In case you haven’t heard (I’m not sure that’s possible at this point!), Grindr is a gay, geolocational-based social-networking app that allows its users to quickly connect and meet up with other men. While some gay men use the app to socialize and potentially make new friends, it is widely acknowledged that most often the app is used for casual sex. Click. Chat. Connect. Sex. It’s often that simple.
As the app gains more and more mainstream recognition, it causes many to ponder why attempts at creating a lesbian equivalent of Grindr have failed. What is it about gay men that makes it possible for them to engage in this cultural phenomena while lesbians have drawn the line with much tamer apps like OKCupid and Tinder? Certainly, casual sex is not reserved for the male gender. Some people might try to explain away this question by referencing the old Uhaul cliché: “All lesbians are looking for a relationship so there’s no need for a lesbian Grindr.” However, recent research published in Sociological Perspectives found that, at approximately the same rate, men and women choose to have casual sex for pleasure as opposed to hoping to find a relationship. Furthermore, different research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that lesbians are no less likely to have casual sex than straight women. So where is the disconnect?
One reason why lesbians aren’t making use of an app similar to Grindr is related to a chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is released in the brain during sex and plays a role in our ability to bond and attach to others, to develop romantic feelings and to establish feelings of trust. While this chemical is produced by both men and women, it is only released in men during orgasm, while oxytocin is produced in females all throughout the sexual experience and at higher levels than men. Additionally, testosterone actually suppresses oxytocin’s effects while estrogen maximizes it, making the differences between men and women’s sexual experiences even more pronounced. In short, men are not emotionally attaching as a result of a sexual encounter unless they are already connected to their sexual partner in other ways (i.e., dating or in a relationship). This is not to say that women are unable to have sex without permanently and intensely forming an emotional attachment to their sexual partner, but it does mean that women may naturally practice more discretion before choosing to have casual sex because of the risk of emotional attachment and therefore of subsequent emotional pain.
While there is no denying the substantial differences between how men and women react to sex, it is unlikely that oxytocin and its effect completely explains why lesbians have not gotten on board with an app like Grindr in the way that gay men have. Another explanation likely relates to society’s conditioning of girls and women with regard to sexuality. At the outset, when girls are taught about sex, they learn to look at it in the context of love and commitment instead of physical pleasure. They are taught to be cautious of sex instead of embracing of it. On the other hand, boys are taught about sex much more expansively. Society teaches boys that sex is equated with not just pleasure, but also with power, self-worth and pride. A man who has many sexual partners is labeled “a stud” while a woman who does the same is considered “a slut.” What are the effects of this unfair assignment of labels in response to the same sexual behavior? Shame. Girls and women often incur shame for experiencing themselves as sexual beings and, until they receive the proper education, may be limited not only in the amount of diverse sexual experiences that they have but also in the degree to which sex is enjoyed.
Let’s be clear, I’m not operating under the assumption that lesbians are not having or enjoying sex — whether casual or committed. In fact, women have the potential for more fulfilling sexual experiences than men due to that wonderful chemical called oxytocin. I am, however, of the belief that if females were conditioned to be “sex-positive” (embracing of open sexuality) from a young age, more women would be comfortable with casual sex; and why should we lesbians be missing out on all the fun that gay men are having on Grindr?
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist specializing in issues and concerns of the LGBTQ community in addition to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental illnesses. Her private practice, Philadelphia LGBTQ Counseling, offers both individual and couples sessions (www.lgbtphillytherapy.com).
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