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Men’s and Women’s (Not So) Different Attitudes about Romance and Sex

There is a common assumption that men and women are very different and perhaps originate from different planets. Although the “males and females are fundamentally different” narrative may be the prevailing opinion, it is science’s duty to determine whether these ideas are common sense or common nonsense. The “men and women are different” idea is perhaps most pervasive with respect to individuals’ thoughts about sex and romance. Common knowledge suggests that men are hypersexual and women are more reserved, but when it comes to romance, women are much more enthusiastic than men. Findings from survey research seem to support these general assumptions.1,2 With surveys, however, participants report their own feelings, so it may be that participants feel pressure to conform to existing stereotypes. Rather than ask men and women how they consciously feel, in order to get to their true feelings, two University of New Brunswick researchers measured participants’ unfiltered feelings by tapping into their automatic responses.3 The researchers hypothesized that participants unfiltered responses may not conform to existing stereotypes.

How They Did It

To test this, over 180 male and female college students completed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures implicit or unconscious attitudes by having participants make choices about stimuli they see on a screen. For example, if you were a participant, you would see the word “science” flash briefly on the screen and would be forced to make a snap judgment whether that concept applies more to males or females. The idea behind the IAT is that people aren’t always completely forthcoming about how they feel when directly asked. However, if you have them make decisions quickly, the amount of time it takes someone to make the decision (often measured in milliseconds) can reveal her or his true thoughts and feelings. The quicker a participant puts something in a category or group, the stronger the participant’s association between those two concepts. For more information on the IAT test, including a demonstration, click here.

In this study, researchers used the IAT by showing participants either romantic (e.g., couples holding hands walking into a sunset) or sexual (e.g., a couple having sex) pictures, which participants categorized as pleasant (e.g., ‘‘joy’’ and ‘‘beautiful’’) or unpleasant (e.g., ‘‘nasty’’ and ‘‘horrible’’). Participants also completed measures capturing their sexual opinions, desire for love and intimacy, their stereotypical masculinity/femininity, and questions about their personality.

What They Found

The researchers found that men and women both made stronger and quicker associations between romance pictures and “pleasant” than they did between sexual images and “pleasant.” Women’s positive associations with romance were stronger than men’s. In addition to looking at male/female differences, the researchers also examined whether there were differences based on personality. Overall, individuals who were less extroverted had a stronger preference for romantic stimuli. However, additional analyses revealed that women made the same associations regardless of their extraversion levels, but men who were low in extraversion preferred the romantic stimuli to the sexual images.  

What the Results Mean For You

The results of this study did not support previous findings that confirmed the common-sense notion that men strongly prefer sex to romance, which is likely the result of how researchers measured men’s attitudes. When men report their own feelings, they may confirm the highly sexualized male stereotype out of pride or simply because they think that is what others expect from them. The results also indicate that outgoing men may have a stronger preference for sex than men who are less outgoing, which suggests that if women desire a partner who has more positive feelings about romance, a less extroverted male may be best. Taken together, this study’s findings suggest that prevailing stereotypes about men and women’s attitudes toward sex and romance warrant further consideration.

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1Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality, 1993–2007. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 21–38.

2Hill, D. B. (2007). Differences and similarities in men’s and women’s sexual self-schemas. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 135–144.

3Thompson, A. E., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2012). Gender differences in associations of sexual and romantic stimuli: Do young men really prefer sex over romance? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(4), 949-957.  

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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Reader Comments (1)

That people would associate ‘‘joy’’ and ‘‘beautiful’’ with a couple holding hands more than a couple having sex doesn't really tell us about what men and women "prefer." It just tells us about the semantic/cognitive similarity of "joy" and hand-holding. If the "pleasant" terms had been "hot" and "sexy" I would assume people would have been described as having found the couple having sex as more "pleasant."

If you really want to look for the ways men and women might prioritize romance versus sex, you could ask them about their attitudes (sociosexuality), values, behaviors, and so forth. You could look at what people consume in the real world (e.g., prostitutes, pornography, romance novels). You could run experiments offering people in the real world opportunities for dates versus casual sex. You could collect data across dozens of cultures to see if any sex differences are universal. All of these more direct forms of assessment have been done, and typically find men, on average, do prioritize "sex" or short-term mating a little (sometimes a lot) more than women do.

Schmitt, D.P., Jonason, P.K., Byerley, G.J., Flores, S.D., Illbeck, B.E., O’Leary, K.N., & Qudrat, A. (2012). A reexamination of sex differences in sexuality: New studies reveal old truths. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 135-139.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid P. Schmitt
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