Sexual Desire And Relationship Length: Patterns of Gender

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Sexual desire may decline with relationship length for young women, but not men.

Sexual Desire

Photo: FotoChesKa on Flikr

Women's Sexual Desire

Recent research has confirmed what has been a prominent theme in media messages about women’s sexual desire for a long time. Women’s sexual desire decreases as relationship length increases. However, men do not experience the same decrease in sexual desire as relationship duration lengthens.

University of Guelph researchers (and close colleagues of mine), Sarah Murray and Dr. Robin Milhausen published their paper titled “Sexual Desire and Relationship Duration in Young Men and Women” in Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. This research suggests that men and women may have different sexual desire experiences related to duration of relationship. It also suggests that different factors may decrease desire for men and women.

The Methodology

This study surveyed 170 undergraduate men and women (91 female, 79 male) who ranged in age from 18 to 25. The average relationship length of the sample was a little over two years (2.14 years for women and 2.05 years for men), though relationship length ranged from 1 to 108 months (9 years).

The desire subscale of the Female Sexual Function Index and the Male Sexual Function Index were used to assess the outcome variable, sexual desire.

Findings

After statistically controlling for age and sexual and relationship satisfaction, Murray and Milhausen used relationship length as a predictor for sexual desire for men and women separately.

For women, their sexual desire decreased by .02 on the measure of desire for each additional month they were in their current relationship. Certainly, over time, this decrease may become meaningful if it continues to decrease steadily over the course of a relationship. But scores on the scale range from 1.2 to 6.0, so that gives you an idea of how much desire is decreasing each month.

For men, sexual desire was not significantly predicted by relationship length (but it was by sexual satisfaction).

Based on these findings, it appears that, even in relatively short-term relationships, women’s sexual desire is decreasing as duration of relationship is increasing.

When I spoke to the lead author, Sarah Murray, she had this to say about the young age and relatively short relationship length of the sample:

Because we only looked at a young sample of men and women (between the ages of 18-25) the findings should not necessarily be extrapolated to an older population. Sexual desire levels can oscillate throughout ones life and we may have just tapped into that first experience of decreased sexual desire for younger women before other life events such as engagements, honeymoons, and sexual comfort and maturity have taken place.

So these findings shouldn’t be generalized beyond the sample characteristics described above. One thing that some of the research I have conducted recently (some of which has been with Milhausen and Murray) has made clear is that sexual desire really does ebb and flow throughout the course of life.  Murray expands on the findings with regard to men’s reports of sexual desire:

While men reported high levels of sexual desire in this study despite their varying relationship lengths, more research needs to be conducted to determine whether men might simply reporting higher levels of sexual desire, possibly to fit within social norms and notions of masculinity. Specifically there is the impression that men are expected to always want and be ready for sexual activity. Thus men may not be reporting desire levels that do not fit within this norm.

I was curious to see if these results would be replicated in different samples, and I happened to have data laying around from another sample of men and women, so I decided to check it out. Now, I didn’t use the same measure of sexual desire as Murray and Milhausen, but I did use the same measures of sexual and relationship satisfaction, age, and length of relationship. My sample was 266 men and women around the same age as the sample used in Murray and Milhausen’s study, but with a little bit longer of a relationship length (mean length of relationship was 4 years).

Using the exact same statistical analysis, I found that relationship length was not a significant predictor of sexual desire for men or women (sexual satisfaction was the only significant predictor). But, for women, it was very close (p = .07, and we usually use a cut-off of p < .05 to determine significance). This discrepancy in findings could simply be due to the use of different instruments for the outcome measure (sexual desire). And since it was so close to being significant, a lot of other things could be at play here.

Additionally, I find this interesting in the context of Klusmann’s work. As a monogamous heterosexual relationship progresses, Klusmann (2002) has reported that men’s sexual desire tends to remain high while women’s sexual desire is found to decrease as early as one year into the relationship. Perhaps the decrease in desire is happening for women in Murray and Milhausen’s work just before that one year anniversary is reached. And my sample only included couples who had been together for over one year.

Overall, the work of Murray and Milhausen is contributing to growing research in the area of sexual desire – and the findings of their study are certainly one piece of the puzzle. Murray, a doctoral student of Milhausen, is currently working on her dissertation examining men’s sexual desire. Perhaps her future work will tap in to the social norms and notions of masculinity that she spoke of in the above quote.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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