Liberal Women Wish for More Sex. Why?

OK, I’ve been at it again, meaning that I’ve been exploring associations between various measures in the New Family Structures Study (the NFSS). I realize I’ve treated readers to blog entries like this before, including here, here, and here, but I can’t help myself. Such are social science data nerds. I’ve come across another puzzle worth sharing with you.

At the risk of sounding blunt, crass, and insensitive, the NFSS data clearly reveal that—for whatever reason—more politically liberal 18-39-year-old women report wanting more sex than they’ve been having. (No such association appears among men. In keeping with nearly all research on sexuality and gender, men display less variance on most matters sexual.)

Here’s how we know. The NFSS posed this question to respondents:

Are you content with the amount of sex you are having?

Respondents could answer in one of three ways: (1) Yes; (2) No, I’d prefer more; or (3) No, I’d prefer less. Now, before you throw around claims of misogyny, take some comfort in knowing that I don’t think answer #3 is somehow inherently more correct than #2. Good grief. My job here is interpretation.

Here are the simple numbers: 16% of “very conservative” women say they’d prefer more, compared with 29% of conservative women, 31% of moderates, 47% of liberals, and 50% of “very liberal” women.

It’s generally linear, with the most notable bump between moderates and liberals. More politically-liberal women are quite clearly apt to say they’d prefer more.


And, remarkably, it isn’t much affected by how much sex they’ve actually had recently. That is, while greater recent frequency of sex predicts less desire for more sex, it does nothing to diminish the link between political liberalism and wanting more sex. And women of all political stripes report statistically-comparable frequency of sex.

In regression models, the measure of political liberalism remains significantly associated with the odds of wanting more sex even after controlling for the frequency of actual intercourse over the past two weeks, their age, marital status, education level, whether they’ve masturbated recently, their anxiety level, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, depressive symptoms, and porn use. Many of these are significant predictors of wanting more sex. And still the political thing matters.

I realize I’m a geek for statistics in this domain, but that is interesting, and begs for interpretation. I’ve said elsewhere—in Chapter 6 of my second book and blogged about here, here, and here—that measures of political conservatism or liberalism are clearly reflecting more than just Republican or Democratic Party affiliation or voting habits. No, they’re about people’s embedded-ness in distinctive worldviews and sets of meanings.

With regard to sex and sexuality, being more liberal means being more likely to value sexual expression as a good-in-itself, not only a means to an end or contingent on the context (such as being in a relationship, or being married). Talk of “sexual health” is also more common among them and typically assumes acts of sexual expression. In this perspective, persons have almost a moral obligation to express their sexuality in actions of their own choosing; pleasure is reached for, and should be. Sexual expression among them is perceived in personal terms at least as much as it is in relational ones (I’m thinking of how people talk about their sex life.) Note, for example, how the Lena Dunham political ad mightily aggravated conservative sentiments about sexuality. Obama twentysomethings generally thought it was clever and cute.

All that may be true, but I’m still not sure it explains why liberal women want more sex, regardless of how much they’re already having.

I floated this to a female friend, an economist, who offered this four-part theory:

1. More liberal women are less likely to be religious. (In the NFSS and other datasets, she’s correct in this).

2. Given that, more liberal women are therefore more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value to aspects of life such as their work, relationships, children, and daily tasks. Some scholars speak of this as “sanctifying daily life.” In other words, liberal women are less apt to conceive of mundane, material life as imbued with or reflecting the sacred.

3. Nevertheless, most people experience sexual expression as–in some significant way–transcendent, or higher-than-other-experiences.

4. More liberal women therefore want to have more sex because they feel the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it’s sensible to desire more of it.

Basically, liberal women substitute sex for religion. (A data-less argument of sorts toward that end was serendipitously made on yesterday.)

So I added religious service attendance to the regression model described earlier, predicting wanting more sex, and—wouldn’t you know it—political liberalism finally went silent as a predictor. Barely.

Other theories are welcome…


Why David Petraeus Cheated

Yet again the media is alive with speculation about why men in positions of power cheat on their spouses, often at great risk to their careers—indeed, greater risk than men a generation or two ago when cheating seldom became the scandal it does today. Why is this so, given the fact that we’re further than ever from having clear public norms around acceptable sexual behavior? Indeed, it’s odd that the more marriage becomes de-institutionalized in America, the more publicly problematic extramarital dalliances have become. It would seem to be exactly the opposite of what one would expect.

A colleague and friend asserted that one key reason for the rise in sex scandals is because talking about sex has become easier, and hence more public. For sure. (This blog would be technologically and socially impossible 50 years ago.) When a Kennedy or Eisenhower bent the far-clearer rules around marriage, they did so in an era that did not speak of sexuality publicly without trepidation. Their dalliances weren’t winked at. They were just not thought to be publicly discussable. In this way, it’s a little bit like the problem I noted in a previous blog, about when Joe Paterno came under fire. He was a member of a generation that didn’t like to talk about sex, of any sort. And young adults today—indeed, pretty much anyone under 60—just plain don’t understand that.

