To understand why female sexuality is suppressed in many cultures, we first need to understand what’s so special about female sexuality that it ends up being suppressed almost everywhere and not male sexuality.
It all starts with the fact that evolution has rendered female sexuality more valuable than male sexuality, not just in humans but in many other species.
The reason why female sexuality carries a high value is that females invest more in the offspring than the males. Pregnancy and child-rearing typically require women to invest huge amounts of effort, energy, time and resources.
Conversely, men invest little in producing babies. It takes them only a few minutes to do so. They can inseminate a woman for the sheer pleasure of it and not worry about the potential consequences.
Therefore, when a woman consents to sex, she unconsciously consents to bear all the potential costs associated with it, even if the benefit in terms of pleasure is high. Hence, their sexuality has a high value compared to men who bear little or no costs when they have sex.
This is why men are expected to court women and not the other way round. When men have sex with women, they’re essentially gaining access to a valuable resource. They can’t gain such a thing for nothing. It makes no economic sense.
They have to make the exchange equal by compensating for the low value of their own sexuality- by giving the woman they’re courting something more, such as gifts, romance, love, and commitment.
Females of some species of insects will not offer sex unless the male is able to give her food and there are female birds that won’t mate with a male unless they’re impressed by the latter’s nest-building ability.
Suppression of female sexuality
Though on the surface, it seems that men suppress female sexuality more, this view has little support and is flatly contradicted by some findings.1
The reason why men would suppress female sexuality, whenever it happens, is easy to understand. Men seeking a long-term mating strategy prefer women who’re sexually reserved. This arises from the need to ‘guard’ their mates from other males thereby ensuring paternity certainty and reducing/eliminating sperm competition.
By ensuring that there are more sexually reserved women in society, men increase the likelihood of finding such a long-term mate for themselves.
At the same time, men are also wired for greater reproductive success, meaning they’re more inclined to pursue the short-term mating strategy or casual sex. This cancels their need to suppress female sexuality to a large extent because if most females in the society are sexually reserved, their likelihood of engaging in casual sex decreases.
How women suppress female sexuality
It all boils down to basic economics- the laws of supply and demand.
When the supply of a resource increases, its price decreases. When demand increases, price increases.
If women offer sex more freely (increased supply), its exchange value will decrease and the average woman would get lesser from the exchange than she would’ve gotten had sex offered by women been more scarce.2
Therefore, it’s in the best interests of women to restrict their supply of sex (by withholding sex and persuading other women to do so) because, this way, the price that an average woman has to offer increases. In other words, she can get more in exchange for her sexuality.
This is why you often find women derogating women who offer sex ‘cheaply’ and strongly criticize or condemn prostitution and pornography.
After all, if men can easily get access to female sexuality through prostitution or vicariously through pornography, the value of what his female partner has to offer decreases.
Suppression, to the extreme
The most extreme form of this kind of cultural suppression is seen in parts of Africa where they practice female genital mutilation. This practice, which is common in economically deprived parts of Africa, involves surgical practices that remove the clitoris or damage the vagina so as to prevent women from ‘enjoying’ sex.
These practices are usually initiated by women as it enables them to maintain a high price of their sexuality in economically deprived circumstances where they have no other means of ‘securing a good life’ (aka gain resources). In fact, in some communities, it is a prerequisite for marriage.3
Potential costs be damned
The whole idea of this article revolves around the fact that female sexuality is more valuable than male sexuality because sexual intercourse entails huge biological costs for women but not men.
What happens if a woman somehow reduces/removes those costs? Say by popping a birth control pill?
In the early 1960’s millions of American women were on the pill after nearly a decade of it being introduced. Finally, they could offset the huge biological costs associated with engaging in sexual intercourse.
The result was that female sexuality became less valuable and therefore, less restricted. With increased sexual freedom came a decrease in the value of female sexuality.
It was high time that women did something to gain access to resources that they previously gained via sex through means other than sex. This is probably why ‘equal economic opportunities’ became a central goal of the women’s liberation movement as resources tend to be disproportionately controlled by men.
Radicals of the movement even thought that the power hierarchy should be overturned in favor of women and that the traditional gender roles would get reversed in the near future.
Even though the movement did a lot to promote equality of the sexes (the benefits of which are enjoyed by many societies today), it’s radical aspect dwindled away because it went against the nature of men (who’re wired to gain access to resources) and women (who have a biological incentive to obtain a maximum exchange value for their sexuality).
Accusations of ‘female objectification’ are less extreme and refined means of restricting female sexuality. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that there’s no such thing as ‘male objectification’ indicating that men as sexual objects have little value in the sexual marketplace.
1. Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2002). Cultural suppression of female sexuality. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 166.
2. Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Sexual economics: Sex as female resource for social exchange in heterosexual interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 339-363.
3. Yoder, P. S., Abderrahim, N., & Zhuzhuni, A. (2004). Female genital cutting in the Demographic and Health Surveys: a critical and comparative analysis.