Gender differences in sex drive? Nothing is accidental.

Posted by: on Jan 21, 2014 | 5 Comments


In 2001, the psychologists Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen R. Catanese, and Kathleen D. Vohs carried out a meta-analysis of 150 different studies which asked: Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Intuitively, everyone already knew the answer to that question, but their mega-investigation categorically confirmed that, yes, men have more frequent and more intense sexual desires than women. Though it sounds like a simple solution to a rather obvious hypothesis, you can’t take out a ruler and measure libido in isolation. Interpersonal relationships are incredibly complex and within them, sexual desire is influenced by everything from upbringing, to wellbeing, to whether or not you have put the garbage out, or unstacked the dishwasher.

Because no single factor determines the motivation to have sex, Baumeister et al tackled the question from all angles. Literally. They established that: Men think about sex more often, experience more frequent sexual arousal, have more frequent and varied fantasies, desire sex more often, desire more partners, masturbate more, want sex sooner, are less able or willing to live without sexual gratification, initiate more and refuse less sex, expend more resources and make more sacrifices for sex, desire and enjoy a broader variety of sexual practices, have more favorable and permissive attitudes toward most sexual activities, have fewer complaints about low sex drive in themselves (but more about their partners), and rate their sex drives as stronger than women. Which is pretty damn conclusive.

Studies which show that men are more sexually driven than women are interesting, but the biological evidence for why those differences exist is more so. Testosterone has long been identified as integral to sex drive, and the fact that females have substantially less testosterone in their bodies is one obvious explanation for lower libido in women, however, oestrogen, a hormone we have in abundance, has also been implicated in decreased sexual desire. We all know that changes in oestrogen levels through the menstrual cycle creates peaks and troughs in sexual desire (e.g., Adams, Gold, & Burt, 1978). Less well known is the fact that surgically induced postmenopausal women who receive oestrogen therapy report depressed sexual desire, activity, and pleasure (Nathorst-Boos & von Schoultz, 1992; Sherwin et al., 1985; Shifren, Nahum, & Mazer, 1998) and decreased well-being (Nathorst-Boos, von Schoultz, & Carlstrom, 1993). In contrast, a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 52-week trial in which 814 women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo, or a testosterone patch, supplementary testosterone was associated with significant increases in desire and decreases in distress, compared to the placebo (Davis et al 2008).

Further evidence to support the importance of testosterone comes from a study of 35 female-to-male transsexuals and 15 male-to-female transsexuals ( Van Goozen, Cohen-Kettenis, Gooren, Frijda, & Van de Poll 1995).  A decrease in sexual interest and arousability was found among the male-to-female transsexuals who were administered anti-androgens and oestrogens. However female-to-male transsexuals, who were administered testosterone, reported heightened sexual interest and were more easily aroused.

Evolutionary theorists have argued that low libido in women is a protective mechanism which makes females less willing to engage in casual sex and therefore, less likely to get pregnant by partners who won’t invest in them and their offspring. If this were true though, lesbian couples might be expected to manifest higher levels of sexual activity than heterosexual couples (since the fear of pregnancy would be eliminated), however lesbian couples appear to have even less sex than heterosexual couples. A study by Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that in the first 2 years of a relationship, two thirds of the gay men, but only one third of the lesbians were having sex three or more times per week. After 10 years together, nearly half the lesbians, but only a third of the gay men, were having sex less than once a month, however 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 were not having sex with anyone. Data on masturbation (Oliver & Hyde, 1993) adds additional weight to the argument that lower libido in women is not explained by evolutionary theory since the vast majority of men (84%) masturbate, but only about half of women so (Jones & Barlow, 1990). Similarly, when asked if they masturbated at least once a year, 80% of boys but only 25% of girls reported at least yearly masturbation (Sigusch & Schmidt, 1973).

The evidence that male and female libidos differ is persuasive and there is certainly no doubt that the gulf between male desire and female disinterest causes a great deal of conflict in long- term relationships. Research by Byers and Lewis (1988) has found that almost half of all heterosexual couples disagree about sex, and every single disagreement involved the man desiring some sexual activity that his female partner did not. Likewise, men and women agree that female reluctance about sex is much more likely to occur than male sexual reluctance (O’Sullivan & Byers, 1995).  Although the partner with low desire generally determines whether sex does, or does not happen, the overwhelming opinion in cases of mismatched desire is that the person with the lower libido is the one who needs to change. When sexual reticence becomes an insurmountable problem, women with hypoactive sexual desire are referred to sexual dysfunction clinics (for therapy and testosterone), or psychologists (for understanding and empathy), however the desire to have sex within a long-term relationship is so complicated that it doesn’t necessarily respond to this kind of well-intentioned tinkering.

