Great Myths of Intimate Relationships provides a captivating, pithy introduction to the subject that challenges and demystifies the many fabrications and stereotypes surrounding relationships, attraction, sex, love, internet dating, and heartbreak.
* The book thoroughly interrogates the current research on topics such as attraction, sex, love, internet dating, and heartbreak
* Takes an argument driven approach to the study of intimate relationships, encouraging critical engagement with the subject
* Part of The Great Myths series, it's written in a style that is compelling and succinct, making it ideal for general readers and undergraduates
Matthew D. Johnson is Professor of Psychology at Binghamton University, State University of New York. His research in Clinical Psychology examines the developmental course of marital distress and family dysfunction. In doing so, his work seeks to determine the mechanisms by which relationship distress and dissolution follow the positive emotions of courtship. In 2013, he was awarded the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching from the State University of New York.
"Sex." The very word is loaded. After all, "everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." This quote, which is widely but improbably attributed to Oscar Wilde, captures the sway this topic has on us. Yet, it's also a topic that is steeped in lore, misunderstanding, and ignorance. More than once, I've urged couples in my practice to engage in a course of self-education on the topic of sex because they often report wanting to know more about sex and do more with each other, but are flummoxed by the plumbing and wiring of the human body (to these couples, I recommend Paul Joannides' excellent 2012 book, titled "Guide to Getting it On," which is comprehensive and entertaining). Of course, with all of the ignorance and misinformation about sex, there are also myths.
For this chapter, I have selected four myths that are specific to intimate relationships. The first myth is about the persistent belief that women are less sexually minded than men. The second myth is about the "hook-up culture" among college students and young adults. In the third and fourth myths of this chapter, I write about marriages that haven't been consummated and intimate relationships with very little sexual activity.
There are - of course - other myths about sex in intimate relationships. For example, many are surprised to learn that more than half of men and women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s report being sexually active two or three times a month (Lindau, Schumm, et al., 2007). In fact, there are growing concerns about sexually transmitted diseases spreading among older adults (Caffrey & O'Neill, 2007; cf. Lindau, Laumann, & Levinson, 2007). In any case, the reluctance to talk about sex in the context of intimate relationships, even among couples therapists (B. W. McCarthy, 2001), leads to myths that need busting.
Myth #1 Men have a stronger libido than women
The strength of the belief that men are more libidinous than women is so ingrained that its validity is assumed (e.g., Mann, 2014). Silly cartoons showing the brain of the man thinking mostly about sex versus the brain of the woman thinking mostly about chocolate or commitment or shopping (see Figure 1) capture this sentiment (see also Myth 21). We've also all heard unsubstantiated facts, such as men think about sex every seven seconds (for a discussion of this myth, see Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2009). Of course, this is not true; however, men do think about sex more often than women and men seek out sex even when it's unwise or illegal (Baumeister, 2000; Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001). Nevertheless, there are compelling data that we may be underestimating the strength of women's libidos and that our belief in this gender difference is steeped in culture (Lippa, 2009).
Figure 1 This drawing from an unknown source (found in many places on the internet) is perpetuating the myth about male versus female libidos, as well as several more blatantly sexist stereotypes.
The repression of women's sexuality
No discussion of this topic can begin in earnest without talking about the history of women and their sexuality. Throughout history men have described women's sexuality in a way that revealed both the exciting and threatening nature of it. Because men have written most of the texts from the ancient to modern eras, the historical perspective on women's sexuality is necessarily viewed from a detached and masculine point of view. Even in historical writings that describe women as libidinous, one can detect the male perspective. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he makes the point that "the husband should fulfill his wife sexually" (1 Cor. 7:3 New Living Translation). In Greek mythology, Tiresias - who was a man but lived for seven years as a woman - settles a marital argument between Zeus and Hera about who enjoys sex more. Hera claimed it was the man and Zeus claimed it was the woman. Tiresias said that men experience only 10% of the pleasure that women experience. On a side note, Hera was so angry with Tiresias for siding with Zeus that she cursed him with blindness, and Zeus, feeling bad about that, allowed him to live for seven generations and gave him clairvoyance. So it goes with being a marital therapist.
