Single women with high sexual interest.
Key words: Women Sexual interest Sexual desire
Sexuality research has focused heavily on sex differences in sex-related parameters, and script theory has often been used to account for these differences (McCormick, 1979). Three major concepts dealt with in discussions of sexual scripting are sexual desire, sexual permissiveness and sexual costs.
The traditional sexual script for women has imposed or implied sexual passivity and disinterest (Daniluk, 1993). According to Hurlbert (1991), women in Western societies are restricted in gaining sexual experience, are taught to focus on male satisfaction during sexual relations, and are discouraged from expressing their sexual needs and desires. Women have been socialized to protect themselves against sexual pressures (Holland, Ramazanoglu, Sharpe & Thomson, 1992) and sex interest and initiative has been stereotyped as a male goal, while avoiding sex, or controlling access, as the female goal (McCormick, 1979). Women are given messages that goodness and sexual enjoyment are incongruent experiences which do not fit into the female role (Daniluk, 1993). According to Ogden (1994) whose book focused on interviews with women who like sex, the message that "nice girls don't" still exists, with highly sexual females placed in roles as outcasts such as prostitute or slut.
Despite these stereotypes, over the last three decades, researchers have reported an increase of sexual permissiveness, and premarital intercourse has become common and acceptable for females, as well as for males (Tanfer & Schoorl, 1992). This social change, referred to as "the sexual revolution", lead to a dramatic increase in premarital sexual activity in North America. The relaxation of societal constraints has allowed women to adopt attitudes more closely resembling those of their male counterparts (Moore & Rosenthal, 1992).
Despite these changes, some authors observe that women's desire for sex appears to be more influenced than men's by cultural and psychological factors (Demartino, 1974). Moore and Rosenthal (1992) found that most respondents in their study on the social context of adolescent sexuality believed that women had better control over their sexual drives than men, either because they were more responsible or because they had weaker sex drives to begin with. The greater societal constraints placed on female sexuality have led to the belief that women have a low desire for sex. Yet research has shown that not all males have strong sex drives, and that many women have sex drives that equal or exceed the average male's (McCormick, 1994).
Denney, Field and Quandagno's (1984) study of sex differences in sexual needs and desires concluded that women's sexual interactions are often arranged to fulfil men's desires, and that men are frequently uninformed regarding women's sexual desires. They also noted that women were more likely to be dissatisfied with the typical sexual encounter because men were more likely to be "in control", and therefore to neglect women's needs (Denney et al., 1984). Holland et al. (1992) found it unusual for the women in their study to discuss sex in terms of their own pleasure. Carroll, Volk and Hyde (1985) concluded that physical pleasure in a sexual encounter often creates ambivalent feelings for women. Few women in their study on motives for engaging in sex gave pleasure as a primary reason.
Fine (1988) argues that sex education in many schools suppresses a discourse of sexual desire, and promotes a discourse of victimization. Young women are taught to fear and defend, not to explore desire and sexual pleasure. Sex education curricula accept male adolescent sexual desire; however, girls are taught to recognize and resist the sexual desire of males, and not taught to acknowledge or recognize their own sexual desires (Tolman, 1994). Fine (1988) states that the absence of a discourse of desire may actually impede the development of sexual empowerment of females.
Although women's desire has generally received limited attention in the research literature, there has been an increasing emphasis on female sexual rights and desires in liberal feminist writings. Liberal feminists advocate greater sexual freedom and pleasure for women, and seek to remove restrictions interfering with women's sexual autonomy and gratification (McCormick, 1994). Tisdale (1994) emphasized the need for sexual empowerment to allow women to make their own choices. The idea of promoting sexual rights and pleasure for women is supported by many liberal feminists (Holland et al., 1992; Jackson, 1983; McCormick, 1994). McCormick (1994) notes that by rejecting traditional sexual scripts and following pro-feminist goals associated with sexual autonomy and pleasure, many women have developed a strong personal enjoyment of sex despite their socialization. Hurlbert's (1991) study of the differences between sexually assertive and sexually non-assertive women found that sexually assertive women were more likely to report higher frequencies of sexual activity and orgasms, rated themselves as having higher subjective sexual desire, and reported greater satisfaction in their marital and sexual lives.
