Guys find it much more difficult than women to keep it in their pants. Or so society would have us believe.
This notion that men are more genetically driven to spread their wild oats is a common one.
But how much truth is there to the idea that men can’t control themselves in the same way that women can? And if so, why?
The science around whether that’s true or not is far from inconclusive and much disputed. So let’s dive in.
8 (potential) reasons why men can’t control themselves, unlike women
1) Men are more highly sexed than women
Let’s start with biological factors, and whether men are more highly sexed than women in the first place. It’s commonly been thought that higher levels of testosterone in men make them want more sex.
Some evidence suggests men are just more sexually driven than women, whilst other research has found quite the opposite to be the case. (More on that later).
Having said that, plenty of research does point to the fact that men may have naturally higher libidos than women. Which could make biological differences a factor in self-control.
After extensive research, renowned psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D concluded:
“There is a substantial difference, and men have a much stronger sex drive than women. To be sure, there are some women who have frequent, intense desires for sex, and there are some men who don’t, but on average, the men want it more. Every marker we could think of pointed to the same conclusion. Men think about sex more often than women do. Men have more sexual fantasies, and these encompass more different acts and more different partners.”
Baumeister’s research also noted that:
- Men masturbate more than women
- Men engage in more risky behavior to get sex
- Men want more sex than women in relationships
- Men want more different sexual partners than women
- Men initiate sex often and refuse it rarely
- Men find it harder to go without sex than women
After looking at all the available research on men’s behaviors towards sex compared to women’s it left Baumeister in no doubt:
“In short, pretty much every study and every measure fit the pattern that men want sex more than women. It’s official: Men are hornier than women.”
2) Men have stronger desire impulses
Next on our list of reasons why men might find it harder to control themselves comes down to the intensity of desire they experience.
Because research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that men’s ability to resist temptation is not actually any weaker than a woman’s.
But the difficulty is that it can get overridden by the intensity of their desire.
Natasha Tidwell, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University, who authored the study says:
“Overall, these studies suggest that men are more likely to give in to sexual temptations because they tend to have stronger sexual impulse strength than women do,”
“When men reflected on their past sexual behavior, they reported experiencing relatively stronger impulses and acting on those impulses more than women did,”
Meanwhile, the co-author of the report Paul W. Eastwick admits:
“Men have plenty of self-control — just as much as women. However, if men fail to use self-control, their sexual impulses can be quite strong. This is often the situation when cheating occurs.”
So it’s not that men cannot control themselves, they can. But perhaps the strength of their desire might play a role in whether they choose to show restraint or not.
3) Men and women are raised with different sexual expectations
Often questions like this come down to the good old nature versus nurture debate.
It can be almost impossible to separate how much of our so-called instincts and drives are bestowed on us from Mother Nature and how many are given to us through the norms of society at the time.
It is likely is that both have an influence.
And this brings us to how social expectations play a part in the way that men and women express their sexuality.
According to marriage and family therapist, Sarah Hunter Murray, PhD, and the author of Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships:
“Our social norms and the ways we’re raised to either lean into our sexuality or repress it have a huge impact on how we experience our sexuality and how we report it in studies. People raised as men in our society have been typically given more permission to speak openly about wanting sex, while young women have often been told not to express their sexuality.”
So it could be that women feel more social pressure to “control themselves” around sex than men do.
One study argues that we do certainly end up falling into pre-prescribed gender role behaviors around sex:
“Traditionally, men/boys are expected to be sexually active, dominant, and the initiator of (hetero)sexual activity, whereas women/girls are expected to be sexually reactive, submissive, and passive. Moreover, traditionally men are granted more sexual freedom than women. As a consequence, men and women can be treated differently for the same sexual behaviors. For example, slut-shaming is experienced by 50% of girls, compared with 20% of boys”.
This begs the question, do men simply get away with certain behaviors under the excuse of not being able to control themselves, more than women do?
Which brings us nicely to our next point.
4) Men get away with it more
You know what they say:
“Boys will be boys”
Meaning that certain behaviors are characteristic of guys and only to be expected. Ideas that men have a harder time controlling their natural urges fit into this viewpoint.
As we’ve just seen, that’s likely to be (at least in part) created by and upheld by different expectations of men and women within society.
But does our general belief that guys are hornier and simply cannot help themselves mean we make more allowances for this?
Perhaps. One case that made it all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court would suggest that at least some of the time we might.
