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.