Male and female libido are social constructions as much as biology

The maddening plight of being a sexually voracious woman by Lux Alptraum

I’ve been fascinated with sex for as long as I can remember, becoming transfixed by the topic some time between my open-minded parents teaching me about the birds and the bees and my discovery of masturbation (which, not to put too fine a point on it, was rather precocious). When I finally started having sex in college, I couldn’t get enough. In the words of my first serious boyfriend, I was absolutely insatiable.

Everything I’d been taught about men and sex led me to believe that my voracious appetite was a tremendous asset. From the notion that men think about sex every seven seconds to the inescapable trope of the always-eager man to the fact that there’s an entire entertainment industry devoted to catering to the presumably inexhaustible male libido—we all “know” that men want sex, if not all the time, then certainly more than women do. In this sort of environment, a woman with a raging desire for getting (and going) down should, to paraphrase Amy Schumer, be able to catch a dick whenever she likes.

Except the more sexual experience I acquired, the more I discovered something odd. Despite what I’d learned from the American Pie franchise, men didn’t seem to want sex all the time. Even in relationships where my sex drive began as a bonus, it soon came to feel like a bug: Every time a partner rejected my advances, I felt increasingly convinced that there was something wrong with me. Because if male desire for sex is a given, then a lack of interest must necessarily reflect a problem with the sex on offer—and not, of course, the possibility that the notion of an ever-present male sex drive is a fallacy.

After enough late-night conversations with other libidinous women, I’ve come to accept that I’m not alone in my struggle—that the idea of male desire as an ever-present force is more myth than reality. But where does this myth come from? Why does it persist? And what’s to be done by those of us whose sexual expectations don’t match up to our reality?

Sex research is a notoriously complex field: Academics interested in exploring the biology of desire have a tough time finding financial support for their research, and even those who do secure funding find that shame, bias, and the sheer difficulty of quantifying something as subjective as sex drive can cloud their ability to secure straightforward answers. Given these challenges, many of the studies that have been conducted on the male and female libidos don’t paint a complete picture.

An oft-cited study from the August 2001 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review, for example, concludes—after surveying data on men and women’s spontaneous thoughts about sex, frequency of sexual fantasies, and other factors—that “male sex drive is stronger than the female sex drive.” But in a culture where women are still taught to downplay their sexual urges, study participants may not fully own up to their desires and behaviors. Indeed, a 2011 study takes issue with the “large, well-established, and reliable gender differences in sexuality” laid out in previous reports, noting that researchers can eliminate these differences simply by approaching their work more creatively.

Consider the fact that while men frequently report having had more sexual partners than women, that difference disappears when study participants believe they’ve been hooked up to a polygraph machine. And while men report thinking about sex more often than women do, they also report thinking about food and sleep more frequently, perhaps because—unlike women—they’ve been socialized to prioritize their own needs. Even the slightest reframing of a question—like asking respondents to describe their actual sexual partners rather than their ideal ones—dramatically reduces, if not altogether eliminates, gendered differences in sexual desire and behavior.

More recent research suggests that one’s level of libido stems from cultural conditioning more than biology. A study published in 2012 by Dr. Sari van Anders, editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, analyzed 105 men and 91 women, who completed questionnaires about desire and behavior as well as provided saliva samples for analysis of their testosterone and cortisol levels. While the study did conclude that men demonstrate a higher level of desire for both sex and masturbation than women, that difference in desire was not correlated to testosterone, as many have previously assumed. Rather, van Anders’ research suggested that it was frequency of masturbation that caused men to desire sex more. In a culture where women are frequently discouraged from exploring self-love, it’s not hard to see how a lower libido could be a product of socialization rather than something inborn.

“Women have been socialized to think pretty negatively about their vulvas and vaginas,” van Anders told me over Skype. “So it could be that a lot of the negative socialization that women experience about masturbation could be decreasing either their frequency or their enjoyment of it, and that, in turn, has influences on desire.” In this framework, it’s not that men “naturally” want sex more, they’re merely given more freedom to explore and engage with their sexuality—suggesting that women who are given similar freedom may, in fact, equal (or outpace) the desire of their male partners.

Notably, a roundup titled What Sexual Scientists Know About Gender Differences and Similarities in Sexuality published in 2012 by The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality concludes that, “Regardless of the nature, origin, or extent of gender differences in sexuality, differences among women and differences among men are far greater than the difference between the average woman and the average man.”

The upshot? There is little in the way of concrete scientific evidence connecting gender and libido. Much of what we know, or think we know, about male or female libido is just the residue of stories we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries (if not millennia). But knowing that our ideas about “normal” and “natural” sex drive are social constructs does not do much to lessen their very real impact.

