From Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence, by Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen R. Catanese, and Kathleen D. Vohs
The sex drive refers to the strength of sexual motivation. Across many different studies and measures, men have been shown to have more frequent and more intense sexual desires than women, as reflected in spontaneous thoughts about sex, frequency and variety of sexual fantasies, desired frequency of intercourse, desired number of partners, masturbation, liking for various sexual practices, willingness to forego sex, initiating versus refusing sex, making sacrifices for sex, and other measures. No contrary findings (indicating stronger sexual motivation among women) were found.
Strength of Sex Drive
Recent studies on uncontrolled and unwanted sexual thoughts underscore the conclusion that the male sex drive evokes more sexual thinking even if the person does not wish to have those thoughts. Byers, Purdon, and Clark (1998) found that male college students reported more intrusive, unwanted, and even personally unacceptable thoughts about sex than did college women (7.5 vs. 5.6 out of 20 possible sexually intrusive thoughts listed). Vanwesenbeeck, Bekker, and van Lenning (1998) developed a sexual compulsion scale with items such as “I think about sex more than I would like” and “I must fight to keep my sexual thoughts and behavior under control.” Men scored higher than women on this scale, indicating a greater sense of being sexually driven.
Data on spontaneous sexual arousal and desire reveal one way in which men seem to have a higher sex drive. Beck, Bozman, and Qualtrough (1991) found that men report more frequent sexual desire than women. Nearly all the men (91%) but only half the women (52%) experienced sexual desire several times a week or more. Their study also helped rule out the alternative explanation that women find it more difficult than men to recognize sexual desire, because men and women endorsed essentially the same indicators of desire.
Thoughts, Fantasies, and Spontaneous Arousal
Gender differences in sexual fantasy have been examined in many studies. A review and meta-analysis by Leitenberg and Henning (1995) concluded that men have more frequent and more varied fantasies than women. That is, men’s fantasies occur more often than women’s, include more different partners than women’s, and extend to a broader variety of sex acts than women’s (on an individual rather than a population basis—probably there is at least one woman who has had any given fantasy). These differences in fantasy suggest greater sex drive in men.
The variety in sex partners was the focus of a study by Ellis and Symons (1990). They asked people whether they had had sex with over a thousand different partners in their imagination. Given the relatively young age of their sample (college students), a very active and highly motivated imagination would presumably be necessary to achieve that high a tally. They found that men were four times more likely than women to report having imagined a thousand or more sex partners.
Thus, as compared with women, men think about sex more often, report more frequent arousal, and have more frequent and variable fantasies. These findings would be most consistent with a view that men have a higher sex drive.
Desired Frequency of Sex
Many findings suggest that men want sex more frequently than women. Ard (1977) reported a survey of couples who had been married for over 20 years. He found that “husbands continued to prefer intercourse more frequently than wives” (p. 274). In fact, wives consistently reported that they were quite satisfied with the amount of sex they had in their marriages, but men on average wished for about a 50% increase. M. Brown and Auerback (1981) likewise found that a majority of husbands (60%) but only a minority of wives (32%) said they would prefer to have sex more often.A more recent study by Julien, Bouchard, Gagnon, and Pomerleau (1992) found that husbands and wives agreed that the men were more sexually active and frisky. Even more relevant, Julien et al. (1992) found that men were more likely than women to report having less sex in marriage than they wanted. With a sample of couples ages 51 to 61, Johannes and Avis (1997) found that women were more likely than men to wish for less frequent sex than they were having, whereas husbands were more likely to wish for more frequent sex than they were having. A study of elderly couples in Sweden likewise found that men wanted more frequent sex than women (Bergström-Walan & Nielsen, 1990). Indeed, the authors of that study concluded that “men are significantly more sexual than women, in all ages and in all respects” (p. 289).
One reason that women may be less willing to engage in sexual intercourse is because of the possibility of becoming pregnant as a result. By biological necessity, women are much more invested in pregnancy and, thus, they may be reluctant to have sex because they recognize they will be the ones to suffer the consequences. Thus, for heterosexual couples, women’s weaker desire for sex could indicate cautiousness due to the possibility of pregnancy.