Are the potential "costs of sex" higher for women than for men, and do these potential costs (e.g., pregnancy, safety, reputation etc.) inhibit the nurturing and development of desire? Women continue to be raised with an awareness of the potential costs of sex and are still, to a considerable extent, given the responsibility of avoiding these costs. Fears surrounding this responsibility have influenced women's motives for engaging or not engaging in sexual intercourse (Carroll et al., 1983). For example, a survey of patrons at bars in Ontario found that women were more likely than men to decline sexual opportunities because of concern about STDs (Herold & Mewhinney, 1993). Although, these women had as many sex partners as the men, they were less likely to anticipate having casual sex, and reported more guilt and less enjoyment about causal sex than did the men. Similarly, Phillis and Gromko (1985) found that women are more constrained by feelings of guilt associated with their sexual behaviours than are men. Sprecher, Barbee & Schwartz's (1995) study on emotional reactions to first intercourse found that young women reported stronger feelings of guilt than pleasure.
OBJECTIVES OF THE PRESENT STUDY
Despite the emphasis on sexual pleasure for women espoused by liberal feminists, most sexuality research has focused on women who follow the traditional sexual scripts. We have less knowledge of women who do not follow these scripts. The objective of this exploratory study was to investigate a sample of non-traditional heterosexual women who emphasize the importance of sex in their lives, and who have considerable sexual experience. Our goal was to test three general hypotheses about the relationship between a woman's ranking of the importance of sex in her life and her self-reported sexual desire, sexual permissiveness and perception of sexual costs. We hypothesized that women who considered sex to be highly important in their lives would: (a) be more sexually permissive; (b) have greater sexual desire; and (c) be less concerned with the potential costs of sex. We further hypothesized that levels of sexual permissiveness and perceptions of the costs of sex were more likely to be outcomes of high valuations of the importance of sex, rather than causes. In contrast, we assumed that the cause-effect relationship between sexual desire and ranking of the importance of sex would be unclear, but possibly bi-directional. Based on these general hypotheses, we tested specific hypotheses in three categories.
(1) PERMISSIVENESS Hypotheses: Women with the highest rankings for the importance of sex in their lives would be more sexually experienced, more likely to have had an affair, less likely to be satisfied by one partner for the rest of their lives, more open about discussing their sexual experiences with close female friends, more likely to have sex sooner after meeting a new partner, and more likely to have first had sex at a younger age.
(2) SEXUAL DESIRE Hypotheses: Women with the highest rankings of the importance of sex in their lives would believe they have a stronger sex drive than other women, would have sex more often, desire to have sex more often, enjoy periods of celibacy less, experience periods of intense sexual frustration more and be more likely to state that the size of a partner's penis had an effect on their pleasure.
(3) PERCEPTIONS OF THE COSTS OF SEX Hypotheses: Women with the highest ranking of the importance of sex in their lives would have less sexual guilt, less fear of STDs, less concern of being talked about, less concern about getting a "loose" reputation, and less concern about being compared with other women.
SAMPLING PROCEDURES Study participants were obtained using two different types of sampling pools, volunteers from social science classes at a Canadian university and an Australian university, and attendees at sexuality conferences in the United States. Announcements stated that this was a study of women and sexuality in which volunteers would be asked to complete a questionnaire. The announcement specifically encouraged participation of women who were older than their early 20s. Findings for the 51 respondents who were not currently married are reported here.
DEMOGRAPHICS Relationship status was measured by asking, "What is your present marital status?", with response categories: (1) single; (2) living together; (3) married; (4) separated; (5) divorced; or (6) widowed. For those who were not presently married, dating status was measured by, "If not married, what is your present dating situation with men?" The response categories were: (1) not dating; (2) dating more than one person; (3) steady relationship with one person; or (4) engaged.
MEASURE OF THE IMPORTANCE OF SEX The question, "How important is sex in your life?" had four response options: (1) not important; (2) fairly important; (3) very important; or (4) extremely important.
MEASURE OF SEXUAL "PERMISSIVENESS" The questions, "Approximately how many men have you had intercourse with?" and "How many men have you had intercourse with only once?" allowed openended responses. The question, "Have you had sexual intercourse with another man when you were in love with someone else?" had two response categories: "yes" or "no". The question, "Would one partner be able to satisfy you sexually for the rest of your life?" had four response categories: (1) definitely yes; (2) probably yes; (3) probably not; and (4) definitely not. The question, "In beginning a new relationship when would you typically first have sex?" allowed the responses: (1) first date; (2) the second or third date; and (3) after several dates. The question, "Do you discuss your sexual experiences with your close female friends?" included response options of: (1) not at all; (2) yes, only in general terms; (3) yes, in some detail; and (4) yes, in great detail.
