Nature vs. Nurture and Sex: Why the Fight?

By Mariah Boyd & Emily Spulak

Numerous stereotypes float around about how men and women act toward sex and how they feel in terms of desire:

• Men are more aggressive and women are more passive.
• Men think about sex more, women don’t.
• Men want sex all the time, women don’t.
• When women have numerous sex partners, they are labeled easy or a slut. When men have numerous sex partners, it is often revered, especially among other men.
• Men desire only women and women desire only men

These stereotypes are exploited in the pop culture movie of the 1990’s, Cruel Intentions (the juicy part starts about 1:50 in):

We see these supposed differences play out in our everyday lives, whether they are portrayed through the media or seen in interactions with others. But, do men and women actually differ biologically in terms of how they feel about sexual desire? Or are these stereotypes the products of socially constructed gender roles?


Homosexuality challenges these stereotypes, because the stereotypes are often premised on men wanting only women and women wanting only men. Sexual desire does vary cross-culturally and these differences can show that what individuals desire is not necessarily in line with what our stereotypes portray. For example, in cultures such as the Azande in northern Africa and the Etoro in Papua New Guinea, men participate in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. The homosexual relationships, often between older men and youth, are socially accepted. Indeed, among the Azande, the boys have many of the same marriage rites as women!

Still, despite the differing sexual acts these cultures allow, the sexual sphere is still largely dominated by men. Women are often looked down upon if they desire sex or engage in sex frequently. However, men are allowed to have sex with other men. This cross cultural look shows different types and expressions of desire but still focuses on male dominated sexuality, meaning that either men are more biologically driven to sex than females or society strictly limits the expression of female desire making it appear that men are more sexually driven.

These variations in sexual behavior across societies suggest that sexual desire and roles are not clearly biologically defined. However, homosexuality is often labeled as “unnatural” in the United States. Despite this negative social view, homosexuality is prevalent in many animal species and has been seen to be beneficial as well, as shown in the recent article “Can Animals be Gay?” by Jon Mooallem.

For example, it has recently been shown that the “monogamous” albatross birds actually have both heterosexual and homosexual pairs. It is thought that the homosexual pairs of birds are composed of two females whose normal mates did not return to the breeding grounds. Because two albatross are needed to incubate and raise the chick, these unpaired females pair up. Although only one of the females’ eggs can be raised, there is no way for either female to know which egg is hers after they have been laid, meaning that it is advantageous for both individuals to raise the one egg because there is a possibility that it could be hers (Mooallen 2010).

Certain homosexual acts are also advantageous for one’s own reproductive success. Certain species of dung flies will mount other males in order to tire them out so that they will have better access to females for mating. Through these examples it can be seen that the negative stigmatism placed on homosexuality by Westernized or American culture is inaccurate. Homosexual acts or relationships can actually be beneficial to certain animals at certain times.

Male and Female Differences

Because of the variability of male and female roles throughout species and societies, the differences in male and female sexual expression are not well explained by biological difference alone. Historical explanations can help explain certain differences in sexual expression as socially constructed norms. One of the reasons that many societies today limit female sexual expression is because of the emphasis that was placed on the preservation of virginity and the acquisition of a ‘pure’ or virgin wife in the past. Physically, there is no way to tell whether a male has had sex or not, whereas, the anatomy of the female body makes it easier to determine whether or not a woman has had sex. In the past, in many societies, wealth, reputation and social standing could depend on the marriage of a virgin daughter. If the daughter’s virginity was not able to be preserved, ignominy, the loss of respect, and loss of material objectives like social standing and wealth were the main consequences. Because of these ideas that were ubiquitous in the past, the idea of female virginity has been continually incorporated into modern societies.

But are there any biological differences underlying these stereotypes and societal norms? Do differences in male and female desire have some basis in biology? Certainly there are biological differences between males and females. Not all differences are created by society, as is shown in Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen: Sex and Evolution of Human Nature. He states that “we are reinforcing the stereotypical obsessions that they already have, but we are not creating them” (256). In his book, he asks whether males and females are intellectually different. Because the differences in the bodies of males and females were a result of evolution then the differences seen in their minds could also stem from this. Because of different evolutionary pressures, he argues that there are some differences between the male and female sexes.

Some of these differences are evidenced through a study done by Meredith Chivers. She shows differences between men and women’s desire, showing that men who claim to be heterosexual were aroused mainly by pornographic images of women or heterosexual sex, whereas men who claim to homosexual are mainly aroused by pornographic images of men. In contrast, women were aroused by images of heterosexual sex, homosexual female sex, homosexual male sex, as well by images of bonobo sex! Clearly there are differences in desire. Less clear is why.

Biological differences can actually arise from social conditioning, as shown by Lise Eliot in “Girl Brain, Boy Brain?” Eliot shows that there is a difference seen between men and women in the size of the straight gyrus (SG), a region of the brain associated with personal and social cognition. Adult females tend to have a larger SG than males do. It was postulated that because women are the “primary child-rearers, their brains have become programmed to develop a larger SG, to prepare them to be sensitive nurturers.” However, adolescent and pre-adolescent boys tend to have a larger SG than girls do. When studied closer, it was seen that the size of the SG depended on the individual’s overall concept of him or herself as masculine or feminine in terms of a socially constructed gender concept rather than just in terms of biological sex.

However, brain differences do not arise only through the social conditioning. As Ridley shows in his book, The Red Queen: Sex and Evolution of Human Nature, differences seen between the male and female brain can arise from hormonal differences during development. “Testosterone masculinizes the body; without it, the body remains female” (Ridley 254). It also produces differences in the male brain by “masculinizing [it]” (Ridley 254). While functions in the female brain are diffused throughout the entire brain, testosterone causes the brain functions of males to become more localized and separated into different areas of the brain. This works to more definitely separate the functions between the individual brain hemispheres in males as compared to females (Ridley 250-254).

Nature and Nurture

The bottom line is that regardless of how the differences between men and women arise, “men are not closet women and women are not closet men…men and women are different” (Ridley 270). These differences can arise through biological factors, such as differences in the brain or hormone levels, as well as differences in social conditioning. Nature and nurture need to get in on through some slash.

In the end, it is not clear how the differences between men and women actually affect sexual desire or the expression of it. Furthermore, the roles of males and females are not always clearly defined or separated in nature, as shown by the prevalence of homosexuality. The differences between men and women are best understood not by nature versus nurture but quite rightly by their coupling.

3 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture and Sex: Why the Fight?

  1. I’ve heard many times about the masculation of the male brain by testosterone but what happens if the this doesn’t happen and only the body is made male. Will the male have a more feminine thought process? Such as a more sensitive nature and a better ability to multitask etc.

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