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Review of General Psychology 2002, Vol. 6,

Review of General Psychology 2002, Vol. 6,

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Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality
Roy F. Baumeister
Case Western Reserve University
Jean M. Twenge
San Diego State UniversityFour theories about cultural suppression of female sexuality are evaluated. Data arereviewed on cross-cultural differences in power and sex ratios, reactions to the sexualrevolution, direct restraining influences on adolescent and adult female sexuality,double standard patterns of sexual morality, female genital surgery, legal and religiousrestrictions on sex, prostitution and pornography, and sexual deception. The view thatmen suppress female sexuality received hardly any support and is flatly contradicted bysome findings. Instead, the evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifleeach other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiatewith men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.
The suppression of female sexuality can beregarded as one of the most remarkable psycho-logical interventions in Western cultural his-tory. According to Sherfey’s (1966) respectedstatement of this view, the sex drive of thehuman female is naturally and innately strongerthan that of the male, and it once posed apowerfully destabilizing threat to the possibilityof social order. For civilized society to develop,it was allegedly necessary or at least helpful forfemale sexuality to be stifled. Countless womenhave grown up and lived their lives with far lesssexual pleasure than they would have enjoyed inthe absence of this large-scale suppression. So-cializing influences such as parents, schools,peer groups, and legal forces have cooperated toalienate women from their own sexual desiresand transform their (supposedly and relatively)sexually voracious appetites into a subduedremnant.The double standard of sexual morality hascondemned certain sexual activities by womenwhile permitting the identical actions for men.In some cases, surgical procedures have beenused to prevent women from enjoying sex.From some perspectives, these societal forceshave deprived most individual women of theirnatural capacity to enjoy multiple orgasms andintimate gratifications. Women have felt thatthey are not permitted by society to expresstheir sexual feelings or even to enjoy sex inmany contexts. Men may also have suffered, atleast indirectly, insofar as they have been de-prived of the pleasures that come from havingpartners who enjoy sex.In this article, we review evidence from mul-tiple sources in an effort to understand the ori-gins of this suppression of female sexuality.Because the full extent, if not the actuality, of the suppression is unknown, it seems essentialto consider alternative explanations, and so weoffer two hypotheses that can explain genderdifferences in sexual behavior without invokingcultural suppression. These hypotheses mayweaken (but not necessarily eliminate) the casethat female sexuality has been culturally sup-pressed. We conclude, however, that some sig-nificant degree of societal suppression has oc-curred. In the main part of the article, we thenconsider two possible social processes thatcould produce it.Our two theories involve implicit cooperationamong large numbers of people working to-gether to stifle female sexuality. We do notmean to imply that these were conscious, delib-erate, or explicit conspiracies. Rather, peoplemay have come to participate in these processeswithout full awareness of what they were doing,simply because situational forces and salientself-interest impelled them to act in ways thatcontributed to bringing female sexuality underrestrictive control.Although the suppression of female sexualityis of considerable interest and practical impor-
Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, CaseWestern Reserve University; Jean M. Twenge, Departmentof Psychology, San Diego State University.Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-dressed to Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology,Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Ohio 44106-7123. E-mail: rfb2@po.cwru.edu
Review of General Psychology Copyright 2002 by the Educational Publishing Foundation2002, Vol. 6, No. 2, 166203 1089-2680/02/$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//1089-2680.6.2.166
166
 
tance in its own right, it also has broader theo-retical importance. Several decades ago, socialconstructionist theories dominated theorizingabout sex, but in recent years evolutionary andbiological theories have argued that many sex-ual behavior patterns are based on innate pre-dispositions, and such lines of thought implic-itly tend to question the role of culture andsocialization. Being newer, the evolutionarytheories have the advantage of being able tostart with more information, and in general theyseem more elaborate and detailed (which is notto say that they are necessarily more correct)than the simple views that culture and social-ization shape sexual practices.In any case, the evolutionary theories presenta challenge to the older, culture-based views,and one way to respond to this challenge is tobegin developing more detailed and elaborateexplanations of where and how cultures haveshaped sexuality successfully. The suppressionof female sexuality is (almost by de
nition) acultural phenomenon, and so if the next gener-ation of theorists seeks to revitalize sociocul-tural theorizing about sexuality, it may bene
tby considering some major cultural events, suchas the sexual revolution and the suppression thatit defeated. (On the other hand, theories aboutsuppression tend to invoke assumptions thatderive from evolutionary and biological pat-terns, and so they are broadly compatible.) Inshort, we hope that following this line of argu-ment may be one small step toward promotingculture-based theories of sexuality.In this article, we articulate two competinghypotheses about the major proximal source of in
uences to suppress female sexuality. The
rst is that men
particularly husbands
havebeen the main sources of such in
uence, and thesecond is that women themselves have been themain sources. Against those theories, wepresent two
null hypotheses
in the sense thatthey argue that lesser sexual activity amongwomen is not due to any cultural suppression.The
rst null hypothesis is that women simplyhave an innately milder sex drive than men, andso the appearance of suppression is an artifact of the natural fact of weaker desire. The other nullhypothesis is that the costs of sex have generallybeen heavier for women than men, and so indi-vidual women learn to suppress their own sex-ual desires out of rational self-interest. For ex-ample, a woman may avoid sex and restrain herdesires so as not to get pregnant, not becauseshe fell victim to cultural brainwashing. Afterthe exposition of these four theories, we turn tothe available evidence to test competing predic-tions based on the theories. The main focus of that review is whether men or women consti-tuted the main proximal in
uences toward re-straining female sexuality.By way of de
nition, we understand the sup-pression of female sexuality as a pattern of cultural in
uence by which girls and women areinduced to avoid feeling sexual desire and torefrain from sexual behavior. This is of course amatter of degree, and our concept of suppres-sion does not require that women end up withno desire or sexual behavior. The lack of en-couragement to explore and enjoy sex is notenough to constitute suppression; in other words,suppression involves the message that sex is badrather than simply the failure to teach that sex isgood. We do not deny that society has alsosometimes sought to suppress male sexuality orsexuality in general, but these are separate pro-cesses and questions, and our focus is on effortsspeci
cally targeted at girls and women. Thedouble standard, for example, has consisted of  judgments that many speci
c sexual behaviorsare acceptable for men but unacceptable forwomen (e.g., D
Emilio & Freedman, 1997;Whyte, 1978), which is one sign that somemessages of sexual restraint have been aimedprimarily at women. Control and suppression of sexuality in both genders deserves a separatetreatment and may well involve very differentpatterns, means, and motives.
Two Suppression Theories
The two main theories differ fundamentallyas to which gender is mainly responsible for thealleged suppression of female sexuality. Eithermen in general, or women in general, cooper-ated implicitly to sti
e women
s sexual desireand behavior. These views give rise to compet-ing predictions that men or women would be themain proximal sources of in
uence toward sup-pression of female sexuality.
The Male Control Theory
The essence of the
rst suppression theory isthat men have sought to suppress female sexu-ality. According to this view, the political goals
167SUPPRESSION OF FEMALE SEXUALITY
 
