Dear readers, I want to share something personal with you. In my marriage, I am the higher desire spouse. Before marriage, I honestly didn’t know this was possible. I had learned from media that men almost always want sex and that it takes very little effort to turn them on. Therefore, I was disappointed that things like changing into lingerie or touching my husband didn’t always make him want to have sex with me. I was confused, and sometimes struggled with self-doubt. Am I just not sexy enough? Is something wrong with me, or with him?
I have had to put in a lot of effort to find out that we are normal. Through my study, I have learned we have a lot of misconceived notions of what male and female sexual desire is actually like.
We talk a lot on this blog about female arousal. This is in part because as a society we are starting to accept the fact that female arousal is complicated and includes a variety of factors. However, we talk a lot less about male arousal or sexual desire because the assumption is that men are simple, sexual creatures (“you know how men are, they only want one thing!”)However, this is just not true This week, we discussed male sexual desire with sex researcher Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray. Here, we share our new understanding of male sexual desire and how we can combat harmful myths.
What’s the Myth
The modern (Western) attitude toward sex is that women are complicated, emotional, sophisticated creatures. They need foreplay, emotional connection, and stimulation of their mind and anatomy to build their sexual desire. In contrast, men are simple, physical, and easy to turn on. For example, one of my wonderful church leaders growing up explained to us that men work like a light switch; on or off, up or down. In comparison, she described women as a crockpot that has to simmer for the whole day for the food to be ready at night. This leader was a nurse and a good friend of mine who was simply teaching what she had been taught. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
Dr. Murray identified myths about male desire in her book Not Always in the Mood. Examples of these myths include 1) men don’t need to feel desired, 2) men’s desire should be higher than women’s (their desire is always high) 3) men’s desire is surface level (so rejection shouldn’t hurt) and 4) men’s sexual desire should be constant and unwavering.
That puts a lot of pressure on men, doesn’t it!
But is this stereotype generally true? New research (and my own personal experience talking with couples) indicates this myth is far from generally applicable.
What’s the Truth
Every person’s level of desire is unique to them, and often changes with different phases of life. We often measure desire by comparing a person to their partner (ie higher and lower desire spouses). In Dr. Murray’s experience, she finds that there are equal odds of a female partner having higher desire than her male counterpart (compared to the other way around).
So where does the myth that men are always higher come from? One explanation could be that most research participants are college aged. Some research indicates that men in their 20’s are more likely to have a higher desire, and have an easier time getting turned on. Testosterone levels also peak in young adulthood and decline slightly throughout adulthood. However, testosterone is far from the only factor that affects male arousal.
Men’s sexual desire is actually more alike women in terms of complexity than we realize. Life stressors, business, and emotional connection are all factors that also affect male arousal. For a lot of men, it is easy to want to be sexual in their 20’s. They (usually) have more time and are only worried about taking care of themselves. Once they add a job, kids, a wife etc to their stress load, being sexual is harder for them.
Contrary to popular belief, men are also emotional creatures. They often don’t want sex without the emotional undertone of a healthy relationship. Men seek sex for emotional reasons. They are not shallow creatures, but also crave intimacy and to be known. Men (and women) are often disadvantaged by these sexual myths they internalize and believe are the norm.
How are These Myths Harmful?
Men and women grow up believing these myths about sexuality. Internalizing these myths can harm men and relationships. Here are just a few of the harmful results of internalizing these myths. These myths…
… cause distress and anxieties
These myths about male sexual desire cause distress and anxieties. Men who internalize this message that men are always supposed to want sex can feel self-conscious when they aren’t in the mood. These men can develop anxiety that they are somehow broken because they don’t fit into the perceived norm. Dr. Murray says most of the clients that come into her clinic are husbands who are worried they aren’t performing at a “normal” level. Similarly, women can start to wonder if something is wrong with them if their spouse doesn’t want sex as often as they do (like me).
