January 13, 2015

Do Men Really Want Sex More Than Women?

You may have pondered whether there is stock in this stereotype. Guest blogger Penelope Snow turns to sex research to find the answer.

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Scanned image of 1910 postcard depicting man in bathing suit encouraging woman in bathing suit to leave bathing machine

Scanned image of 1910 postcard depicting man in bathing suit encouraging woman in bathing suit to leave bathing machine

Recently someone I know noticed a dramatic increase in her sex drive. She apparently experienced a change in baseline hormone levels (testosterone, estrogen) within her both in actual measured levels and in the relative amounts of various hormones. There are many reasons why this may have occurred, but it seems likely that it was triggered by a combination of normal development, relationship changes, and changes in her psychiatric medications that relieve depression and treat Adult ADHD. She also lost about ten pounds and deliberately became slightly more active.

In the wake of these changes, she expressed that she “…knew now what it must be like for men.” She was referring to her new experience of being unwilling, unable, or uninterested in suppressing her desire for sex, which was aligned with her perception of the typical male sex drive. In response I began to consider assumptions about sex drive. First, what exactly is sex drive? How might different levels be expressed or experienced, objectively measured, and ultimately defined as “low” or “high”? Once those aspects of the question are clear, is there empirical evidence that shows men want sex more than women, and if so, why?

Embarking on a search for some answers, I turned to sex research. A highly-cited comprehensive review of evidence by Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs  sums up how sex drive can be measured. They define sex drive as “…frequent and more intense sexual desires…as reflected in spontaneous thoughts about sex, frequency and variety of sexual fantasies, desired frequency of intercourse, desired number of partners, masturbation, liking for various sexual practices, willingness to forego sex, initiating versus refusing sex, making sacrifices for sex, and other measures.”

The authors completed an exhaustive review of relevant research. Some of the studies were more scientifically sound than others, and various research methods were used. The thoughts, emotional experiences, and behavior relating to measurements of sex drive were quite different across the research. The final verdict? They did not find a single study that showed that women had a higher sex drive than men. Some studies indicated very little difference in drive between males and females, but the majority found that men had a higher drive than women. This result was consistent regardless of sexual orientation, across culture, and throughout the lifespan. More recent research has revealed results consistent with the aforementioned conclusions of Baumeister and colleagues. However, the authors also caution that “…gender difference in sex drive should not be generalized to other constructs such as sexual or orgasmic capacity, enjoyment of sex, or extrinsically motivated sex.”

Of course, any one women could have a higher sex drive when compared to any one man but in the overall population men typically report a higher sex drive than women. The next question is why? There are certainly compelling theories about this and biology, evolution, and culture are all thought to shape sex drive. There is also the strong possibility that some apparent differences in sex drive can be explained by the methodology chosen by the researchers to collect evidence of gender differences and so differences may not be as great or universal as they seem. Each  explanation could be the subject of a future blog post. For now, psychological research has yielded substantial evidence supporting what my friend already suspected: men do indeed want sex more than women.

Penelope Snow is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice at www.onlinetherapyworks.com and for Health Affiliates, Maine.  She is also an instructor in social sciences for The Maine Community College System.