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An Overview of Sexuality and Gender

A general overview of different topics related to sexuality highlighting gender similarities and differences. All of these phenomenon are impacted by biological, social, cultural and evolutionary factors. Two theories that are particularly relevant are social constructionist theory and the essentialism theory. Social constructionist theory defines gender as a cultural creation and argues against the essentialist theory and biological theories. Essentialist theory defines gender as a stable characteristic of an individual.[1] Tolman and Diamond’s research suggests that a more modern study would be to take in to account socio/cultural/political aspects and biology in order to study sexuality and gender.[2]

Sexual Desire[edit]

Sexual Desire is the “sum of forces that lean us toward and away from sexual behaviour”.[3] Alternatively, Sex Drive is the strength of sexual motivation [4]

Studying Sexual Desire[edit]

The best way to study sexual desire is still debated in the literature. The social constructionist theory regards sexual desire as shaped by culture and socialization while the essentialist view proposes that definitive forms of sexuality will remain constant throughout situational factors.[5] One group of researchers believes that looking at sexual desire emerging from purely biological or purely sociocultural factors is incorrect. Instead they propose that you must take both into account to look at factors affecting sexual desire.[2]

Gender Differences in Sexual Desire[edit]

One study found that females’ sexual desires are more responsive to cultural influences than males; in other words they have greater erotic plasticity. This means that females’ sexual desires can be shaped by social, cultural and situational factors. The exception to this is that men go through a flexible phase during childhood where their experiences shape their sexual desire preferences in the future [6] Men also have more frequent and more intense sexual desires than women.[4]

Sexual Arousal[edit]

Sexual arousal has been viewed in the literature as a dichotomy between men and women. Men often have category specific responding and a high concordance rate. For example, men responded most to stimuli depicting their preferred gender.[7][8] A high concordance rate among men means that men report subjective arousal at the same time as their genitals are showing arousal. For women it is a very different pattern. Women show non-specific category responding [7]. This means that women showed genital arousal to non-preferred stimuli as well as preferred stimuli. Although their genitals showed arousal, women do not report feeling aroused so their concordance rates are low. Sexual activity is the most salient feature for women whereas the gender of actor was the most salient feature for men. This gender difference was found to be consistent over time.[9] Some researchers argue that this non-specificity is an automatic response to sexual stimuli to avoid pain during intercourse. This could be an evolutionary adaptation to avoid tears during unwanted sexual intercourse.[10]

Sexual Arousal Disorders[edit]

Sexual arousal disorders seem to be more prevalent in females than in males. Persistent genital arousal disorder is a disorder that affects some females; it is defined as physiological arousal which does not go away. Sexual arousal disorders often present with other sexual problems.[11] The sexual dysfunction disorder criteria in the Diagnostic Statistics Manual (DSM) based on Kaplan’s model, especially for females, is unsatisfactory when it comes to defining the disorders and treating it. The current DSM splits female sexual dysfunction disorders by desire, arousal, and orgasm disorder although these three are not clearly defined. Some researchers have proposed that the new DSM merge the desire and arousal disorders into one.[12] Treatment of arousal disorders has been expanding to include attentional focus as a way to enhance sexual arousal.[13]

Hormones and Sexuality[edit]

Hormones have organizational and activational effects on the body. Organizational effects can be defined as occurring early in development and having a permanent effect. Activational effects occur throughout a person’s life and can have temporary effects.[14]


Hormones play a role in controlling sexuality, although it is much more complicated in humans than animal research would have us believe. Gonadal hormones affect most animals’ ability to copulate but in primates it actually influences sexual motivation. Male primates with increased pubertal testosterone are more motivated to engage in sex but eliminating testosterone in adulthood reduced sexual motivation but does not eliminate it.[15] Testosterone is also a dependent component of women’s sexuality.[10]Women with higher testosterone levels also have a higher sex drive.[16]Testosterone levels have been linked to sociosexuality in which men and women in relationships, with testosterone levels similar to single men and women, report a desire for uncommitted sexual activity.[17]

Ovulation cycle and hormones[edit]

