Summary of female attitudes and sexual behavior


Ideas, influences, and facts about female sexual behavior

It is difficult to accede to easy generalizations about how women adapt to the feminine role. Sweeping theories that try to explains many different aspects of feminine behavior in terms of a few major variables or vectors become suspect for their oversimplification.

Theories that tie the numerous phenomena of femininity to a few concepts (for example, penis envy and Oedipal conflict) cannot embrace the known data.

One prime fact that has emerged from the literature analysis is that the various classes of behavior roughly grouped under the rubric of "being a woman" do not easily lend themselves to portrayal as a unified general system.

That is, it seems difficult to predict from one aspect of a woman's functioning to other aspects.

To know that a woman has a good "feminine identification" does not seem to tell us whether she has much or little pain during menstruation.

Similarly, the way in which she experiences menstruation does not apparently predict the way in which she will experience pregnancy. Her degree of sexual responsiveness seems to tell little, if anything, about her adaptation in most other sectors of femininity.

It should be added that no evidence has emerged that there exists a generalized adequacy or inadequacy of feminine adaptation.

This means that adequacy of various aspects of feminine function cannot currently be spanned within concepts such as ego strength, "maladjustment," and "neurosis."

The failure to find empirical evidence of a generalized relationship between maladjustment and such variables as sexual responsiveness and menstrual discomfort stands in opposition to a massive clinical literature that declares the obverse to be true.

One finds especially that psychoanalytically-oriented observers have expressed conviction in their writings that lack of sexual responsiveness is caused by some deficit in ego strength.

At the moment, it is fair to say that their view is supported only by case illustrations and faith in Freudian theory.

Whereas it is true that really decisive empirical studies of the issues involved have not yet been carried out, there are clearly sufficient negative findings to offer a serious challenge to long accepted assumptions.

However, there are some sectors of feminine functioning in which personal disturbance does seem to be significantly involved.

For example, maladjustment seems to be greater in women with symptoms of amenorrhea than in those without such symptoms. Also, anxiety has been shown to be greater in women who develop pregnancy complications than those who do not.

It is pertinent too that a number of studies have been cited that suggest that if disturbing tensions and conflicts can be decreased in women, they are less likely to manifest pathology in their reproductive functions.

Psychotherapy has been shown to have potential for decreasing habitual spontaneous abortion, infertility, and delivery complications. Psychological tensions and conflicts do, from this perspective, seem to participate in certain forms of disturbance in the reproductive system.

Actually, the initial evidence is sufficiently good that one wonders why psychotherapeutic methods have not been more widely used to assist women with specific types of reproductive difficulties (particularly infertility and habitual spontaneous abortion).

As already indicated, significant doubt has been cast on the idea that a woman's ability to respond to sexual stimulation is related to her "mental health" or psychological maturity. Her responsiveness does not seem to be an index of her stability or degree of neuroticism. But at the other extreme, it does not seem to be highly related to the sheer amount of practice she has had in sexual intercourse.

 It is true that such practice may, over a period of years, decrease considerably the likelihood that a woman will not be able to experience an orgasm at least occasionally, but it does not appear to have more than a small effect beyond this threshold level.

For example, years of practice only produce a small increment in those who orgasm during sex "almost always."

The limited effect of sexual experience itself is matched by the finding that previous exposure to sexual trauma (sexual aggression, submission to an abortion) does not seem to influence orgasm adaptability. Relatedly, the experience of carrying through a pregnancy and having a child does not, either via its physiological or psychological impact, facilitate sexual responsiveness. What is striking about these findings is that a woman's sexual responsiveness seems to be influenced only to a limited extent by the amount and character of her sexual experiences or the experiences she has had with her reproductive system.

Apropos of this last point, the amount of pain or discomfort a woman typically has during her menstrual period does not seem to influence her sexual responsiveness.

Orgasm capacity and indices of menstrual discomfort have not been found to be consistently correlated. Thus, although a woman may associate her vagina with recurrent painful sensations, this does not seem to affect her orgasm ability.