SEXUAL DESIRE The item, "Do you think your sex drive is (1) weaker than that of other women, (2) the same as that of other women or (3) stronger than that of most women" was used to measure women's sexual desire. Desired sexual frequency was measured with the item "How many times a week would you like to have sex with a partner?" Frequency of sex was measured by "Currently, about how many times a week do you have sex with a partner?" Age at first intercourse was measured with "Age at first intercourse." These three measures were left open-ended. Acceptance of celibacy was measured by, "Do you enjoy periods of celibacy where you don't engage in sexual relations for 2 months or longer?" Response categories were "yes" or "no". Sexual frustration was measured by, "Have you ever experienced times of intense sexual frustration?" Response categories were: (1) never; (2) yes, occasionally; (3) yes, sometimes; or (4) yes, many times. The effect of penis size on sexual pleasure was measured with, "Does the size of a man's penis affect your sexual pleasure?" The response categories were: (1) yes, a longer one is more pleasurable; (2) yes, a thicker one is more pleasurable; (3) yes, a smaller one is more pleasurable; or (4) no, size has no effect on pleasure.
POTENTIAL COSTS OF SEX Six items measured the potential costs of sex. Sexual guilt was measured by, "How often do you feel guilty about your sexual behaviour?" The responses were: (1) never; (2) seldom; (3) sometimes; or (4) often. The potential cost of STDs was measured by two items: "How worried are you about getting a sexually transmitted disease?" and "Has fear of getting a sexually transmitted disease ever stopped you from having sex with a new partner?" Four choices provided for the first item were: (1) not worried; (2) a little worried; (3) moderately worried; or (4) very worried. The response categories for the second item were: "no" or "yes". The fear of being talked about was measured by, "Have you ever worried about a sexual partner talking about you to others?" Fear about getting a reputation was measured by, "Have you ever worried about getting a `loose' reputation?" These two measures had the response categories: (1) never; (2) yes, rarely; or (3) yes, often. The item, "Do you ever worry that a sexual partner might be comparing you with previous partners?" was used to measure concern over being compared, and had the response choices "no" or "yes".
Fifty-one not currently married women in this analysis included 63% never married, 10% separated, 25% divorced and 2% widowed. The mean age of the sample was 30.1 with ages ranging from 19 to 49. Eighteen percent were not dating, 45% were dating more than one person, and 33% were in a steady relationship or were engaged. All of the women had experienced sexual intercourse. The mean age at first intercourse was 17.7, with the ages for first intercourse ranging from 14 to 22.
In this sample of unmarried women, 31% felt sex was an extremely important part of their lives, 43% felt sex was very important, and 26% of the women felt sex was fairly important. No one indicated that sex was not important.
SEXUAL ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS Women's responses to questions about their sexual attitudes and behaviours have been tabulated according to their relevance to our hypotheses about the relationships between "importance of sex" and: (1) sexual "permissiveness" (Table 1); (2) sexual desire (Table 2); and (3) concerns about the "costs of sex" (Table 3). The main findings are summarized below.
(1) Most of the women had extensive sexual experience as indicated by the high number of sexual partners and the high number of casual sex partners. A high percentage had experienced sexual relationships with one man when they were in love with another. Almost all had discussed their sexual experiences with close female friends, although in varying degrees of detail (Table 1).
(2) One-half of the women reported that they thought their sex drive was stronger than that of other women. Most did not enjoy periods of celibacy and almost all had experienced times of intense sexual frustration (Table 2).
(3) While most were concerned about the possibility of contracting an STD, most were not concerned about getting a "loose" reputation and most seldom or never felt guilty about sex (Table 3).
HYPOTHESIS TESTING Pearson correlations were used to analyze the relationships between the women's ratings of the importance of sex in their lives and the predictor variables previously summarized in Tables 1-3. A one-tailed test of significance was used with a .05 significance level. The results of this analysis are presented in Table 4.
SEXUAL "PERMISSIVENESS" As predicted, importance of sex was significantly correlated with time before having sex with a new partner (r=.35) and likelihood of having had sex with one man when in love with another) (r=.31). Importance of sex showed no correlation with the other parameters categorized under "sexual `permissiveness"' (Table 4).
SEXUAL DESIRE As predicted, importance of sex was significantly correlated with sex drive (r=.42) and with current frequency of sexual activity, and negatively correlated with enjoyment of periods of celibacy (r=-.31). It was not correlated with the other parameters categorized under "sexual desire".
PERCEPTION OF THE COSTS OF SEX Importance of sex was significantly correlated with fear of being compared (r=-.28) and sexual guilt (r=-.24). As predicted, women's perceptions of the other potential costs of sex (fear of STDs, fear of being talked about, fear of getting a "loose" reputation) were not significantly correlated with the importance of sex.