Women’s sexual desire is influenced by hormones. In the ovulation cycle, women (not on hormonal contraceptives) report an increase in sexual desire which peaks at ovulation. After menopause (when ovulation is no longer occurring) women experience a decrease in desire which can be restored with estradiol and testosterone treatments.[18] Also, women during ovulation preferred the scent of men with symmetrical faces.[19] Similarly, men’s testosterone levels increased when smelling shirts with ovulating women’s scent.[20]

Mating Preferences[edit]


Sociosexuality refers to a person’s willingness to have sex outside of a committed relationship. Low sociosexuality refers to a person who is more monogamous and restricted while high sociosexuality refers to an individual who is more promiscuous or unrestricted. Sociosexuality varies across cultures. More demanding environment have more sex differences in sociosexuality and cultures with economic and political gender equality have less.[21] This effect is seen because men have consistently higher sociosexuality than women across cultures but women’s sociosexuality increased with equality.[1] Participants in one study were actually able to identify high and low sociosexuality based on facial composites with high sociosexuality being associated with high attractiveness in females and high masculinity in males.[22]


The innate modular theory of jealousy argues that men should be primarily jealous over sexual infidelity and women over emotional infidelity for evolutionary reasons. Other researchers argue against this notion arguing that these sex differences do not actually exist. They claim that social cognitive theory is a better explanation for why jealousy occurs: 1) relationship rewards are threatened, 2) when some aspect of a person’s self-concept is threatened.[23] Men who viewed sperm competition (video of two males and one woman) had more motile sperm in their ejaculate, potentially to fight against infidelity.[24]

Sexual Coercion[edit]

Evolutionary theories have been proposed for why men rape but little has been proven conclusively. Some researchers argue that we must define different types of rape in order to understand why it happens. Similarly, it has been argued that women have evolved evolutionary mechanisms to avoid being raped.[25] An additional study illustrated an increase of violence against men correlated with women gaining power in society.[26]

Sexual Orientation[edit]

Main article: Sexual orientation

The degree of sexual attraction to either men or women [27] and is generally defined by four categories: heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. Research suggests that sexual orientation is a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences[28] and must be measured by a multitude of dimensions including attractions, behaviours, and identities.

The social constructivist perspective argues that sexuality is a fluid and dynamic property that can only be understood by the analysis of socio-political contexts as well as narrative and linguistic “scripts” [27]. Therefore, gender roles in Western society are much more rigid for males than for females which could account for the tendency for men to be more stable in their sexual attractions. Current research is investigating the role of brain dominance in sexual orientation. It is established that the brains of gay men show several similarities with the brains of heterosexual women in many respects and likewise, the brains of lesbian women show areas of similarity to those of heterosexual men[29]. Furthermore, research has also shown links between prenatal hormones and sexual orientation. Biological and physiological factors like hormone levels in fetal development may contribute to differences in fluidity of sexual orientation. In addition, studies have demonstrated a relationship between fraternal birth order and sexual orientation. Findings suggest homosexual men have a greater number of older brothers than heterosexual men. In both sexes, homosexuality is strongly associated with childhood gender nonconformity; homosexual men recall being feminine boys and homosexual women recall being masculine girls. Therefore, gender nonconforming behaviours appear to be specific to childhood sex-defined activities and interests [27].

Sexual Arousal[edit]

Main article: Sexual arousal

Laboratory studies conducted have demonstrated it is not uncommon for straight-identified people to be at least slightly aroused by the idea of same-sex relations[30]. The most prominent gender difference in sexual orientation is the greater erotic plasticity in females and the more specific genital arousal pattern seen in males relative to their sexual orientation. In particular, women have been shown to report more bisexual attractions than men. Sexual orientation is characterized by a bipolar distribution related to fraternal birth order in males while in females distribution is more variable and females are less prone to exclusive homosexuality [27]. Women are more subject to change the direction of their sexual attraction based on contextual and situational factors. On the contrary, men show category specificity in their responding. For example, men who report heterosexuality in their sexual attractions are more likely to show genital arousal specifically to heterosexual stimuli. Social constructivist theorists believe sexual arousal differences may also be a result of gender-specific social learning.

Sex Drive[edit]

Main article: Sex Drive

Sex drive and organization of sexual orientation appear to be different in men and women [1]. For women, high sex drive is associated with increased sexual attraction to both men and women[1]. In men, high sex drive is associated with increased sexual attraction to only one sex or the other, depending on the individual's sexual orientation.

