Everything We Know About Desire and Pleasure

A common refrain in conversations about sex and dating is that “biology” dictates men are only interested in sex, and women use sex as collateral for intimacy. (I’m paraphrasing.)

The truth is, we know less than what most people think about what truly drives sexual desire, biologically or otherwise. There has been lots of noteworthy research, including by Alfred Kinsey, William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. But in general, a lot of research on human sexuality can be limited by a number of factors. That can include researchers’ own biases about what can be assumed about gender and sexuality when forming their hypotheses.

Another major problem: much of the research is based on surveys of a self-selected group of people. This means respondents who would volunteer to take part in a given study may not be representative of the population, which gives results less meaning. Another inherent flaw in survey-based research is simply that people lie, especially when it comes to sex. And even when people don’t lie, they may not be fully aware of what’s happening in their bodies in response to sexual stimuli.

We are all are exposed to so much messaging about how we’re supposed to feel about sex, and all the social stigma surrounding what society deems to be taboo, that we are reluctant even to admit to ourselves if we enjoy something that we think will reflect badly on us.

Luckily there are still devoted scientists who are in active pursuit of better understanding of human sexuality. Below are some examples:

Sexual diversity in the United States

This study on sexuality in the U.S. is one of the few that covers a broad range of people and has statistical relevance. It covers a wide range of sexual activities including masturbation, anal and oral sex, and sending or receiving nude photos.

Straight but Not Narrow; Within-Gender Variation
in the Gender-Specificity of Women’s Sexual Response

Meredith L. Chivers, an associate professor and director of sexuality research at Queens University, has been doing really interesting research on women’s physical sexual response to stimuli. A great way to explore her work is to read Daniel Bergner’s book, “What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire”* which is an entertaining read and takes a closer look at Chivers’ meticulous approach to scientific method.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex*

Mary Roach’s book is fun read to learn about the history of sex science.

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