Ask Dr. H: Week 7

Dr. Jill Hoxmeir, Public Health Professor

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Dear Dr. H,

Is there scientific proof that sexual intercourse impacts emotional health of either or both parties? Why do guys tend to want/think about sex all the time and girls don’t? Why do men glorify the number of girls they’ve slept with while we torment girls and call them a slut when they sleep with a number of partners? And, are there still people that want to wait until marriage to have sex?

Dear anonymous,

Ah, yes, the age-old question of differing gender perspectives on sex and sexual double standards… Why do men glorify their sexual conquests while we slut shame women? In this day in age, I quite honestly don’t know. Historically, men have been socialized to be the sexual aggressors, to prioritize their sexual needs, and to take pride in the number of people they have slept with. Women were (and still are, really) socialized to be pure, demure, and sexually inexperienced – it was all a part of the “proper woman” persona. These attitudes are relaxing (a bit), but their lasting effects can be seen in, like you say, male glorification of having many partners versus slut shaming women for behaving in the same manner.

Because of this socialization, we are led to believe that men want and think about sex “all of the time” and women do not. I don’t know which conversations you are overhearing, but I hear plenty of women discuss their interest in and experiences with sex. It may not be in the same “locker room” banter of men, but women certainly want sex and think about sex and talk about the sex they either are or aren’t having. However, due to the long tradition of silencing those conversations, they tend to occur in different (quieter) contexts.

In that same vein, due to mass media, we are also led to believe that casual, no strings attached sex is commonplace for men and they love/prefer it, and women only want to have sex within the safety of a long-term, monogamous relationship and are utterly devastated when that doesn’t occur as a result of an otherwise casual hook-up. Everyone is different. Both men and women can enjoy casual sex and not experience any ill-impact to their emotional health as a result of such. Similarly, both men and women can prefer to have a more emotional and intimate attachment to their sexual partner and suffer a detrimental impact to their emotional health when they are in a one-and-done situation with someone they hoped would be their one and only. The only “scientific proof” I found pertaining to the association between sex and a negative impact on emotional health is in the realm of non consensual sex, regardless of gender.

Regarding the wait-til-marriage question, let me start by saying that the research in this area, at least the current research, is slim. A simple Google search will yield all sorts of conflicting stats depending on the slant of the organization pushing their own agenda. What exists in the peer-reviewed world finds that, basically, over time both men and women have relaxed their attitudes about premarital sex, and it is not condemned as taboo as much as in previous generations. This may simply mean that people have always had sex before marriage, but they weren’t always willing to own up to it. That being said, the “wait-til-marriage” conversation has been very heteronormative, in the sense that not all people could get married in our country, and what constituted “premarital” sex was relevant only to people who legally could get married. And, in which case, only penis and vagina penetration was considered “sex.”

According to the 2014 National College Health Assessment conducted at CWU, about 25 percent of students surveyed reported never to have had vaginal or oral sex, and nearly 80 percent reported never to have had anal sex. For those students who have had sex (ever), 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women at CWU reported not to have had sex in the previous year. And, of those students who did have sex in the previous year, many had sex with just one person – 47 percent of men and 51 percent of women. Just under 10 percent of both men and women reported to have had sex with two partners in the previous year and the numbers just dwindle from there. So, while the NCHA doesn’t ask whether students are “waiting until marriage,” we do see that there is still a substantial proportion of the CWU population that has never had sex, and even among those that are having sex, it may not be at the frequency or with as many partners as most people would think.

So, to bring this full circle, it appears that men and women, at CWU anyway, appear to have fairly similar sexual behaviors. Men who glorify their sexual exploits may very well be lying due to the cultural pressure to be sexually experienced and the women we slut shame may have had a whopping two partners in the previous year, compared to the majority of women who just had one. Basically, when it comes to sex, we really have no idea what other people are doing so best just be concerned about the sex we are (or are not) having.

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Ask Dr. H: Week 7