Transgender Sexuality[edit]

Main Article: Transgender sexuality

Transsexualism refers to individuals that have a sustained gender identity incongruent with their biological sex and have a desire to change their bodily appearance in order to achieve congruence [31]. The closely related term, transgenderism, more broadly defines individuals who do not conform to stereotyped gender roles (e.g. cross-dressers, transvestites, or genderqueer individuals).

Research has identified three genes that appear to be associated with sexual differentiation of brain structures related to transsexualism. Male-to-Female (MtF) transsexuals differ on the androgen receptor gene, which implies a greater likelihood of reduced sensitivity to androgens [31]. In addition, studies have provided evidence for a relationship between individuals with gender-variant identities, and poor or absent parental relationships, childhood, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as parental encouragement of gender-variance [31].

Sexual orientation[edit]

Main Article: Sexual orientation

Generally, transsexual individuals receive sexual orientation labels based on their biological sex[7].

Male-to-female transsexuals can be distinguished by two different groups: 1) androphilic (exclusive attraction to males) and 2) non-androphilic (not having an exclusive attraction to males). Studies have found androphilic MtF transsexuals have a greater number of siblings than both non-androphilic transsexuals and female-to-Male (FtM) transsexuals [31]. Additionally, researcher Ray Blachard[32] proposed that MtF transsexuals can be categorized by an exclusive sexual attraction to men, “homosexual”, or a sexual attraction to the thought or image of themselves as female, “autogynephilia”.

Autogynephilia is defined as the propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of oneself as female[33]. It is unique to MtF transsexuals and some researchers believe it can be expressed as a category of sexual orientation and variety of romantic love that involves both erotic and affectional or attachment-based elements [33]. MtF transsexuals have reported in surveys that they experience hundreds of episodes of autogynephilia before sex reassignment surgery (SRS), but this number is greatly reduced after receiving SRS [34]. In contrast, many MtF transsexuals are highly offended by Blanchard's autogeynephilic theory and vehemently dispute it, denying any experiences of autogynephilic arousal [33].

Female-to-male transsexual research has shown that individuals exposed to male-typical prenatal androgen levels but are assigned female at birth are more likely to report gender dysphoria and/or reassign their gender. In addition, this group seldom experiences cross-gender eroticism [7].

Gender Identity Disorder (GID)[edit]

Main Article: Gender identity disorder

GID is defined as a mental disorder in the DSM that requires an individual to exhibit strong and persistent cross-gender identification and this condition must cause clinically significantly distress or impair functioning[35]. There must be a strong and persistent desire in the individual to engage in gender-specific activities of the opposing sex and a discomfort with the individual's own biological sex. Researchers have inquired as to whether or not GID is really a mental disorder, particularly based on evidence from the fa'afafine of Samoa. The fa'afafine live in a culture remarkably tolerant of feminine males[35]. Researchers found that the fa'afafine frequently engaged in cross-gender behaviours as children and did not conceptualize femininity in males as an indicator of mental disorder. In addition, the fa'afafine did not recall distress resulting from their cross-gender behaviours or identities. These results indicate that distress coinciding with gender-atypicality will vary within and between cultures and may exist as a secondary product of social condemnation [35].

Sexual Variations/Paraphilias[edit]

Main Article: Paraphilia

Paraphilias are unusual erotic interests that are generally classified by two principles dimensions: unusual erotic target preferences and unusual sexual activity preferences[36]. Paraphilias have been observed to occur almost exclusively in men and only rarely in women[37] .

Causes of paraphilic sexual preferences in men are unclear, however research indicates the potential impact of prenatal neurodevelopmental factors[38]. Several studies suggest an association between later fraternal birth order and same-sex preference among male pedophiles[39] .

Evidence for the role of psychosocial factors can be seen in studies that show relationships between "paraphilic-like behaviours" and psychological problems, lower satisfaction with life, increased drug and alcohol use, more sexual partners, greater sexual arousability, higher use of pornography, and an elevated number of sexual partners[40] .


Main Article: Pedophilia

Pedophilia is defined as a sexual attraction to prepubescent children through recurrent and persistent sexual thoughts, fantasies, urges, arousal, or behaviour[41] and is the most frequently studied pedophilia [40]. Pedophilia is rare among women, and sex differences in sexual response and behaviour suggest pedophilia has a different manifestation in women[42]. However, as a result of cultural and societal expectations for male, the number of female pedophiles is likely underrepresented since a sexual encounter between a young boy and adult women is not perceived as negatively[43] .

