- Men's sexual desire is not all about libido.
- Anxiety about being sexually inadequate can interfere with pleasure for men.
- Men may feel like they are risking their entire sense of worth when they approach their partners sexually.
“I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.”
–Cheap Trick, "I Want You to Want Me"
Some men's fears of being sexually inadequate may range from concerns about erectile dysfunction and questions about their manhood to fears about whether they can ever be loved.
While many of the sexual norms related to gender roles in our culture have changed dramatically in the past few generations, one norm that stubbornly resists change is the one-sided expectation that men should be the pursuers in heterosexual relationships. Women would then have to live with the anxiety and frustration of waiting to be approached and suffer with all of the body image and self-esteem issues that come with being relegated to the passive position of being the object of men’s desires. Men would have to live with their fears of rejection because they are socialized to believe that a woman will spurn them if she is “out of his league,” i.e., higher status than he is.
Assuming they make it past the early stages of dating, men must face all their fears about pleasing women sexually. Approaching a woman openly with their sexual desires is an inherently vulnerable act for men that often stirs up deep-seated fears of inadequacy. Much of what young men learn today about sex comes from watching pornography, creating a confusing set of conflicting expectations. On one hand, the women they are dating likely make it clear that they are looking for mutual emotional openness and vulnerability in relationships. This directly contradicts what young men learn from watching pornography or talking to their friends.
Men are stereotypically thought to be narcissistic and self-centered lovers, focused primarily on their own pleasure and largely uninterested in their partners’ experience, except as an instrument for their own gratification. In contrast, when surveyed, men said satisfying their partner was more important than their own pleasure.
Men’s pornography reflects this powerful need to please in its images of women who are overcome with desire in response to their male partner's expert ministrations. How can men be both self-centered lovers interested only in their own pleasure and simultaneously be more focused on their partner’s pleasure than their own? The paradox is readily resolved with the understanding that men’s focus on their partners’ pleasure is only partially an act of generosity and primarily an effort to stave off their feelings of insecurity.
There is an old saying that women need to feel loved to want to have sex and that men need to have sex to feel loved. Feeling an almost desperate need for the masculine affirmation that comes with sexually pleasing their partners creates a deep vulnerability for men. Sometimes the physical intimacy of sex is the only way that men can feel truly loved, but seeking that reassurance requires men to be vulnerable in ways that evoke their deepest fears of abandonment.
Men’s requests for more sexual frequency are often similarly misattributed to male libido. If it were that simple, men who are partnered would simply masturbate more often when their partner is not interested or not available. What women often don’t understand is that when they are more open about their own sexual desires, this frees men from the insecurity they feel about being rejected or more profoundly, from feeling not desirable or even not lovable. Men often feel like they are putting their entire sense of worth and self-acceptance on the line when they approach their partners sexually.
Women’s orgasms are critically important to men for similar reasons. The more insecure a man feels about his masculinity, the more important it is to him that his partner has an orgasm. Women understand this and so have been known to fake orgasms to reassure their partners. Noted sex therapist Esther Perel says that men’s reliance on sex to reassure themselves about their larger sense of adequacy can lead them to be so other-centered in sex that they are afraid that if they truly inhabit their bodies and surrender to the experience of their own pleasure for just a moment, their partner will be hurt or angry, and will punish or even abandon them. As a result, sexuality for men is often filled with more anxiety than pleasure, more focused on performance and pleasing their partner, and their own pleasure is often overlooked. Men often approach women in a way that doesn’t say "I want you" as much as "Do you want me?"
Not surprisingly, these dynamics often show up as inhibited sexual desire in men. In one study, 15% of men in long-term partnerships reported they had lost almost all interest in sex for a period of three months or longer in the past year. This is not about aging because the highest rate was in men aged 35 to 44.
Somehow, we have managed to create a dynamic in which both men and women often feel terribly anxious, deeply unsure of themselves, and cut off from their own sense of pleasure. They feel disempowered. The best we have been able to do is cobble together a narrative in which men are the sexual initiators to reassure them that they are in control, while women demur in order not to intimidate men with any open display of sexual desire. But then the women need to succumb to men’s approaches, which reassures men of their adequacy and gives women permission to surrender to their own sexual desire.
Diamond, J. (2017). The one thing men want more than sex. https://medium.com/hello-love/the-one-thing-men-want-more-than-sex-98a8…
Graham, C. A., Mercer, C. H., Tanton, C., Jones, K. G., Johnson, A. M., Wellings, K. et al. (2017). What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles. BMJ open, 7(9).
Perel, E. (2007). Mating in Captivity. Harper Collins.