- Gender differences in sex drive can be due to either evolutionary or social pressures.
- Sex drive can be thought of as a personality trait; that is, it varies a lot from one person to the next, regardless of gender.
- Sex drive is composed of three parts: excitability to sexual stimuli, frequency of sexual acts, and frequency of sexual thoughts.
- On average, men have higher sex drives, but about a third of women have a higher sex drive than the average male.
It seems obvious that men have greater sex drives than women. After all, men are widely seen as the “pursuers,” pushing for sex as early in a relationship as possible. Meanwhile, women are the “gatekeepers,” delaying the initiation of sex for as long as they can.
Even after the relationship has turned sexual, this pattern of pursuit and resistance tends to continue, or at least it re-emerges after the initial excitement has subsided. In heterosexual marriages, husbands tend to want sex more than their wives do. Indeed, sexual desire discrepancy is one of the chief complaints in couples counseling, and it’s generally the man who’s complaining about not getting his sexual needs met.
Nature or Nurture?
But why is this the case? From an evolutionary perspective, human mating and parenting behaviors were shaped by the fact that their offspring require care for far longer than any other species. Thus, we evolved pair bonding for the purpose of raising children.
In this scenario, a woman needs to hold off having sex until she’s sure the man will stick around to help raise their child. Furthermore, women are limited in the number of offspring that they can have due to long periods of pregnancy and nursing. Men, in contrast, can increase their progeny by having sexual relations with more than one woman at the same time. As a result, women tend to have lower sex drives than men.
Nevertheless, there’s research to suggest that women have sex drives that are just as strong as men do. It’s just that they have to be more careful about expressing it. In part, this has to do with social norms, which praise “studs” but shame “sluts.” There are also legitimate concerns about the risks of pregnancy and the burdens of childrearing. And finally, a lack of adequate sex education means that many women aren’t getting the kind of stimulation they need to fully enjoy sex, so they lose interest in it.
Sex Drive as a Personality Trait
To get at the question of whether men have stronger sex drives than women, Saarland University (Germany) psychologist Julius Frankenbach and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies looking at this question. A meta-analysis aggregates data from multiple studies to test hypotheses. In this case, data came from over 600,000 individuals. With large data sets like this, we can be much more confident in the results.
In surveying the literature for this meta-analysis, Frankenbach and colleagues found two reasons why there have been so many contradictory results when comparing men’s and women’s sex drives. The first problem is that there’s no clear definition of what sex drive is. The second and related problem is that there’s no consistent way to measure it.
To resolve these issues, Frankenbach and colleagues devised a theoretical framework for thinking about sex drive. Specifically, the researchers proposed that it would be useful to think of sex drive as a personality trait.
Personality researchers distinguish between states, or temporary aspects of a person, and traits, or enduring characteristics. For instance, someone who’s usually extraverted may not act outgoing in all situations or at all times. States describe your personality in the moment, while traits describe your personality in general.
Likewise, an individual’s desire for sex will fluctuate over time, and this is their “state” sex drive. But what’s really key here is their “trait” sex drive: that is, their average level of desire for sex. After all, even a person with a very high sex drive won’t be much interested in having sex on some occasions.
The takeaway from this is that the way you ask questions can influence the answers you get. For instance, if you ask research participants how many times they thought about sex in the last day, you may get different answers from asking them how times over the last month or just in general how often they think about sex.
How to Measure Sex Drive?
The researchers resolved the problem of how to measure sex drive by considering how psychologists measure other personality traits. We often talk about the ABCs of personality, namely affect (or emotion), behavior (or actions), and cognition (or thoughts). That is to say, psychologists define your personality as the typical ways in which you feel, act, and think.
Taking this approach, there are three aspects of sex drive that can be measured. The researchers propose to measure affect in terms of how easily you get aroused when faced with a sexual stimulus or situation. Likewise, behavior involves the frequency of sexual acts. And finally, cognition has to do with how often you think about sex.
Regarding behavior, many researchers have used the frequency of sexual intercourse as a measure of sex drive, but Frankenbach and colleagues point out that this is problematic for several reasons. First of all, at least within a heterosexual context, every time a man has sex, a woman also has sex, so by this measure, men’s and women’s average sex drives must be equal.
Additionally, people don’t always have sex when they feel like it. They may not want to, but they feel coerced or want to please their partner. Likewise, if you don’t have a partner available, you can’t have intercourse no matter how much you want to.
For this reason, the only sexual act that the researchers counted was masturbation. After all, no one is ever coerced into solo sex or does it to please their partner. So, they reasoned, this behavior is a more accurate measure of sex drive.
Gender Differences Tell Us Nothing About the Individual
After completing their meta-analysis, Frankenbach and colleagues found that when sex drive is defined as they proposed, men do, on average, have higher sex drives than women. However, there was wide variability in sex drive among both men and women. As a result, about a third of the women surveyed indicated a higher sex drive than that of the average man.
These results fall in line with other research on gender differences. That is to say, when a gender difference is found, that difference is small, and the variability within each gender is great. This is easiest to see with an example like height. On average, men are taller than women, but there are still plenty of women who are taller than most men.
In the end, we have to understand that questions such as whether men have stronger sex drives than women are highly nuanced. While we can compute averages that show a gender difference, these numbers tell us nothing at all about how individual men and women compare. At best, we can talk about trends, but even then, we have to expect lots of exceptions to the general rule.
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Frankenbach, J., Weber, M., Loschelder, D. D., Kilger, H., & Friese, M. (2022). Sex drive: Theoretical conceptualization and meta-analytic review of gender differences. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000366