What research, anecdotes and literature has told us about sexual desire, is that it varies from person to person and involves many factors, including – hormonal, emotional, psychological, environmental and societal. Some people experience desire spontaneously and some experience it in response to something such as something they have seen or a partner’s sexual initiation. While both men and women have sex hormones which drive desire, women’s hormones cease at menopause while men’s gradually decline as they age. However, hormones are not the only factor in driving desire, and some post menopausal women report an increased interest in sex. How someone feels about themselves, a partner, how open they are to sexual thoughts and feelings, the circumstances (such as where they are), and whether their desire may be acceptable to them and others are also important factors in desire. For some, being very stressed or feeling angry towards a partner would hinder desire, while for others it may drive it. The gender would make no difference to this.
Differing perceptions of males versus female sexuality and desire, and the boundaries and rules of acceptability around it, vary within different societies and cultures around the world. Having recently been reviewing the literature and research to date on this subject, there is surprisingly little out there. What is evident, is that there are no conclusive findings as to whether men have a greater desire for sex than women. Findings by researchers 20 years ago are inconsistent with research findings over the past 10-15 years – which would suggest that gender plays a lesser role (if at all) in who is likely to desire sex more.
We can understand by the varying societal beliefs around sexuality, that sexual desire is socially constructed. All we learn about sex – the meaning; the tips; the boundaries; and the expectations, are acquired as we grow up. Many will challenge what they are taught and over time there have been great changes, but as with many things, sexuality and desire is grounded within our society or culture.
Since the time of the Protestant Revolution in the 18th Century, British women have been deemed to have less sexual interest than men. It was frowned upon for women to be overtly sexual, with highly desirous or sexual women being deemed insane, diagnosed with Nymphomania and put in mental institutions. Needless to say many women would have suppressed their sexual desire or interest. Bring us up to today, 21st Century Britain. Whilst (thankfully) women are no longer carted off for enjoying or desiring sex, unfortunately, we do still have a societal disbalance between men and women around sexuality and this creeps in to the lives of many women who feel confused or ashamed of their sexual desire or behaviour, as a result. Most of us know the different perceptions of males versus females, with a male being egged on for his sexual prowess and deemed a ‘stud’, while a female who behaves similarly might be deemed shameful and labelled a ‘slut’. It’s no surprise that the shaming messages around high levels of female sexual desire may have left women feeling angry and confused. This affects males too, as it can be confusing for those who feel they have less interest in sex than their female partner, or whose partner has expectations of them they are not meeting. There have also been countless men who have not dated a woman they really liked because they were worried about how her ‘reputation’ may be seen by their friends or family.
As a Sex and Relationship Therapist, my clinical experience suggests that broadly speaking, men and women experience sexual desire with similar frequency albeit how, when, where and what triggers it varies from person to person as opposed to gender. Couples, where the female has a greater desire for sex than the male, is one of the most common presentations of people seeking therapy with me. People are often surprised by this, but it just reminds us that as a society we need to keep moving forward in our understanding of sexuality and desire, in order that people can enjoy their relationships and sexuality fully.