Contrary to the traditional script but consistent with other findings (e.g., Herold & Mewhinney, 1993), the majority of the women in this study indicated that sex was a very important part of their lives. While this finding is consistent with the emphasis that some liberal feminists have placed on sexual empowerment for women, the sampling procedure does not permit generalization either to most heterosexual women or to lesbians.
Within this sample, women who gave high ratings for the importance of sex in their lives had higher scores on measures of sexual permissiveness and sexual desire, and lower scores on some measures of their perceptions of sexual costs. For most of these correlations, it is not easy to determine cause-effect relationships. For example, the significant correlation between self-rated importance of sex and strength of sexual desire could imply that perceived importance enhances sex drive, that strong sex drive reinforces perceived importance, or that they each influence each other bidirectionally. Perhaps women who rank sex higher in importance in their lives feel more empowered in the sexual domain, and are therefore less inclined to adhere to the traditional sexual script. For example, Apt and Hurlbert (1992) found that women who held a positive attitude toward sex were more likely to have an active desire and be easily aroused.
The general absence of a genuine discourse about desire, particularly in the education of young women, has deprived women of support to explore what feels good and bad, desirable and undesirable (Fine, 1988). Although young women speak unequivocally of experiences of sexual desire, their experiences reflect a struggle around what to do with their sexual desire, given the competing potentials for pleasure and the threats of danger/costs (Tolman, 1994). We know too little about sexual desire in young women, although perceptions of cost are not solely age-related.
At least some of the older women in our study also felt constrained by their perceptions of some of the costs of sex, specifically sexual guilt and the fear of being compared. These constraints were less strongly perceived by women who ranked sex high in importance in their lives. The increase in sexual permissiveness and premarital sex in the last few decades has allowed women more freedom with their sexuality with less worry about the costs/constraints (Tanfer & Schoorl, 1992). Hendrick and Hendrick (1987) found that women who held a more positive attitude towards sex were less troubled by sexual guilt. Our findings also showed that women who felt less constrained by the costs of sex also placed high value on its importance in their lives. These findings should not be taken to imply that the burden of protection does not still fall heavily on women. For example, Herold and Mewhinney (1993) found that women were more likely than men to decline sexual opportunities because of concern about STDs. That constraint was also prominent in the present study, although the other costs were much less so.
Table 1 Percentage distribution of responses to sexual attitude and behaviour questions chosen to reflect degree of sexual "permissiveness" (n=51 women). Attitudes and Percent Behaviours Approximately how many men have you had intercourse with? 1-2 10 3-5 8 6-10 15 11+ 67 How many men have you had intercourse with only once? 1-2 41 3-5 21 6-10 18 11+ 20 Have you had sexual intercourse with another man when you were in love with someone else? Yes 65 No 35 Would one partner be able to satisfy you sexually for the rest of your life? Definitely yes 6 Probably Yes 63 Probably No 29 Definitely No 2 In beginning a new relationship, when would you typically first have sex? 1st date 13 2nd-3rd date 42 Several dates 45 Do you discuss your sexual experiences with your close female friends? Not at all 2 General detail 29 Some detail 47 Great detail 22 Table 2 Percentage distribution of responses to sexual attitude and behaviour questions chosen to reflect degree of sexual desire (n=51 women). Sexual Desire Variables Percent Do you think your sex drive is Weaker than other women 2 Same as other women 48 Stronger than most women 50 How many times a week would you like to have sex with a partner? 1-2 8 3-4 43 5+ 49 Currently, about how many times a week do you have sex with a partner? 0 33 1-2 33 3+ 33 Do you enjoy periods of celibacy where you don't engage in sexual relations for 2 months or longer? No 61 Yes 39 Have you ever experienced times of intense sexual frustration? Never 10 Occasionally 31 Sometimes 35 Many times 24 Does the size of a man's penis affect your sexual pleasure? (1) Effect pleasure 38 No effect on pleasure 62 (1) The response categories (1) yes, a longer one is more pleasurable and (2) yes, a thicker one is more pleasurable were collapsed into the response Effects Pleasure. The response category (3) yes, a smaller one is more pleasurable was deleted as less than 2% of the sample responded with this choice. The response category (4) no, size has no effect on pleasure was re-coded into the response No effect on pleasure. Table 3 Percentage distribution of responses to sexual attitude and behaviour questions chosen to reflect degree of concern about potential costs of sex (n=51 women). Cost Variables Percent How often do you feel guilty about your sexual behaviour? Never 35 Seldom 33 Sometimes 28 Often 4 How worried are you about getting a sexually transmitted disease? Not worried 20 A little worried 39 Moderately worried 28 Very worried 14 Has fear of getting a sexually transmitted disease ever stopped you from