Ludacris may have led us to believe that heterosexual men want a "lady in the streets but a freak in the bed,” but according to science, Ludacris may be wrong. Gasp!
In a new study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers found that men often feel anxious when dating sexually aggressive women, to the detriment of their relationship—and the reason why is depressing.
For the study, which was small, researchers followed 62 newly dating couples for a period of eight months. The goal was to explore how each participant’s level of desire for sex and intimacy could influence their “attachment style.”
In psychology speak, “attachment styles” refer to how people bond with others. Psychologists recognize four different types: secure, anxious, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. In the past, experts believed that one’s attachment style could influence his or her romantic relationships. For example, if you had an anxious attachment style, you likely needed a lot of reassurance from a romantic partner.
But newer research suggests that attachment styles may not be as fixed as we once thought; instead, they appear to change depending on who we date. We’ve all dated people who make us feel more or less anxious, right? When a partner is especially attentive and loving, for example, we might experience lower levels of anxious attachment.
To test this newer theory, the researchers sent the newly dating couples a series of questions to answer about their relationship, intended to measure what type of attachment style each partner each exhibited. For example, the participants rated questions such as “I worry a lot about my relationship with my partner” (anxious attachment), and “I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on my partner” (avoidant attachment).
The couples were also brought into a lab and videotaped, which allowed research assistants to measure their verbal and non-verbal cues—including touching, displays of intimacy, and flirting. The couples were then surveyed again at four months and eight months.
Before I get into what they found, I should point out that in the beginning of a relationship levels of anxious-attachment tend to be high regardless, because the relationship is new—so the study’s findings looked specifically at how these levels changed or didn't change over time, as the couples continued to solidify their partnership.
As it turns out, the researchers observed a major difference in how men and women's attachment style changed based on their partner’s levels of intimacy and sexual desire.
Women's anxiety in relationships tended to decrease over time when their partner showed high levels of sexual desire. Basically, the female participants felt more secure in their relationship if their partner wanted to have sex with them a lot. The authors believe this is because women consider men to be innately sexual creatures, so they derive relationship validation from sex. The authors explain:
Accordingly, a woman may perceive her partner’s sexual interest as a sign for his willingness to invest resources in the relationship (e.g., love and intimacy; and his lack of sexual interest as a sign of disinterest in the relationship.
However, the opposite occurred for men. Men's anxiety decreased over time when women showed high levels of emotional intimacy, but low levels of sexual desire. The more sexually aggressive a woman was, the more her partner remained anxious in the relationship. The authors write:
Men’s anxiety decreased more sharply over time when their partners displayed less sexual desire.
The authors offer several possible explanations. First, they suggest men may perceive women with high levels of sexual desire as more likely to cheat. "A woman’s high levels of sex drive might be connoted with infidelity tendencies and be thus perceived by men as a relationship threat," write the authors. (This perception is not based on reality, of course.)
Their second theory is that men in general may be threatened by women with high levels of sexual desire because this scenario violates traditional gender norms. "A woman’s desire might be associated with assertiveness, domination, and other traits that are considered as less feminine," write the authors in the paper. "Hence, a woman’s high levels of sexual desire at the beginning of romantic relationships might be confusing for men, raising worries and doubts about mate suitability."
The same results basically occurred when the researchers measured levels of avoidance as well. Men's avoidance decreased over time when their female partners displayed less sexual desire and more intimacy. The upshot? Men appear to want women who are nurturing and intimate and want to have sex—but not too much sex. A plight many women know all too well.
Back in March, Fusion contributor Lux Alptraum explored this very problem in a powerful feature, writing, "Everything I’d been taught about men and sex led me to believe that my voracious appetite was a tremendous asset … Except the more sexual experience I acquired, the more I discovered something odd. Despite what I’d learned from the American Pie franchise, men didn’t seem to want sex all the time. "
The authors’ research further backs up Alptraum’s observations: While male sexual desire is seen as an asset in a relationship, they explain, female sexual desire can lead to male insecurity, anxious attachment, paranoia, and intimidation. "Men’s sexual desire seems to be beneficial for attachment formation among both genders, whereas women’s sexual desire seems to interfere with secure attachment formation,” they write.
Even more disheartening? The authors conclude that the male participants felt more secure in their relationships when their partners acted more stereotypically “feminine.”
"Women’s intimacy displays … may signify their emotional exclusivity and may be connoted with maternal traits, such as nurturing and caring," write the authors. "These feminine and socially acceptable traits are likely to indicate a woman’s love and availability and, unlike women’s desire, seem to alleviate men’s anxieties about women’s faithfulness and other relational fears."
That's where the real problem lies. Any time we assume that all men are this way and all women are that way, we set ourselves up not only for a very closed minded view of a relationship’s potential but a whole lot more anxiety than we need in our lives. The more we can learn to view each partner as his or her own human being with his or her own unique set of desires, the more satisfied we will collectively be in our love lives.
And I, for one, would love to encourage more ladies to be freaks in the street and the bed.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.