What Happens When the Woman Wants Sex More Than the Man?
Once in bed at night, Cathy’s boyfriend would almost instantly curl up in the fetal position facing away from her and begin breathing heavily as though asleep. “But if I put my arm around him, he would stiffen up and hold his breath,” she says. “A couple times, I even saw him hurriedly shut his eyes.” Sometimes the 37-year-old from St. Louis, Mo., would take a more direct approach, telling him, “I want to be with you” — but she often ended up being rebuffed. It wasn’t uncommon for him to ask, “Why do we have to have sex all the time?”
This is the gender reversal of what we’re used to hearing: stories about women complaining of a headache or offering a simple, “Not tonight, honey.” Just this week, the Wall Street Journal published a piece ostensibly about “differing expectations about sex” in relationships in general, but which fell back on the stereotype of the frigid wife who withholds sex. The piece presented only one real-life example of such a dynamic and, despite mentioning far, far down in the piece a study on desire that found no significant gender differences, the piece ran with the headline, “He Says ‘More’ and She Says ‘No.’”
When I put out a call for women who had experienced having the higher sex drive in a relationship, I was flooded with responses — and many of these women wanted to put me in touch with female friends with similar tales of sexual dissatisfaction. There was tremendous variability in what they considered too little sex: One expressed annoyance over an ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t have sex more than four times in one night; another complained that her ex-husband wanted it no more than twice a week; and yet another reported getting busy five times in three years of marriage.
Let’s be clear: None of this is to say that the real problem is men who don’t “put out” (a phrase that makes sex sound like such a dreary chore — can we please retire it?). It’s to show that it isn’t exclusively a “male” or “female” phenomenon, nor is it a heterosexual one; it’s a human one.
Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and best-selling author, doesn’t believe that either sex has stronger desire — but different desire? Yes. “I would say that women tend to experience ‘responsive desire’” — in which interest is sparked after sexy times have begun — “while men experience ‘spontaneous desire,’” which seems to spring, so to speak, out of nowhere. He says this difference “can create the appearance that male desire is stronger, but what I’ve found is often quite the opposite in relationships.”
In his therapy practice, he says, “I often meet couples who are stuck in ruts and neither partner has an interest in sex with the other, although there is often sexual interest outside of the relationship, or mismatched desire levels in the relationship,” he says. “But I meet just as many men dealing with low desire as women.”
For a hormonal perspective, I went to Kim Wallen, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroendocrinology at Emory University. He says the key sex differences in desire aren’t in strength but rather constancy. “This likely reflects the effects of gonadal hormones on sexual motivation and men are subjected to a constant hormonal stimulus, whereas women are subjected to a cyclical influence,” he says. “In addition, women have both exposure to estradiol, which increases sexual desire, and to progesterone, which in large amounts suppresses sexual desire.”
If you tuned out at the mention of “gonadal hormones” – bad student, tsk! – Wallen offers up a simple takeaway: “When women are interested in sex they are as intensely interested as are men.” Interestingly, he says “it may even be that it is this intermittent nature of women’s sexual desire that makes them more sensitive to a mismatch with their partners,” he says. “When intense desire occurs, they want to act on it then as it will likely soon diminish.”