Do men and women have separate reasons for having sex? In a large sample questionnaire study, she and her colleagues looked at all the reasons folks from eighteen to seventy might have for getting busy. The results surprised them. But across that age range, we found many more gender similarities than differences.
The top three reasons for having sex were the same in both genders—they were having it for love, for commitment, and for physical gratification. Sure, gender differences are seen in a variety of studies. Many of them support the ideas we have about the ways men and women view sex. But there are a lot of similarities there too. Subjective reports of arousal, our reasons for having sex, show a lot of overlap between the genders. That is a pretty hard thing to ignore. It is a strong, apparent signal grabbing his attention, probably distracting him from other things that he may need to get done.
With women, the sexual response is tucked away, and the vagina does not hold as much blood as the penis. It may not be as strong a signal. So in this case, it may be what is going on in the rest of the world that is the distraction, not the arousal itself. Those anatomical differences might explain a lot of the gender differences you hear about. Is what I experience when I feel love qualitatively different from what a man experiences? But descriptions of love by writers of both genders?
Although previous neuroimaging studies of romantic love by Zeki and Fisher included members of both sexes, a precise comparison of brain activation between the two was not undertaken.
Zeki and his collaborator John Paul Romaya decided to take a closer look to determine whether there were gender differences in the way men and women experience love. They compared cerebral blood flow in twenty-four people in committed relationships who claimed to be passionately in love and scored high enough on a passionate love questionnaire to back that claim.
Twelve of those participants were men, and six of those men were gay. The remaining group of twelve women was also made up equally of gay and straight women. Once again measurements of cerebral blood flow support the idea that love is both rewarding and blind. But there were no significant differences between activation patterns in men and women. It appears that love is love, no matter what gender you are.
When I asked Zeki if he was surprised by the finding, he chuckled. It is easy to fall back on old stereotypes, to simply say that men and women are poles apart.
And perhaps those differences are enough to fuel those storms you commonly see in relationships. It would almost be easier if we could say that male and female brains are just too dissimilar, that they perceive and process love and sexual stimuli separately; it would give us something to hold on to when no other explanation for our love-related woes seems available. Alas, it is not quite so simple. When you are talking about sex influences on brain function, you may have two bell curves that are significantly different from one another in certain instances.
But those bell curves are still overlapping.