Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know whether sex research can or ever will reveal any universal truths.
Based on studies that say "Women [think/are like/view/feel] this" and "Men [think/are like/view/feel] that," or other generalizations across entire categories of people (straight, gay, etc. etc.), can it ever really be said that ALL [category] is one way and ALL [category] is another, with no exceptions to rules based on individual tastes, personality, etc.? (Ex: All straight men look at women's faces the most during porn-viewing.) Or can science only give a broad, generally-true correlation? There's always room for standard deviation and error, right?
This is a fantastic question! All of my training as a sex scientist has taught me that nothing is ever true 100% of the time when it comes to human sexuality. In my view, we can never make broad statements about ALL men or ALL women, nor can we say that ALL human beings are one way or another. The best we can do in this field is describe what various groups of people do on average. Thus, we can say what most men or most women think and what most people tend to do, but there will always be exceptions to the rule. Let me demonstrate.
You asked whether it is true that ALL heterosexual men focus most on women’s faces when they watch porn. As discussed in a previous blog post, results of an eye-tracking study found that when straight guys watched porn, they did indeed have the highest probability of noticing the female face first and they spent the most time looking at it compared to other features of the video . However, this should not be taken to mean that every single guy in this study was drawn to looking at women’s faces. If you look closely at the data, there was actually a lot of variability in the first thing guys fixated on. Somewhere between 35-40% focused first on the female face; however, 20-25% focused first on the genitals, and the rest focused on other features, such as the female body, male faces, the actors’ clothing, or features of the background. So, while the female face was statistically the most likely thing to capture guys’ attention, it was far from the only thing.
You will come to similar conclusions if you examine any supposedly universal claim, such as “gay men sleep around a lot more than straight men” or “heterosexual women don’t care about penis size.” As it turns out, while it is true that some gay men have an extremely high number of sexual partners, most gay and heterosexual men are actually pretty similar in terms of their sexual histories. In addition, while it is true that a majority of heterosexual women report that penis size makes no difference in their sexual pleasure, there is a significant minority who report that size does matter. There is always some degree of variation in the data, which means that is incorrect and misleading to argue that all members of a given group share the same beliefs and behaviors.
Why are there so many people out there who are fervent believers in the idea that we can ascribe universal sexual properties to certain groups? Because sexual stereotypes make the world easier to understand. They reduce the amount of thinking and cognitive processing we have to do, and they make us feel better by increasing our perceived knowledge of how the world works. In reality, however, sexual attitudes and behaviors are incredibly diverse and there is far more variability that most people are willing to let on.
For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.
 Rupp, H. A., & Wallen, K. (2007). Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: An eye-tracking study in men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 524-533.
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