How many times have you heard some of these questions?
- Why can’t I turn her on?
- Why is he constantly thinking about sex?
- Why am I so attracted to jerks?
- Why can’t she see, I don’t want to be just friends?
- How come he always looks at other women?
These questions probably sound familiar because at some point we have all thought (or heard) them. The answers to all of these questions can be found when we take a basic look at the differences between men and women and how they get aroused. So strap yourself in and get ready to go through what turns us on .
An evolutionary explanation that’ll make you cringe
In the early 1990’s David Buss and his colleagues developed Sexual Strategies Theory, which has since become reasonably accepted in scientific circles. I should point out that there are plenty of competing and complementary explanations (like this one, or this one). But, Buss’ theory was groundbreaking in it’s time, and has some lessons for us still. Basically, Buss proposes the idea that our sexual arousal is highly instinctual and really hasn’t changed much since we got up on two legs (and probably before that!). Fundamentally, it tells us that since men and women are looking for different things in their sexual partners, these instincts make all the difference in what turns us on. Ready to cringe?
Let’s start with the ladies. Buss tells us that women are looking for strong genetics for their children and for someone to make sure they and their family is protected. Now these two needs (safe family and good genetics) aren’t always very well aligned. A woman’s biological drive is to have babies. As a result, their bodies respond to physical touch as well as other genetic cues like smell, or the taste of a kiss. They also respond simply to the very idea of procreating. Obviously, this isn’t that smart strategically, so women’s brains are like a filter which get turned on by completely different things! Their minds get turned on by notions of protection; things like kindness and family values; confidence and social dominance; wealth and power; and most importantly commitment and emotional maturity. Things that really indicate ‘protector/family’ material. Most importantly, note that according to Buss, women’s brains and bodies can respond to completely separate stimuli, but both have a role in sexual decision-making. Although, it would seem that the mental arousal is far more powerful, it dominates the physical arousal.
As for men, Buss tells us things are less nuanced. Men get turned on visually and physically for the most part. There’s no mind and body separation. Touch a man here and he’ll be ready to go there. Show him something sexy and he’ll be equally as happy. The problem is that it’s too easy to turn a man on. He’s instinctively out to spread his genes and he’s competing with every other male out there. He’ll be driven to settle down with at least one sexual partner to guarantee that offspring lives into the future, according to Buss (and other paternity certainty theorists), but primarily he just want’s to spread the love around. So his mind is trigger-happy, looking for any excuse to get revved up. Every wondered why a guy will flick his eyes your way when you show some skin? Unless he’s giving you the up and down, he probably didn’t even notice he had a look! Buss would say that his mind just wants him to be ready to go in case another bloke turns up! It’s a self-stimulating system and the more visual elements are around, the more turned on a guy will get, whether he wants to or not.
How much of it is true?
More than you’d like, probably. Buss’ theory really set the stage for an evolutionary wave of research that concentrated on these ideas almost to the exclusion of others (although other evolutionary sexual theories are starting to emerge). But the research does seem to support these ideas in a very general way. Men really do seem to have a sexual seeking bias. And women really do seem to respond differently to both these kind of conceptual ideas (like status and intelligence) as well as more physical stimuli. How much of an effect it has in the real world is debatable, but there are lessons we can learn:
- Fellas, have some foresight. Your body is liable to betray you. Don’t get yourself into situations where your body is more stimulated than your willpower can manage. If you keep saying ‘I don’t know what happened’ or get that post-ejaculation regret, you might need to reconsider just what kinds of scenarios you’re capable of handling.
- Ladies, have some insight. You probably have a good handle on what gets you excited intellectually (ambition, warmth, intelligence, etc), but your body might have some other ideas. If you keep falling for the ‘wrong guy’, it might be worth some reflection on what else might be going on.
Of course, the evolutionary ‘standard’ narrative isn’t the only thing that drives us. Learn how important attachment is in sexual relationships. Or consider the theory of sex that says evolutionary psychologists have it all wrong. Or perhaps you’d be interested in knowing whether homosexuals experience things the same way? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Kena Sen (Flickr).