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Sexual Desire Disorders

Lorraine Benuto, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

The terms "sex drive" and "sexual desire" are often used interchangeably to refer to thoughts and/or fantasies regarding sex, and motivation to engage in sexual activity and to obtain sexual pleasure. Typically, sexual desire/drive is assessed using questionnaires. Researchers have quite consistently found that men have a stronger sexual desire/drive than women. In fact, Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs (2001) reviewed a large quantity of research and found men report having a greater sex drive than women. Men are more likely than women to engage in a wider variety of sexual behaviors and more frequent and intense efforts to obtain sexual satisfaction. Men also express a desire to have a greater number of sexual partners, than women do. In a relationship, men tend to want sex more often than women, they expect sex earlier in a relationship, and they are more reluctant to remain virgins. Men masturbate more often than women, and think and fantasize about sex more than women.

In contrast, women are more willing than men to forgo sexual activity. More specifically, women are willing to wait longer to begin sexual activity in new relationships. They are less likely to masturbate because of a lack of desire. They think about sex less frequently and have fewer sexual fantasies. This information can certainly provide some relief to some heterosexual couples as it demonstrates that a difference in sexual desire between men and women might very well be "normal."

Because a difference in sexual desire between men and women happens quite frequently, it is not uncommon for sex therapists to see heterosexual couples who are complaining about conflicts that arise from each partner having a different level of sexual desire. It is important to keep in mind that while these couples may experience frustration as a result of the "gap" in desire, each individual may be experiencing frustration for a very different reason. Women may find it exhausting to be constantly "bothered" for sex by their male partners. They may feel as though something is "wrong" with them because they are not in the mood for sex as frequently as their partner. However, men may report feeling rejected, abandoned, and even confused about why their partner does not want to have sex. Some men may even be angry that the one person who can give them what they need is refusing to do so. Clearly, the large gender difference in sex drive makes it difficult to determine: 1) Who is having the problem (the person with "too much" desire or the person with "too little"? and, 2) What label should we use to describe (diagnose) the problem?

There is one point in time that sexual desire parallels for men and women. The theory of passionate love as a function of change in intimacy suggests that passion increases when there is a shift in intimacy (Baumeister & Bratslavsky, 1999). This may explain why at the beginning of a relationship sexual desire is very high for both men and women. If you can think back to "falling in love" you might recall having learned tons of new information about your partner and sharing many of your secrets. Naturally, the beginning stage of a relationship is filled with intimacy. According to Baumeister and Bratslavsky (1999) this sharp increase of intimacy is responsible for the high levels of passion and sexual desire individuals feel towards each other at the beginning of a new relationship. When intimacy is rapidly rising, passion peaks and when intimacy is stable, passion dwindles. The good news is that sharing new experiences can increase intimacy, and therefore stimulate passion. Sharing new activities leads to intimacy, which in turn, leads to passion. For example, think of times when you've shared a vacation with someone, or times when you've shared a hobby or activity with someone. Often a closer bond develops, and intimacy deepens.