There are only men and women and they are very different

One of the most common themes about media and sex is that of gender differences. We frequently hear, for example that men are visual sexually and women are not (so women are thought to be disinterested in porn), or that men need sex in order to feel loved, whereas women need to feel loved in order to want sex (so men are regarded as sex-focused and women as love-focused and not wanting as much sex). Often there is an evolutionary focus to such stories: it is suggested that this is how people evolved in order to be better able to pass on their genes, and therefore such differences are ‘natural’ and cannot be changed. Also many stories claim to reveal the ‘secrets’ of the ‘opposite sex’ so that people can be better able to get what they want from partners. For example men getting women to do what they want sexually, women getting men to fall in love with them.

Such massive generalisations are almost always spurious. Psychological evidence suggests that men and women are far more similar than they are different, and also that differences between the same gender in different cultures are usually far greater than differences between different genders in the same culture. Specifically, for example, there are many women who enjoy porn and sex, and many men who are far more focused on love than sex. Evolutionary explanations neglect to take account of years of culture, as well as often ignoring what we actually know about early civilisations (from archaelogical research) and about how evolution works (from biology). Finally even if something is ‘natural’ that doesn’t mean that it is good, or can’t be changed (e.g. we try to make ourselves less aggressive and more intelligent as a species, and we’re happy to wear clothes and use smartphones).

Also there is a risk that such representations encourage people to see potential partners as an alien species to be figured out and played, in order to get what we want, rather than as equal complex human beings. This takes a great toll on relationships as any relationship therapist will testify. Again, the emphasis on gender differences excludes all those people who have same-sex relationships, or who are sexually attracted to more than one gender (between 5% and 40% of people in total, depending on which study you read). Also, increasing numbers of people do not feel they fit into the boxes of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, and they are excluded by a focus on gender difference. It is very likely that media obsession with gender difference contributes to men and women feeling they have to fit the stereotypes.

It would be better if media about sex focused on how people can tune into their desires, communicate about them, and enjoy themselves and each other sexually, regardless of the genders or bodies involved. Most of the best advice isn’t specific to certain genders or genitals, and relationships are likely to be better if people don’t regard each other as alien species to be figured out. If you are reporting gender difference research it would be good to balance this with all the research that doesn’t find differences. A great story can be about research which challenges conventional wisdom around gender rather than confirming it. Also it is important to represent same-gender relationships and all the people who don’t fit neatly into conventional masculinity or femininity.


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