Ugh, sex while you're in a heterosexual relationship — that tedious task you do so your boyfriend or husband will watch Gossip Girl with you and tell you you're pretty. What a complete and total drag, am I right, ladies? Oh, you thought that it was supposed to be a shared erotic experience in which you enjoy each other's bodies and express your affection for one another? No, sorry. Common wisdom says that women hate it.
This is because the sexual behavior of men and women in long-term relationships is one of our favorite topics, as a society, to make sweeping, limiting, and offensive generalizations about. As exemplified in the WSJ's recent "article," we just can't get enough of the "frigid and withholding woman vs. wildly desirous man who deserves more sex than he's getting" narrative. Is this true for most people? Obviously not. Is it true for some? Yes, but addressing disparate levels of desire within a couple in gendered terms is not really all that helpful.
In a piece published this morning on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory makes it clear that there are countless factors that affect sexual desire within a committed relationship far more than our fabricated cliches about gender do. Furthermore, sexual expectations vary widely between different couples, and it's not at all uncommon for the woman in a heterosexual pair to be the partner who wants sex more frequently:
When I put out a call for women who had experienced having the higher sex drive in a relationship, I was flooded with responses... There was tremendous variability in what [the women polled] considered too little sex: One expressed annoyance over an ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t have sex more than four times in one night; another complained that her ex-husband wanted it no more than twice a week; and yet another reported getting busy five times in three years of marriage.
If there is some form of massive over-arching difference between the genders, it's not located in the strength of desire; rather, the difference lies in how desire is triggered. According to Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and best-selling author:
"I would say that women tend to experience ‘responsive desire’” — in which interest is sparked after sexy times have begun — “while men experience ‘spontaneous desire,’” which seems to spring, so to speak, out of nowhere. He says this difference “can create the appearance that male desire is stronger, but what I’ve found is often quite the opposite in relationships.”
Although the spontaneity of male desire lends itself to a mythologized notion of uncontrollable, unstoppable male sexual energy, Kerner states that he meets "just as many men dealing with low desire as women.” However, as Kim Wallen, a professor of psychology and behavior neuroendocrinology at Emory University, notes, the hormones that encourage desire are released cyclically in women and constantly in men. Thus, "it may even be that it is this intermittent nature of women’s sexual desire that makes them more sensitive to a mismatch with their partners." If a woman feels aroused, he says, she will tend to want to act on it immediately, "as [her desire] will likely soon diminish."
While the frequency of low desire in a relationship is pretty much consistent across gender lines, what isn't consistent is our cultural expectations regarding sexual expression. When a woman is the less-desiring party, it aligns with gendered sexual tropes, so it's easy to conceptualize her lack of interest in gendered terms. However, when a man is the less-desiring partner, we still tend to direct the blame at the woman — because men are supposed to want sex all the time, if a man is uninterested in copulating with his girlfriend or wife, she must be unattractive (or he must be gay).
As one woman who was interviewed, Cathy, so eloquently puts it, "The guy who thinks he’s supposed to be driving the penetration train gets confused when he finds himself without the conductor’s hat.”
With healthy communication in relationships, this problem is easy to repair: we need to recognize that it's not about deeply-entrenched gender differences, but rather about how personalities, individual desires, and expectations meet up — or fail to.
"When she wants sex more" [Salon]
Image via Fabiana Ponzi/Shutterstock.