Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Gender differences in sexual motivation

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Gender differences in sexual motivation[edit source]

This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.
Completion status: this resource is considered to be complete.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Human sexual drive is a phenomenon that has puzzled researchers for decades. Categorising the myriad of components involved and pinpointing direct causes and influences has been the subject of difficulty for many years, and with good reason. The subjective nature of human motivation and sexual desire makes it difficult to clearly define sexual drive in humans as either environmental or physiological. While the Schacter-Singer theory states that human sexual motivation is based on the connection between cognitive interpretations of stimuli and physiological arousal, much research states trying to simplify the complexity of sexual motivation in humans can be limiting when trying to develop a true understanding of the nature of sexual desire and its implications on both males and females.

w:Motivation, according to Johnson (1997) is the "inferred need, desire or impulse which initiates, directs and sustains behaviour". In lower animals, sexual motivation is seen as a 'drive' or internal force that causes the animal to engage in reproductive behaviours. In humans however, the process has shown to be much more complex and intricate. Therefore, building on Johnson's definition, motivation in human's can be said to be a multifacetede relationship built on several factors as an "inferred, internal state influenced by several factors which determines engagement in sexual activity (Johnson, 1997; Coon, 1997). This article touches on some of the different influences of human w:sexual motivation, differing between males and females in an attempt to pinpoint both the key similarities and differences in sexual desire and the effect of these on sexual behaviours through the critical analysis of relevant theories, approaches and empirical evidence.

Motivation[edit | edit source]

What is motivation?[edit | edit source]

What is sexual motivation?[edit | edit source]

Gender Differences[edit | edit source]

Sexual Dimorphism[edit | edit source]

Sexual Organs & Reproductive Systems[edit | edit source]

Brain & Nervous System[edit | edit source]

Sensory Systems[edit | edit source]

Tissues & Hormones[edit | edit source]

Health[edit | edit source]

Methods of Data Collection & Landmark Studies[edit | edit source]

Main Influential Factors[edit | edit source]

Evolutionary[edit | edit source]

Sexual motivation has a clear evolutionary background, according to Klusmann (2006), due to its involvement in reproduction and group survival with patterns reflecting natural selection. Evolutionary analysis states that both men and women are said to have dissimilar physiological mechanisms underlying both sexual motivation and sexual, reproductive behaviours. Evolutionary psychologists hold the belief that the main influential component of sexual motivation is genetics and biological makeup, in which genes causing mating strategies to override all rational thought when seeking a mate and undertaking sexual behaviours (Chrisler & McCreary, 2010). This innate mechanism is what makes males search for a female that is young and attractive, while women seek out a powerful mate. This view is supported by current research involving thousands of unmarried African-American (36%) and white-Caucasian (64%) men and women, aged 19-35 asking them "How willing would you be to marry someone who..." with several hypothetical scenarios listed below. The difference between men and women and their sexual motivation is proposed by the Sexual Selection Theory. It states that different sexual motivations arise from different parental and purposeful motivations (Klusmann, 2006). For example, due to the eventual expiry of eggs, women treat each as an investment in which the child that would be born from the egg would be the focus of the mother's care and attention. Contrary to this, men appear to seek out multiple partners because of their seemingly limitless supply of sperm that provides a way for the male to reproduce and pass on their genes as much as possible, seeking out a physically attractive, young mate who is suitable for genetic and evolutionary success. Evolutionary Theory is criticised heavily for its lack of focus on other factors such as cultural, social, and learning. It is useful however, in creating a clear difference between the sexual motivations of both genders and identifying what the behaviours of both males and females are. Understanding why and interpreting these behaviours is what remains puzzling, that many suggest requires more information than that supplied by Evolutionary Theory alone.

