Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place. – Billy Crystal
Here’s another of those reader questions that I felt deserved a whole column:
I find it quite remarkable that you not only understand the changes that occur to a healthy male denied sex, but can also write about it so well, and acknowledge and accept it rather than using it to manipulate and control men. Can you write a column for men, to help us understand women? I would very much like a better understanding of how the female sex drive is so easily thwarted. Most men can’t just turn off their sex drive, even when there are good, practical, and sometimes urgent reasons to do so. Yet it seems that most women can simply cut theirs off at will, and resume it later when and where they choose. How does this work?
In a way, I was very lucky to be a late bloomer; as I’ve said before I was quite plain in my early teens, and only started to blossom in my senior year (after I turned 16). Of course, I didn’t know I was going to blossom, so I recognized when I was 13 that I would need to understand men in order to attract them, rather than simply relying upon my natural gifts as the prettier girls could. I didn’t realize until much later that though I wasn’t much to look at, I had “a pronounced sexual aura, and coquettishness came naturally to me,” and that these characteristics more than outweighed my plainness in many young men’s estimation. So I learned everything my cousin Jeff was willing to teach me about men, read everything I could get my hands on about male psychology and carefully observed the behavior of my dates, male friends, brother, father, uncles, cousins and every other guy I interacted with; nor did I cease to learn once my looks caught up with the rest of my charms.
I’m afraid I have to disenchant you on one point, though: I certainly do manipulate men, and always have since I first discovered I could about the age of 14. However, I never do so in a harmful or malicious way; I’ve always had a strong sense of fairness (which, again, I have to thank Jeff for encouraging), and I determined while still in high school that any manipulation of men would be such that they would get something out of it, too, and would never regret having given me whatever it was that I wanted. In other words I tried to make it so that if a guy realized what I had done later, his reaction would not be an angry “That bitch played me like a piano!” but rather “That clever little minx! Well, she can push my buttons any time!” When friends realized how well I could do this they started asking me for advice, and like you found my degree of understanding remarkable; one appreciative young friend even called me “the Jane Goodall of men”.
But just as Dame Jane could probably tell you a lot more about chimpanzees than about her own species, so I probably know more about male sexual behavior than that of my own sex. It’s a matter of both necessity and applicability. By “necessity” I mean that when interacting sexually with other women I can just go by instinct, but for men I need intellectual knowledge. And by “applicability” I mean that whatever I learn about any given man tends to work for most other men, but what I know about my own sexuality (or that of any other individual woman) cannot necessarily be applied to most other women. Female sexual psychology is generally much more complicated than male, so it’s a lot easier for a woman to learn to understand men than it is for a man to understand women, or even for a woman to understand other women! A big part of the reason for this is that women tend to be sexually fluid; rather than being “target-specific” as men are, women tend to move around the sexual spectrum depending upon their environment, circumstances and experiences. In other words, though most gay men really are “born that way,” that’s not so true of women, who are much more likely to move between heterosexual and homosexual relationships over time as their conditions change. So it’s much harder to say “women tend to be like this” because as soon as you think you’ve got it pinned down, a woman’s sexuality may “morph” into something different. This is why an open-minded woman can often be talked into swinging, BDSM or some other “kink” that she may not really have been interested in to start with; it’s not necessarily that she has a deep psychological affinity for the activity, but rather that she loves the person who does the talking and as a result can “flow” in that direction unless the process is obstructed by guilt, sexual hang-ups, fear, busybody friends or the like.
This is, like a lot of sex, rooted in reproductive biology. Sperm is cheap; men make about a hundred million of the little bastards every single day, while women produce one single egg per month. In other words, each individual egg is worth over 3,000,000,000 times as much as each sperm. Guys can afford to throw sperm around to all and sundry like the cheapest kind of Mardi Gras beads, but women have to be really careful about whom we bestow our eggs upon; it doesn’t take a genius to see how this shapes male and female behavior throughout the animal kingdom. Furthermore, the biological cost increases exponentially if one of those eggs is fertilized; in a state of nature each pregnancy takes a dramatic toll on a woman’s entire body, while men actually feel better after sending sperm on their way! Because of this, female placental mammals are even choosier and cock-blockier than our egg-laying cousins, and the human capacity for anticipating consequences magnifies that still more. Biologically speaking, poor mating decisions have absolutely zero negative impact on a male; he can dump sperm in unhealthy females, in females of different species, in males of his own species or even on the ground and there will still be plenty more where that came from. But for a female it’s the opposite; every mating choice may have huge (and in humans decades-long) consequences. The existence of birth control is irrelevant: I know it exists, and you know it exists, but our hindbrains don’t, and they carry on just as though every act of coitus could lead to pregnancy…which for men means the same in either case, but for women is quite different.
What it boils down to is this: men typically want sex most of the time because more sex means more offspring, with absolutely no downside. But because a woman can only get pregnant so many times, and only once a year at most, our sex-response failsafe mechanisms are on hair triggers compared to yours. It’s not that women can cut off our sex drives at will, but rather that our brains and bodies will cut it off for many more reasons than yours will. If anything about a potential sexual partner or situation fails any of dozens of tests our brains subject them to, an alarm is tripped, the plug is pulled and the whole system goes down to protect the woman from squandering vital resources on an unhealthy baby or dangerous, troublesome pregnancy. This is also why older women often lose their sex drives; after menopause their systems are essentially sending back error codes, saying “you can’t get pregnant, so don’t waste energy doing this.”
I’ll leave you with an analogy that I used once before in a comment thread almost two years ago. Imagine how a woman might react if somebody walked up to her in public and slapped a scoop of ice cream into her hand; she’d probably be pretty upset. It isn’t that she doesn’t like ice cream; it’s just that she doesn’t want a nasty scoop of cheap vanilla ice cream slapped into her previously-clean hand by some random stranger when she wasn’t even in the mood for dessert! She wants her favorite flavor of her preferred brand at the right time, served neatly in a cone or dish, maybe with sprinkles, and preferably eaten with someone whose company she enjoys. If any of those factors are wrong, her experience is lessened; and if more than a couple are wrong, she is much more likely to react with disgust than with pleasure.