By Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT
When comparing male and female sexuality, there's no shortage of adages: "Men are like light switches: just flip them on and they're ready to go. Women are like irons: plug them in and let them warm up."
Or, wait: Is it that men are like microwaves: just push a button to turn them on, and women are like Crock-Pots that need to simmer?
Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of "The Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms" writes that "men are like driving standard transmission, if you move through the gears in the right order, you will get where you want to go, and women are like baking a souffle, the outcome depends on the ingredients and the chef, sure, but it also depends on the reliability of the oven, the altitude, the humidity of the day... more variables, more variability."
Regardless of your metaphor of choice, the oversimplifications of male sexuality abound, as do the explanations:
Whatever the myth, we tend to view male sexuality as simple and female sexuality as complex. Maybe it's true.
Lately, there have been some really good books by really smart people that support this theory. In their book "Why Women Have Sex," for example, psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss purposely excluded men from their research.
"We do bring in men occasionally by way of contrast," they say, "but we wanted to focus exclusively on women so that the complexity of women's sexual psychology was not given short shrift, so to speak."
In the more recent book "A Billion Wicked Thoughts," neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed a billion web searches, a million websites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels in order to better understand the sexual differences between men and women.
They concluded that a single cue triggers arousal in the male brain, but women's brains require multiple cues to become aroused. "The male sexual brain is like a single toggle switch, whereas the female sexual brain is like the cockpit of an F1 fighter jet," Gaddam says. "There are tons of dials and instruments, and there's sophisticated calibration going on." Again, the switch/knob comparison.
But are men really that simple? And are women really so different?
In one of the first episodes of Sex and the City, Carrie wonders why, in an age where women often make the same money and enjoy the same successes as men, women can't enjoy sex like men? If men are capable of having sex without any meaning or attachment, why can't women?
Well, in my experience, women certainly can have sex like men, and as I've discussed in previous entries about women and porn and the rise of female infidelity, women are indeed doing just that.
But if women can have sex like men, then men are also capable of having sex like women: with complex motivations.
For example, when I talk to men who have cheated, some tell me they have done so simply for the sex or in the heat of the moment, but many, if not most, say they cheat for more complex reasons: because they were bored, emotionally disconnected in their relationship, depressed or seeking passion.
And while it would seem that men are ruled by the passions of their penis, there are actually just as many men with low sexual desire as there are women.
I also know plenty of women who don't like to cuddle after sex, and plenty of men who do. There are also lots of women who love casual sex, and plenty of men who want sex to be part of an emotionally committed relationship. In short, I know plenty of male "soufleés."
So is female sexuality is really more complicated than male sexuality? It depends on the individual woman, and how she's using sex at the time.
Same goes for the guys. There are times when sex (and our desires) are simple and times when they're more complex.
So is your sexuality like a light switch that goes on and off, or like a dimmer or volume knob that operates on a spectrum? More than likely, whether you're a man or a woman, it's both: You can be both switch or knob depending upon the context.
And sometime you're probably a complex souflée. In their book Why Women Have Sex, the authors found that women had sex for approximately 237 reasons, ranging from love to pure pleasure to a sense of duty to curiosity to curing a headache.
Why do men have sex? I haven't counted all the reasons men have sex, I bet I could get up to 237.