Mismatched libidos can cause pain and frustration for relationships of all configurations, but there’s a specific pain to the experience of a heterosexual relationship in which the woman wants it more. If you’re a highly sexual man whose partner isn’t DTF, you can at least console yourself with the knowledge that your predicament lines up with cultural expectations. When the genders are flipped, the insult of feeling “abnormal” exacerbates the injury of sexual incompatibility.

In the best case scenario, sexually voracious women end up frustrated and unfulfilled, feeling, as it were, like we’ve been sold a bad bill of goods. In an essay detailing her frustrations with casual sex, Charlotte Shane notes that “[w]e’d been told that men were insatiable, that they’d be thrilled by our appetites and eagerness and carefully cultivated hotness, yet we kept bumping up against potheads and sluggards who seemed severely sexually under-motivated in spite of having signed up for a site designed to get them laid.”

Though stumbling blocks on the way to casual sex can be frustrating, it’s in committed relationships that the myth of the male libido can become truly toxic. J, a New York City-based musician and writer in her mid-30s, told me that during her last relationship, a lack of sex led her to seek gratification in adult entertainment. Though the lack of emotional connection left her feeling empty, she found herself watching increasing amounts—which, as a recovering alcoholic and addict, left her feeling concerned. “I was convinced I was a porn addict, which brought on some shame. I felt guilty for desiring other people.”

Other women I spoke with echoed this sentiment, noting that a desire for “too much” sex led to a sense of shame and questions about their own desirability. In some particularly toxic situations, women described partners who played on insecurities to shift blame away from themselves. “Sometimes he would turn it around and say I didn’t do enough to arouse him,” J noted—though she concedes that, after years of feeling rejected, she eventually lost the will to try.

Men whose libidos are outstripped by their female partners’ do not fare much better. Those whom I spoke with noted feelings of shame, resentment, and emasculation—the latter not surprising, given cultural messaging about the inextricable relationship between libido and masculinity. In many cases, the friction and stress caused by fighting about sex served largely to further depress libido, creating a vicious and seemingly unbreakable cycle of unhappiness and unfulfillment.

D, a 23-year-old software engineer from upstate New York, told me that in a previous relationship, the tension over his lack of sexual desire—coupled with the knowledge that he was disappointing and hurting his girlfriend—caused him to feel “ashamed at how poor I was at being a sexual being.” His anxiety and shame manifested in premature ejaculation, which further compounded his anxiety: Even when he was interested in sex, his performance felt subpar. Avoiding sex altogether felt like a much safer option.

Most of the people I spoke with for this piece were aware that the notion of an always-on male sex drive isn’t grounded in reality—but the myth is so deeply ingrained in our culture, it can be hard to shake.

For Charlie Glickman, a Seattle-based sex and relationships coach who works with individuals and couples to identify and deal with issues interfering with sexual pleasure, the problem isn’t just about our misguided ideas about male desire: It’s tied to the way we conceptualize male sexuality as a whole.

The male sexual experience, Glickman notes, is often referred to as a “performance”—a term rarely used to describe female sexuality outside of commercial sex. And there is no doubt that our culture’s notion’s about male sexual performance, and male sexual pleasure, are rooted in the physical, reduced to nothing more than “get it up, get it in, last a long time, get it off,” to use Glickman’s words.

There’s little space in this framework for feelings or emotions: Men who struggle with lagging libidos are taught to turn to Viagra or cock rings or other physical stimulants rather than examine the many other factors—stress, lack of emotional connection, exhaustion—that might dampen desire for sex (or the physical manifestation thereof).

And men aren’t the only ones who are disconnected from the complex system underlying their desire. Many women, even those with raging libidos, don’t often look beyond the superficial aspects of their desire. When Glickman works with a couple struggling to manage mismatched libidos, he presents them with a straightforward—yet surprisingly illuminating—question: “What is it that you’re trying to get out of sex?”

We spend so much time thinking of sex as an inherently desirable experience—something where more is self-evidently better—that few of us truly think about what, exactly, we’re getting out of it. Pleasure and orgasmic release is an essential part of the experience, to be sure, but it’s also readily available through masturbation. For many of us, the pursuit of sex is about something deeper: a desire to feel close to a partner, a validation of our desirability, a distraction from stress.

When we step back and expand our notion of what it means to desire sex, we’re granted more clarity, even as the situation becomes more nuanced and muddled. We are not libidinous, sex-crazed men versus coy, gate-keeping women, but rather individuals with our own complex, unique patterns of arousal and desire predicated on our own complex, unique motivations and relationship to sex itself.

The biggest lie of the male libido—or any libido at all—is the notion that something as personal as our sexuality and desire can be generalized or predicted in the first place.