Is Women’s Sexuality Really More Fluid Than Men’s?

Over the past two decades, women’s sexuality has become increasingly seen as more fluid than men’s. Many studies have offered evidence confirming this. Take, for instance, a 2010 survey of college-aged women that found 84% have fantasized about same-sex encounters or have had a same-sex attraction. See also: A study by Meredith Chivers in which women participants (irrespective of what sexual orientation they identified with) became aroused in response to all types of stimuli—ranging from straight and lesbian porn to videos of copulating bonobos.

By contrast, men’s sexuality is still often seen as less flexible. Only 51% of the aforementioned college women’s male peers reported ever having a same-sex attraction or fantasy. And in Chivers’ study, men who identified as straight were less likely to become aroused in response to pornography that didn’t correspond with their explicitly stated preferences. Researchers haven’t quite agreed on whether this is evolutionarily ingrained or whether social stigma and traditional gender-based roles shape men’s expression and experience of desire.

Adding a further insight to this complicated picture is a recent study by researchers at Wayne State University and Western Illinois University, who planted themselves outside a strip of bars in a “Midwestern town in the United States” to recruit 51 men and 32 women for an experiment on sexual willingness.

The first step of the study was determining whether interested participants were sober enough to consent—to the study, that is. Sobriety was determined by a few coordination tests similar to that a campus security official gives to suspiciously intoxicated students (think: rubbing your belly while patting your head without issue) and the ability to remember the researcher’s name and major after he or she stated this to the participant.

After proving themselves cognizant enough, participants were shown a brief PowerPoint presentation depicting an attractive young man or woman alone in a bar, chatting up the bartender. (32% of male and 23% of female participants saw an attractive young male. 29% of male and 16% of female participants saw an attractive female.) Some slides in the presentation had an audio component narrating a typical night out—think: “You walk into a bar. You sit down at an open seat at the bar…”—and describing the attractive other in the photos as stating to the bartender that he or she “wanted to see where the night would lead.”

Participants were then briefly surveyed about how likely they might be to do the following: a) buy the individual depicted in the PowerPoint presentation a drink, b) knock back a few drinks with the person, c) go home with the man or woman, d) spend the night, and e) sleep with this individual.

Then they were asked about their sexual orientation, assigned sex (e.g., male or female), age, student status, and recent consumption of alcohol (e.g., how many servings and how recently did you last drink)?

Concurrent with previous research—such as a famous experiment conducted by Clark and Hatfield in 1989 that found women are markedly less willing to go to bed with strangers than men are—female research participants were, overall, less willing than their male counterparts to engage in any sexual activities with the fictitious person seated alone at the bar. That reluctance decreased, however, with each successive drink female participants consumed.

Not so surprising, right? (In case you yourself haven’t replicated this, alcohol consumption has been proven to make us find more attractive those we might not “swipe right” on in a soberer state.) What was intriguing about participants’ willingness to hook up with a stranger was the difference along male and female lines: Women’s interest in hooking up with the fictitious individual at the bar increased with each drink regardless of that individual’s gender—despite the fact that all women in the study identified as heterosexual.

By contrast, men’s interest in hooking up with fictitious others remained stable with each drink when that fictitious other was a female. (In other words: alcohol had an insignificant effect upon a male’s willingness to sleep with a woman. They wanted to just as badly, regardless of their sobriety level.) Men’s willingness to experiment with another male sitting at the bar, however, was responsive to alcohol—meaning: the more men in the study drank, the more open they became to having some type of sexual encounter with a man. Keep in mind that, like all the women in this study, every male participant identified as heterosexual.

The researchers believe that alcohol may loosen the constraints some men place on themselves that, when sober, enable them to conform to the sexual scripts they associate with traditional masculinity.

Such a propensity to explore options outside the straight and narrow may also increase over time, as other research suggests men’s attraction to same-sex partners rises with age. (Interestingly, the same study observing this trend found that women’s sexual interest in same-sex partners decreases with age, albeit only slightly.)

The takeaway of this study is that men’s sexuality isn’t as rigid as we all may think. Nor does one’s stated sexual orientation determine or fix who and what one is attracted to. Especially (or at least) not when alcohol is involved. 

Follow Katherine on Twitter.

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