One large investigation that included a sizeable sample of same-gender relationships was the study by Blumstein and Schwartz (1983). They found that gay men had higher frequencies of sex than lesbians at all stages of relationships. Within the first 2 years of a relationship, for example, two thirds of the gay men but only one third of the lesbians were in the maximum category of having sex three or more times per week (the highest frequency category). After 10 years together, 11% of the gay men but only 1% of the lesbians were still in that category of highly frequent sex. At the other extreme, after 10 years nearly half the lesbians, but only a third of the gay men, were having sex less than once a month. Even that difference may be a substantial underestimate of the discrepancy in sexual activity: Blumstein and Schwartz reported that the gay men who had largely ceased having sex after 10 years together were often having sex with other partners, whereas the lesbians who had ceased having sex together had generally not compensated for this deficit by finding other sexual outlets. A lack of sexual desire and activity in women is reflected in the phrase “lesbian bed death,” (e.g., Iasenza, 2000) which has been coined to describe the low levels of sexual activity among lesbians in long-term relationships.
Similar conclusions emerged from an earlier study by Bell and Weinberg (1978), which did not limit its sample to people in committed relationships and is thus a useful complement to the Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) study. White homosexual men were more likely than lesbians (47% vs. 32%) to report having sex more than once per week. A similar difference was found among gay Blacks (65% vs. 56%).
Thus, evidence from multiple sources indicates that men want sex more often than women. This appears to be true in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships and at all ages and relationship stages. Table 1 summarizes the findings reviewed in this section. The pattern would tentatively suggest higher sex drive in men.
Desired Number of Sex Partners
Buss and Schmitt (1993) reported from several studies that men desired significantly more sex partners than women did. In reporting how many sex partners men and women would like to have over the next 2 years of their lives, for example, the men were on average hoping to have about 8 partners, whereas the women wanted approximately 1. Over the course of a lifetime, men wanted around 18, whereas women desired 4 or 5. Miller and Fishkin (1997) asked a sample of college students how many sex partners they would like to have over the entire rest of their lives if they were not constrained by any factors such as disease or laws. The mean response by the women was that they would ideally like to have 2.7 sex partners, whereas the men’s mean response was 64. Miller and Fishkin did not delete outliers from their sample, and in fact they noted that the difference in means was almost entirely due to the skew: The median was 1 partner for both genders. Thus, large numbers of young men and women aspire to having only 1 sex partner across a lifetime, but there is a minority of promiscuously inclined men that is much larger than the minority of promiscuously inclined women.
One may reject these studies as being merely hypothetical and insist on actual behavior. The same conclusion emerges: Men actually report significantly more sex partners than women, across all studies (e.g., Janus & Janus, 1993; Laumann et al., 1994). Unfortunately this difference suffers from being logically impossible, insofar as heterosexual intercourse involves one man and one woman (so the mean tallies of partners should be equal). Several studies have sought to explain this recurrent finding, and the answers converge on motivated cognition: Some men, but fewer women, tend to rely on estimating the number of sex partners and hence round up, whereas women are more likely to rely on trying to enumerate all prior partners, which tends to lead to occasionally forgetting some partners and hence to producing an undercount (N. R. Brown & Sinclair, 1999; Wiederman, 1997).
We note too that median differences are plausible, unlike mean differences. A few highly promiscuous women can have sex with many men. The median differences (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994) fit the view that the promiscuously inclined minority of men is larger than the promiscuously inclined minority of women.
In our view, the difference in the way people count sex partners is itself an indication that men want more than women. Men prefer an estimation strategy because it tends to yield a high tally; women prefer an enumeration strategy because it yields a low tally. Choosing strategies in that way enables men to come up with higher numbers than women, even though the means should be the same.
If our interpretation of motivated cognitive strategies is correct, it should be reflected in how people count marginal cases. Sanders and Reinisch (1999) provided relevant data on this. They asked a sample of students “Would you say you had sex if … ” and then presented a list of possible activities. Men and women agreed very closely that vaginal and anal intercourse constituted sex and that kissing did not, but they disagreed on the intermediate activities such as fellatio, cunnilingus, and manual stimulation of a partner’s genitals. Men were consistently more likely to rate those activities as sex than women. This fits the view that men desired to count those activities as having had sex, which would serve the goal of enabling them to think they had a higher number of sex partners.