It ruled that it was legal for a man to fire a female staff member simply because he found her too attractive.
As reported by CNN:
“The court stood by an earlier ruling that a Fort Dodge dentist acted legally when he fired his dental assistant – even while acknowledging she had been an excellent employee for 10 years – because he and his wife were afraid he would try to start an affair with her and ruin their marriage. The employee had sued for sex discrimination. But the court said firing an employee for being too attractive, despite no inappropriate behavior on her part, is not sex discrimination because gender is not the issue. Feelings are.”
Pepper Schwartz professor of sociology at the University of Washington fears that our beliefs about male behavior when it comes to sex make it easier for men to lean on this excuse:
“I don’t see women firing men because they can’t control themselves. Is this because they don’t have manly kind of urges? Or is it because they don’t have access to the same excuses, such as uncontrollable attraction and desire?”
5) In terms of evolution, it’s more beneficial for men not to control themselves
We’ve already looked at research that suggests men might be more naturally highly sexed than women, but let’s take a closer look at how evolution plays into that.
One of the theories for why men could be more inclined to sleep around is that it is far more advantageous for a guy to be promiscuous than it is for a woman to do so.
Evolutionary theories argue that for reproductive fitness having more casual sexual partners (as well as having sex with other women whilst in a committed relationship) works out better for guys.
As one research paper looking into sexual double standards explains:
“For men engaging in these behaviors is likely to increase the success of passing genes on to the next generation, whereas for women refraining or postponing these behaviors is likely to be a more successful reproductive strategy because of their higher parental investment.”
Taking an evolutionary point of view, you could say that it’s better for women to control themselves, but better for men not to.
As Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University explains:
“Women who chose mates more carefully had a higher chance of producing offspring that survived longer. Hence, careful genes passed on through evolutionary history to the next generations. At the same time, women who had the wrong choices lost their reproductive chances, and their careless genes became extinct. On the other hand, men who were less choosy could produce more offspring, and their genes survived to date.”
6) Men and women have different reasons for wanting sex
Perhaps our fundamental motivations for why we want to have sex in the first place play a part in all of this.
Because there is evidence to suggest that what primarily drives men to have sex is different from women.
A sexual desire survey done back in 2014 asked participants to explain what motivates them sexually. And they found men and women gave different reasons.
“Men were significantly more likely to endorse desire for sexual release, orgasm, and pleasing their partner than were women. Women were significantly more likely to endorse desire for intimacy, emotional closeness, love, and feeling sexually desirable than men.”
If men go into sexual encounters in order to scratch a sexual itch, but women prefer to feel an emotional connection from sex, it stands to reason that men may be less choosy.
They are happier to have sex merely for the act of sex itself.
It could be that women set the bar higher for what they want out of their sexual encounters. So they’re less tempted by the offer of sex alone if it doesn’t meet their desire for intimacy or emotional closeness.
Not only do our reasons for having sex differ between men and women, but as we’ll see next, even the way the sexes tend to respond to desire itself is different.
7) Men have more spontaneous desire and women have more responsive desire
Let’s start by talking about the important difference between spontaneous desire and responsive desire.
As explained by sex therapist Vanessa Marin:
“There are two ways that we get turned on and ready for sex: In our heads and in our bodies. We need the mental desire for sex, and we need the physical arousal for sex. Desire and arousal sound pretty similar, but they work independently of each other.”
According to Leigh Norén, a sex therapist who specializes in low libido, men generally lean more towards spontaneous desire and women towards responsive desire.
“We tend to see it (desire) as a spontaneous, hormonal urge, much like thirst or hunger. Sexological research, however, shows that this is an old-fashioned way of looking at libido—at least when the idea is ascribed to women. There are in fact two distinct styles of sexual desire – spontaneous and responsive. The spontaneous libido is the one we’re most used to. It’s a feeling that appears out of the blue, right in the middle of us having dinner or going for a walk.
“Responsive desire, however, is a reaction to us getting physically aroused. For responsive desire to take place, it needs to be sparked by something – perhaps a sexual fantasy, a glance from an attractive stranger, or sensual touch.”
The implication is that men and women do both feel desire, but men’s desire may be more instant and obvious than a woman’s which is more responsive in style.
In fact, research has even hinted that for some women, desire is the result of sex and not the cause of it.
Perhaps the more obvious style of spontaneous desire that men are more likely to experience makes it appear as though self-control is harder for them.
