity of their partners.

Problems with Evolutionary Explanations

Many people criticize the use of evolutionary explanations of gender differences in sexual behavior. Some critics argue that alternative explanations can account equally well for the observed gender differences. For example, women’s history of social and economic subservience may have taught them to place a high value on their partners’ access to material resources. Men’s preferences and behaviors may likewise be a product of socialization. See page 43 for more information on problems with evolutionary explanations.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation is such a controversial subject that people cannot even agree about how the term sexual orientation should be defined. Some people argue over whether it refers to sexual behavior, sexual attraction, emotional attraction, or all three.

Researchers define sexual orientation in a variety of ways, which means there is no clear idea about what proportion of the population is homosexual. Researchers also have many different opinions regarding how much biological and environmental factors contribute to sexual orientation.

Possible Biological Factors

Researchers have many ideas about the possible biological factors of homosexuality:

  • Hormones: Some researchers have suggested that homosexuals and heterosexuals have different levels of various hormones in the blood. However, research in this area has failed consistently to find hormonal variations that could account for differences in sexual orientation.
  • Genes: Others have proposed that there is a genetic basis for predisposition to homosexuality. To investigate the possibility of a genetic basis, researchers have studied the sexual orientations of the identical, fraternal, and adoptive siblings of homosexual people. This research has shown that the identical twins of homosexuals are much more likely to be homosexual than the fraternal twins of homosexuals. In turn, the fraternal twins of homosexuals are more likely to be homosexual than the adoptive siblings of homosexuals.
  • Prenatal factors: Some researchers have focused on prenatal environment. These researchers believe that the level of hormones present during a critical period in prenatal development can affect the organization of the brain, which in turn can influence sexual orientation. Research shows that women who were exposed to high prenatal levels of androgens are more likely to be homosexual. Critics point out that not all women who were exposed to prenatal androgens became homosexual and that many homosexual women were not exposed to androgens prenatally.
  • Brain differences: One researcher, Simon LeVay, examined anatomical differences in the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men. He found that a specific area of the hypothalamus tended to be smaller in homosexual men and in heterosexual women than in heterosexual men.

Environmental Factors

Many researchers believe biological factors alone can’t explain the origin of homosexuality. For example, there is only about a 50 percent chance that the identical twins of homosexual men will also be homosexual. Therefore, some other factor must make the other 50 percent heterosexual. Although this other factor remains unknown, researchers have proposed a number of environmental situations that might influence sexual orientation:

  • An ineffectual, distant father and an overly close, domineering mother
  • Seduction in childhood by a homosexual adult
  • Same-sex sexual play as children

Many of these proposals lack empirical support.

At this time, no one knows exactly what determines sexual orientation. Possibly, men and women develop homosexual orientations through various pathways. It is also possible that the cause of homosexual orientation differs from individual to individual.

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