Physiological[edit | edit source]

Socio-Cultural[edit | edit source]

Cognitive Social Learning Theory[edit | edit source]

Learning through reinforcement, punishment and observation provides a fundamental background to cognitive social learning theory. The process of choosing which behaviours to reinact is a cognitive decision making process, with reward for certain behaviours increasing the likelihood that those behaviours will be imitated. This theory is important because it attempts to explain not only the behaviours of heterosexuals, in which individuals are exposed to the behaviours of male-female relationships and behaviours, and in turn mimic them, but also homosexuals who are suggested to have been exposed to same-sex relationships. Unfortunately, empirical evidence rules out this theory in that a child who has same-sex parents is shown to be just as likely to be homosexual as a child with heterosexual parents. This theory does however, provide and further the ideas of evolutionary theory that gender differences between males and females are reflected in their behaviours, as women tend to show more compassion and romance in a partnerhsip, whilst a male is more likely to value a sexual commitment. The motivation expressed in the cognitive social learning theory, stems from the idea that the individual has learnt what their motivations should be by observing others in social settings, those they are familiar with such as family members, and in modern times, through the media (Chrisler & McCreary, 2010).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Glossary[edit | edit source]

Methods of Data Collection & Landmark Studies[edit | edit source]

Most research is done via surveys, self-reports and volunteers due to the private, personal nature of the topic. However, this leaves room for many errors either via socially-desired responses, unintentional errors or miscommunication or misunderstanding about what an individual may think motivates their behaviour. Also, often participants in these studies are seen as 'ungeneralisable' to the population as they are often much more outgoing about sex and related topics. Most studies are correlational, not causal as they cannot explain the relationship or why two factors correlate.

Kinsey Studies[edit | edit source]

The w:Kinsey studies (1953) were influential because of the nature of the questions that were asked as well as the extremely large (several thousand) number of participants who were involved in the research. The aim of the Kinsey studies was to uncover information about sexual behaviours such as what age they began, how often individuals engaged in sexual behaviours, and what types of behaviours did they engage in. It was found that the physiology of both sexes was quite similar, differing mainly in women's lesser sexual capacity. However, this study caused major uproar in the conservative times in which it was done, and disregarded effects of culture and learning on the results of their subject's behaviours.

Masters & Johnson[edit | edit source]

This study involved studying the physiological response to intercourse and proved the similarity of the sexual response between males and females, contradictory to what had been originally thought. Masters & Johnson (1966) suggested that due to the subjective responses each gender had to sexual intercourse, culture and learning played a significant role.

Relevance of these studies[edit | edit source]

Both of these studies are outdated and ungeneralisable as the participants included white, middle-class volunteers. However, these studies are important because they paved the way for future research to be done in which researchers could build on their results and fix their mistakes to find more relevant, updated, and accurate information about the sexual motivation, desires, and behaviours of individuals (Johnson, 1997)

Main Influential Factors Identified in Sexual Motivation[edit | edit source]

In earlier history, sexual motivation was considered to be an internalised 'program', installed into our minds and reflected in our culture, in which biological systems acted as the 'on switch' that the program required to run. Sociological theory in comparison to biological views of sexual desire and drive, was thought to be the only ideology that was able to explain the intricacy of individual everyday sexual motivation (Klusmann, 2006).

Now, as science develops and expands, it is clear that whilst the nature of this topic requires a deeper understanding and much more research, the cause is not so simplistic and in fact, comes from a number of sources that influence and interact with, as well as isolated from, each other (Reeve, 2009). The main ones identified are:

  • Neurological
  • Physiological
  • Cognitive
  • Socio-Cultural
  • Evolutionary
  • Humanistic
  • Psychoanalytic

Physiological[edit | edit source]

w:Hormones have shown to have an effect on sexual drive and motivation in both males and females. In lower animals, the sex drive, or "strength of one's motivation to engage in sexual behaviour" is directly the result of hormones (Coon & Mitterer, 2010), and as in humans, both sexes produce major hormones estrogens, progestin, and androgens; estrogen and progestin are produced at higher levels in females, and androgens in males. However, as one moves up the phylogenetic scale, many other elements become involved. Testosterone is associated with high sexual motivation and drive in males, as they increase physiological arousal. In fact, its strong influence on a high sex drive is evident in all research as women are never shown to have a higher, stronger sex drive than men (Baumeister, Catanese & Vohs, 2001). Women's sexual desire, however, is said to vary according to their menstrual cycle, which would indicate a clear evolutionary basis (Johnson, 1997). Sherwin, Gelfand & Brender completed a study with menopausal women, and women who had undergone a hysterectomy, which showed a clear increase in the intensity of sexual arousal and desire in participants due to the influence of androgens and therefore suggested that ovarian hormones dramatically influence female sexual desire. However, it has also been suggested that cognition plays a significant role in human sexual behaviour as the percieved pregnancy risk also influences specific sexual behaviours that individuals participate in. Hokanson (1969) states that hormones are the influence of sexual motivation, physiologically preparing one for sexual behaviour, but do not determine whether the individual behaves sexually. Furthermore, as stated by Wallen (2002), sexual behaviour is influenced by 3 main factors: hormonal state, social context, and cultural conventions.

