Sarah Hunter Murray, PhD, sex researcher and relationship therapist in private practice in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is author of Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships. SarahHunterMurray.com
Bottom Line: Men are not sex machines in spite of all the gossip.
Do men crave sex more than women? Are they always in the mood? Do men really enjoy the “chase”? The honest answers may surprise both genders.
In the movies, men always initiate sex—and like being in charge. Real life doesn’t necessarily match that mystique. Male sexuality is far more complicated, and these myths not only hold couples back from finding deeper intimacy and connection, they can damage their sex lives with inappropriate expectations. When a man doesn’t want sex, his female partner often feels alarmed. (He’s supposed to want this, so there must be something wrong with me or our relationship.) And he may worry that his lagging interest is a sign that he’s not masculine enough.
These are the most common misconceptions about men and sex—and the reassuring truths behind them that will help both of you connect in a more open way…
Myth #1: Men are always in the mood for sex. We have been taught that men have higher sex drives than women have. On the flip side, we’re all familiar with the stereotype of a wife saying, “Not tonight, honey. I have a headache.”
Reality: Research on men between the ages of 30 and 60 found that the guys were no more likely than their female partners to be the one with higher desire. While some research shows that 15% of men have had “problematic sexual desire” over the past six months, the percentage of men who have episodes of low desire is probably higher than that, according to my research. Ideally partners have a similar level of sexual interest, but when there is a discrepancy, it’s just as common for the female as the male to be in the mood.
Problem: Because we believe the myth, women often squash down their desire, thinking, I really shouldn’t want sex more than he does. They don’t feel that it’s their place to initiate it. A woman also may see his lack of interest as a sign that she’s not attractive to him. Meanwhile, he may feel embarrassed or confused by his lack of desire. They’re both left wondering, Is there something wrong with us?
New way of thinking: There’s so much variability in sexual drive that there really is no “normal.” Understanding that men have many of the same issues that women have—they’re stressed, they’re tired, they don’t feel attractive—helps both partners feel understood. A man’s desire at any given moment is not a marker of his partner’s level of attractiveness. Your desires won’t always be perfectly synced—leave a little space for each other to not be in the mood sometimes. Consider simply cuddling, since you don’t need an orgasm to have intimacy. If “not tonight” starts becoming a pattern, try saying in a loving way, “I’ve noticed I’ve been in the mood a few times, and you haven’t been. Is anything going on there?”
Myth #2: Men’s desire is driven solely by a woman’s physical appearance. You’ve probably heard that male arousal starts with physical cues, such as seeing his wife’s legs when she is wearing a short skirt.
Reality: When I ask men how important physical appearance is, they say, “Yes, I like it when she shows off her body, but if I’m not feeling emotionally connected to her, if we’re not on the same page, then that isn’t enough to do it for me.” They feel most turned on when their relationship is running smoothly.
Problem: Believing the myth that all men want women with a 36-24-36 body completely ignores the depth of a man’s sexuality. Women sometimes worry when they put on weight or get older that their partners will no longer be attracted to them.
New way of thinking: Yes, looks matter to some degree, but men have different views of beauty and are, in reality, most drawn to a woman’s confidence and her ability to let him know, I want to connect with you sexually. Again and again, I have heard men talking about their sexual desire for partners who had a physical disability or who had put on weight after having children or who were in their 50s or older. It was her comfort in her own skin and willingness to share her body with him that were the real turn-on.
Myth #3: Men are selfish in bed. The common stereotype is that a guy is looking out for only his own sexual needs—it’s mainly about him climaxing and then rolling over and going to sleep.
Reality: Men want so much more than one-sided gratification. Men repeatedly told me how important their partners’ sexual pleasure was to them. If she was acquiescing to sex—consenting but not really excited about it—that was a major turnoff. They would say, “I don’t want to be having sex with somebody who isn’t superexcited to be having sex with me.” Bringing a woman pleasure and providing an orgasm feed into his feelings of masculinity. Men see their mate’s enjoyment as a sign that they are on the same page. Pleasing her in the bedroom helps him feel connected to her outside the bedroom, too.
Problem: If a woman believes this myth—that he is looking only for his own sexual needs to be met—she might feel dismissive of him, thinking, This is only for you. What’s the point?
New way of thinking: Recognize that he might want sex because he is longing to feel closer and that he truly wants to make you happy. This, in turn, will make you feel more receptive, which can lead to greater intimacy.
Myth #4: Men like to be in charge in the bedroom. Society tells us that men should be the ones to initiate sex. Some of this goes back to college, when men tend to get socially rewarded for having sexual partners, while women are taught to be gatekeepers. (“Good girls don’t have sex.”) So a man still may feel pressure to pursue and make the first move.
Reality: Research tells us that men are getting tired of that standard. They feel enormous pressure to be the ones who make the first move, and they long for their partners to initiate, too. Why? It makes them feel good. It makes them feel wanted. And it makes them feel that some of that responsibility to take charge in the bedroom is off their shoulders. Also, it makes them feel vulnerable to always initiate sex and deal with the fear of rejection.
New way of thinking: While you may not be used to making the first move, it can be really empowering to step into a more assertive role. It’s a mind-set of, Hey I want closeness—so why not reach out instead of sitting passively waiting to see if he reads my signals? Nonsexual overtures can be a good place to start—rubbing his shoulders or giving a little foot massage.
Myth #5: When men don’t want it, something serious must be going on.
Reality: The reasons that men might not be in the mood are the same as the ones that women report. It’s been a long day. They’re stressed. They’re tired. We all have reasons to say no to sex that have nothing to do with our partners, and we need to be understanding about that.
Problem: While we’re used to talking about what happens to a woman’s sexuality after having kids, we don’t discuss that a man’s desire can take a nosedive, too. Research shows that dads today are more involved in their children’s lives. They’re changing diapers at night…they’re coaching the hockey team…and they’re feeling worn out and not always up for romance.
New way of thinking: Both sexes need time to recharge in order to be receptive to sex. It’s essential to find pockets of time both separately and together. Allow for transition time after work—a little time to change clothes or read the mail. Ease into together time. Don’t feel pressured to schedule special events—just going to bed at the same time can help you feel more in sync.
Myth #6: Men are confident and don’t need compliments. Have you noticed that women get complimented on their appearance much more than men do? They hear, “Your dress is so cute” or “I love your haircut.” Men? Not so much.
Reality: Over the course of my research, I learned something startling—men wish they had this sort of attention from women. They want to be looked at by their partners. They want to be able to say, “Yes, I have been working out!” It’s important to their desire, and it’s something that rarely gets talked about because it goes against that norm.
New way of thinking: How can a woman make her partner feel noticed? Giving him compliments such as, “I love how that shirt brings out your eyes,” shows that you appreciate him in a physical way. Nonverbal cues (a peck on the cheek or a pat on the bum) also send him the reassuring message that he still does it for you.