HomeBiological aspects of sexualityHuman reproductionIntercourse involves reproductive risk for women

Intercourse involves reproductive risk for women

Men tend to focus on sexual pleasure so we often equate sexuality to responsiveness. Orgasm is certainly one erotic pleasure that motivates a person to initiate sexual activity. But sexuality is, in fact, foremost about reproduction. Pleasure is merely a by-product. Given the key role of intercourse in male sexuality, it is tempting to assume that it must have a similar role in female sexuality. Unfortunately, this does not follow. The vagina is a reproductive organ but thrusting into it provides male orgasm. For the purposes of reproduction, only men need to be motivated to engage in intercourse. Female orgasm occurs outside the reproductive process.

A man’s key reproductive role is impregnating a woman. A woman’s key reproductive role is bearing children. Most of us base our understanding of sexuality on this reproductive view because of how we experience sex. Male responsiveness aligns with a man’s reproductive role because male orgasm is the trigger for ejaculation (which is the key reproductive event). So we assume that female responsiveness must also align with women’s reproductive role. Men assume that because reproduction involves a woman being penetrated, she must thereby experience arousal and orgasm. Such a situation would be very convenient for everyone but wishing doesn’t make it so. We need to consider the very different overhead for men and women in terms of the consequences of engaging in intercourse (the mating act).

As a result of intercourse, a woman can be obliged to carry a man’s progeny in her uterus for 9 months. After this time, the social responsibility for raising the child is clearly hers. A woman is expected to care for a child on a daily basis until it can fend for itself. Without the protection of reliable contraception, few women would volunteer for unprotected intercourse. Women naturally avoid intercourse. Many of the world’s children are born because of an act that a woman may not welcome or that is forced on her.

For a man, intercourse is risk free. There are no consequences. A man’s best chances of passing on his genes involve having a biological drive to impregnate any attractive woman regardless of circumstances. But if women behaved as men do, our species would not have been so successful reproductively. For a woman to successfully reproduce (raise a child to adulthood), she needs to choose both the man and circumstances conducive to raising children. Before the 1960s there was no reliable contraception. A woman potentially risked pregnancy every time she engaged in intercourse.

Throughout history, married women have spent their whole lives either pregnant or breastfeeding. Women commonly died in childbirth. So women paid for intercourse with their life. If she was unmarried, a woman was blamed for bringing a child into the world without a father to pay for its upbringing. Unless she has some reassurance that a man will support her in raising a child, no woman is likely to risk pregnancy without a fight. This conscious ability to avoid intercourse with an unsuitable mate is incompatible with being erotically aroused by a potential partner and having a sex drive. A woman makes a conscious choice to offer regular intercourse to a devoted man who is willing to support her through years of child-raising.

Once reliable contraceptive became available, it was assumed that women would be free to enjoy the same pleasure from intercourse that men have always enjoyed. It was proposed that women would behave as men do. This has not happened. Men still need to date women before there is likely to be any sexual activity. Most women will only offer sex in the context of a committed and loving relationship. Men also continue to be the ones who propose. A marriage proposal represents a man’s offer of financial support.

Certainly, there are women today who are willing to have sex for no particular reason other than ego. But women’s motives are different to men’s. Women are not intent on their own pleasure but rather on what they might obtain by providing male pleasure. Reliable contraception cannot change women’s instinctive responses that have evolved over millions of years. Sexual responses do not change over decades. Only women’s sexual behaviours change as fashion dictates and because of improved policing.

Men want intercourse for the erotic pleasure they enjoy from it. This is not just sensual and emotional pleasure. It is crude lust. Men need sex regardless of the risks, which are not just confined to getting a woman pregnant. Both hetero- and homosexual men risk their careers, political future or public censure. Others have risked death or severe punishments (especially gay men) to obtain penetrative sex. This is the power of a strong sex drive that motivates some men to take considerable risk to obtain the sexual release they can obtain from another person’s body in a way that women never do.

Most women are only willing to offer intercourse when they are attracted to a man in such a way that they feel amenable to sex. This amenability is emotional and romantic rather than erotic. When a woman loves a man, she enjoys giving him pleasure. In the days before reliable contraception and maintenance payments, if a woman became pregnant she had no choice about offering sex to obtain a man’s on-going support. So the emotional factors that make women amenable to sex only need to operate in the early days of relationships. These romantic factors may work later on if a woman obtains rewards from the wider relationship that compensate her for investing passively or actively in her sex life. Men provide for women’s material needs but they are often less sensitive to women’s emotional needs.

Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men. (Joseph Conrad)

Excerpt from Learn About Sexuality (ISBN 978-0956-894748)