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Why is one group of women so different than another when it comes to interest in sex?

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P1990 asks:

I am a 19-year old male, and all the time I hear or read things about females that age or even younger getting into sex, including right here on Scarleteen. But just about every female around my age that I know has little to no interest in sex. What is it that makes these groups of people so different? I'm worried I might not find any partners that are interested in it. I'm not desperate to have sex, or want to base a relationship solely on it, but I do want to have a partner who enjoys it and with whom I can explore sex.

Heather Corinna replies:

There is little in the world that varies as much as human sexuality does.

So, even when we have a couple common variables -- let's say all 18 or 19-year-old women: both an age and a single sex or gender there -- we are still going to see a huge variety within that group based on all the other variables that can play a part in sexuality. Variables like sexual orientation, cultural background, personal and/or religious ethics, level of education, levels of physical, emotional and psychological sexual development, location and the general sexual mores of a given community, diet, sexual history, what sexual ideas and attitudes they were raised with, self-esteem and body image, gender identity, general physical and mental health or illness, sexual fears, use of any medications, specific sexual preferences (like haircolor, body shape, common sexual interests), marital status, communication styles, sexual and general life ideals and priorities and, of course, all the variables that come into play when it comes to how all the women in that one group may feel about you sexually, or about having sexual involvement with you. There are more than that, but that's a good assortment of some of the myriad factors that account for our wide sexual variance as a species.

All of our sexualities are so unique and age is actually one of the factors that has the least influence, especially once we're through or nearly through puberty. For instance, we're more likely to see sexual commonality in people based on the culture they were raised in than we are based on age-in-years. Sexual orientation, religiosity and levels of education are other variables that tend to be more influential than age.

You didn't include your location in your profile, but to give you an idea, here's some basic sexuality data we have about American women who are 18 or 19:

  • By age 19, 77% of women report having had vaginal intercourse (Mosher, Chandra, & Jones, 2005). However, the age of first intercourse for women also varies a good deal by race: while the average age of first intercourse for white women is 16.6, it's 15.8 for Black women, 17 for Hispanic women and 18.1 for women of Asian origin. (Upchurch, 1998)
  • According to several studies, as many as 10% of the women in that age group do not identify as heterosexual.
  • Around 9 percent of females age 18-19 have had oral sex but not vaginal intercourse. (Mosher, Chandra, & Jones, 2005)
  • Among women aged 15-19 years, 42.9% reported no partners in the last 12 months, 30.5% reported one partner of the opposite sex in the last 12 months, and 16.8% reported two or more partners of the opposite sex in the previous year. (Mosher, Chandra, & Jones, 2005)
  • For women 18-24 years of age who had sex before age 20, 13.4% said they "didn't really want it to happen at the time," 52.7% said they "had mixed feelings" and 33.9% said they "really wanted it to happen at the time." Those numbers are substantially different for males in that group: 61.6% stated they really wanted it to happen. (CDC National Survey of Family Growth, 2002)
  • Young women aged 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. (U.S. Department of Justice. 2004 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2004.)

You can see from that data how age alone doesn't tell us very much, though it can show us some things. I didn't want to overload you with too many with statistics, but we also know that young women will much more frequently be sexual and want to be sexual -- which for many includes just talking about sex -- in committed partnerships than at the start of relationships or in casual relationships.

I also want to be sure you know that once any given person begins having sexual partnership, that doesn't mean they'll keep on being sexual with others evermore, without breaks or pauses.

At your age particularly, many younger women are finding themselves with a level of independence and autonomy they didn't have before. I've observed that many younger women will often make sexual choices in their earlier teens without those factors that can be very different than the choices they make once they feel more empowered to make their own choices on their own, without as much interference from, or reactivity to, families or the communities they grew up in. That can include things like keeping sexuality more private (young women can often feel like they're given little privacy around sex, especially during puberty when the whole world can see and reacts to the changes your body is going through) and also opt to be sexual more selectively (which is something that tends to happen with age, regardless: young teens, on the whole, are less sexually selective than older teens or people in their twenties and up). I mention that because when you see younger women at Scarleteen who are sexually active at a given age, know those same women may not be just a couple years later, or may feel differently about sexual partnership at 19 than they did at 16. Know, too, that if we talked a lot about sex when we were younger -- and this isn't the rule, but it happens often enough -- because we felt we were supposed to, felt we needed to prove we were sexual, felt that was a way we would be valued, what have you, as our self-esteem develops more, and we come more into our own, we simply may not feel the same need to discuss it as much.