Desire for multiple partners can lead to extramarital or extradyadic activity. Most studies of extramarital activity find that men report more partners than women, in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships (Cotton, 1975; Lawson, 1988; Spanier & Margolis, 1983; Thompson, 1983). For example, Spanier and Margolis found that 26% of the unfaithful husbands had had more than three extramarital partners, as compared to only 5% of the unfaithful wives. Conversely, wives outnumbered husbands in the category of having only one extramarital partner (64% vs. 43%). The same conclusion emerges from studies of lesser infidelities, such as necking or petting with someone other than a steady dating partner: Men do this more than women (Hansen, 1987).
Another consequence of a desire for multiple partners would be engaging in sex with someone whom one has just met. Herold and Mewhinney (1993) surveyed singles bar patrons, who presumably are already selected for interest in meeting new sex partners, but even in that selected population they found that men were more likely than women to have had sex with someone they had met that same day. For example, when asked whether they had ever engaged in any sexual activity beyond hugging and kissing with a person who they had met the same day, 80% of men but only 59% of women said “yes.” When asked about sexual intercourse with someone they had met that same day, 72% of the men as opposed to 49% of the women said “yes.” The men were also significantly more likely to express a desire and expectation to do so again.Aquarter (25%) of the men but only 2% of the women said they always enjoyed casual sex.
Gender differences in masturbation are large and consistent. Women and girls are less likely to masturbate than men and boys (Arafat & Cotton, 1974; Asayama, 1975; Laumann et al., 1994; Sigusch & Schmidt, 1973), and some evidence indicates that males who masturbate do it more frequently than females (Laumann et al., 1994; Sigusch & Schmidt, 1973). Jones and Barlow (1990) found, for example, that 45% of men but only 15% of women reported masturbating at least once per week. Meanwhile, nearly half the women in their sample (47%) but only 16% of the men said they had never masturbated. Arafat and Cotton (1974) found women and girls were almost four times more likely than men and boys to say they never masturbated (39% vs. 11%). In a survey of German teenagers ages 16 to 17, Sigusch and Schmidt (1973) found that 80% of the boys, but only 25% of the girls, were engaged in masturbation during the past year, and boys averaged five times per month as opposed to once per month for the girls.
Willingness to forgo sex
The Kinsey studies (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953) noted a relevant gender difference. They obtained relatively thorough sexual histories from a broad sample of individuals. One of their major concepts was “total sexual outlet,” which referred to all sexual activity (often operationalized as total number of orgasms) in the person’s life, from all sources. They found that some women showed substantial fluctuations in total outlet. Thus, a woman might enjoy a full and active sex life for a period, then lose her partner and have no sexual activity at all for some time, and then resume active sex with a new partner. Kinsey et al. (1953) observed that such discontinuities were almost never found among men. More recently, Leiblum and Rosen (1988) confirmed that in-depth histories indicated that many
women seem to adapt easily to a complete absence of sexual activity during long periods of involuntary abstinence, unlike men.
The total outlet measure is quite relevant to the issue of total sex drive, because it combines all behavior relevant to the sexual motivation and avoids the potential confusion that could stem from substituting one kind of sexual gratification for another. The fact that women were more willing than men to do without sexual activity altogether supports the view that women are less strongly motivated to find some sexual gratification consistently across time. When men lose one source of sexual gratification, such as by breaking up with a regular sex partner, they apparently seek out a new one soon, or at least they step up the frequency of masturbation.
Emergence Sexual Desire
As it happens, though, most evidence indicates that boys commence sexual interest and activity earlier than girls. Women start having sex at a later age than men (Asayama, 1975; Laumann et al., 1994; Lewis, 1973; Wilson, 1975). For example, Asayama’s interviews with Japanese students during the late 1940s and 1950s found that half the boys had become quite interested in sex by age 15 and 90% had by age 19, whereas only 30% to 40% of the girls had become interested by age 18. Over a third of the boys had masturbated by age 15 and over 80% had done so by age 21, whereas by age 21 only 12% of the women had masturbated. Asayama concluded that the development of sexual interest “among females is rather slow while for males it is quite rapid” (p. 95). With an American sample, Lewis (1973) found that half (52%) the boys but only 16% of the girls reported having sex by the age of 17.
Even though girls pass through puberty earlier than boys, they report experiencing sexual arousal later, and in fact in multiple samples all the boys reported their first experiences of arousal prior to the age of 13, whereas most girls reported their first experience after that age (Knoth et al., 1988). Girls start having sexual fantasies later than boys (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995), and they are slower even to develop interest in sex (Asayama, 1975). Most studies find that boys begin masturbating earlier than girls (Kinsey et al., 1953), although recent data suggest that the discrepancy may be dwindling (Leitenberg, Detzer,&Srebnik, 1993; Smith, Rosenthal, & Reichler, 1996). In a national survey, girls reported a later onset of sexual activity than boys (Leigh, Morrison, Trocki, & Temple, 1994).
