Males and females have different experiences about their sexuality from the beginning of life—differences that are based in their dissimilar anatomy. These distinctions in no way mean that they should be treated unequally but it does mean that they will have divergent experiences.
Even as we blur the gender boundaries in this day and age there are still differences between the sexes because male and female bodies are different. If we believe as I do that our bodies—our anatomy and physiology—inform our feelings and vice-versa, then we can acknowledge the important ways in which males and females diverge. First of all, a boys’ sexual organs are in part external. Everyone can see them. My sister put it very well. She was a little tyke of three or four when she saw a boy’s penis for the first time. Her succinct observation was, “Well, that’s a handy thing to take on a picnic.”
So there you have it. A boy’s penis is out there while a girl’s sexual organs are largely internal.
Because a female’s sexual organs are largely internal they can seem invisible or non-existent. A girl child will certainly experience sensations in her clitoris and vagina (yes—even in infancy) but it can be difficult to tell where those sensations originate. Freud who—bless his heart—first made us aware of infantile sexuality didn’t even think that a girl was aware of her vaginas until sex with a man made her aware. So for females, sexuality is a little bit more of a “search and discover” mission while for males, it is out there for all to see. A male child can have sensations in his penis and everyone can tell he is having them. That is an important distinction and it is based on our anatomy.
There are other important differences. Women are the ones who make the babies. At this time in history they have a safe and reasonable choice about whether or not they will do so but they still have the capability of creating life in their bodies. Pretty remarkable when we think of it! Theory and research confirm that little girls know this amazing fact from a very young age. Up until the last 100 years of our civilization women had to be concerned about whether or not they would become pregnant. We know that unplanned pregnancies happen even today. It is always in the back of the female mind in ways that it would not be for a male. For women it is far more difficult to separate sexual and reproductive functions.
This circumstance leads us to another important distinction: Sexuality for women is contextual. Based on the primal knowledge that sex is not just an act but a door to a whole reproductive experience, women consider the context. Unless it is a paid transaction they consider in the back of their minds questions such as the following: Who is this guy? What is his genetic makeup? Will we produce good children? Will he help me take care of them? I am saying that these questions occur in subliminal form even if no one is planning to make babies.
Next week we will talk about how women’s distinct and utterly amazing physiology translates into different experiences of adult sexuality. Suffice it to say that sex is seldom “casual” for women in the way that it can be for men.
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.