In many surveys, men typically report engaging in sex at earlier age, more often, and with more sexual partners than do women. However, a new study shows that some reported gender differences might show up because women don't always answer surveys honestly, but give answers they believe are expected of them.
"Women are sensitive to social expectations for their sexual behavior and may be less than totally honest when asked about their behavior in some survey conditions," said Terri Fisher, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus.
In this study, the researchers asked men and women about their sexual attitudes and behaviors under several different testing conditions - including one in which the participants believed they were connected to a lie detector machine.
Women's answers were closer to men's in some areas of sexual behavior when they thought lies could be detected. Men's answers didn't change as much as did women's under different testing conditions.
"Before the study, we thought men would generally overreport their sexual behavior and women would underreport it under certain testing conditions," Fisher said. "However, we found that women were more likely than men to have different answers depending on conditions when they were surveyed."
Fisher conducted the study with Michele Alexander, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maine. Their results appear in a recent issue of The Journal of Sex Research.
The study involved 201 unmarried, heterosexual college students (96 men and 105 women) between the ages of 18 and 25. All the participants completed questionnaires that asked about their sexual attitudes, sexual experience and behavior, and the age at which they first had sexual intercourse.
The participants were split into three groups, based on the different conditions under which they completed the questionnaires.
In one group, the researchers placed electrodes on the participants' hand, forearms and neck and the participants were told they were being attached to a polygraph (lie detector) machine. However, the polygraph was an old model that didn't actually work. Although the participants filled out written questionnaires, they were told the polygraph was sensitive enough to detect dishonesty even in written responses. The participants were left alone in a room to answer their questionnaires.
A second group filled out the sex surveys alone in a room and were told their answers would be completely anonymous.
In the third group, participants were led to believe that the researcher might view their responses and the researcher sat right outside the testing room with the door open.
In general, the researchers found that women who thought their answers might be seen by others tended to give answers that were more socially acceptable than did women who thought they were connected to a lie detector.
For example, women who thought their answers might be read reported an average of 2.6 sexual partners. But those who thought they were monitored by a lie detector reported an average of 4.4 sexual partners. Women who were not attached to the lie detector, but who had privacy during testing, gave answers in the middle - an average of 3.4 sexual partners.
Men's answers didn't vary as widely. Men who thought they were attached to a polygraph reported an average of 4.0 sexual partners, compared to 3.7 partners for those who thought their answers might be seen.
"Women appear to feel pressure to adhere to sex role expectations that indicate women should be more relationship-oriented and should avoid being seen as promiscuous," Fisher said.
Fisher said it is not entirely surprising that women changed their answers more than men.
"We live in a culture that really does expect a different pattern of sexual behavior from women than it does from men," she said.
The study showed more differences between men and women in sexual attitudes than in sexual behavior. One reason that the study didn't show more differences in behavior seems to be because the sex differences the researchers sought to explain aren't particularly strong anymore.
"Our results may reflect currently shifting gender roles in which women don't feel as strong a need to meet certain expectations about their sexual behavior," Fisher said.
However, the results show there are still gender differences and these differences need to be taken into account in a variety of ways, she said.
For example, many of the most widely respected sex surveys are based on face-to-face interviews with participants. But these types of interviews may lead women to give answers that they feel are more socially desirable, even if they are not completely honest. Having participants complete written questionnaires anonymously may yield more honest results, Fisher said.
Also, medical professionals need to be aware of how women respond to questions about their sexuality.
"Based on these findings, a doctor may need to ask female patients about their sexual behavior in different ways than they would for male patients," she said.