But on to Petraeus. While journalists and experts will rack their brain for some new explanation of why men in power take risks that women in power do not, I think it’s a n0-brainer. It points out very old, very stable notions about the sexual exchange itself. Men are the demand side, and women are the supply side. Women could demand sex (and some do), but they’re apt to be remarkably successful when they do. Men can only hope for sex.

David Petraeus didn’t cheat because Ms. Broadwell was so stunningly beautiful that he couldn’t resist her advances. (I don’t frankly know whose idea the affair was.) Certainly this is true of Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s mistress. It’s not about beauty. It’s about sexual availability and men’s excess sexual desire. My favorite social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, one of the few realists writing in a domain—the study of sexual behavior—dominated by idealists, observes:

A man in love may feel sexual desire for a specific, particular woman, but most men also have plenty of free-floating sexual interest in other women, all women, any woman, at least in the broad set of “reasonably attractive” ones (e.g., the top 90% of women in their twenties, etc.).

This is the elephant in the corner that is inexplicably unacknowledged. Most men who stray do so because they like sex. Perhaps “like” is not a powerful enough word to describe it.

Women don’t work the same way. I’m so tired of hearing from people that they do. But it’s just not true. Men are far less discriminating then women.

Baumeister continues:

Before we condemn men as hopeless sinners, however—and I suspect many men regard themselves as such, at least when they reflect on their attempts to come to terms with the inner sexual beast—we might feel a moment of sympathy for their unrewarded successes….He doesn’t get any credit for all the times he stifles his desires, despite all the struggle and sacrifice that they cost him. Daily he wrestles with the beast, and mostly he keeps it controlled….Mostly he succeeds in restraining himself. Out of every thousand times he has to deny himself and stop himself from acting on his feelings, once or twice he slips up, and these can be enough to shame him….(indeed) could ruin him, costing him his career, his marriage, his happiness, even his freedom.

Interesting perspective—one not often noted. Ah, realism. No, male self-control has not changed a great deal over human history. What has grown dramatically is sexual opportunity and what has declined precipitously is social restraint.

At bottom, sex scandals involve men because men want sex more than women do. If the classic sex-for-resources exchange model works—and I hold that it still does, despite the fact that men offer less (and women need fewer) resources than in the past—then women with significant authority and power should rarely find themselves in sex scandals. Why? Because they don’t need the resources. They already have them. The scandals will almost always be about men, because while they’ve got more than enough resources, it’s the sex that remains elusive, just out of reach. Until it’s not.


Sexual Exploitation and Religious Advocacy

Anyone who has leafed through an airline travel magazine can probably name a number of ways that they stand out from other publications. Flying just this week, I saw many of the same messages I’ve seen in the past.  Multiple advertisements promise to help professional and ‘quality’ men find the ‘quality’ women they deserve.  Other marketing materials identify the best steakhouses, the best plastic surgeons, or the newest (expensive) sports equipment.

This time around, a particular advertisement caught my eye precisely because it did not fit as well with the others.  Still targeted towards an upper-class, internationally networked, professional male population, a child’s eyes took up the top quarter of the page.  Under the image was the following caption:

I’m not a tourist attraction.
It’s a crime to make me one.

Stop child sex tourism.

Although the audience was the same, this advertisement, sponsored by World Vision International (WVI), with support from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, speaks a very different message.  It is part of a broader initiative to combat the growing problem of exploitation, enabled in part by the power this magazine’s audience holds.

Sex trafficking and forced sexual labor is a growing problem.  Along with other forms of forced labor, it is an issue that evangelicals and other faith-based organizations are increasingly protesting.  Recent statistics released last month from the International Labor Organization suggest that approximately 20.9 million people globally are victims of forced labor. 4.5 million of those are exploited for their sexual labor.  If we consider the millions of other sex workers who “voluntarily” chose the trade, often with little real choice, the numbers rise significantly. Evangelicals, alongside of feminist groups and other concerned about human rights, have worked together in coalitions (such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women) to support legislation and lead campaigns aimed at ending sex trafficking and forced sexual labor. The International Justice Mission is one organization that has galvanized attention in the evangelical community to this problem; they work to change structures, and hold accountable those committing and enabling the abuse.

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The location of this particular advertisement speaks to the larger context in which forced sexual labor occurs.  The audience for this magazine is the opposite of the image in the advertisement.  The picture is of a presumably non-Western girl.  We know that children and women who are predominantly the victims of trafficking; further, it is the ‘other,’ the foreigner, that is often trafficked. Although discussing the commercial sex industry more generally, Kevin Bales notes how power differentials play into the growth of sex trafficking, specifically in Thailand (“Because She Looks Like a Child” in Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Harry Holt Publishers, 2002):

Commercial sex is a legitimate form of entertainment and release.  It is not just     acceptable: it is a clear statement of status and economic power.  Such attitudes reinforce the treatment of women as mere markers in a male game of status and  prestige (216).

I have been encouraged by religious actors’ responses to the devastating problem of forced sexual labor.  Teaching at Wheaton College, I see some of the consequences of this engagement: many of my students are committed to working for social change in this area.  They see the responsibility for the church to mourn with the victims of sexual violence, and to struggle for their justice.

