You’ve likely been taught a sh*t ton of myths about your sexuality. Today we’re going to bust one of them: that men and women experience sexuality vastly differently.
First things first: What is sexuality?
Sexuality is a broad term that names how we understand our bodies, sex, and relationships.
That means that, despite common misconceptions, sexuality is far more than whether you’re “gay” or “straight.” Your sexual orientation is just one facet of your sexuality.
Other components that make up your sexuality include your:
- assigned sex at birth and the gender you were socialized as
- gender identity
- sexual and romantic orientations
- values and beliefs around sex, as well as those you were raised to have
- libido, interest in sex, and physiological and physical signs of desire and arousal
- kinks, fetishes, and sexual preferences
- relationship to your body, sex, and pleasure
- trauma history
- past sexual experiences
What we mean when we say ‘men’ and ‘women’
Typically, when people ask, “How do men and women differ sexually?” (or something similar), they’re specifically asking about cisgender women and men — or people whose assigned sex at birth corresponds with their gender identity.
Sex ≠ gender
When someone’s gender is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth, they’re considered to be cisgender.
For example, a person who’s born with a vagina, is assigned female at birth, and later self-identifies as a woman is considered cisgender.
When someone’s assigned sex at birth is NOT in alignment with their gender, they may be considered transgender, nonbinary, or agender, just to name a few different gender identities.
For example, a person who’s assigned male at birth and later self-identifies as something other than exclusively male or exclusively as a man may fall elsewhere on the gender spectrum.
Here at Healthline, however, we aim to be more inclusive than that. So, for the purposes of this article, when we say “men” we’re talking about all men, meaning cisgender and transgender men.
And, when we say women, we’re talking about all women, meaning cisgender and transgender women. We’ll also be including insight as it relates to non-binary and other gender-nonconforming folks. HEALTHLINE NEWSLETTERGet our twice-weekly Women’s Wellness email
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What the research says
Sadly, most (if not all) of the studies on this topic only look at cisgender men and cisgender women and leave out gender nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people entirely. (Here, here trusted Source, and hereTrusted Source, for example.) *Ugh.*
Curious about what these studies have shown, despite knowing that they could stand to be more way inclusive? Here’s the quick of it.
Compared with cisgender women, cisgender men:
- show greater interest in sex
- link aggression to sexuality to a greater degree
- place less emphasis on commitment in their sexual relationships
- experience more stagnancy and less adaptability in their sexual orientation
However, (and this is important!) that does NOT mean that cisgender men are innately and naturally all of these things. Clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon, PhD, an expert with The Sex Toy Collective, says nurture and culture play a huge role.
“Men and women are socialized differently and face different cultural expectations regarding sex,” she says, adding that this can affect when, how, how often, and with whom they have sex. (More on this below.)
Your anatomy at birth can impact your sexuality
“Whether you were born with a penis or a vulva will undoubtedly influence how sex feels to some extent,” says Justin Lehmiller, PhD, a social psychologist and research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and the author of “Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.”
Why? Because the mechanics of how you have sex, as well as how you reach orgasm, will differ.
“We know, for example, that people born with vulvas are more likely to experience multiple orgasms, compared to people with penises,” he says.
People with penises also have a longer refractory period compared to those who don’t.
That said, “there are still a lot of similarities in how people of all biological sexes experience their sexuality,” Melancon notes.
And your gender does, too
Broadly speaking, people who were socialized as girls are taught to be far more sex-averse compared with people cultured as boys.
While the specific culture, religion, and society you were raised in dictate the exact messages you receive, typically boys are taught that masturbation is normal and that having sex with as many people as possible ramps up their coolness factor.
Meanwhile, girls are often taught that masturbating is dirty and sex should wait until marriage.
“Culturally, manhood is in part built on encouraging free sexuality, while womanhood is centered on denying or controlling it,” Melancon says. This is often referred to as the “sexual double standard.”
While this appears positive for men, it can also have negative consequences, she says.
“It results in men being shamed for having fewer sexual partners or experiences, it encourages men to take more sexual risks, and it negates men’s emotional needs in intimate relationships.”
Setting the record straight on gender and sexuality
If you’re reading this, you probably have some specific questions like, “Do women enjoy sex?” and “Do orgasms feel the same for men and women?” So, let’s get into it.
People of all genders can and do masturbate
Society often touts masturbation as a boys’ game. But masturbation is something people of all genders and ages can and do enjoy.
“We need to do more to normalize women’s masturbation,” Lehmiller says.
Because, just as it is for boys and men, masturbation is also how many not-men first explore their sexuality, experience orgasm, and discover pleasure, he says.
Gender isn’t what determines if someone likes sex
Many people are taught that women don’t enjoy sex. Sure, some women don’t like sex, but this broad-sweeping statement is BS!
“The idea that men like sex and women don’t is a myth that needs to go away,” says Lehmiller. “[People] of any gender can like and enjoy sex” — just as people of any gender can dislike sex.
Whether someone says they like sex — as well as whether someone is asexual or allosexual — are much better indicators of whether someone likes sex.
People of all genders have the capacity for pleasure during sex
It shouldn’t need to be said… and yet it needs to be said.
“Women’s pleasure is a topic that has long been neglected culturally, as well as in sex education,” Lehmiller says. “The result is that women’s pleasure has been less of a priority during sex.”
This is known as the “pleasure gap.”
But women (and other gender-minorities) *can* experience pleasure during play.
Other facts that influence whether someone experiences pleasure during sex, according to Lehmiller, include factors, like:
- sexual history
- mental health
- relationship dynamics
- stress and distraction
Orgasms typically feel similar for most genders
Cisgender men and cisgender women may reach orgasm through different means.
But Lehmiller says that research comparing cisgender men’s’ and cisgender women’s’ descriptions of what an orgasm feels like found that both genders gave similar answers. (The research did not survey people of other genders.)
Common orgasm descriptors across both cisgender men and cisgender women included:
- pleasurable satisfaction
- emotional intimacy
- building, flooding, flushing, shooting, or throbbing sensation
The takeaway: “Feelings of sexual pleasure actually seem to be quite similar across genders,” Lehmiller says.
Sexual dysfunction can look similar among genders
There are both similarities and differences in sexual difficulties for men, women, and gender nonconforming folks.
“Some researchTrusted Source has found that the most common sexual difficulty — low sexual interest — is the same across genders,” Lehmiller says.
However, penis-havers of any gender are more likely to report:
- premature orgasm
- erectile difficulty,
- difficulty orgasming
And vagina-havers of any gender are more likely to report:
- difficulty orgasming
- vaginal dryness
- low sexual enjoyment
Factors that affect experience during sex more than gender
There are many, but here are a few.
Cultural, religious, and spiritual beliefs and upbringings
Cultural and religious teachings around sexuality can shape an individual’s sexual behavior.
“Many cultures and religions only allow sex under strict circumstances,” Melancon says. “Hearing these sex-negative, shame-laden messages can affect someone’s sexual experience as a teen, [and] as a married adult.”
“Any kind of trauma can lead to dysregulation in the nervous system [interfering with the physiology of sexuality] and result in issues with trust and intimacy,” Melancon says.
Examples of trauma include:
- difficult births
- natural disasters
- car accidents
- sexual trauma
“Sexual trauma carries additional sex-based triggers that can happen in the moment, leading to avoidance, flashbacks, panic, or numbing around sex,” she notes.
According to Melancon, someone’s relationship to their sexuality can be impacted by:
- bipolar disorder
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
“Stress and burnout can also affect sex as they affect the nervous system and hormones, typically reducing sexual desire, arousal, and pleasure,” she adds.
Where to learn more
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