Sexual Desire Discrepancies Are A Relationship Problem, Not A Gender Problem

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A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal(WSJ) entitled “How often should married couples have sex? What happens when he says ‘more’ and she says ‘no?” caused quite a stir this past week. The original piece told the tale of a married couple (Chris and Afton) that developed a sexual desire discrepancy (the clinical term for a case in which one partner wants more sex than the other). The couple communicated with each other about the discrepancy, read a self-help book together, and ultimately worked through it. That’s a positive outcome, right?  Judging by the responses that appeared on Jezebel, The Week, New York Magazine, and several other websites, this is anything but a happy ending. The problem? The partner who desired more sex in this scenario was male and the one who wanted less sex was female.

The WSJ piece was derided because some saw it as implying that certain stereotypes about human sexuality may be true (i.e., men are hypersexual and women are “frigid”). Some also argued that the piece was exploiting Chris and Afton's relationship “in order to support sweeping, regressive generalizations about the sexual function of entire genders.” However, nowhere in the WSJ article does it say or suggest that “all men are like this” and “all women are like that,” or that desire discrepancies can only occur in one direction. The critics are certainly right to point out that sometimes women are the ones wanting more sex—that undisputedly happens, but it may not be quite as common as they suggest. When low sexual desire occurs, it is actually much more likely to affect a woman than it is a man. For example, national survey data indicate that women are more than twice as likely as men to report that they experienced a persistent lack of sexual desire in the past year (33% vs. 15%, respectively) [1]. Of course, low sexual desire is something that can affect persons of any gender, and desire discrepancies can occur in any type of relationship (including same-sex couples). Although the case profiled in the WSJ perhaps represents the most common scenario, the reality is that it doesn't matter which partner has more or less desire because desire discrepancies are fundamentally a relationship problem, not a gender problem or a heterosexual problem.

The WSJ piece was also hit for stating that sex is a particularly important emotional outlet for men because it perpetuates the stereotype that “all men are incommunicative emotional cripples.” I actually provided a quote to the WSJ for its piece stating that “for some men, sex may be their primary way of communicating and expressing intimacy.” I stand by that quote—but please note that the text of my quote reads “for some men” not “all men.” I try to refrain from making broad generalizations about any group because in the world of sex and gender, nothing is ever true 100% of the time and you shouldn't believe anyone who argues otherwise. The point I was making is that men are typically socialized to not talk about and show their emotions. This is a problem that stems from long-standing cultural notions about what men “should” be (i.e., "tough"). The result of this is that sex has become a very important source of emotional release and intimacy for a lot of men. However, sex is no less important for women. Indeed, there are many women for whom sex is vital to their sense of psychological well-being. The difference is that men often don’t have as many sources of emotional release in their lives as women because men are socialized to keep their emotions to themselves. So when a man has been told all his life to suppress his emotions and he is unable to get emotional fulfillment through physical intimacy, he probably won't be particularly well adjusted. Don’t get me wrong--this it not to suggest that the answer here is simply for women who don’t want sex to start putting out. I’m not advocating that anyone should have lots of unwanted sex or suggesting that men’s sexual needs are more important than women’s, or that women can never be hurt by men's lack of interest in sex. Again, desire discrepancies are a relationship problem. This means that they require a relational solution, not a gendered solution. I know that some perceive the WSJ piece as blaming women, but all of the retorts come across as blaming men. Faulting an entire gender group for this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Communication, patience, and mutual respect are the keys here, but there is no “one size fits all” solution because every relationship is different.

One other point worth mentioning is that Jezebel’s critique suggested that Chris and Afton’s sexual incompatibility stemmed from the fact that they waited until they got married to start having sex. The implication was that if they would have had sex and discovered the problem sooner, they might not have gotten married. However, establishing sexual compatibility before marriage will not guarantee a lifetime of great sex. People’s sexual desires change naturally over time as a result of biological (e.g., hormonal) and psychosocial factors (e.g., stress, having children)—and, sometimes, people’s desires change at different rates, thereby producing discrepancies that you have no control over. No matter when you start having sex, anyone who enters a long-term relationship needs to recognize that sexual incompatibility is almost inevitable because we don’t stay the same as we age. Healthy relationships adapt to this reality. Sometimes we forego sex even when we’re “in the mood” because we recognize and respect the fact that our partner has different needs—but by the same token, sometimes we have sex even when we aren’t feeling particularly horny because we want to make our partner happy and establish intimacy (a concept known scientifically as sexual communal strength) [2]. Confronting sexual problems and maintaining a successful relationship is fundamentally about people having the ability to think beyond themselves.

The goal of the WSJ piece was to profile a couple who had experienced a sexual problem and who wanted to share their solution with others. The couple went about it the right way by having open and honest communication and by recognizing and respecting one another’s sexual desires and needs. This was not a lesson in prioritizing male needs over female needs. In the case of desire discrepancies, nobody is “right” or “wrong” and no specific partner or gender should be blamed. The key to preventing and resolving this and other sexual problems is to be effective sexual communicators and for both partners to think about what’s best for their relationship, not just their own egos.

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[1] Laumann, E. O., Paik, A., & Rosen, R. C. (1999). Sexual dysfunction in the United States. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 281, 537-544.

[2] Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., & Desmarais, S. (in press). Keeping the Spark Alive: Being Motivated to Meet a Partner’s Sexual Needs Sustains Sexual Desire in Long-Term Romantic Relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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