Seeking Versus Avoiding, Initiating Versus Refusing
Women initiate sex less often than men. A diary study by O’Sullivan and Byers (1992) found that men initiated sex about twice as often as women, although there was no significant difference in considering initiating sex. M. Brown and Auerback (1981) found that men initiated it three times as often as women during the 1st year of marriage, although the difference dwindled in later years. Byers and Heinlein (1989) found that over a 1-week period, men initiated sex about twice as often
Refusal rates outside of relationships do differ by gender. Probably the best data were provided by Clark and Hatfield (1989), who used an experimental procedure to investigate responses to sexual offers. Both men and women were approached by a moderately attractive, opposite-sex confederate and invited to have sexual intercourse that evening. Women’s refusal rate was 100% across two studies, whereas only 25% of the men refused.
Liking for Various Sexual Practices
Fewer sexual practices appeal to women than men. Laumann et al. (1994) offered their respondents a list of 14 sexual practices and asked whether they found each of them appealing. They reported only percentages, not significance tests, but these were extremely consistent: On 13 of the 14 practices, a higher percentage of men than women rated the activity as appealing, and the 14th showed no difference (“being forced by a sex partner” was rated as appealing by less than 1% of both men and women). The index summarizing the number of appealing practices yielded, not surprisingly, an overall significant finding that men liked more activities than women.
Even though a majority of married couples today practice both fellatio and cunnilingus, women find these activities (especially fellatio) less appealing than men. For example, Laumann et al. (1994) found that 45% of men but only 29% of women said receiving oral sex was very appealing, and a similar discrepancy was found for giving oral sex (34% of men, 17% of women). This difference caused the researchers to speculate that some women perform such acts more out of a sense of obligation than genuine desire (Laumann et al., 1994, p. 157).
Sacrificing Resources to Get Sex
[…] it is clear that men spend a great deal more money on sexual products than women. Men have paid women for sex throughout most of history and across many different cultures, but the pattern of women paying men for sex has been considerably less common and in many contexts nonexistent (e.g., Elias, Bullough, Elias, & Brewer, 1998). Even in societies where there have certainly been enough rich women to be able to pay for sex, the practice has been rare or nonexistent.
The same is true for pornography. Men spend considerably more money on pornography and erotica than women do, as all studies have shown (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994). To be sure, pornography is only one kind of sexual stimulus. A lack of interest in pornography does not alone signify a lack of interest in sex. Women’s magazines in recent years do offer information about sex, presumably reflecting a marketplace in which women will pay for such information.
Some might object that most pornography is more geared toward men than women. There are two reasons to dismiss this objection, however. First, several studies have found that women do have strong physiological responses to pornography and experience levels of sexual arousal that compare with men’s (e.g., Fisher & Byrne, 1978; also Heiman, 1977). It is thus clear that currently available pornography is amply arousing to women. Once they see it, they like it and find it stimulating—but women are simply not sufficiently motivated to seek out that kind of stimulation as often as men.
The other reason to dismiss the argument of gender bias in the sex industry is that if the market existed for a special, female-targeted pornography, it is highly likely that someone would have been willing and eager to make the millions of dollars that it would represent. In actual fact, the sex industry has tried repeatedly to reach out to women, but it has repeatedly failed (Abramson & Pinkerton, 1995). Playgirl was introduced to the market with considerable hoopla in the 1970s, but the appeal of seeing nude men did not sustain enough sales to make it successful (let alone even approaching the success of Playboy), and so it shifted away from male nudity as a major selling point. Viva, which alone among the female-targeted magazines featured pictures of male genitals, closed down after 3 years. The market was simply not there—unlike the male market for pictures of nude women, which has sustained an assortment of magazines for decades.
Favorable Attitudes Toward Sex
The person with the higher sex drive would be motivated to espouse more favorable attitudes toward sex.
