He wants sex all the time. She is never in the mood. He wants to have sex to feel close. She needs to feel emotionally close to want to have sex. He wants physical gratification. She wants to cuddle and feel loved.
These are just a few stereotypes that can be used to describe heterosexual relationships. And while these statements may ring true for some couples, far too often we fall back on cliches which highlight the pervasive belief that men are sex-crazed while women could take or leave sex.
But are we really so different?
Maybe not. Increasingly, sex researchers are concluding that men and women’s sexual desires may be more alike than we previously thought. In fact, it seems that not only are many of the stereotypes I described above just plain wrong, but holding onto them actually can get in the way of good sex and true authentic connection with our romantic partners.
While there are plenty of ways that men and women’s desires are more similar than different, there are three myths that have a particularly negative impact on our intimate relationships:
Myth 1: Men Have Higher Sex Drives Than Women
Many people, if asked who they believe has more sexual desire – men or women – would likely respond men. And that’s because the notion that men are more interested in sex than women is something we learn in our teenage years throughout our adult lives. Plus, we don’t only learn that men have more desire than women, we learn that men should have more desire than women. In fact, many of us assume that if the man in a heterosexual relationship has lower interest in sex than his female partner (or the woman has more interest in sex than her male partner) something is wrong. With him. With her. With their sex life – and maybe even their relationship.
But study after study is finding that women want to have sex as much as men do – and that many women want to have more sex than their male partner. Studies on desire discrepancy in couples (a clinical term for when one partner wants more sex than their partner) have consistently found about a 50/50 split in terms of men and women reporting higher levels of sexual desire. In other words, women are equally likely to have the high sex drive in a heterosexual relationship. And most recently a UK study found that as many as 59% of heterosexual women reported having higher desire than their male partner. So the thought that men want more sex than women is simply not supported by sex research.
Myth 2: Feeling Desired is Only Important to Women
Wanting to feel wanted is a huge component of women’s sexual desire. Most women tend to like when their partner tells them they look good, or flirts with them, or makes the first move. It makes us feel wanted and, as long as the desiring is coming from someone we are interested in (or love) it tends to feel great. But a lot of women don’t necessarily pause to think about whether that’s something their male partner would like in return.
However, in my own research, I interviewed men about what turns them on, and one of the most common things that men described as a facilitator of their interest in having sex was feeling desired by their female partner. How do men feel desired, exactly? Men described the positive impact of receiving compliments (about their appearance or personality), having his female partner initiate sex and her showing excitement and presence during sex, all of which made him feel sexually wanted. Yet despite wanting to feel desired, most men I interviewed said that their female partner either did not know this was important to them or simply did not do those things to make him feel wanted.
Myth 3: Women are Touchy-Feely – Men Just Want Sex
The third big thing that many of us assume differentiates the genders is the notion that women like to cuddle and embrace nonsexual intimacy while men just want the physical gratification from sex. But the thing is, both men and women want intimacy that goes far beyond “getting off” during sex.
In my research, I interviewed men about their sexual desire and men often referred to the importance of feeling connected to their partner through many avenues that had nothing to do with sex. Specifically, men described the importance of intimate communication, spending quality time with their partner, watching movies and going on walks, just to name a few. And it wasn’t uncommon for men to say that they wanted these experiences over and above having sex. Yet despite this many men still feel that the assumption that they want sex first and foremost continues to dominate.
So these stereotypes are wrong. Why are they so bad? And what can I do about them?
The reason these gender stereotypes get in the way of good sex is that it pigeonholes both men and women into certain roles that may not be accurate of their true sexual experiences. For example, women who have more desire than their partners may feel they need to “tone it down” or may get upset with their male partner for not wanting to have sex when they do. The other side of the coin is that men are shortchanged as being sex-crazed and may feel the need to feign a desire to meet those expectations. And not being true to ourselves is a sure sign of decreased authenticity and connection to our sexual partner, in and out of the bedroom.
The good news is that increased awareness of the changing norms about men and women’s sexual desire is the first step to changing your sexual interactions with your partner. If you notice that you or your partner may be holding onto any of the gendered stereotypes I described above – ask yourself whether you can make space in your relationship to question and gently challenge those norms.
For example, if you’re a man with a lower desire than your female partner consider whether your lack of interest is just normal human variation instead of spending endless hours trying to determine a root cause of the “problem.” If you’re a woman with a male partner who always initiates sex or compliments you, consider whether you could try initiating flirting here and there to make him feel good too. And regardless of your gender, enjoy and embrace cuddling knowing your partner most likely enjoys it too (and sometimes prefers it to sex!)