But he’s supposed to want it more! The crushing expectation of higher male desire

From March 2011

After so many years of blogging, teaching, mentoring, and writing, you find yourself getting the same questions over and over again. (Questions about the wisdom of age-disparate and long-distance relationships, for example, are evergreen.) But there are other topics that come up often as well, like incompatible sexual desire. (See here, for example.) And as is often the case, I get multiple queries on the same topic at the same time from different sources; call it kismet or synchronicity, the topic of what happens when a woman has a stronger libido than her male partner has come up four times this week.

Our myths about sex drive tell us that men are supposed to peak in horniness in their late teens, while women only reach their full libidinousness on the high side of thirty. A lot of us suspect that to the extent there’s any truth to this at all, it has a good deal less to do with biology, and more to do with the long and difficult road so many women have to travel to discover and accept their own sexuality. Slut-shaming and sexualization work together to make girls acutely conscious of others’ wants and expectations while shutting them off from their own desires. It’s hard to hear one’s own “still, small voice” of longing if you’ve been raised to be a people pleaser!

But of course, so many young women don’t fit this model, just as the guys they date often don’t fit the male stereotype of constant randiness. And for many young women, finding themselves in a sexual relationship where they are the higher desire partner can be deeply confusing. One FB email this week from a former student of mine:

Before I had sex, my fantasy was always that a beautiful man would want me so much that he would lose all control, overpowering me. Not a rape fantasy exactly, just the idea of driving some hot guy crazy with lust. I guess you’d say my arousal was tied into how aroused the guy was by me. That was my number one fantasy for years and years. But Tom (name changed, of course) doesn’t seem to want sex nearly as often as I do. I’d like it almost every day, and he’d like it a few times a week. We don’t get much time together as it is, and this is driving me nuts.

I hear variations on that quite often (though rarely several times in one week.) And of course, my former student is hurt and confused. She knows enough to know how much of her own sexuality was shaped by cultural messages about uncontrollable male desire. She’s done a great job of leaving behind the message that “good girls don’t really want sex”. But while she’s given herself permission to want and to have, she’s still got the old tape playing that says that in heterosexual relationships, particularly among young people, the man should always be hornier than the woman.

As I told her, it’s always hard to be the one who wants something more. 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.

I reminded my student that it may be helpful to distinguish her feelings of rejection from her feelings of sexual frustration. In other words, while it’s undeniably upsetting to be the one who “wants it more”, how much of the upset is tied to feeling “like a freak” because women aren’t supposed to have the higher libido? That’s an important distinction to make. Rejection never feels good, just as having to reject isn’t much fun either. (Note: I’ve been both the higher, and the lower desire partner many times over the course of my sexual life.) But clearly, to be a young woman with a consistently higher sexual desire than one’s male partner is always going to be especially painful because of the way in which it contradicts all of our cultural programming. The one comfort that folks in my position can offer — and I do offer it repeatedly – is to remind those who are confused and hurting that this is not nearly as unusual as they think.

Our discourses about desire are toxic. They condition boys to believe that “real men” are in a near-constant state of arousal; they condition girls to believe that their greatest pleasure should come not from their own desires, but from being desired. While a few young people may indeed find that these stereotypes accurately describe their inner realities, most will discover that these myths are cruel straitjackets. And the anguish I read and heard from four separate sources this week drives that point home.

6 thoughts on “But he’s supposed to want it more! The crushing expectation of higher male desire

  1. As a 22 year old woman who has struggled with her sexuality (read: almost entirely asexual, likely for psychological reasons) for several years, I couldn’t be more glad to hear that women don’t hit their libido peak until “the high side of thirty.”

    I know that wasn’t the point of your post (I’m a big fan of the rest of it, as well), but I wanted to chime in anyways.

    Thanks for providing that perspective.

  2. I found this comment under the following blog post at “And That’s Why You’re Single:”

    http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2012/01/05/which-has-a-bigger-affect-on-your-sex-drive-age-or-lifestyle/

    Dan says: January 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    “To give some very candid and honest feedback from a guy:

    I did date a woman who was extremely hot, actually the hottest and sexiest that I had ever dated. Here I was, thinking that my sex drive was declining with age, but I found myself performing like I never had before in my life, in duration and frequency and strength of erection. I was even surprised by myself. She actually asked me once: did I take a pill? I never have, incidentally.

    So at least for me, it came down to sexual attraction. When I am in a bad point in my life, or dating someone that I am just not that into sexually (even though she has a wonderful personality), the libido is far lower.

    That’s just me. It’s different for other guys. Us men are such complex beings!

    A promiscuous friend of mine back in my college days could get it up for anything. In fact, he once was not able to, because the woman was not that attractive to him at all. He freaked out and went to a urologist, who of course found nothing wrong with him. I thought it was hilarious. Fast forward to today, and his promiscuity has really screwed up his view of sex and relationships. What goes around comes around.”

    My male friends tell me similar stories.

    • After 20 plus years of marriage… I kinda of figured this out…. When the relationship is strong and you are both happy and continent in both your relationship and your job and life, the attraction is stronger for my husband. When things are sketchy or our finances are tight or other things are concerning to him… the attraction will wane.

      Men who do not have strong emotional attachments and emotional attraction for a female tend to feel less attracted to her if she is not visually stimulating to him. Guys who are in love… don’t really notice little flaws and aging. They see the inside beauty more. Then again… men in love, Make Love, men who are not in love… are having sex and that does require a physical attraction.

      I have been married for 30 years.. aging is not a factor in attraction. It has mostly to do with the condition of your hearts.

  3. This is refreshing to read and it is good advice. Trying to break free of these cultural norms, is very hard and confusing. I was in a relationship for over six years with a man who had a lower libido. When I talked about it with close friends, I’d say, “he’s like a girl!” I would also complain that any argument would affect him, and he would lose all sexual desire. I often felt like “a man”. I was extremely uncomfortable with this. But I loved and cared about him, so I tried and tried to be happy. But eventually, I could no longer ignore my sexual needs. I began to cheat on him. I thought it was fine, because in my mind it was my way of preserving the relationship and the love we shared. But in the end I broke up with him because of our sexual incompatibility. Cheating didn’t help me feel better. It didn’t preserve our love. In the end, I wanted to be sexually compatible with him. I have made the decision since this relationship, to never be in that situation again. Some inequality is ok, but not too much. But as Hugo points out, libido has nothing to do with gender, and I learned that, and I learned im

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