Women have less permissive attitudes toward sex than men. Although they are equal on some things, generally women are more critical of promiscuity, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and various other sexual activities (Laumann et al., 1994; Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Sprecher, 1989; Wilson, 1975). Some of these attitudes, most notably favoring casual sex, produce gender differences that meet the statistical criteria to be called large differences (Oliver & Hyde, 1993). Casual sex is conceptually important because it represents the opportunity to obtain sexual gratification without a high degree of effort, commitment, or investment, and therefore people with a high desire for sexual gratification would be expected to be most favorable toward such opportunities. Apparently, most of those people are men.
Prevalence of Low Sexual Desire
Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) is officially defined by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) as constantly low or absent desire for sexual activity or sexual fantasies, a condition that is distressing to the person and is not caused by a medical or substance abuse disorder. A recent review of hypoactive sexual disorder (Beck, 1995) highlighted differences in the prevalence of HSDD diagnoses as a function of gender. Significantly more women than men are diagnosed with HSDD, consistent with the view that women are more vulnerable to problems of low sexual desire. Beck (1995) noted that low sexual motivation is among the most common complaints in sex therapy. A study of over 900 clients who were being seen for a variety of sexual dysfunctions confirmed the frequency of the complaint, with 65% of all clients being diagnosed with HSDD. More germane to this analysis, 81% of those diagnosed with HSDD were women (475 women out of 588). Thus, women appeared to be more vulnerable than men to the problem of low sexual desire by a rate of about four to one (Segraves & Segraves, 1991).
Self-Rated Sex Drive
Mercer and Kohn (1979) included items asking people to rate the strength of their sex drive. Women rated their sexual urges as less strong than men rated men’s. Although one may question whether people have an accurate basis for comparing their own feelings against those of others, the results do point toward stronger sex drives in men. In studies of sexual desire among healthy people, men report higher levels of sexual interest than women, regardless of age. For instance, Beck et al. (1991) found this pattern among college students, Pfeiffer, Verwoerdt, and Davis (1972) found this pattern among middle-aged men and women, and Bretschneider and McCoy (1988) found gender differences in sexual desire in people ages 80 to 102. A study (Mehrabian & Stanton-Mohr, 1985) on emotions, sexual desire, and gender found uniformly greater sexual motivation among males than females across all emotional states.
Our focus has been on the strength of the sex drive, which we defined as intrinsic motivation to engage in sex. To avoid overgeneralization of our findings, we briefly consider several other constructs (sexual capacity, enjoyment, and extrinsic motivation) that might seem to be related to the sex drive but that will not necessarily yield similar conclusions.
The first of these is sexual capacity. By virtue of the very biological structure of the sex organs, women have superior capacity to men. Women can copulate with more consecutive partners than men, can copulate for a longer period of time, and can achieve more orgasms during a single session than men can. We can think of no aspect of sex in which men’s capacity for sexual performance matches or exceeds women’s, other than the reliable incidence of orgasm. Orgasm is, however, arguably an index of pleasure rather than sexual performance per se, and indeed the potential orgasmic capacity of women undoubtedly exceeds men’s anyhow. Women clearly have a greater overall capacity for sex than men.
Orgasm may be taken as one measure of sexual enjoyment, but it is admittedly crude and incomplete, and certainly many people report enjoying sex without orgasm. Even if one does use it as an index of enjoyment, however, the results are mixed. Women are more likely than men to experience multiple orgasms during a single copulation, and women are also more likely than men to experience no orgasm during a single copulation (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994). Thus, women’s capacity for sexual enjoyment may have a higher peak than men’s, but across all sexual acts women’s average level of sexual enjoyment may be lower than men’s. Put more simply, women can occasionally enjoy sex more than men can, whereas men actually do enjoy sex more consistently than women do. Also, men probably experience more orgasms than women over a lifetime, especially if masturbation is included in the tally. Given the current state of knowledge, we regard the question of which gender enjoys sex more as unanswerable.
Are Differences Rooted in Biology?
[…] testosterone is one of the primary organizational and activational hormones that differentiates men and women. Although both women and men have natural supplies of testosterone in their bloodstream, the amount of testosterone varies significantly between the genders. On average, men’s blood testosterone levels are 1,000 nanograms per deciliter, whereas women’s blood testosterone levels are only one seventh or one eighth of this amount (see Dabbs, 2000; Mazur & Booth, 1998). Postmenopausal women have especially low levels of testosterone (regardless of whether menopause occurs naturally or as a result of surgical procedures). Most commonly, surgically induced menopause is the result of an oophorectomy (i.e., removal of the ovaries and adrenals) or hysterectomy (i.e., removal of the uterus).