There is possibly no greater source of debate than the age-old question of whether men want sex more than women. But embedded in that debate are a host of other questions. What is a "sex drive" anyway? What is a good scientific way to compare men and women's sexual desires? What happens when women want it more than men? Does sexual desire in gay and lesbian couples mirror that of men and women in straight relationships?
Let's explore, starting with the largest sex study ever conducted.
One big sex survey
In 2005, the BBC conducted a massive cross-cultural internet survey (over 200,000 participants across 53 countries) that looked at, among other things, self-reported sex drive and sociosexuality (basically how prudish people are in their sexual attitudes and behavior). Height, a physical trait with a pretty unambiguously gender-based difference, was also measured.
Men across all cultures reported higher sex drives and less restricted sexual attitudes than women, but women were consistently more variable than men in their sex drives. Another important, if not entirely surprising pattern, suggests that these differences are not entirely biological, and are due in some part to social and cultural ideologies.
Gender equality and economic development tended to predict, across nations, sex differences in sociosexuality, but not sex differences in sex drive or height. Parameters for sociosexuality tended to vary across nations more than parameters for sex drive and height did.
No surprise there. Women compelled to wear burkas will probably relate to sex and sexuality differently than more sartorially liberated western counterparts. Women who've grown up getting told by creepy old men to squeeze an aspirin between their knees are liable to self-report more conservative behaviors and attitudes about sex.
These variations also play into what psychologist Richard Lippa calls "a hybrid model," wherein "both biological and social… influences contribute to sex differences." It's the old nature vs. nurture debate, and it's part of why sex, sexuality, sex drive — and the studies that investigate them — are so damn complicated. It's also why questions about sexual appetite require more than one study to fully explore.
The BBC survey was just one study. A big study, sure, but the fact of the matter is that there's no one way to measure the strength of someone's sex drive. As Case Western psychologists Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Catanese and Kathleen Vohs point out in this fantastic review of research on gender differences in sexual desire:
On an a priori basis, one would expect the difference in motivation to be reflected in desired frequency of sex, desired variety of sex acts and partners, frequency of fantasy, frequency of masturbation, number of partners, frequency of thinking about sex, willingness to make sacrifices in other spheres to obtain sex, and the like.
Good luck finding a single study that covers all those factors. (Hint: there isn't one.) As a general rule, there is no single survey, no particular sample population (even one with 200,000+ participants) that is perfect. What you really need is a lot of studies. Baumeister and crew combed through over 150 of them for their review. Let's look at some of what they found.
Men want it more, succumb to it more, and pay more money for it
Most studies suggest that lustful tendencies — including spontaneous sexual thoughts, uncontrolled or unwanted thoughts and spontaneous physical arousal — are a lot more common in men than in women.
The same goes for studies that focus on the desired frequency of sex. Men tend to want sex more than women, whether it's at the beginning of a relationship or after 20 years of marriage.
What about gays and lesbians? Research on sexual desire in same-sex relationships is particularly interesting, and, again, suggests that men desire sex more frequently than women, regardless of either gender's sexual orientation. Baumeister's summary warrants a lengthy citation:
One large investigation that included a sizeable sample of same-gender relationships was the study by Blumstein and Schwartz. They found that gay men had higher frequencies of sex than lesbians at all stages of relationships. Within the first 2 years of a relationship, for example, two thirds of the gay men but only one third of the lesbians were in the maximum category of having sex three or more times per week (the highest frequency category). After 10 years together, 11% of the gay men but only 1% of the lesbians were still in that category of highly frequent sex.
At the other extreme, after 10 years nearly half the lesbians, but only a third of the gay men, were having sex less than once a month. Even that difference may be a substantial underestimate of the discrepancy in sexual activity: Blumstein and Schwartz reported that the gay men who had largely ceased having sex after 10 years together were often having sex with other partners, whereas the lesbians who had ceased having sex together had generally not compensated for this deficit by finding other sexual outlets. A lack of sexual desire and activity in women is reflected in the phrase "lesbian bed death," (e.g., Iasenza, 2000) which has been coined to describe the low levels of sexual activity among lesbians in long-term relationships.
