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2 July 2001
The Social Dimension Of Sex
by George Atkinson

Men won the sexual revolution, declare two social psychologists from Case Western Reserve University in their book, "The Social Dimension of Sex."

Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice, CWRU professors of psychology, propose that sex is a social exchange in which women hold the power card, and that men will do just about anything to get it. The catch is if sex is given too freely, men will take it and run.

For women, a flip side exists in that if women never have sex, the psychologists say they then lose the value of the power they wield. When vying for the attention of men, they have to walk the fine line between being a miser or a vamp.

"It a complex social situation," say the psychologists.

They have examined sex as "a meaningful human activity that shapes and is shaped by human relationships and interactions." Their evaluation of the sex scene differs from past studies where researchers explored sex in the context of hormones, physiology, illness, malfunctions, or comparative animal sexual behaviors.

"The physiology of sex is better understood than the social psychology of sex," says Baumeister. Tice adds that their views often challenge accepted ideas about sex and, at times, appear politically incorrect.

In the book, they cover a range of social sexual situations and topics -- extramarital affairs, homosexuality, rape, sex drives of men and women, gender differences in sex, satisfaction in the monogamous marriage, interracial relationships, and polygamy. On the latter topic, they explore the unconventional view that its practices often benefit the survival of women where there is a scarcity of men.

"Whoever wants sex less has a certain amount of power in the relationship," adds Baumeister. Beneath the romance, Tice points out that one can find some form of social exchange taking place where sex is involved. They know this idea "flies in the face" of current thinking about equality in the bedroom.

"More simply put, women have something men want," says Tice. Men obtain sex in a variety of ways, from violently taking it through rape to the other extreme of paying a prostitute. The majority of sex takes place in the context between these extremes.

They also propose that for a sexual revolution to take place, women had to have available alternative sources of power, money, and status to compensate for the loss that sexual freedom brings about. "Under women's new circumstances, it was no longer so vital for women to hold sex hostage," they write.

The prevailing sexual mores often depend upon the numbers of men and women. When a surplus of women exists, men tend to take on more sexual partners and there is a freer sexual atmosphere; a more restrictive cultural climate exists when lower numbers of women are available.

How much sex takes place? The authors scrutinized two major sex surveys -- the Janus Report and the National Health and Social Life.

The latter reports that adults have had an average of three partners in their life, while the Janus Report found that half of American adults report having 19 or fewer partners.

The psychologists find that any reports are going to be flawed, as sexual encounters usually are private. Culture also influences the surveys' numbers, they say, with women under-reporting the number of sexual encounters, while men tend to overstate their experiences.

Reasons for this are rooted in the culture, the authors point out, saying that men value women with the least number of sexual encounters, because men tend to see the value of sex decreases for a woman as her sexual encounters increase. This standard does not hold for men, they say, as women gravitate towards physically robust males.

What is going in America's bedroom is less sex than assumed, conclude the psychologists.

"Sex remains an intensely personal act that the average person shares with only a few partners across a lifetime. The norm, apparently, is to have sex with only a couple of people, including the spouse with whom one settles down for a long time," states Baumeister.

Other points made by the authors are:

  • High self-esteem enables a women to resist the advances of men
  • Romantic passion is prevalent in all cultures, but how a culture responds to this passion is what varies
  • Sexual possessiveness may be rooted in nature, and all cultures impose stricter penalties against wifely infidelities
  • Nature instills in people the desire for sex, but culture controls that desire
  • Women prefer sex within stable committed relationships rather than commitment-free sex, but men like both kinds
  • Women are more sexually flexible than men and responsive to social, cultural, and situational influences, while innate, genetic influences have more impact on men
  • The motivation to engage in sex -- or sex drive -- is weaker in women Relationships are influenced by this sexual flexibility that presents opportunity and obstacles. The researchers say men find women inconsistent and fickle, while women are disappointed at the inflexibility of men in various situations.

This sexual fluidity also affects same-sex relations, where women are more able to move from lesbian to bisexual relationships, whereas men tend to either be heterosexual or homosexual.

While the single guy may think his married counterpart is having a bedroom romp on a nightly basis, the married man envies the freedom of the single man to play the field and encounter new women. The authors report that in reality, while married men are slightly less happy than their single counterparts, overall they will have more sex with their married partners than as a single man whose sex is not guaranteed.

Baumeister and Tice says their findings are only the beginning of exploring sex as a social-psychological phenomenon. "It's a field that has much opportunity for exploration. The time is ripe for rapid progress in the area of sexuality," they add.

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