The ancient emphasis on women's sexual pleasure was not limited to religions and mythology. The famous Greek physician Galen of Pergamum (born in 129 CE) believed that women had to have an orgasm for conception to occur. Remarkably, the medical community held this belief for 1,500 years! Stop and think about the reasonable consequences of such a line of thought. As Daniel Bergner (2013) points out, this led to the medical establishment trying to understand the "certain tremor" that women experienced during sex and how that enabled procreation. This erroneous assumption had men began thinking even more about their own genitalia. For example, there were theories that a small penis might not lead to enough pleasure for the woman to conceive. Even the discovery of the Fallopian tubes by Gabriele Falloppio in the sixteenth century didn't stop him from describing how the shape of a man's foreskin might prevent the woman's orgasm and, consequently, conception (Laqueur, 1990).
Despite these and other examples from antiquity that women enjoy sex, there are many more examples throughout history of women's sexuality being minimized or denied. Again starting with the Bible and with Greek mythology, both Eve and Pandora embody the danger of lust unleashed. Thus, it's unsurprising that over time the female Eros (i.e., libido or sexual love) was presented as permissible only in the marriage bed, and sometimes not even there. The Victorian era was a time when Eros in women was denied (Dabhoiwala, 2012). Certainly, no God-fearing Christian lady of the Victorian era would enjoy sex. Rather, the following description of sex usually attributed to Lady Hillingdon captures the sentiment regarding female Eros at that time: "When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England." Women of the 19th century were often seen as a temperate, if prudish, counterweight to men's lustful and intemperate nature. This denial of women's sexuality can be found today in many cultures.
The point here is that even when men wrote about women experiencing Eros, it usually comes across as naive or even silly. Of course, to say that women experience ten times the pleasure of men is as daffy as saying that they take no pleasure in sex. Therefore, I have written about this myth acutely aware that I am yet another man writing about women's sexuality. As with all myths in this book, I provide links to the primary sources and urge you to read these sources on your own to see if your interpretations are similar to mine. In particular, this myth should be considered carefully because, when it comes to women's sexuality, men have been getting it wrong for as long as men have been working on it. In addition, I also urge you to consider this myth in light of the crushing repression women have felt because of men's assumptions about their sexuality. This repression can come in the form of a jealous boyfriend who sees his girlfriend dancing with someone else and responds with violence, or it can come in the form of genital mutilation done to prevent women from enjoying sex. The research that I discuss involving women's libidos must be considered against the backdrop of both my gender and the ongoing repression of women based on their perceived sexuality (Baumeister & Twenge, 2002). With those qualifiers, let's look at the research.
The dubious nature of self-report data
One of the main ways psychologists collect data is by simply asking their study participants questions. These questions can come in many forms, but the answers to these questions are referred to as self-report data. There are many ways in which researchers try to ensure the validity of that self-report data. For example, we can ask the same question in multiple ways or, in relationship research, we can pose the question to both partners. Another way of measuring the validity of self-report data is to ask the questions, but also to observe the behavior in question. Meredith Chivers has done this by asking men and women what turns them on and by observing how turned on they are by various sexual stimuli. As I discuss in greater detail in Myth 11 (on the fluidity of female sexuality), the observation of sexual arousal has been measured for many years using a device that measures blood flow to the genitalia. The rapid increase in blood flow to the penis or vaginal walls indicates sexual arousal. In men, the increased blood flow is part of the physiological process leading to an erection. In women, the increased blood flow leads to increases in the secretion of moisture in the vagina that serves as a lubricant. These measurements are done with a plethysmograph, which measures changes in volume in either the vaginal walls or the penis (Burnett, 2012). So, Chivers compared how sexually aroused people said they were versus the rate of blood flow to their genitalia in response to various stimuli.
In a series of studies, Chivers showed video clips of erotic scenes to men and women (again, for more of a discussion on this line of...