… cause mistrust
Another problem with these myths is that women are socialized to not trust men when it comes to sex. Please know, I am not talking about women who have been given good reason not to trust men (such as abuse, neglect, or any form of maltreatment) and there are definitely men out there who deserve their bad reputation. However, many a wife has found it hard to trust that her husband wants her, and not just sex. Many a husband has had to jump through hoops and exclusively focus on what his wife wants to prove himself “not like other guys.” The truth is that most men (especially ones you love and trust enough to marry) want an emotional connection just as much as their wife does. Their needs are not less worthy or “pure” than their wives’.
… leave no room for men to be different
Due to these myths, men don’t have the space to ask for what they want. Being trapped by a stereotype can leave men feeling like there is a way they need to act and react. This leaves little room for men to explore their own unique sexual desire. They often don’t feel like they have room to discover what they do want; are they turned on by physical attributes or something more emotional? Are they spontaneously desirous, or are they more reactive to what their spouse does? Most people are somewhere in between these polar options, but many men don’t realize that they are unique or that they can have a dynamic sex drive.
What Can We Do?
So how do we combat those myths about male desire? Here are a few things we can implement in our relationships and in families that can help bust these myths.
#1 Recognize bids for connection and leave space for emotional connection
Often, men ask for sex when they want to feel emotionally close because that’s the only way that feels “masluline.” Whether you are a husband or wife, learn to recognize when your spouse is asking for an emotional connection. This connection doesn’t have to be sex! If we notice our spouse initiating, and we don’t want sex right then, we can say “Im sorry I’m not feeling sexual right now. Is there another way we can connect?” This may sound a bit scripted, but you get the idea. How we respond when our spouse makes a bid is very important. It’s also important to leave space for both spouses to feel comfortable being emotional and seeking that connection. Husbands, give yourself permission to have emotions. Wives, support your husband emotionally. Trust that your husband wants you, and not just sex.
#2 Trade off who initiates
There is a lot of pressure on men to always be the initiator. For some couples, this works well. But in others, it can lead to a husband with a lot of stress and a wife who gets disappointed. So ladies, try out initiating. Be the one who creates some foreplay. Discover what things help get your husband in the mood. Every couple will have a different rhythm of initiating that works for them. But don’t just assume that your husband will always be the one to ask for sex!
#3 Change things up
In the same vein, don’t be afraid to change things up. Break bad habits or leave things behind that aren’t working any more. Like I mentioned before, different phases of life will come with changes in your sexual desire. Communication is the key. Keep an open conversation about what you like and what you don’t. When you discover something that isn’t working anymore, learn to change without judgment. Don’t be hard on yourself; that thing was working before and now it’s not! It doesn’t mean anything about you as a lover or a sexual being.
#4 Normalize boundaries, feelings, and consent
Normalize feelings, boundaries, consent etc. for both men and women. Try to avoid shaming either gender. This applies to our spouses, but also in our everyday interactions. We can be a force for good by normalizing men who are emotional and women who love sex. We can teach our children that their sexual desire is unique to them and that men and women value emotional connections. Be a model of what communication and intimacy look like.
#5 Learn from good sources
Learn from good sources and explore both of your attitudes about sex. Dr. Murray shared the best treatment for couples struggling with anxiety around these myths is psychoeducation and discovering their sexual socialization. You can read Dr. Murray’s book, learn from our Blog, and other places that can help you feel comfortable in your unique experience. Explore what your family and upbringing taught you about sex. When you find a harmful belief, challenge it. If you need help, consider talking to our coach or a mental health professional.
#6 Create your unique dynamic
Lastly, use all of the above to create your own unique dynamic that works for the two of you. Let’s throw out the box and give space for everyone’s experience. For men, accept that it’s okay to be turned on by the physical, and it’s okay if there are other aspects to your desire. Communicate with your spouse, and give space for them to change and grow.
Men aren’t always in the mood. Contrary to popular belief, men have many factors that contribute to their sexual arousal. They also desire an emotional connection. These myths can be harmful to our sexual and mental health. To combat these myths, we can leave room to learn and grow sexually. We can seek for a more egalitarian sex life where both partners feel loved, wanted, and valued. We can teach our sons and daughters that boys are also emotional and want deep connections, and that everyone is unique.
Written by Amanda Severson with Get Your Marriage On!