8) Men’s sexual desire is generally more straightforward than women
When it comes to sex and desire, men appear to be less complicated than women. Research has shown that for guys, what turns them on is fairly formulaic and straightforward.
Northwestern University researcher Meredith Chivers conducted a study showing erotic movies to both gay and straight men and women.
Here’s what it found:
“For men, the results were predictable: Straight men said they were more turned on by depictions of male-female sex and female-female sex, and the measuring devices backed up their claims. Gay men said they were turned on by male-male sex, and again the devices backed them up.
“For women, the results were more surprising. Straight women, for example, said they were more turned on by male-female sex. But genitally they showed about the same reaction to male-female, male-male, and female-female sex.”
Women seem to be more flexible sexually than men are. And according to researcher Roy Baumeister he thinks their lower libidos could be why:
“Women might be more willing to adapt their sexuality to local norms and contexts and different situations, because they aren’t quite so driven by strong urges and cravings as men are.”
Maybe men and women aren’t so different when it comes to sex
We’ve seen lots of research and theories that argue there are some fundamental differences when it comes to male and female libidos and desire.
But not all the research points to that. Some contradict the idea altogether. Researcher Hunter Murray is quick to highlight:
“Multiple studies show that men’s and women’s sexual desire levels are more similar than different”
As argued in Volonte, the world’s largest sexual health blog, rather than women’s desire being lower than a man’s it may just be that it’s different.
“Sex drive in women is not lower than sex drive in men; it just has different and changing patterns. Research shows that women’s sexual desire changes depending on their menstrual cycle. When women experience the peak of their sexual arousal during the ovulation period, their sex drive is as strong as men’s.
“All of this new research shows that we view sexual desire in men and women the wrong way. Instead of comparing sex drive in women to men’s standards, we should focus on broadening our views on how we understand sexual desire in general.”
So the jury is still out about the extent of the differences between men and women when it comes to sex and desire.
But even if there are differences, it doesn’t automatically stand to reason that those differences would make it harder for men to control themselves.
Most men CAN control themselves, some men can’t
Let’s assume that there are at least some differences between how men and women approach sex and desire. And that some of those may be down to biology, others down to society and expectations.
Even if we accept evidence to suggest that men might have higher sex drives, are motivated by different sexual desires, have different gender roles to play, and experience stronger desire impulses than women — that doesn’t mean that men cannot control themselves.
In fact, one research study suggests that generally speaking most men are perfectly capable of regulating their sexual arousal to some degree.
As explained in Live Science:
“The study employed 16 randomly ordered video clips. Eight were erotic, and eight were funny (specifically, the funny video clips featured the least sexy comedian the researchers could find: Mitch Hedberg). Participants were instructed to control their response to certain videos, and simply to watch the others. They then rated their arousal following each clip and were hooked up to machines that measured their erections.”
The results found that on average guys were able to regulate their physical sexual arousal when told to do so.
The men that were better at keeping a lid on their arousal also showed better emotional control in general.
Leading head researcher Jason Winters to conclude:
“We suspect that if an individual is good at regulating one type of emotional response, he/she is probably good at regulating other emotional responses,”.
Realistically some men may struggle with controlling themselves, but it’s far from all men. And there’s a danger with this sort of gender generalization.
Certainly, when it comes to self-control around things like infidelity, the most recent stats on cheating point to the difference between how many men and women cheat as being pretty negligible.
One survey found the number of men and women who have ever had an affair is essentially the same (20% and 19%).
So it’s far from accurate to imply that men simply can’t help themselves whilst women show more restraint.
The reasons for having an affair might differ, but the rates at which guys and women cheat probably aren’t so different after all.
To conclude: the danger of saying that men can’t control themselves
Suggesting that men might have a harder time controlling themselves isn’t (and shouldn’t be seen as) some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for following urges.
The bottom line is that men can control themselves and plenty do.
It’s a disservice to both men and women to suggest that guys are slaves to their “uncontrollable” instincts, whilst women are more effortlessly “virtuous”.
The reality is that control of sexual urges is just like the control of any other human desire.
Even when certain biological or cultural influences on desire can offer some sort of explanation and understanding, that doesn’t make them an excuse for inappropriate or destructive behaviors.
The impulses that all of us choose to act upon or not are just that, a choice. And monogamy, infidelity, and sexual habits that we engage in are ultimately a choice for both men and women.
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