Some individuals report an early onset of sexual interest in children that precedes sexual behaviour involving children or self-identification as a pedophile[41]. Many sex offenders admit to having “deviant sexual fantasies” prior to committing their first offenses. This early age of onset is consistent with the general age of onset of sexual gender orientation [41]. Studies have also found a higher emotional congruence in pedophilic sexual offenders and that some pedophiles not only seek sexual contacts with children, but also romantic relationships [41]. Many researchers and clinicians believe pedophila has a lifelong course. In contrast, other investigators argue pedophilic preferences can change based on research examining pre vs. post treatment changes of sexual arousal to children in offenders [41].

The age of onset, romantic behaviour, and stability over time give rise to the possibility that from a biological perspective, pedophilia could be thought of as a sexual orientation. Cases involving pedophilic individuals have shown a relationship between changes in behaviour, particularly the development of sexual preferences toward children, and the appearance of a brain tumour. In certain instances, the removal of the tumour was able to change the individual's sexual preferences from arousal towards children, back to their prior preference for adults. Evidently hidden drives and desires can lurk undetected behind the "neural machinery of socialization", however, when the frontal lobes are damaged or changed, people become disinhibited and new behaviours emerge [44]. Although the conceptualization of pedophilia as a sexual orientation from a clinical and scientific perspective may be possible, there are several social, political, legal and ethical controversies that would make this very challenging [41].

Sexual Functioning[edit]

Main Article: Sexual function

Men and women are motivated to engage in sexual activity as a result of attraction, love, romance, emotional closeness, and desire to please, but women report more emotional motivations compared to males[45] .

Research shows that women do not need to have sexual desire at the beginning of sexual activity, and that in fact, many women do not distinguish between desire and arousal. Psychological factors are related to women's sexual functioning as well as resilience to external stressors. Biological factors such as variations in the rate of decline of adrenal and ovarian pro-hormones, activity of converting enzymes in peripheral cells, sensitivity of androgen and estrogen receptors, and cerebral production of sex steroids may also play a role [45]. In addition, women appear to be more vulnerable to reduction in sex hormone activity.

Sexual Dysfunction[edit]

Main Article: Sexual dysfunction

For both men and women, anxiety plays a part in the development and maintenance of sexual dysfunctions, particularly through performance anxiety and fear of failure. Sexual anxieties prevent individuals from experiencing sexual arousal and inhibit the autonomic nervous system[46] . On the contrary, evidence also shows that anxiety can facilitate sexual arousal in men and women. Researchers identified that the physical or somatic component of anxiety, when increased, may facilitate sexual arousal because it shares physiological similarities with arousal i.e. increased heart rate and blood pressure. However, the cognitive side of anxiety in the form of negative cognitions, has the opposite effect on arousal [46]. Many clinicians agree that several types of cognitive activities have a marked impact on sexual arousal and play an important role in the causation or maintenance of sexual dysfunction in both men and women [46]. In addition, across research, poor mental health, particularly depression and anxiety, is a consistent risk factor for sexual dysfunction.

The most common sexual difficulty experienced by women is hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD)[47]. Based on the incentive motivation theory, HSDD may manifest due to weak connections between rewarding experiences and sexual stimuli. This notion is supported by research that demonstrates women experience less positive associations with sexual stimuli than sexually functional women [47].

Mindfulness as Treatment for Dysfunction[edit]

Treatment for sexual dysfunction is usually administered through drugs, hormone therapy or sex therapy.

However, current research has examined the ancient Eastern practice of meditation, mindfulness, which is increasingly integrated into Western health practice. Mindfulness has shown to result in positive and potentially therapeutic benefits for women experiencing sexual arousal disorder. [48]. In a study of women with sexual difficulties, a history of childhood sexual abuse and substantial sexual distress, mindfulness-based intervention they experienced significantly greater sexual arousal and improved to the same extent as those who had only received cognitive behavioural therapy [49]. There has been little research completed on the impact of mindfulness in males experiencing sexual dysfunction.

External links[edit]


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