At the same time, my hope continues to be that the issue of sex trafficking will also draw attention to the problem of sexual violence and sexual commodification committed in less egregious ways, but ones that still strip women (and children) around the world of their dignity.  Sexual violence is an issue that plagues the church.  While some religious communities give significant attention to these issues, many do not. Scholars consistently try to correct the myths surrounding the violence: that it exists only in certain communities, that victims are somehow responsible, that is is mainly due to alcohol or drug abuse.  Instead, they point to ways such violence is made possible through the power dynamics at work (as highlighted by Bales above).

The work of groups like WVI, IJM, and many others in the faith community to combat sex trafficking is important and necessary. There still remains, however, a need to reflect more on the norms that also contribute to a demand for human trafficking.

Women are for the consumption of men.

Sexuality is something to be taken, or something that can be bought and sold.

Those who are foreign, or racially and ethnically different, are less human.

Men are naturally sexually deviant.

While few might fully endorse the statements above, these norms are present are various levels throughout our culture–unfortunately, even in the church.  Continuing to address them is vital in struggles not just against sexual trafficking, but also other forms of sexual exploitation and violence.

Sexual Expectations and Realities in Marriage

Who out there thinks they’re having too much sex?

The answer appears to be: nearly no one (under age 40, that is). Analyses involving new nationally-representative data on 18-39-year-olds, results from which I’ve highlighted in previous blog posts, suggests that very few young adults in America think they themselves are oversexed. Respondents were asked, “Are you content with the amount of sex you are having?” To which 50 percent replied “yes,” 43 percent said, “no, I’d prefer more,” and only 3 percent said, “no, I’d prefer less.”

An additional 4 percent refused to answer the question, which admittedly might have struck some as being irrelevant to them or presumptive of their own sexual activity. (That happens sometimes in survey research, and in that case it makes sense to pass on the question.) Indeed, plenty of people in the dataset aren’t even in relationships; the question could strike them as odd, or not. So what about the ones that are in relationships? And even more specifically, what about the ones that are married?

Well, it turns out—of course—marriage doesn’t completely take care of the sex drive. As if I expected it to. (I’m trying not to make this blog post personal.) It turns out that 53 percent of married young Americans are quite content with their frequency of sex, while 43 percent wish for more and only 2.1 percent wish for less.

Given the historically-strong gender connection with sex drive, what do the numbers look like when we split them by male and female? Well, your grandmother probably could’ve predicted this one. About 61 percent of married women are content with the extent of bedroom activity they’re experiencing, compared with 44 percent of married men. It should be noted that only 7/10th of one percent of married men are complaining about too much sex. It’s just an uncommon gripe. More women than men, but only 3.3 percent total, voice such a concern. It turns out that 54 percent of married young men would appreciate more sex, but so would 34 percent of married young women.  Those are numbers worth noting. To be sure, life and busy-ness can get in the way—and marital problems will often either concern sex or become intertwined with it. But it’s notable that many married (18-39-year-old) men and women wish to be intimate with their spouse more often than they are. I guess that’s good, and certainly better than the other way around.

So far I’ve said nothing about this group’s reported actual sexual frequency, which varies widely:

— 19 percent reported no sex in the past two weeks

— 16 percent reported once in the past two weeks

— 16 percent said twice

— 13 percent said three times

— 10 percent said four

— 15 percent said 5-6

— 6 percent said 7-10 times

— 4 percent of married young adults reported 11 or more times in the past two weeks.

[Cue the irritation of some, and the blessed “Oh, I’m normal” response of others.]

To be sure, there’s a nearly linear association between the two variables:

— 91 percent of the (11+ timers) said “yes” when asked if they were content with the amount of sex they’re having. (The nerve of those other nine percent…!)

That number dips to 86 percent (among 7-10 timers), then 66 percent, 65 percent, 61, 40, 41, and down to 37 percent among those married young Americans who reported no sex in the past two weeks. The most notable dip in contentment here–from a majority that’s content to a minority that is–appears between those who say “3 times” and those who say twice (in two weeks).

The same numbers among men only: 85 percent of the male 11+ timers said “yes,” they’re content. The same (85 percent) among male 7-10 timers, then down to 66 percent, 60 percent, 44 percent, 30 percent, 36 percent, and only 21 percent of married men who’ve not had sex in the past week say they are content with the amount of sex they’ve been having. The most notable decline here is from “4 times” to “3 times” (in two weeks).  This reminds me of the Woody Allen film in which his character responds to a therapist’s question about his sex life, saying, “We almost never have sex, like, only two or three times a week.” Diane Keaton, his partner, responds independently to the same question, “We’re always having sex, like, two or three times a week!” (In fact, 54 percent of married women who said “zero times” to the frequency question also said that “yes” they were content with how often they have sex.) In general, young women appear far more content with their married sex lives than the men. Not a shock, I know.

I’m pressed for time—given this is a holiday weekend—so I won’t add more commentary to these numbers. There are of course other variables to consider–like how long you’ve been married–and other predictors of sexual contentedness that a short blog post cannot accommodate, but that invariably readers will wonder about. Wonder away.


On Memorial Day, here’s to those who have served, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. We are grateful.