Birds do it, bees do it, and men do it any old time. But women will only do it if the candles are scented just right -- and their partner has done the dishes first. A stereotype, sure, but is it true? Do men really have stronger sex drives than women?
Well, yes, they do. Study after study shows that men's sex drives are not only stronger than women's, but much more straightforward. The sources of women's libidos, by contrast, are much harder to pin down.
It's common wisdom that women place more value on emotional connection as a spark of sexual desire. But women also appear to be heavily influenced by social and cultural factors as well.
"Sexual desire in women is extremely sensitive to environment and context," says Edward O. Laumann, PhD. He is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and lead author of a major survey of sexual practices, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States.
Here are seven patterns of men's and women's sex drives that researchers have found. Bear in mind that people may vary from these norms.
1. Men think more about sex.
The majority of adult men under 60 think about sex at least once a day, reports Laumann. Only about one-quarter of women say they think about it that frequently. As men and women age, each fantasize less, but men still fantasize about twice as often.
In a survey of studies comparing male and female sex drives, Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, found that men reported more spontaneous sexual arousal and had more frequent and varied fantasies.
2. Men seek sex more avidly.
"Men want sex more often than women at the start of a relationship, in the middle of it, and after many years of it," Baumeister concludes after reviewing several surveys of men and women. This isn't just true of heterosexuals, he says; gay men also have sex more often than lesbians at all stages of the relationship. Men also say they want more sex partners in their lifetime, and are more interested in casual sex.
Men are more likely to seek sex even when it's frowned upon or even outlawed:
- About two-thirds say they masturbate, even though about half also say they feel guilty about it, Laumann says. By contrast, about 40% of women say they masturbate, and the frequency of masturbation is smaller among women.
- Prostitution is still mostly a phenomenon of men seeking sex with women, rather than the other way around.
- Nuns do a better job of fulfilling their vows of chastity than priests. Baumeister cites a survey of several hundred clergy in which 62% of priests admitted to sexual activity, compared to 49% of nuns. The men reported more partners on average than the women.
3. Women's sexual turn-ons are more complicated than men's.
What turns women on? Not even women always seem to know. Northwestern University researcher Meredith Chivers and colleagues showed erotic films to gay and straight men and women. They asked them about their level of sexual arousal, and also measured their actual level of arousal through devices attached to their genitals.
For men, the results were predictable: Straight men said they were more turned on by depictions of male-female sex and female-female sex, and the measuring devices backed up their claims. Gay men said they were turned on by male-male sex, and again the devices backed them up. For women, the results were more surprising. Straight women, for example, said they were more turned on by male-female sex. But genitally they showed about the same reaction to male-female, male-male, and female-female sex.
"Men are very rigid and specific about who they become aroused by, who they want to have sex with, who they fall in love with," says J. Michael Bailey. He is a Northwestern University sex researcher and co-author with Chivers on the study.
By contrast, women may be more open to same-sex relationships thanks to their less-directed sex drives, Bailey says. "Women probably have the capacity to become sexually interested in and fall in love with their own sex more than men do," Bailey says. "They won't necessarily do it, but they have the capacity."
Bailey's idea is backed up by studies showing that homosexuality is a more fluid state among women than men. In another broad review of studies, Baumeister found many more lesbians reported recent sex with men, when compared to gay men's reports of sex with women. Women were also more likely than men to call themselves bisexual, and to report their sexual orientation as a matter of choice.
4. Women's sex drives are more influenced by social and cultural factors.
In his review, Baumeister found studies showing many ways in which women's sexual attitudes, practices, and desires were more influenced by their environment than men:
- Women's attitudes toward (and willingness to perform) various sexual practices are more likely than men's to change over time.
- Women who regularly attend church are less likely to have permissive attitudes about sex. Men do not show this connection between church attendance and sex attitudes.
- Women are more influenced by the attitudes of their peer group in their decisions about sex.
- Women with higher education levels were more likely to have performed a wider variety of sexual practices (such as oral sex); education made less of a difference with men.
- Women were more likely than men to show inconsistency between their expressed values about sexual activities such as premarital sex and their actual behavior.
Why are women's sex drives seemingly weaker and more vulnerable to influence? Some have theorized it's related to the greater power of men in society, or differing sexual expectations of men when compared to women. Laumann prefers an explanation more closely tied to the world of sociobiology.
Men have every incentive to have sex to pass along their genetic material, Laumann says. By contrast, women may be hard-wired to choose their partners carefully, because they are the ones who can get pregnant and wind up taking care of the baby. They are likely to be more attuned to relationship quality because they want a partner who will stay around to help take care of the child. They're also more likely to choose a man with resources because of their greater ability to support a child.
5. Women take a less direct route to sexual satisfaction.
Men and women travel slightly different paths to arrive at sexual desire. "I hear women say in my office that desire originates much more between the ears than between the legs," says Esther Perel, a New York City psychotherapist. "For women there is a need for a plot -- hence the romance novel. It is more about the anticipation, how you get there; it is the longing that is the fuel for desire," Perel says.
Women's desire "is more contextual, more subjective, more layered on a lattice of emotion," Perel adds. Men, by contrast, don't need to have nearly as much imagination, Perel says, since sex is simpler and more straightforward for them.
That doesn't mean men don't seek intimacy, love, and connection in a relationship, just as women do. They just view the role of sex differently. "Women want to talk first, connect first, then have sex," Perel explains. "For men, sex is the connection. Sex is the language men use to express their tender loving vulnerable side," Perel says. "It is their language of intimacy."
6. Women experience orgasms differently than men.
Men, on average, take 4 minutes from the point of entry until ejaculation, according to Laumann. Women usually take around 10 to 11 minutes to reach orgasm -- if they do.
That's another difference between the sexes: how often they have an orgasm during sex. Among men who are part of a couple, 75% say they always have an orgasm, as opposed to 26% of the women. And not only is there a difference in reality, there's one in perception, too. While the men's female partners reported their rate of orgasm accurately, the women's male partners said they believed their female partners had orgasms 45% of the time.
7. Women's libidos seem to be less responsive to drugs.
With men's sex drives seemingly more directly tied to biology when compared to women, it may be no surprise that low desire may be more easily treated through medication in men. Men have embraced drugs as a cure not only for erectile dysfunction but also for a shrinking libido. With women, though, the search for a drug to boost sex drive has proved more elusive.
Testosterone has been linked to sex drive in both men and women. But testosterone works much faster in men with low libidos than women, says Glenn Braunstein, MD. He is past-chair of the department of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a leading researcher on testosterone treatments in women. While the treatments are effective, they're not as effective in women as in men. "There is a hormonal factor in [sex drive], but it is much more important in men than women," Braunstein says.
A testosterone patch for women called Intrinsa has been approved in Europe but was rejected by the FDA due to concerns about long-term safety. But the drug has sparked a backlash from some medical and psychiatric professionals who question whether low sex drive in women should even be considered a condition best treated with drugs. They point to the results of a large survey in which about 40% of women reported some sort of sexual problem -- most commonly low sexual desire -- but only 12% said they felt distressed about it. With all the factors that go into the stew that piques sexual desire in women, some doctors say a drug should be the last ingredient to consider, rather than the first.