Hugo Schwyzer argues that men who are less horny than their female partners are subject to another, more crippling stereotype: they must be gay or something.
One of the evergreen topics surrounding relationships is the problem of uneven desire. As a great many counselors will attest, there are few questions more common in marital therapy than how a couple can resolve the conflict that comes when one partner wants sex more often than the other. It’s a nearly universal issue in long-term monogamous relationships; straight, gay, and lesbian couples are equally vulnerable to the problem.
But in heterosexual relationships, our assumption is that the man should be the one who “wants it more.” Most of us are raised with two messages: men are supposed to be horny all the time, while women (particularly young women) are expected to be more interested in emotional intimacy rather than sex itself. Pop culture allows an occasional exception for people over 40: the sex-starved middle-aged woman married to the sexually disinterested schlub is a sitcom staple that predates, by several decades, the “cougar” phenomenon.
Like every stereotype, this one proves true in a certain number of instances. So when a man and a woman find themselves in a relationship where he wants it more than she does, both partners have the small reassurance that they’re playing out familiar roles. Both the dude and his low-desire girlfriend or wife are aware that they are following a culturally appropriate script. Because men are “supposed” to want “it” more, men are also “supposed” to be accustomed to rejection: “it’s not me,” a man can tell himself, “it’s just that women naturally aren’t as sexual as men.” When our own experience lines up with the myths, we may be frustrated or resentful—but at least we are reassured that we’re “normal.” Higher-desire women don’t get that reassurance. Neither, for that matter, do their male partners.
Earlier this year, I ran a small survey (solicited on my Facebook). I asked for responses from people in heterosexual monogamous relationships in which the woman was regularly the higher-desire partner. I got disappointingly few responses from couples, and relatively few from men. The majority of my responses (42 out of 72) were from women aged 19 to 53. Many wrote of feeling bewildered and rejected; one wrote of having grown up having fantasies about driving men crazy with desire.
“It sounds awful”, she wrote, “but I feel so ugly and unwanted when the burden is on me to initiate. Sex shouldn’t just about being wanted, but it gets me so much more aroused when I know a guy is turned on by me. My boyfriend and I only have sex when I seduce him and, at least half the time, he rejects me. I’m 25 and he’s 26, and I’m worried what will happen when I get older and hornier—and he gets even less into sex the further away he gets from his teens.”
I heard similar things from more than a few women in the survey, as well as in my office hours a time or nine. For the men who responded to my survey, the anguish was just as great. Several reported that their wives or girlfriends had questioned their sexual orientation.
“I work a lot”, wrote one 30-year-old guy, “and I swear, I’m only up for sex maybe twice a week. The rest of the time I’m too tired. But my girlfriend wants it every day and (I wish I was kidding) twice on the weekends. And half the time when I make it clear I’m not in the mood, she comes out with some sort of passive-aggressive suggestion that maybe I’m attracted to men.”
The notion that low male sex drive is indicative of closeted homosexuality remains pervasive. One straight man in the survey even reported that his wife had suggested several times that they watch gay porn together, apparently assuming that that might “do the trick” to get him in the mood. As long as we believe that male sexual desire is invariably voracious, those who buy into that myth will assume that a man with low sex drive for a female partner must be attracted to men. That’s much easier to comprehend than a genuinely modest libido. And while there may still be plenty of closeted gay men trying to fake it through a heterosexual relationship, there are a lot more men who know that they’re straight—but who, for any number of permanent or temporary reasons, just aren’t as interested in sex as their female partners. To insinuate that these guys are gay leaves no room for the idea that straight men (like everyone else) are found at every point on the “horniness spectrum,” running from omnipresent lust to near asexuality.
One question I asked (and that many trained therapists will ask when this issue comes up) is whether the lower-desire partner is masturbating regularly (with or without pornography). The majority of the admittedly small number of guys who responded to my survey insisted that they weren’t. “I’m not in the mood very often,” one wrote, “so when I am, I want to share ‘it’ with my girlfriend.” But a couple of others admitted that they did use porn fairly frequently. Having sex is work, they both pointed out; it requires emotional as well as physical effort. “Sometimes you’re too tired to go through all that trouble and you just want to quickly rub one out. It’s like not having time for lunch but still needing to grab a quick snack.”
The unanswered question is whether porn vs. partnered sex is a zero-sum game, one in which the lower-desire partner’s private use of the former leads to diminished interest in the latter. It’s safe to say that a lot of higher-desire partners of porn users suspect it does.
Lastly, several men admitted that they got angry when their female partners initiated sex. “I know it’s not her fault,” one wrote, “but it feels like my manhood is on the line every time. It’s not anything she says, just this sense I have that I’ve committed a major Man Law Violation (by not initiating) and she’s seen it. It pisses me off.” Just as many women felt that their femininity was called into question by their apparent inability to arouse their husbands and boyfriends, those husbands and boyfriends reported feeling as if their masculinity was questioned. It seemed that resentment and diminished self-esteem were the “most mutual” aspects of these relationships.
Precious few long-term relationships will never experience the problem of disparate desire. When the problem does inevitably arise, everyone involved will sense the uncomfortable imbalance: whoever wants it less seems to have more power. It is almost certain that the higher-desire partner will have to cope with sexual frustration, a sense of rejection, and fears about his or her own desirability. The lower-desire partner will have to cope with a sense of guilt and the resentment that comes either with feeling pressured or consenting to unwanted sex.
If nothing else, this issue is common enough to cast serious doubt on the trope, beloved of social conservatives and evolutionary psychologists, that men are simply hardwired to be more far more interested in sex than women. But as satisfying as it may be to disprove a hoary old myth, that’s of cold comfort to those trying to negotiate their way through the problem of disparate desire. The stereotype that men always want it more may be false, but a couple who lives up to that expectation at least have the modest consolation that they’re “normal.” When the situation is reversed, and the myth disproved, the situation can be far more unsettling for everyone involved.
—Photo Cia de Foto/Flickr