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Coding Descriptive Responses: Gender Differences in Beliefs about Sexual Desire

What causes sexual desire? Is desire aroused by the characteristics of the person one is with, such as a good body or a dynamic personality? Might it be the situation one finds oneself in, such as being alone with a date in a parked car? Or does it have more to do with oneself, apart from one’s date or partner? Do males and females even attribute desire to the same causes? When it comes to beliefs as to what fans the fires of desire, we are just beginning to get answers to some very basic questions. Social scientists have put most of their energy into defining sexual desire, spending relatively little time exploring people’s beliefs about what causes it. Yet beliefs are closely tied to what people do, and knowing their beliefs brings us one step closer to predicting their behavior. So what do people think are the causes of sexual desire?

Pamela Regan and Ellen Berscheid (1995) asked college students to describe, in their own words, what causes sexual desire in men and women. This approach involves the use of free-response data or descriptive data. When researchers begin to investigate an area in which relatively little is known, they will frequently simply observe what people do in natural settings, or, when this is impossible given the sensitive nature of the behavior, they will listen to what people have to tell them. Open-ended questions such as those used by Regan and Berscheid are useful when one wants to know what people are thinking (Cozby, 1997). Another advantage to descriptive responses is that they generate a rich source of data, useful in formulating future research questions. An additional advantage is the increased external validity of the research, or the likelihood that the answers one gets are representative of the way people actually think.

There are disadvantages to the use of descriptive free responses as well. Perhaps the most formidable of these is the need to code, or classify, specific answers into broader classes of answers. Instead of attempting to work with everything people say, for instance, one looks at categories of answers. This approach makes it easier to detect relationships. Patterns emerge showing the frequency of different types of answers for different people, such as those given by females versus males. How does one arrive at the codes to be used in analyzing descriptive responses? One might decide in advance to look for certain types of answers, given what other investigators have found. One might also look at the answers that are given by a sample of the respondents, grouping specific answers into larger categories based on similarities in their meaning. Regan and Berscheid had two independent raters code each of the response protocols; each rater was ignorant of the sex of the respondent whose answers they read. The use of more than one coder makes it possible to determine the reliability with which answers are coded, or the degree to which the two raters working independently of each other agree in their coding.

The use of free-response or descriptive data is a time-intensive procedure. Raters must be trained to identify responses accurately, and this takes time. The actual scoring of the data also takes more time. In a sense, one enters a stream of behavior with a net—ready to catch (code) certain specimens of interest—but there is little way of speeding up the rate at which the behaviors flow by.

Do college students believe the causes of sexual desire differ for males and females? The answer is a clear yes. Sexual desire in males was believed to be caused by erotic factors, such as looking at a woman with a sexy body, more than by romantic ones, whereas desire in females was thought to be caused more by romantic factors, such as love or intimacy. Significant numbers of students also attributed sexual desire in males simply to their being male, or to their maleness. Conversely, none of them considered femaleness to be a cause of sexual desire in women. Interestingly, in matters romantic, as is so often the case, the sexes often get their signals crossed. For instance, males—but not females—believed that power and status made a male sexually desirable. On the other hand, females—but not males—believed that femininity made a female sexually desirable. Adolescents and young adults spend hours cultivating the right image. All too often, this image fits their own perception of sexual desire but not that of their partner.



P. C. Regan & E. Berscheid. (1995). Gender differences in beliefs about the causes of male and female sexual desire. Personal Relationships, 2: 345–358.