This pattern of greater male sex drive, manifested in a variety of forms, turns up in study after study after study. A representative sampling:
- Several studies show that men desire significantly more sex partners than women. (One survey found that, uninhibited by factors like disease or laws, college age females would ideally like to have 2.7 sex partners over the entire rest of their lives. College age males, on the other hand, desired an average of 64 lifetime sex partners.)
- Men masturbate more. A meta-analysis of 26 studies on gender differences in sexual behavior found that "masturbation was the largest difference of all the variables they examined, with men nearly a full standard deviation higher than women."
- Several studies to date indicate that women have an easier time than men going without sexual gratification. For a particularly interesting (if unsettling, given the long and sordid history of sexual abuse in the Catholic church) look at the ability and willingness to forego sex, see this investigation on clerical celibacy among Catholic men and women.
Men also spend way more money on porn, are less likely to report a pathological lack of sexual desire, and tend to rate their genitals — and the genitals of their partners — as more inherently lovable and attractive than women.
A Biological Basis?
The role of social and cultural pressures on these experimental findings cannot be ignored, but studies are beginning to turn up more and more compelling evidence of a biological basis for differing sex drives, as well.
Take testosterone, for example. Men's blood testosterone levels are, on average, seven or eight times higher than women's. Recent studies have shown that women administered high doses of testosterone reported an increase in sexual activity, reports of pleasure and orgasm, sexual arousal and sexual desires relative to women administered a placebo. Studies on female-to-male and male-to-female transexuals lend these findings additional credence. Writes Baumeister:
A study of 35 female-to-male transsexuals and 15 male-to-female transsexuals also supports the impact of androgens on sex drive. In a longitudinal design that tested patients before and 3 months postoperatively, Van Goozen, Cohen-Kettenis, Gooren, Frijda, & Van de Poll (1995) found a decrease in sexual interest and arousability among the male-to-female transsexuals, who were administered anti-androgens and estrogens. In contrast, the female-to-male transsexuals, who were administered testosterone, reported heightened sexual interest and arousability. These data highlight the importance of testosterone in producing meaningful changes in sexual arousal and interest, even over a relatively short time.
Sex Drive ≠ Sexual Capacity ≠ Sexual Enjoyment ≠ Sexuality, etc.
All of this brings us to some glaring, massively important points. Greater sex drive does not translate to greater capacity for sex, or greater enjoyment of sex. (The latter is a pretty tough thing to nail down, but the fact that women are physically capable of engaging in more sex, and of having more orgasms, would suggest that women's capacity for sex is greater than men's). Nor does it suggest a greater inherent male sexuality. And the idea that greater sexual desire is always a good or desirable thing is so ass-backwards it barely warrants mentioning in the first place.
Perhaps the most important point in any discussion about sex and sexual desire is that differences in sexual appetite — especially in studies like the ones cited by Baumeister and his colleagues — reflect tendencies across large populations. Things can play out very, very differently on an individual level. The relationship between a person and his or her sexual partner/partners — male, female or transgendered — will vary enormously.
The fact is: women wind up wanting sex more than their male partners ALL THE TIME, and the expectation of higher male desire can have a devastating impact on a relationship. As Hugo Schwyzer explains in this great piece for Jezebel, a lack of balance in a sexual desire between two people of any gender can be problematic, but it's often especially difficult when the situation arises between a woman and her less-horny male partner:
As therapists have pointed out again and again for years, most of us come into relationships with a "He who cares less, wins" model. The lower-desire partner has the power to grant or deny - and that often leaves the higher-desire partner feeling powerless and rejected, and the lower-desire partner feeling guilty.
And while that's true when the man is the one with the higher desire, at least in that instance both he and his low-desire female partner are aware that they are following a culturally appropriate script. Because men are "supposed" to want "it" more, men are also "supposed" to be accustomed to rejection: "it's not me", a man can tell himself, "it's just that women naturally aren't as sexual as men." When our own experience lines up with the myths, we may be frustrated or resentful - but at least we are reassured that we're "normal." Higher-desire women don't get that reassurance. Neither, for that matter, do their male partners.
For more level-headed discussion on the study and theorizing of sexuality and sexual desire, check out the exhaustive review by Buameister, Catanese and Vohs. It's pleasantly clear, balanced, and surprisingly readable stuff:
Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence