Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
‘Tis woman’s whole existence.
The above is a quote from Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Canto 1; Stanza 194. I have heard it many times but had never looked it up until now. Written as it was in 1824, it has stood the test of time so there must be a grain of truth in it. I am reminded of it because I think it has bearing on the different ways that women and men view sexuality. Am I old-fashioned in thinking of it that way? If so I stand accused. Just to be clear I am not making exceptions for same-sex couples. I am only saying that because biology differs for males and females in some very important ways, there will be differences in the ways they experience sexuality and love that is sexually expressed.
Our bodies give us signals based on our anatomy and physiology. We are bathed in a wash of hormones from birth onward. We are moreover programmed by powerful cultural messages that often reinforce biology. Girl children become aware from very early on that they will have babies. Hmmmm!!! How on earth!!??? They learn this information in subtle and indiscernible ways but, make no mistake, they learn it! They learn that, remarkably enough, their breasts will develop so that they can suckle a baby if they wish. Wow! This is crazy talk, right! They also learn that they will likely be the ones who will be the main caregivers for the babies they make. Society may be changing in this regard but it is changing V E R Y S L O W L Y.
So they watch their mothers and they identify with them. Some little girls take to it like ducks to water; others, not so much. But I have seen many a young woman who thinks of herself as a “tom boy” but ends up taking care of the babies once she has them. It will be a long time before our society accepts the notion that men and women alike should do the childcare. Just sayin’.
But let’s say a woman decides never to have children and elects to be sterilized. What then? Child free women are a growing number in our society. Or perhaps a woman has reached menopause. I have heard many women say that they find sex more enjoyable when they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. I am suggesting however that even in these situations, biology is powerful.
Sex for women represents the possibility of a far more serious, even lifelong commitment, to a child. That makes it far more implausible that they can engage in “casual” sex. Because women are biologically equipped to make babies they will, from an evolutionary perspective, always be auditioning men who have the potential to be good fathers and breadwinners. So sexual expression and the love that may accompany it can determine, as the poet says, a woman’s “whole existence.”
From early on a girl child’s sexuality is more mysterious and complicated than that of a boy child. In the end our well-developed cerebral cortexes mean that we are not determined by our biology but we are better off if we are aware of it. It also does not mean that women and men cannot be treated equally. I believe that will happen only as we understand and honor their differences.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.