Our assumptions about men always wanting sex no matter what should be questioned, says Esther Perel
Being ‘in the mood’ is not just a state of mind reserved for women… Women often complain in my therapy room: ‘He just wants sex. It has nothing to do with me. It’s like he has an itch, and he wants relief. Anyone could do it for him, I just happen to be there.’
The cliché is that men are always interested in sex. Male sexuality, we think, is in perpetual motion. Contrary to women, their desire is seen as uncomplicated, a simple biological force seeking an outlet. Men are creatures of nature and women are creatures of meaning, we say. Her desire is influenced by how she feels about herself, her self-esteem, her body image, how close and intimate she feels with her partner. In short, sex is powered by the context and not by a natural drive.
But that is a myth. We may like to think men and women are different when it comes to sexuality, but that’s because we focus more on differences than similarities. Men want sex more than women. Men are more sexually spontaneous, and biologically driven. They know what they like, and they don’t change. They initiate sex when they are already turned on. Men feel desire no matter what, whereas women depend on how they feel about their relationship.
These views are hardly ever challenged, and researchers have conspired to maintain this fiction. There are seven times more studies carried out on sexual desire in women than in men. Why? Perhaps, if we were to research the facts, we may have to do away with a historical view of men that has been used to justify their infidelity for centuries. After all, men are sexually irrepressible, it’s in their nature.
But is it? Studies on men and sex prefer to focus on sexual performance, erection difficulties or premature ejaculation. We focus on men’s performance, not their desire. The truth is, men are not always interested in sex; they too are affected by their moods, and are more or less interested in sex depending on how they feel about themselves. One of my patients explains: ‘For my wife, what matters is how she feels about her looks, her body, how she feels about the kids. For me, it’s more how competent I feel, how well I do at work, my tennis match, for example.’
Is he man enough?
For a man, performance is linked to his sense of masculinity. And feeling good about himself drives his sexual desire. David struggles with this. ‘When I am not interested in sex, it makes me feel like I am not a man. In fact, my wife wants it more than me. So I had to come up with the excuse of chronic back pain. I think that’s easier for her to accept.’ I wonder if this is meant to make it easier for his wife to accept, or if David is trying to keep his identity as a man intact? For a man, identity and self-esteem are more linked to sexuality than for a woman. This explains why he is more likely to feel ashamed when he has no desire. Another patient, Jacob, says: ‘When I feel depressed or when I’m stressed or tired, I’d rather just sleep. I worry when I have to give a presentation at work and, on those days, sex is the furthest thing from my mind.’
While Jacob confirms that mood affects desire in men no less than in women, I think it’s true that men are more likely to raise their mood with sex. They also masturbate to relax, to calm their anxiety. They use sex to put themselves to sleep. Little boys discover their penis very early and find out quickly that it feels good to touch themselves. A girl’s clitoris is tucked away inside her vagina, and it takes her much longer, sometimes years, to discover it and the pleasures it can offer. But what about his ever-ready erections, my female patients ask? An erection doesn’t necessarily mean it is accompanied by desire, and desire can be present without an erection. Physical arousal and sexual desire are not one and the same. Both men and women can have sex without desire. We consider a man’s erection as all-or-nothing; either it’s up and hard or it’s not. We ask him, do you have an erection? We don’t ask him how much. What would be more difficult – to persuade a man that his woman wants him even if she is not lubricated, or to persuade a woman that her man wants her, even though he is not erect? Fear of rejection is a major concern for men. And as they are supposed to be the initiators, that fear is with them constantly. Some of the men I meet are selfish and only want sex. But the majority want an emotional connection with their partner. They want to please her and to feel desired. Stereotypes carry truth, but that does not mean they are true. In our relationships, it’s useful to remember that.