w:Kaplan's 3-phase model is based on neurological mechanisms underlying the body's sexual desires and (dys)functioning. The first phase, the 'desire' phase, suggests that it is the brain system that is responsible for sexual drives and desires. The interaction of the limbic system and receptor cells, and the physiological system of electrical and chemical activity is what accounts for the sexual drive and desire in both males and females. What differs between genders is the sexual response they recieve.

Socio-Cultural[edit | edit source]

Many psychoanalyst's over time have attempted to modify Freud's neo-analytic theory in order to adapt it to modern sexual culture's and behaviours. It has been suggested that the sexual motivation of individual's begins to develop as infants when their main relationship is with their mother. By providing for the child's needs, individual's develop a strong connection to their mother which is reflected in their later life and percieved gender roles as adults (Choodorow, 1978). While women attempt to mimic the care their mother provided them with and often define themselves in relational terms, men tend to develop a masculinity, opposite to that of their mother. Similarly, their sexual motivations tend to develop at opposite spectrums, with the neo-analytic theory suggesting that while women value strong, romantic relationships with the other person, and their sexual motivation forms from the need to reproduce rather than to seek out pleasure, men are drive by the desire for a pleasurable experience rather than to reproduce or generate relational commitment (Chrisler & McCreary, (2010).

De Gaston, Weed & Jensen (1996) focused on gender differences in adolescent sexuality and from their research, proposed that differences in sexual motivation stems not from physiological factors, but behavioural, social and cognitive dynamics. Similarly to Chrisler & McCreary (2010), they believe this motivation branches from infancy and the intimacy of the individual's relationship with their mother. It is this relationship that has direct implications for both males and females sexual attitudes, motivations, behaviours and values as adults. Furthermore, the Gender Intensification Hypothesis proposed by Hill & Lynch (1983) believes that the behaviours displayed between mother and child is reflected in the adult's later life and their display of sexually-appropriate behaviours. The way women relate themselves to their mother's caring attitude and affection results in their seeking sexual relationships based on deep connection, whilst males tend to show a masculinity and are motivated towards sexually pleasurable experiences.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This article focuses on some of the physiological and behavioural differences of males and females and their sexual motivations, but mostly tries to uncover the reason for these differences. And just as it is difficult to distinctly separate each factor that influences sexual motivation, it is difficult to find a clear cause for why humans, both male and female behave the way they do and what motivates them to do so. The best solution is to encompass each factor and distinguish how they interact and influence each other. It is important to remember however, that sexual motivation and response is an extremely individual process as each individual varies in their physical, mental, and emotion reactions and behaviours to sexual stimulation. {{Hide in print

See Also


References[edit | edit source]

Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality & Social Psychology Review (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 5(3), 242-273. Retrieved from

Chrisler, J.C., & McCreary, D.R. (2010). Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology. Springer New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London. Pg 468-476.

Chodorow, N. (1978). The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Coon, D. (1997). Essentials of Psycholgoy: Exploration and Application, 7th Ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company

Coon, D., & Mitterer, J.O. (2010). Psychology: A Journal, 4ed. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

De Gaston, J F., Weed, S., & Jensen, L. (1996). Understanding gender differences in adolescent sexuality. Adolescence, 31

Hokanson, J.E. (1969). The Physiological Bases of Motivation. NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Johnson, K.M. (2007). Human Sexual Motivation. California State University, Northridge. Retrieved from

Kalat, J.W. (1996). Introduction to Psychology, 4th ed. Pacific Grove: CA Brooks/Cole Publishing Company

Klusmann, D. (2006). Evolutionary origins of human sexual motivation. As presented at Institute for Advanced Study, Delmenhorst, Germany on September 2006.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Wallen, K. (2001; 2002). Sex and context: Hormoness and primate sexual motivation. Hormones and Behaviour, 40(2), 339-357