According to a new study from Montemurro (2014), women’s optimal sexual satisfaction requires one necessary ingredient: love. In the study, heterosexual women ranging in age from age from 20 to 68 and representing a range of backgrounds said that they believed love was necessary for maximum satisfaction in both sexual relationships and marriage.
As a man who practices as a psychologist and identifies as a feminist, I read the study’s results with more than mixed feelings. These results support that awful gender stereotype: Women just want love, in contrast to men who just want sex. While I do see in my clinical work that women and men do have different characteristics and nuances to their sexual desires and fantasies, I have never found in working with hundreds of men and women over the years that women’s sexual appetite is as one-note—or love-based—as conventional wisdom suggests.
In fact, in my anecdotal research—years of providing psychotherapy to couples and single men and women alike—I have found that women often have a latent sexual life that they stays hidden until they feel comfortable enough to share details about their true sexual desires.
For a moment, think about the women in your own social life, those with whom you share intimate details. Are your friends an example of women who need love in order to have peak sexual satisfaction? Can you think of women you know who can have a sexual experience that is both extremely fulfilling and simultaneously new? Have you known any of them to have a satisfying one night stand or, at least, great sex with someone they’ve only known a short time?
Our culture operates a nasty double standard when it comes to sex. One of the best examples is a study from Vrangalova and colleagues (2013) which found that female college students were less interested in befriending a woman who was perceived as promiscuous. According to the study, female college students were less likely to want to be friends with another female who was seen as sexually promiscuous, when compared to the rate for male college students who wanted to be friends with a promiscuous male peer. The study showed that the women clearly noticed the promiscuous woman and also had negative beliefs about her as a result. If these social dynamics are truly at work, isn’t it possible that these pressures to conform to a particularly chaste stereotype cause women to report more conventional, socially-pleasing views about sex? Even when they’re not true?
Meanwhile, plenty of pop-culture self-help and gender books have reminded us how men are somehow excused from such profound judgments when it comes to their own sexual appetites, and the popularity of nicknames of sexually active men are proof: Big Man on Campus, the player, and so forth.
One problem with research about sexual attitudes is that some people simply aren’t going to reveal their darkest desires even in a confidential survey. To that end, is it possible that it’s one’s best friends who know the real truth about what a person wants? I’ve shared many conversations about sex with female friends, and the confirm what I have found in my clinical work: Don’t judge a book by its cover just because that book happens to be a woman.
I detest gender stereotypes and believe they’re one of the most powerful barriers to people letting their ‘true self’ show. With all the judgments we impose on each other about sex and the kinds of relationships we have, it’s enough pressure to cause many women to try to shave off parts of themselves that aren’t so acceptable in the larger culture. My point is that women and men both becoming more honest—with themselves and others—about what they want sexually will result in relationships that have a lot more honesty and need-fulfillment, and lot less frustration, repression and resentment.