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ISSUE 117 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/7/2003

Sex on the Hill: When Roles Become Rules

By Jennifer Hancock
Online Editor

Friday, November 7, 2003

Here’s a little exercise for all you traditional gender role advocates out there: identify the gender of the speaker of the following quotes: “All most men care about is sex.” I’m sick of having empty sexual relationships; I want something more substantial.” Now try these: “Girls are way too uptight about sex.” “I’m so turned-on all the time it’s hard for me to concentrate.”

If your answer to the first two quotes was “female,” you are a fool. If your answer to the second two quotes was “male,” you are even more foolish. In fact, the first two quotes are direct from a male St. Olaf student, and the last two quotes from a female student. Go figure: not everyone fits a gender stereotype! Women can be horny and men can be sentimental, but not always, according to the research.

In a 1985 study, sexologists discovered that for women, a relationship and emotional connectedness are important prerequisites for sex. Men are less concerned about emotional investment and more interested in the physical pleasures of sex. When 249 heterosexual undergraduates were asked, “What are your motives for having sexual intercourse?” the responses were unsurprisingly stereotypical and in alignment with traditional gender roles. Women stressed emotional commitment and love: “Emotional feelings that were shared, wonderful way to express LOVE!” Male answers included: “Need it,” and “When I’m tired of masturbation.” Before anyone dismisses men for their seemingly insatiable sexual desire and emotional ignorance, let me restate that those interviewed were college-aged.

The sexualities of women and men age differently. In their teens and twenties, men understand sex in an almost exclusively genitally focused way. Later in life, starting in the thirties age-range, they begin to appreciate the sensuous and emotional components of sex. In contrast, women are aware of the emotional elements of sex early on and grow into a greater sense of genital awareness later in life. As suggested by sociologist Ira Reiss, young women are “person-centered” (sex based on emotions) and young men are “body-centered” (sex based on physical pleasure). As the genders age, women develop a taste for “body-centered sex” and men develop an interest in “person-centered sex.”

The 1985 study makes clear implications about heterosexual relationships, but what about homosexual relationships? Based on the results, one could assume that lesbians are focused on emotional commitment and gay men are focused on pleasure, but neither assumption is right. Remember: the study is based on generalizations and, more specifically, heterosexual generalizations. Gay and lesbian couples struggle with precisely the same issues of emotional attachment and sexual desire that straight couples do.

In terms of sex, men may be more pleasure-based, but in terms of relationships, men seem to be more love-based. A 1981 study revealed that men fall in love earlier in relationships, men are more likely to cling to a love affair on its way out, and, perhaps most disturbingly, three times as many men as women commit suicide after a relationship ends.

Obviously, these results go against the stereotypes that women are romantic and emotional (and thus, occasionally irrational), and men are logical and physical. More importantly, how do we reconcile men’s unemotional sexual desires with their commitment to relationships and love?

Over a noisy Stav dinner, one of my male friends told me about the recent end of his two-year relationship. He was devastated. The girl had “lost interest.” He said he realized he was in love with her after they slept together for the first time. “Men have sex, then get attached; women get attached, then have sex,” he said. With obvious exceptions to the rule, I think he might be onto something. That is, strong sexual feelings do not necessarily negate emotional commitment, nor does emotional commitment negate sexual feelings. Things just don’t always go in the same order.

Whatever your gender role or sexual preference, don’t let stereotypes dictate what you feel emotionally or sexually. For me, the emotional and the sexual are often indistinguishable. For others, they are oppositional. As my pastor says, “We are all on a journey and none of us have arrived.” Sexually, many of us are just stepping out the door.

– For questions and comments on all subjects sexual, e-mail

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