Still another pertinent fact to consider is that few, if any, studies have been able to link a woman's sexual responsiveness with the traits or attributes of her husband.

The work of Rainwater (1965), which showed that lower-class women have diminished sexual responsiveness and which attributed this deficit to their poor communication with their husbands, stands as a notable exception.

Another is the Masters and Johnson (1970) clinical report that asserts, although somewhat anecdotally, that sexual responsiveness problems in a woman can only be adequately treated within the context of her relationships with her husband.

One may add that banishing the partner's attributes as an influential factor in a woman's responsiveness goes against many clinical as well as common-sense observations.

But if one is to honor the bulk of the existing pertinent empirical data, one has to tentatively conclude that a woman's sexual responsiveness does not seem to be primarily a function of the kind of man who is stimulating her.

Whereas there is a need for much further study of this whole issue, one cannot dismiss some of the careful work that has been done.

Actually, the two most positive leads that have been uncovered concerning correlates of orgasm capacity involve social class and education.

 Kinsey demonstrated that orgasm capacity is positively correlated with education and social class. As suggested earlier, there are a number of different ways that one can interpret such findings.

Illustratively, one might propose that the life situation of the lower-class, less-educated woman is realistically such that she has to put up with an unusual amount of chronic frustration or fatigue or disappointment or pessimism, and that this interferes with her responding adequately to sexual stimulation.

Apropos of the mention of pessimism, one is reminded that in the Terman studies of orgasm correlates, it was tentatively found (in middle-class samples) that women with the least ability to reach orgasm were those who were most inclined to lack optimism and to have low self-confidence.

Another possibility to consider is that the orgasm difference related to education level and social class membership has to do with more general training or socialization factors.

That is, women who are unable to obtain higher education or who come from a lower class may have learned to perceive the world differently from those at the other extremes of these two dimensions.

They may have been given quite different ideas about the meaning of sexual intercourse, for example, whether it is potentially dangerous, whether it is a proper way to enjoy the world, or whether it enhances or depreciates a woman's status in the eyes of a man.

They may have learned to adopt different attitudes toward self that encompass a woman's right to be gratified, to experience her body as a source of pleasure, and to perceive an intimate relationship as one in which there is mutual satisfying exchange.

Questions have been raised concerning conventional interpretations of how such physiological processes as menstruation and pregnancy are experienced.

Although there is little doubt that most women are exposed to uncomfortable sensations during menstruation, it is also true that they come to view it as a badge of femininity which, in that sense, has positive significance.

Several studies have been reviewed that indicate that women value menstruation and may derive identity security from its symbolic meaning and its regular recurrence. Empirical observation has also cast doubt on the idea that pregnancy is typically a time of great psychological crisis.

Although pregnant women worry about their health, the condition of the fetus, and so forth, it is not at all clear that they are overall more psychologically upset during pregnancy than during other phases of their lives.

There is, however, some indication that the immediate post-delivery period may be a time of unusual psychological vulnerability, as indicated, for example, by an increased psychosis rate.

It has been proposed that the uniquely sudden radical changes (for example, decrease in body size, no longer containing a fetus within self) that accompany delivery impose intense strains on a woman's adaptive abilities.

Whether a woman likes or dislikes the changes that occur, they presumably tax her because they are so much swifter than changes of such magnitude usually are. This is, of course, a speculation.

Whereas a good deal of negative evidence has been presented with regard to the role of psychological forces in shaping sexual and reproductive processes, one should keep in mind that a considerable amount of positive evidence has also been offered. Anxiety does seem to predict the likelihood of pregnancy complications.

 Amenorrhea is positively correlated with indicators of personal maladjustment. Motivation for, and adequacy of, breast feeding seem to be linked with certain attitudes about personal intimacy. Psychotherapy does apparently diminish habitual aborting and helps women with infertility problems.

The formation of feminine identity requires certain patterns of relationship with the mother and father. There can be no doubt of the importance of psychological factors in modulating feminine adaptation. The task is to ascertain which are the most prominent in specific areas of feminine functioning


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