Of course, what we know -- or think we know -- about what level of interest a given person has in sex as a whole can be mighty iffy. It depends a whole lot on who is asking us about our sexuality, after all, and how we feel about them.

This is something that sexologists are acutely aware of. Because the study of sexuality is usually about self-reporting, people who study sex have known since we started doing that study that the studies we do can be unreliable because people's self-reports of their sex lives so often are. For example, in some studies of married couples, twice as many women as men will report never having sex in a year even though it's each other they would have been having sex with, so their numbers should match. People often aren't honest or completely honest when it comes to talking about their sexuality, even when they're talking to scientists in an environment where their privacy is known to be protected. It's a loaded topic for most people, something many people worry about saying the "right" things about, and something which makes many people feel uncomfortable to talk about at all, especially with people who are not trusted, established sexual partners or longtime friends (and more often of the same gender than not).

It's even more loaded if someone asks us about our interest in sex who we think has an interest in having sex with us. If, as a heterosexual male, you're asking women if they're interested in sex, what they're probably hearing is, "Are you interested in sex...with me?" Even if they are, depending on what you're asking, the question itself may make them feel pretty darn disinterested.

It can feel pretty hard to say openly to someone who we know or presume to want sex with us that we are very interested in sex, because some people interpret that as an invitation. If we're not interested in sex with that person, that situation can feel very awkward and uncomfortable. Heck, it can if we are: you probably aren't all that forthright with the women you know about your sexuality, either, especially if you've a sexual interest in them. Some people also might not talk with you about their sexuality because that opens the door to you talking about yours, and they may not want to talk about yours. How much we trust someone also plays a big part.

Don't forget that in most of the world, it's far more socially acceptable for men to say they're interested in sex than it is for women. If a woman discusses having strong sexual desires with someone who shares that information with a bunch of people, in some groups or areas that can result in her having to deal with a big pile of constant sexual harassment. As well, sexuality is, by and large, something private, so most of us don't just tell anybody about our sexuality.

I gotta mention a few other things which may or may not be personally pertinent or applicable, but if they are, may or may not be so comfortable to hear or what you want to hear.

One biggie is that if you're vibing out that you strongly want to have a sexual partner, then asking lots of personal questions about sex to women you either don't know very well, or do, but who you know don't have a sexual interest in you, that kind of polling and questioning can...well, feel kind of creepy, even if you don't mean for it to. Perhaps obviously, some of the responses you are getting may also just be those particular women saying they're not interested in sex with you, and either thinking or knowing that's what you're asking and why you're asking.

If you're talking to female friends, and they like being your friend, they may be holding a boundary they want and need in those friendships. It can really be a drag as a young woman when and if it feels like every guy you know either wants sex from you or wants to talk about sex with you. It can exert a lot of pressure, feel invasive, get hella tiresome and let's face it, just be really unsexy. To give you a basis of comparison, it'd be like if literally half the planet was incessantly asking you for money: you can see how that would get old after a while. So, sometimes when we cultivate friendships with men, NOT talking about sex can be refreshing, and it can feel like keeping our sexuality private, especially at first, from those guys helps assure those friendships remain friendships. It doesn't always have to be like that, mind, but it may well be that your female friends just need more time to be your friend, and know that's what you really are to them -- and what you want from them, not sex -- before they feel able to talk to you more openly about their sexuality.

You'll note in that little list of stats up there, I included one on rape and sexual violence, and another on how some women reported feeling in terms of if they really wanted the sex they were having. The threat of sexual violence is very real to many young women, and to plenty, it's been actual. As well, the constant strain of sexual harassment many of us experience in our daily lives, especially as younger women, is very real. I don't know you, so I can't know how it is you're assessing how the young women you know feel about sex and sexuality, or what kinds of relationships you have with those women. It doesn't sound like you're someone who would be inclined to be disrespectful or pushy about it, but sometimes, even accidentally, you might be putting that vibe out there, or a woman might be perceiving your questions as harassment when you don't mean them to be. Sometimes "I'm not that into sex" is one way of saying "Please stop talking to me about sex," or "I feel threatened or violated by the way you're asking me about sex." And like I said in the paragraph above, if a woman gets the sense you're asking because you want to have sex with her, or gets some sense of any sexual desperation on your part, it can feel threatening and demeaning.

