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For many people, sexual enlightenment seems to be a difficult thing to control. Over the years, I've heard from many readers who want some advice on enlightenment. Some say they want more enlightenment, some say they want more enlightenment from their partner.
This struggle is real, and I see it in my own research. However, I found an interesting gender pattern in the data.
I surveyed 4,175 Americans for my book, Tell Me What You Want. I asked people to report how often they started having sex in real life, and how often they fantasized about having sex. As it turns out, there are considerable differences, and differences between heterosexual men and women are not the same.
Straight women want to be more proactive, straight men less proactive.
I found that, in general, heterosexual women in real life initiate sexual activity less often than heterosexual men. Specifically, among heterosexual women, 28 percent reported that they often or always initiated sex, compared with 50 percent of heterosexual men. In other words, men were twice as likely to identify themselves as the initiator of sex.
Fantasy, however, tells a different story: When you look at fantasy rather than reality, the number of women who say they usually or always initiate sexual behavior increases by 25 percent. By contrast, when you look at fantasy rather than reality, the number of men who said they usually or always initiate sex fell by 15 percent. So gender differences are much smaller in terms of what people think about sex than they actually do in their sex lives.
This suggests that there are many women who are excited to be sexually active more often than they are in reality, and many men who are excited to be sexually active with their partners.
Initiation Patterns Differ for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Persons
These findings are interesting when you compare them to those of gay and bisexual men and women. For sexual minorities, when you look at how many people say they usually or always initiate real-life sexual activity, the number of people who say they usually or always fantasize about sexual activity is about the same (only a percentage point or so difference). So the fantasy model of the members more closely resembles real-life gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
It is also worth noting that, on average, women from SEXUAL minorities have sex more often than heterosexual women, while men from sexual minorities have sex less often than heterosexual men.
Why is it so hard for us to join?
All of which suggests that heterosexuals are most likely to experience a difference between how often they want to have sex and how often they actually have sex. Why is that? In part, this may be because there is more pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles in heterosexual contexts, where women are the gatekeepers of sex and men are the initiators. By contrast, in studies of same-sex relationships, we always see less pressure to fit into traditional roles and more opportunities to find equality in and out of the bedroom. To be clear, this is not to say that enlightenment issues never arise in same-sex relationships -- of course they can!
My data also show that membership bid is linked to religious belief, especially among women. For example, I find that heterosexual women who are religious are less sexually active than non-religious women. In addition, the gap between religious women's fantasy and reality of sexual enlightenment was more than twice that of non-religious women.
For men, there was no real link between religious belief and how often they had sex. Regardless of religion, the gap between male fantasy and reality of sexual initiation was about the same. In general, heterosexual men fantasize less about sexual enlightenment than they do in real life. This suggests that for men, the pressure to actively learn may be linked to broader notions of male culture, but may have little to do with religious beliefs.
However, social and cultural factors are only part of the story. My data shows that people who have sex more frequently in real life tend to be highly extroverted (outgoing and sociable), more emotionally stable, more confident, more serious (detail-oriented) and more receptive to intimate relationships. They also tend to have more positive attitudes towards sex, fewer sexual difficulties and more satisfying relationships. When these traits aren't present, people may initiate sex less often than they'd like (for example because they're not very sexually outgoing or worried about rejection).
When we feel stressed or lack sexual confidence, our fantasies are sometimes a way for us to get out of those limitations and explore different aspects of our sexuality. Of course, this is not to say that fantasies always reflect our desires (that is, what we really want to do sexually). Sometimes fantasies are just fantasies, but they can also reveal unmet needs and hidden desires.
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