It's widely believed that men are pretty much always in the mood for sex. Men's desire to get it on isn't seen as having much—if anything—to do with their relationships or life circumstances. Unlike women, it's assumed that guys are just constantly horny.
However, a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that this stereotype about male sexuality is completely wrong and that men's sexual desire is much more complex than they've been given credit for. In fact, it actually has a lot to do with the emotional connection men have with their partners, which tells us that men and women are much more similar than they are different when it comes to the factors that predict desire.
In this study, researchers in Canada and the UK interviewed 30 heterosexual men who were involved in long-term romantic relationships. All of these guys were between the ages of 30 and 65. The researchers chose men with these characteristics instead of college-age men because they wanted to look at how desire is experienced when guys reach the life stage where they have the full responsibilities of adulthood at their feet and tend to be a bit more focused on their relationships.
During the interview, these men were asked several questions about their sexual desire, including the factors that both elicit and inhibit it. The researchers analyzed the responses and looked for themes. What they found was that, rather than reporting constant, high levels of desire, men said their desire for sex was quite variable and actually had a lot to do with how they felt about their relationship and the interactions they had with their partners. Here are a few of the major themes that emerged:
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They Want to Feel Wanted
The vast majority of men said that feeling desired by their partner was the single biggest factor affecting their own interest in sex. They also said that the ultimate way their partner can show this desire is by initiating sexual activity. In other words, it seems that men would prefer their partners to take the lead more often.
They Want Novelty and Variety
Most men also said that their desire for sex was higher when they engaged in more exciting and spontaneous sexual activities with their partner. They particularly like sex that just "happens," as opposed to sex that is very planned and routine—like when a couple falls into the habit of only having sex on Friday night, and only in the missionary position.
They Want an Emotional Connection
Most men described how intimate communication was essential to their sexual desire. They liked intimate conversation not just because it often led to sex, but also because it had the ability to make the sex they had more meaningful and memorable. Conversely, when guys said they lacked an emotional connection with their partner, such as when they were in the midst of an argument, they lost desire. In other words, many guys seem to need a certain amount of emotional connection in order to enjoy a physical connection with a long-term partner.
They're Afraid of Being Rejected
Given how important men said it was to feel wanted, it is not surprising that feeling rejected was the biggest factor that destroyed their desire. And when rejection was experienced over and over again, it didn't just inhibit sexual desire, it also hurt men's confidence and self-esteem because they started to wonder what they were doing wrong or what was wrong with them.
Of course, in addition to the above factors, men said that their physical health mattered quite a bit, too. Specifically, if they were feeling under the weather or developed some sort of physical limitation, that tended to decrease their interest in sex.
Though this research was only based on the experiences of a small group of heterosexual men, the implications are enormous. For one thing, they tell us that, contrary to popular belief, guys in long-term relationships aren't necessarily perpetually horny. Their sexual desire is very much circumstantial and affected not just by their physical health, but by the health of their relationship.
These results also challenge a lot of common stereotypes about both men's and women's sexuality. For example, while it's widely assumed that women have a greater need to feel wanted than men, this study suggests that the need to feel desired by another person is a fundamentally human experience—not something specific to members of one gender group. Likewise, though it's often presumed that sex and emotion are completely separate for men, they actually seem to be intimately intertwined for most guys in LTRs.
Finally, this study also challenges the idea that sexual desire is something that men and women experience in fundamentally different ways. It's just not accurate to say that men's sexual desire is "simple," whereas women's is "complex."
The truth of the matter is that, regardless of gender, sexual desire should be viewed as an interaction of both biological (our hormones and health status) and psychosocial factors (how we feel about ourselves and our relationships). In this sense, we're all complex sexual beings.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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