5 Unexpected Ways Gender Influences Your Health

Are men hornier? Do women tolerate pain better? We answer the big questions.

Medically reviewed in January 2022

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When it comes to skills and smarts, the sexes are more alike than you might think. Case in point: according to a 2015 study of over 12 million people, the sexes are overwhelmingly similar in regard to risk taking, leadership and communication skills. So, despite the stereotypes, sex and gender don’t pre-determine your personality or abilities.

However, stereotypes about gender—like "Men are needier when they’re sick!” and “Women pee more!”—can influence your health, including your disease risk and medical care. Here’s how five common assumptions stack up against science.

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The stereotype: Men are needier when they're sick

The science: The flu may actually hit men harder.
Have you ever pushed through the flu—working remotely or keeping up with life in general? And when it happens to your partner, do they just seem to lie on the couch, moaning?

“Man flu” has caused many a woman to roll her eyes, but it turns out he might not be such a big baby after all. 

Male and female immune cells may respond to viruses differently.

The results of a 2010 study of cells from 63 people exposed to rhinovirus suggest premenopausal women have a stronger immune response than men of the same age. The same results were not found among post-menopausal women, suggesting a link between hormones and immune response. 

That's not all. Data collected between 1997 and 2007 suggests American men are at a higher risk of flu-related death than women. Some research even suggests, when compared to women, the male body is less responsive to the flu vaccine. 

More research is needed to determine whether male humans truly experience the flu differently. In the meantime, everyone (including men) should play it safe and get the flu shot annually.

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The stereotype: Women always have to pee

The science: This one’s true. (Have you seen the ladies room line?)
Female anatomy is basically a setup for a lifetime of bathroom sprints:

  • The uterus puts some pressure on the bladder.
  • Childbirth and menopause can weaken the pelvic floor muscles, interfering with women’s ability to hold urine.
  • The female urethra, which releases urine from the body, is shorter than the male’s. That puts ladies at higher risk for urinary tract infections (UTIs)—the most common cause of frequent urination—since germs don't travel as far to reach the bladder. 
  • A woman’s anus and vagina are closer to her urethra than a man’s anus is to his. That means germs may accidentally enter the urethra when she wipes herself, causing a UTI. 

Overactive bladder (OAB) affects about 40 percent of women as well. But you don’t need to live with OAB. Tell your OBGYN if you use the bathroom more than eight times daily, or if you wake up multiple times nightly to pee. There’s a wide range of treatment options, including medications, physical therapy and lifestyle changes

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The stereotype: Men are hornier

The science: Men may have stronger sex drives, but—assuming women reach orgasm—the Big O treats all genders equally.
Climaxing regularly can ease anxiety, boost job performance and encourage sleep, among other benefits. But studies on arousal suggest men are more likely than women to get frisky in the first place. They:

  • Masturbate and have sex more often
  • Initiate sex more frequently
  • Accept sex offers more readily

When women are sexually active, it takes them about 10 to 11 minutes to climax, compared to around 4 minutes for men—that is, if they reach orgasm at all. Twenty-six percent of women report always climaxing, versus 75 percent of men. (Lesbian women finish more often than straight women.)

Once you get there, orgasms are similar physically across genders. Men, women, transgender and intersex individuals have practically the same degree of:

  • Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate spikes
  • Pelvic floor contractions
  • Oxytocin increases (a hormone associated with intimacy and affection)

Despite physical similarities, the orgasm experience can still feel different between genders and among individuals. For example, women can achieve distinct orgasm sensations by stimulating the clitoris, G-spot or vagina. Great foreplay and an emotional connection with your partner can influence the power of your orgasm, as well. 

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The stereotype: Women tolerate pain better. (Childbirth, hello?)

The science: It’s complicated, because research suggests men and women may experience pain differently.
Many researchers have asked whether men and women experience pain the same way. But there are various ways to measure pain, and they don’t always lead to the same answer. Plus, there are differences between:

  • Feeling pain
  • Tolerating it, or not
  • Expressing discomfort

Feeling pain: Women may feel pain more acutely due to biological factors, including higher levels of the hormone estrogen, which might intensify pain, according to animal studies. On the other hand, the male hormone testosterone might help buffer against pain.

Tolerating pain: When men and women are exposed to painful stimuli like needle pricks during experiments, men tend to show a higher tolerance. A large 2012 study involving over 11,000 medical records revealed women report higher scores on a scale of 0 to 10 when asked about discomfort, as well.

Expressing pain: But the “man up” factor may be at work here. In many cultures, men are expected to be stoic, or tough it out. That may be why women are more likely to seek care for pain, and use more resources and coping skills to address it.

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The stereotype: Women are more emotional

The science: Women have twice the lifetime risk of anxiety and depression; men often don’t seek mental help when they need it.
“Women are emotional” is a broad statement. And having feelings is not the same as expressing them according to social norms, which makes researching this topic tricky.

When scientists measure specific emotions under controlled circumstances, men and women have more similarities than differences. When differences are found, they’re typically small. Some key findings:

  • Women reported higher levels of sadness, fear, shame and guilt in a large 2004 study involving 37 countries.
  • They express negative emotions more often in speech and writing.
  • They correctly guess negative emotions in others more often than men.

Women also have almost twice the lifetime risk of anxiety and depression.

But fewer diagnoses don’t necessarily mean men experience these conditions less often. Pressures to “man up,” or suppress their feelings, may keep men from seeking care. In fact, almost 57 percent of men who’d had direct experience with depression or suicide still said they’d be embarrassed to get help, according to a 2016 study from Community Mental Health Journal. This, along with non-traditional symptoms like substance abuse, as well as healthcare provider bias, means men often go undiagnosed.

The result? Men are three to four times more likely to complete suicide. If someone you know might be considering suicide, here’s how you can help

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