I do want to mention that it's common for your average person who doesn't work in sexuality to feel like what a handful of people in their own peer group say about sex to them or other peers, or the way that peer group behaves, is representative of everyone. But even if that group is, say, 100 people, that is a VERY small sample. I've been working in this field now for over ten years, and Scarleteen has well over a million users in a year. I have personally had conversations with tens of thousands of our users. That given, I certainly do feel able to make some broad generalizations and observations, but I still will tend to check myself with statistics from other studies, even if their sample sizes are of a smaller number. That's because I'm always -- being human -- going to have some kind of bias in my own observations, because I don't do formal studies the way others do, and because the demographics of the group we see here, however large, has some properties unique to it.

When looking to a source like Scarleteen for this information, there are some things to bear in mind. For instance, we know that of the users we have, who are usually 14-24, only around 20% have not been sexual yet in any way. That's unsurprising, because we provide information and help with sexuality, so we are going to tend to see more people who come to us already having been, or currently being, actively sexual than those who have not been or who are not. But that's also not representative of that age group as a whole, especially those of younger ages: in a more general population, less of them will have been sexual with partners than that. While in many ways, what you'll see from users here is often indicative of the general population, in some ways, like that one, it's not. More of our users also tend to come to us in crisis than I'd say is representative of the number of younger people in crisis with sexuality in general. We do see more users with a history of sexual assault or abuse here than we would in general settings because we offer support services and information on those issues, that's to be expected.

Lastly, because this is a very safe, inclusive, protected and highly moderated online space where young people can talk about their sexuality and are invited to do that, you are likely to see more young women talking more candidly about their sexuality, even expressing sexual desires more openly, than you will be with women you meet, especially if you don't know those women well. After all, our users are very anonymous, we're a source they know millions of people have found safe and reliable over a long period of time, and no one talking here has to worry that what they say will result in in-person or even online harassment or unwanted sexual advances or pressures.

I will tell you, and risk sounding like an old fart, that I often hear young people concerned that they'll never have a sexual partner. I confess, I usually giggle. I can't help it, because while I get feeling that way, I know realistically that's just very unlikely to be an issue for all of you. Here's one last pair of statistics for you, so you understand why I say that: according to that National Survey of Family Growth again, the median number of sexual partners for men 25-44 years of age in their lifetime is 6.7, and 96% of all people have had or will have sex in that age group. Don't forget that of that 4% who don't, that includes people like monks, priests, nuns, those who identify as asexual or others who willingly and intentionally choose to be celibate for a lifetime. The chances of you never having a sexual partner truly are extraordinarily slim.

Ultimately, be patient. I know it can be tough, but sex with someone who's not 110% into you and 110% into having any kind of sex with you is really only a pale shadow of what sex can be: in other words, until you get all the way there, and they do too, I think it's often a lot like eating a piece of fruit that's not ripened yet. It might fill you up in some ways, sure, but you are in no way going to have the same experience you would when you've got fruit that's busting at the seams, juice running down your chin, and a whole spectrum of rich, full flavors. It's also a lot easier to digest.

You say it's important to you that a sexual partner enjoys sex: I agree, but that generally means having strong feelings for the person we're having any kind of sex with and everyone having the space where they feel totally comfortable about being sexual together, not just interested in sex in some obtuse, general way. And it'll happen for you. What I'd suggest is just that rather than getting stuck in the headspace where you're thinking about who will or may have sex, or asking women about their interest in sex in general, you focus on who simply has a strong interest in you, as a person, and vice-versa. If you have that going on, and then you also wind up having shared sexual chemistry with that person (which can be pretty random, but still happens often enough, something the size of our population alone tells us), both study and plain old common sense tell us that the two of you forging a sexual relationship as part of your whole relationship is very likely.

You say you're worried you won't find any partners who are interested in "it." The thing is, when we have a sexual interest that's not about masturbation, it's really not an "it." Rather, it's about if someone has sexual feelings for and with another person: if they are interested, sexually, in you.

written 22 Oct 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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