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Sex Health Blog

Female Sexual Desire

Jul 10, 2013

In his 2009 article for The New York Times Magazine, writer Daniel Bergner describes a conversation he had with psychology professor and sex researcher Marta Meana of the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The two were discussing female sexual desire:

“What women want is a real dilemma,” she said. Earlier, she showed me, as a joke, a photograph of two control panels, one representing the workings of male desire, the second, female, the first with only a simple on-off switch, the second with countless knobs.

The image is apt, as is the title of Bergner’s new book on female desire What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. Bergner describes the work of sexologists trying to answer this elusive question.

It’s a mystery that has been discussed for years. How do the sex drives of men and women compare? Today we’ll look at some different perspectives on the subject.

Do Women Have Weaker Sex Drives?

Traditionally, at least in American culture, we hear that men have stronger sex drives and that women’s desire is weaker.

Not so, says Huffington Post sex and relationships researcher Dr. Kristen Mark.

In “5 Myths About Women’s Sexual Desire, Decoded”, Mark writes, “Research has found that women and men are equally likely to be the partner less desirous of sex. This hasn't been found in just one study, either. In my own research alone, I've found a non-significant difference between men and women in three different samples of couples.”

She might disagree, however, with the control panel image discussed above. “In the research I've conducted in the area of sexual desire, the most surprising (and perhaps interesting) result has been that there is just as much variation in desire within men and women as there is between men and women.”

She adds, “I've found that variations in sexual desire are much more of a relationship issue than a gender issue.”

Are Women’s Sex Drives More Complicated?

Bergner discusses the work of Canadian psychology professor Meredith Chivers, whose experiments involved measuring men’s and women’s physical and subjective reactions to a variety of sexually explicit videos. These videos depicted different types of sexual acts: heterosexual sex, men with men, women with women, and masturbation. Chivers also included clips of a naked man walking on the beach and a nude woman doing calisthenics. In addition, sex between bonobos, a type of ape, were shown.

The study participants had plethysmographs attached to their genitals. These devices measured physical arousal. The participants also had keypads to indicate how aroused they felt.

The men, Bergner reports, had fairly straightforward reactions. Heterosexual men were more aroused by the videos of men with women, women with women, and women masturbating and exercising. The gay men were more aroused by the videos of men with men. None of the men seemed aroused by the bonobos. Both physical and subjective measurements concurred.

The data was harder to pin down for the women, as their physical and subjective assessments often didn’t match. Physically, straight women were about equally aroused by male-female, male-male, and female-female sex. But they said they were more aroused by the videos of men with women and not so much by the others. Lesbian women’s readings matched when watching videos depicting women. But for the clips of men with men, lesbians’ physical readings showed they were more aroused than they said they were. (Like the men, the women were generally not aroused by the bonobos.)

What does this mean? It’s hard to know for sure. But the example does show some of the complexity between men’s and women’s sexual desires.

What Role Does Culture Play?

Many researchers believe that women want sex just as much as men, if not more. But how does culture affect sex drive? Can women be direct – or even aggressive – about their desires?

Maybe, but maybe not. In her review of Bergner’s book, Ann Friedman writes in The Cut:

Even in research about appropriate dating behavior among adults today, “men and women both agree that men should actively pursue female partners and that women should be passive recipients to their advances,” says Jessica Carbino, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA who studies online dating and relationships. “For example, women and men overwhelmingly state that men are supposed to plan dates, ask out the woman, and pick her up. Moreover, when women do not adhere to these scripts they are viewed negatively. For example, women who initiate dates are viewed by men as more promiscuous and not interested in forming a serious relationship.”

What Do You Think?

Do you think men’s and women’s sexual desire is similar? Different? How does culture come into play? And how might other cultures around the world consider these questions? Feel free to share your point of view in the comments.