Instead of trying to encourage these women to be more like men, is it worth stepping away from the presumption that the difference between male and female libido is a problem and questioning whether the push and pull between male and female libido might be an integral part of our sexual motivation? Although mismatched sex drives do cause conflict, a great deal of the associated unhappiness is driven by the expectation that women should be as sexually receptive as men want them to be. In reality, if we lived in a world where men and women possessed equal appetites for sex, where would the sexual tension be? Human sexuality seems to be based on the principle of opposing polarities and the male and female coupling appear to be a biological illustration of  positive and negative electromagnetic interaction. Our differing sexual drives are matched in turn by our differently functioning, but complementary reproductive systems. If we accept that our biology is not accident, but design, then it makes sense to accept our distinctive libidos as a part of that.

Although men might argue to the contrary, if men and women had exactly the same drives, sex would almost certainly lose some of its appeal.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter which motivates us to seek sex is stimulated by unpredictability (Berridge and Robinson 1998) and Fmri scans  have demonstrated that the anticipation of a reward generates more neural activity than the actual reward itself. As such, as soon as something, anything, that we enjoy becomes both accessible and predictable, we are inclined to lose interest in it. The gap between male and female libidos means that sex is never inevitable and this creates a variable schedule of reinforcement where reward cannot be presumed. In terms of training, variation is the most likely schedule to lead to permanence of behavior because the rewards are not predetermined and this sustains the trainee’s motivation.  Basically, although men do want more sex than women, if women were always up for it, men would be less interested, so gender differences in sex drive are really rather clever. As Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Nothing is accidental in the universe”

©Suzi Godson

 Thanks to Robert T. Gonzalez for alerting me to the meta analysis. Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence. Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen R. Catanese, and Kathleen D. Vohs Personality and Social Psychology Review  . 2001, Vol. 5, No. 3, 242–273







  1. Karl Mallinger
    September 11, 2014

    (First of all, please excuse my mistakes, English is not my native language.)

    If the strength of the libido of men and women would be equal – either equally weak or equally strong – no prostitution would have ever existed. Nobody would have ever even heard about paying for sex. And johns sure wouldn’t mind if the women’s sex drive was as strong as theirs – or their own need for sex as low the women’s.

    There is this assumption that male homosexuality and female homosexuality indicate both male sexuality and female sexuality in their purest forms.

    Male homosexuals go out “cruising” or “cottaging” – looking for casual sex with other men in public places like bars, parks, etc. Lesbian women on the other hand tend to have monogamous, long-term relationships.

    The argument is that hetero(!)sexual men also would like to have sex the way homosexual men do – only with women, of course. And on the other hand heterosexual women also would like to have long-term, monogamous relationships with one man the way homosexual women usually have with each other.

    So both, the behavior of gay men and of lesbian women would be a “politically incorrect” indicator to the pure and genuine sexual needs and desires of both, straight men and straight women: Lesbian women express their sexuality the way also straight women want sex and gay men on the other hand express their sexuality straight men do.

    And heterosexuality would be only a compromise.

  2. Kristof Roth
    October 2, 2014

    For an alternative take on the question of male-vs-female appetites in relationships I quote from Robbie Gonzalez’s review of the same research “Do men really have higher sex drives than women?”[Daily Explainer]:

    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.”

  3. Relm
    April 9, 2015

    I’m quite leery of self-reported data, such as the above on masturbation. Of COURSE the majority of women are going to claim that they do not masturbate. People lie, especially regarding things they’re ashamed of. Self-reportied sexual behaviour and desires is always wildly inaccurate. And while the example of lesbians vs. gay men is interesting, there’s still a cultural element in play there that you can’t remove.

    I’m not buying anything that doesn’t have genitals hooked up to sensors so you can measure sexual arousal objectively.

  4. Jenna
    April 11, 2015

    I did a project on global sex trafficking. the fact that most victims of global sex trafficking are women has nothing to do with men “having a higher sex drive”. half of victims are chikdren, would you say that men are naturally sexually attracted to infertile pwople (children)? It has to do with the fact that most victims of global sex trafficking are poor, uneducated, physically/economically vulnerable, etc. Guess which groups of people are more commonly uneducated, poor, and vulnerable? Yep, women and children.

  5. Jenna
    April 11, 2015

    Yeah really. I did a project on this. The fact that Kinsey studies in the 50s found that 20% of women masturbate, and now studies are finding that upwards of 92% of women masturbate (wow! Women suddenly got a lot hornier! Or maybe the ones in the 50s were just ashamed bc culture deemed it less appropriate back then?), and the fact that reported gender differences in sexual behavior dissipate when lie detectors are used, and the fact that liberal women are more likely to report having a higher libido and masturbation than conservative women, just show me that PEOPLE ARE FUCKING LIARS that lie to match up to a cultural script. So frankly these surveys are useless tbh.

    Also the idea that all gay men seek casual sex, and all lesbians seek monogamy, is a generalization. Plus admitting to sexual promiscuity is a lot more socially acceptable for men than women (lie detecting tests show that gender differences in sexual partners dissipate when lie detectors are used).

Leave a Reply