Men want sex and women want love? Not exactly.

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Men want sex and women want love. Right?

Or taking it a step further: men barter love to get sex, and women barter sex to get love… something like that?

Not only is it more complicated than this, but it’s possible that the reverse is closer to the truth.

Here are a few things to consider. Follow the money Our use of technology reveals something interesting. When it comes to supplementing or substituting for a lover, men and women utilize different tools.

For women the most common tool is a vibrator.

Whereas men tend to use porn. Or dolls. (In the parlance of the sex toy industry, women buy toys that stimulate, men buy toys that simulate.) Or they hire a prostitute.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but so what? Well, given the multiple billions of dollars in vibrator sales each year, there’s no denying that for women, physical pleasure is a high priority.

And men? What’s the common thread with porn, dolls and prostitutes? Seems like men are seeking real, depicted, or simulated other human beings to share the experience with…? Hmmm…. We’ll come back to this in just a bit.

The orgasm gap

You’ve heard of the “orgasm gap.” It refers to the fact that women come less frequently in their sexual encounters than men do.

This has been known for decades but a recent study adds a valuable distinction about where the gap falls. Turns out it’s less a physiological issue than it is a man/woman dynamic. This is worthy of a separate article, but in short it appears that women who have sex with men experience the orgasm gap. Women who have sex with women, not so much.

They orgasm at closer to the same rate as men. The machinery itself is perfectly capable.¹

Above: Percentage of sexual encounters that lead to orgasm, by gender and orientation. There’s a gap of about 20 percentage points between straight and bi women and all other groups. Also, straight men and straight women are at the extremes.

Another study looked at “female copulatory vocalizations” — that is, women moaning during sex.

They found that women weren’t so much moaning during their own orgasm as they were when their partner was close to going over the edge, either to enhance his enjoyment, or simply to hurry up the process.² The point here isn’t that women fake orgasms, it’s to draw attention to the obvious but overlooked fact that men get off on their partners’ get-off. Another study used eye-tracking to follow the gaze of people watching porn, to determine what parts of the scene had their attention.

Guess what the men in the study were looking at the most? The women performers’ faces.³ Surprised? I was, and I wasn’t.

So what’s going on here?

Somatic vs. empathetic pleasure

Men’s machinery isn’t all that hard to operate. If climax were the goal, well, most healthy adult males can do that until the cows come home.

They don’t even need a partner. But there can be something lacking in that experience, a missing ingredient.

While direct, somatic, bodily pleasure comes easy to them, there’s an empathetic component — shared experience or sharing in someone else’s experience — that men hunger for. In short, men are seeking connection. It’s what makes the physical stimulation in sex a complete experience.

As for women’s machinery, we used to think of it as complicated or mysterious. Now we know it isn’t. It certainly is different from men’s though. Women typically have no shortage of available and willing partners — if simply having a partner was all that was needed — but again there can be something lacking in the experience, often profoundly so.

Women often find themselves producing more pleasurable sensation in their partner’s body than what they’re experiencing in their own.

So they have easy access to as much empathetic pleasure as they could ever want — and can easily end up defaulting to that, with mostly vicarious enjoyment in sex — but what they hunger for, the missing nutrient, is direct, somatic, bodily pleasure.

A new understanding of sex

It’s not like the studies above are what led me to this conclusion; they’re just corroborating evidence for something I’ve seen and known for years: sex tends to be better when men are getting gratifying shared experience and women are getting their bodies well-handled.

Looking at sex through this lens — that typically men have bodily pleasure and crave empathetic pleasure, and women have empathetic pleasure and want bodily pleasure — has become a central keystone in my understanding of how sex works, what might be going on when it isn’t working, and what to do about it.

It’s why when I have a couple focus 100% of their attention on getting to know intimately how her body responds, what she likes, what feels good, and then doing those things… when I have them both start to notice and dismantle all the places where she’s exaggerating or putting on a show for his sake, and instead focus on having her feel that much for real… then suddenly he’s getting something he may not even have known he was hungry for.

And she’s getting something she may have given up hope of ever having.