Erotic Plasticity

Erotic Plasticity Definition

Erotic plasticity refers to the degree to which the sex drive is shaped by social, cultural, and situational factors. The sex drive refers to the motivation (desire) to have sex. High plasticity indicates that the person’s sexual desires are strongly influenced by social and cultural factors (including meaningful aspects of the immediate situation), and it can be reflected in changes in behavior and in feelings. Thus, someone with high plasticity might potentially learn to desire and enjoy different kinds of sexual activities and different kinds of partners. The intensity of sexual desire might also be subject to external influence.

The term plasticity is used in the biological sense, meaning subject to change and able to be molded into different shapes. The other meaning of plasticity, as in being phony or artificial, is not relevant to erotic plasticity and is in no way implied.

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Erotic Plasticity Context and Importance

Erotic PlasticityErotic plasticity lies at the center of one of the most far-reaching and fundamental debates in the study of human sexuality, namely, the relative influence of nature versus culture. Theory and research in sexuality in recent decades have clustered around two very different views. One is that biological factors such as evolution and genetics are centrally important in determining the sexual feelings and actions of individuals. The other view emphasizes cultural and social factors, such as socialization, political influences, and local norms. For example, theories of homosexuality have ranged from claiming there is a “gay gene,” which signifies a biological, innate tendency to become homosexual, to attempts to explain homosexuality in terms of personal experiences, such as growing up with an intrusive, controlling mother and a distant, critical father.

Low plasticity signifies that nature and biology are the main factors; high plasticity indicates a greater scope for culture and other social factors. Differences in plasticity also indicate differences in the type of causality. Biological factors such as genes influence sexual behavior by virtue of physical and biochemical processes, such as how different molecules would create tendencies to act in particular ways. In contrast, social and cultural factors depend on meaning, in the sense of how the person interprets and understands events. A great many animals engage in sexual behavior that is essentially and primarily driven by biological factors, such as hormones and genetic tendencies. Human beings are the only species for whom sex depends partly on what it means and who recognize a distinction between meaningful and meaningless sex. High plasticity indicates that sexual responses depend on meaning. Conversely, a sexual response that is mainly guided by hormones and genes would be lower in plasticity.

Gender and Erotic Plasticity

There is ample evidence that women have higher erotic plasticity than men. This is not necessarily either a good or a bad thing, but it may be helpful in understanding sexual differences between men and women.

The reason for women’s greater plasticity is not known. One view is that it derives from lesser drive strength. That is, to the extent that women’s sexual desires are milder than men’s, they may be more amenable to the civilizing and transforming influence of social and cultural factors.

Erotic Plasticity Evidence

Three broad types of evidence have been used in discussing erotic plasticity, though more research tools (including a trait measure to sort individuals as to their degree of plasticity) may be developed soon.

First, high plasticity suggests that individuals will change more in their sexual feelings and behaviors as they move through different circumstances and different life stages. Thus, women are more likely than men to adopt new sexual practices throughout their adult lives (indeed, many men’s sexual tastes seem to be set at puberty). Women make more sexual changes in adjusting to marriage than do men. Sexual orientation is of particular importance: Nearly all studies indicate that lesbians have had more opposite-sex partners than have gay males, and heterosexual women are more likely to experiment with homosexual activity than are heterosexual men.

Second, high plasticity indicates being more affected by social and cultural factors, and so one can look at how much these factors change the individual. Highly educated women have sex lives that differ from those of poorly educated women, whereas the influence of education on male sexuality is considerably smaller. Degree of religious involvement predicts very different patterns of sexual behavior for women but much less for men. Girls and women are more influenced by their peer group and by their parents than are men, at least relative to sex. Meanwhile, the role of genetic factors (low plasticity) is generally found to be greater among men than women.

Third, to the extent that sexual responses depend on social and situational influences, general attitudes will show a weak relation to specific behaviors. For example, some studies have asked people whether they find the idea of homosexual sex appealing (a broad attitude) and whether they have actually engaged in any such activity in the past year (specific behavior). For men, those answers are closely related and quite consistent, such that the men who find the idea appealing try it out, and those who do not like the idea do not perform the acts. For women, however, there is much more inconsistency between the general idea and specific behavior, possibly because the woman’s response depends on very specific circumstances (such as the other person and the setting) rather than on the general attitude.

Erotic Plasticity Implications

In sex, the balance between nature and nurture may differ by gender. Women’s sexuality probably depends on what it means, on learning and culture, and on other social factors, whereas male sexuality may be more strictly programmed as a biological reaction and hence may resist social and cultural influences. Sexual self-knowledge may be more difficult for women to achieve (because high plasticity keeps open the possibility of change). Women may change more easily in response to circumstances.


  • Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 347-374.