A leading researcher challenges the belief that all men have higher sex drives than women. Many feel under pressure to initiate intimacy and would prefer greater equality in bed, she tells Marjorie Brennan.
However, it could be that this isn’t as unlikely a scenario as we think, according to Canadian relationship therapist Sarah Hunter Murray, who has carried out extensive research on the subject of male sexual desire. She has delved beneath the stereotype of the man who is always ready for sex, finding that many men don’t always feel ‘up for it’ and are uncertain and fearful about how to raise the issue with their partners. As a result, relationships and intimacy are at risk.
In her book Not Always in the Mood, Hunter Murray aims to debunk the myths that surround men’s sexual desire. She says that we have been culturally conditioned, through songs, films, television and advertising, to view men as having an insatiable sexual appetite.
“As a sex researcher, I started studying women’s sexual desires, which were complex and nuanced, with so many factors impacting whether women were in the mood or not. I started to notice there was a counterpoint. In the research, there was this implication that men’s desire was always high or they were always in the mood, and would never turn down sex,” she says.
Over the course of 10 years, Hunter Murray interviewed 237 men of all ages and backgrounds in an attempt to discover whether this was really the case.
“I started by interviewing men without knowing what I’d find… it wasn’t long before they showed they wanted to discuss a more complex narrative than the one we had heard.”
“With the in-depth interviews, we would talk for an hour, and they started opening up. I’d ask ‘is there ever a time you’d say no?’ and they’d say ‘if I was sick, or tired’, and I felt the more space men had to express their experiences the more I’d hear stories like ‘my wife and I aren’t really on the same page, we’re emotionally disconnected, I’m not always so turned on, sometimes my wife will suggest having sex before we’ve had a chance to talk and I feel pressured to say yes’.
It struck me that those interviews would begin with men following stereotypical descriptions of their desire — and how we rely on those first minutes and those stereotypes.
Hunter Murray’s book is an attempt to change the conversation around sexual desire, from a male and female perspective.
“What I mostly see is that women either presume men’s desire should be high, so that if their partner has lower desire than them — which is quite common — they take it personally, that he’s not attracted to her or there’s an issue with the relationship. They can also feel frustrated if their male partner does have a high level of sexual desire but they feel ‘he’s just a horndog’ and it has nothing to do with attraction, that he just wants to experience the physical pleasure.
“But I also hear from men in my research that sex is a really intimate way for them to connect and when they initiate sex they can feel quite vulnerable. In addition to physical pleasure, they want some emotional connection.”
Sexual politics has become a hot-button topic, with the advent of the #MeToo movement, and an increasing awareness of sexual harassment and violence towards women. The rise of social media has also seen an exponential rise in the availability of often violent porn, as well as the disturbing advent of the ‘incel’ — men who see themselves as ‘involuntarily celibate’, who express their desire in online chatrooms to punish women for their rejection. How does Hunter Murray see such issues as affecting the portrayal of male sexual desire?
“Women have experienced a lot of harm from men, whether through power or sexuality. But I am hearing a lot of men saying ‘that’s not my experience, that’s not how I want to be’. The men I interviewed were all in [heterosexual] relationships, while the incel is all about not having a girlfriend, so that’s a different subset of men.
“With a lot of the men I spoke to, they were aware of the idea of what men should be, this more traditionally masculine approach to sexuality — being in control, providing pleasure, not being the one who’s desirable or receiving sexual advances, being in the dominant position but what I’m hearing from men is that they question how many people that really fits.
“I’ve spoken to men who say ‘how can I refuse sex, isn’t that going to upset my partner?’ or ‘am I a real man if I don’t do this?’. It’s important to put it out there that the idea of what masculinity means can change over time and we can question what fits, what’s healthy and what no longer fits.
“A lot of the men I spoke to said they enjoyed their female partners initiating sex, when she expressed her desire and her attraction to him, when she flirted, when she touched him sexually or romantically. They said they enjoyed this egalitarian approach to sex rather than the pressure being on them to be the initiator.”
Hunter Murray’s research also found that while on a case-by-case basis, there may be men with higher sex drive than women, men are not statistically likelier to be the partner with a higher sex drive. She stresses the importance of men and women challenging sexual stereotypes and norms.
“Women have been brought up in a culture training them to be demure, or gatekeepers, but a lot of women have higher sex drives which they quash because their male partners haven’t as much of an interest — they feel they shouldn’t step into a dominant sexual role.”
While stereotypical attitudes may not reflect the real picture when it comes to sexual desire, Hunter Murray says that lifestyle factors can also affect men’s sex drive in a way that is not acknowledged.
“We’re aware of how motherhood, child-rearing and running a household can take a toll on a woman’s sexual desire. But we also need to take into account the changing role of the father in society,” says Hunter Murray. “In the past, the dad went to work and wasn’t as involved with his children as much, whereas now we see a lot more involvement for the most part and there are more stay-at-home dads. These are normal stresses and distractions but they can have an impact on men the same as women. Men also talk about wanting to support their family, and that’s also a pressure.”
Hunter Murray believes the link between men’s greater role in family life and their decreasing interest in sex is not reflected in research because much of it is based on university [student] samples.
Much of her research, she says, is reflected in her clinical practice as a relationship therapist, where she sees many men who, as they get older, panic that they are suffering dysfunction when in reality, what they are experiencing is normal.
“Men come in, in their midlife, concerned their sex drives are not as high. They have financial responsibilities, they’re taking care of kids, they’re not getting enough sleep, they have ageing parents. It’s about normalising such experiences — it makes sense that sex drive wouldn’t be as strong. But a man may jump to erectile dysfunction just because he’s not in the mood quite as often. That’s what made me want to write the book — it resonated not just in a research context but because quite a lot of men and women are struggling with these issues in their relationships.”
“It takes our strongest version of ourselves to say ‘I want us to connect, I want to be close to you, I want sex to feel good’ — that’s a very vulnerable thing to do — ‘I care about you and am putting myself out there, do you care about me too?’.”
Men want to be desired
Hunter Murray found that in relation to levels of desire, about one-third of the time men have higher sex drives, one-third of the time women have higher sex drives, and the rest of the time it’s about even.
She also found that many men wanted to feel desired by their partners, to receive compliments, to be told they were sexy. “The more that happened the more validated they felt, and it wasn’t just sexual, they felt love and affection.”
Men in their late 30s and early 40s were the ones who identified being most aware of (and sometimes the most distressed about) their desire not being what it used to be.
One New Zealand study researching the female partners of men who took Viagra, found the women actually preferred the fact that their partners had softer erections as they aged, as they found Viagra-induced ‘rock-hard’ erections painful.