of men have depended on preventing womenfrom having sexual pleasure. Several reasonshave generally been suggested why men mightseek to control and sti
e female sexuality.From the evolutionary point of view, themain advantage men derive by suppressing fe-male sexuality would be an improvement incertainty about paternity (see Buss, 1994).Above all, a man does not want another man toget his wife pregnant. In this view, men want topass on their genes, and because a woman canhave only about one child per year, men jeal-ously guard their female mates to prevent othermen from possibly impregnating them. Con-vincing women to relinquish sexual desirecould be a helpful strategy. If a woman lacksdesire, according to this argument, she will beless likely to have sex with anyone other thanher mate, and so he can be relatively morecon
dent that any children she bears will be his.In a variation on this argument, writers such asCoontz and Henderson (1986) have proposedthat the stabilization of property rights and theresulting desire to pass on one
s property tolegitimate heirs, rather than any innate jealoustendency, were what motivated men to beginrestricting the sexual behavior of their wives.This view emphasizes the male mate (hus-band) as the principal source of in
uence insuppressing female sexuality. Unattached menwould have little reason to wish women wouldlack sexual desire; on the contrary, they wouldprobably want women to have more sexual de-sire so as to increase the men
s own chances of forming even a temporary liaison. Meanwhile,women would have little or no reason to want tosuppress female sexuality (either their own orthat of other women). Possibly, one could arguethat unattached men learn to pressure women tosti
e sexual desire on a societal basis becausethe men think that when they do eventually
nda mate, she will be more likely to remain faith-ful (and will be more likely to be chaste whenthe men
nd them). Still, the hypothesis thatmen seek to sti
e the sexuality of women otherthan their own mates would require separateevidence beyond indications that men jealouslyguard their own mates from having sex withother men. The crux of the paternity explanationfor suppressing female sexuality is that menmainly work to suppress their wives
sexuality.Empirical support for this view might take theform of showing that men discourage sexualdesire in their wives or actually prefer a sexu-ally unresponsive wife rather than one withhigher desires.A potential objection to this view is that if aman
s mate does not desire sex, the man himself may be at a disadvantage in trying to impreg-nate her. Ideally, he would like her to desire himpassionately but have no interest in other men.The broad suppression view would hold thatmen cannot have both, so they lean towardsti
ing female sexual desire in general. In es-sence, it posits that men are willing to havesexually unresponsive mates in exchange forbeing more certain that their mates will be faith-ful. Because it does not require much sex tocreate a pregnancy, the trade-off may seem ad-vantageous to men. A woman with a low sexdrive would probably be willing to have sexonce in a great while, which is su
cient toenable the man to pass on his genes. He wouldnot want her to desire sex any more often thanthat, because then she might have sex with othermen.Feminist theory offers several possible basesfor male control over female sexuality (e.g.,Brownmiller, 1975; Travis & White, 2000). Ingeneral, feminist analysis depicts social ar-rangements as re
ecting victimization of fe-males by males. Society is called
patriarchy
because it is made by and for males, and womenare its victims. One of men
s top priorities is tokeep women down and use them for the men
sown purposes.One line of feminist analysis would be thatmen regard women as men
s possessions andtherefore seek to keep them to themselves. Bysuppressing female sexuality, men can keepwomen from wanting to have sex with othermen. This analysis resembles the evolutionaryargument on paternity certainty. It could, how-ever, be simply that men do not want women tobe autonomous creatures who make their owndecisions and seek their own ful
llment, be-cause such activities could potentially under-mine male control. Lerner (1986) contendedthat an important step in cultural evolution wasthe commodi
cation of women, according towhich
women themselves became a resource
(p. 212) whose sexuality could be regulated,exchanged, and otherwise used for male bene
t.McIntosh (1978) concluded more bluntly that
women
s sexuality is suppressed by men or inthe interests of patriarchy
(p. 64), and because
168 BAUMEISTER AND TWENGE

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