having sex with a new partner? No 67 Yes 33 Have you ever worried about a sexual partner talking about you to others? Never 45 Rarely 49 Often 6 Have you ever worried about getting a "loose" reputation? No 63 Yes, rarely 25 Yes, often 12 Do you ever worry that a sexual partner might be comparing you with previous partners? No 69 Yes 31 Table 4 Pearson Correlations between predictor variables and respondents' rankings on the importance of sex in their lives (n=51 women). Predictor Variables r Approximately how .04 many men have you had intercourse with? How many -.05 men have you had intercourse with only once? Have you .31 (1) had sexual intercourse with another man when you were in love with someone else? Would one -.10 partner be able to satisfy you sexually for the rest of your life? In beginning a .35 (1) new relationship, when would you typically first have sex? Do you discuss .18 your sexual experiences with your close female friends? Age at .08 first intercourse Do you .42 (1) think your sex drive is... How many .22 times a week would you like to have sex with a partner? Currently, about .42 (1) how many times a week do you have sex with a partner? Do you enjoy -.31 (1) periods of celibacy where you don't engage in sexual relations for 2 months or longer? Have you .19 ever experiences times of intense sexual frustration? Does the .13 size of a man's penis affect your sexual pleasure? How often -.24 (1) do you feel guilty about your sexual behaviour? How worried .05 are you about getting a sexually transmitted disease? Has fear -.16 of getting a sexually transmitted disease ever stopped you from having sex with a new partner? Have you ever -.12 worried about a sexual partner talking about you to others? Have you -.02 ever worried about getting a "loose" reputation? Do you ever -.28 (1) worry that a sexual partner might be comparing you with previous partners? Note: (1) p<.05
The strongly accepting sexual attitudes and behaviours of the women in our sample may be due, in part, to the fact that they are older (mean age 30) than the usual study populations of university or high school students. For example, Demartino (1974) argued that younger women are more affected by feelings of guilt, fear and reluctance, all of which result from cultural taboos and inexperience, than are older women. Similarly, Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin and Gebhard (1953) reported that women did not reach their sexual "peak" until they were in their thirties. While younger women might be in a stage of exploration and evaluation of their sexuality, our sample may have had time to develop greater acceptance and empowerment in the sexual domain. Given the breadth of their sexual experiences, these women would also have learned what they liked and disliked sexually, and how to act on that knowledge. These observations reinforce the need for contemporary researchers to focus more on women who are beyond their early twenties.
We are aware that the women who volunteered for our study probably hold more liberal sexual attitudes than those who chose not to participate. Sampling or volunteer bias is a major concern in sex research. Volunteers tend to be more sexually liberal, evidence less sexual guilt, are more sexually curious, and place a higher value on sex research (Catania, 1990). Sexually conservative people are far less likely to participate in sex research (McCormick, 1994). These observations may explain, in part, why the women in this sample seemed generally unconstrained by the potential costs of sex. Our sampling methods may also have biased the results, as volunteers were recruited from sexuality conferences and university classes. Indeed, this bias was to some extent intentional, as we wanted strong representation of women who considered sex to be a very important part of their lives. This is not a demographic study.
Given the bias toward homogeneity within our sample, it is perhaps surprising that we found a number of significant relationships (7 of 19 parameters) between importance of sex and the predictor variables. A larger and more heterogeneous sample might have revealed more such associations.
Another limitation of this study may have been the use of single item measurements. Future research should employ sexual desire scales to measure women's sexual desire, should expand the context beyond heterosexual relationships, and should include questions on masturbation or other behaviours that might reflect desire independent of interaction with a partner.
Future research should also focus on the characteristics of women who feel they have higher sexual desire than most other women. Since many women's sex drives are similar to or higher than men's (McCormick, 1994), comparison of high sex drive individuals of both sexes might also be informative.
Our preliminary study has identified some characteristics of a subset of women within the general population who place very high importance on sex in their lives, and who differ from most other women with respect to sexual desire, sexual permissiveness, and their attitudes regarding the costs of sexual behaviour. These women appear to have rejected at least some of the traditional stereotypes for women's sexual behaviour. Further research on such women may broaden our understanding of the acquisition and modification of sexual scripts.
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|Author:||Kymberly J. Sloggett; Edward S. Herold|
|Publication:||The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1996|
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