What do we really know about male desire? Not much, according to Canadian sex researchers
ZOSIA BIELSKI PUBLISHED JULY 23, 2019
Winnipeg relationships therapist Sarah Hunter Murray found a male desire that’s less voracious, indiscriminate and skin deep, and more emotionally complex – fragile, even.
Although sex researchers historically gave male subjects centre stage, they paid surprisingly little attention to how men actually desire. Today, contemporary sexologists say our cultural understanding of men’s sex drive remains simplistic and leans on old clichés – that male libido is always sky-high, self-centred and ready to go, with practically anyone. Men who aren’t this way are still treated as exceptions, not the rule.
Canadian researchers and clinicians are starting to push back on these ideas by asking deeper questions about the inner world of male desire. They’re looking at how heterosexual men lust (and don’t) within their relationships, what motivates them to have sex with their partners, what frustrates them in their intimate lives and how they process rejection from the women they love. What they’re finding counters much of what’s been previously assumed about men.
“We’ve got this stereotype about men’s desire being constant and unwavering. More recently, we’ve got #MeToo highlighting stories of men’s sexual desire being dangerous, toxic and about power. But what else is going on?” said Winnipeg relationships therapist Sarah Hunter Murray.
Murray interviewed nearly 300 men and spoke to hundreds more over a decade in her therapy practice – executives, truck drivers, athletes, teachers and dads among them. Their insights are included in Murray’s recent book, Not Always in The Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships, which offers a rare glimpse into a world we think we understand, but possibly don’t at all.
Notably absent from Murray’s book are the usual tales of raging male libido. One husband is too stressed out by the family business to think about sex. A boyfriend turns down his girlfriend’s advances for two months as he dwells on an unresolved argument. Another husband tells Murray his sexual interest piques when he and his wife talk late into the night. In her conversations with men, Murray found a male desire that’s less voracious, indiscriminate and skin deep, and more emotionally complex – fragile, even.
While Murray offers a strikingly new perspective on heterosexual male sex drive, other Canadian researchers are studying men’s sexual problems in long-term committed relationships. In Halifax, clinical psychologist Natalie Rosen is looking at why men experience low desire with their partners. At the University of Waterloo, PhD student Siobhan Sutherland is exploring male and female partners’ sexual complaints, which happen to be the same. And at the University of Kentucky, Canadian researcher Kristen Mark mines “sexual desire discrepancy” in couples, finding it’s sometimes wives and girlfriends who are more interested in sex than husbands and boyfriends – guys who find this scenario particularly troubling because of social expectations about the supposedly more carnal male gender.
Their emerging research suggests serious blind spots around male desire are harming relationships and holding couples back from broaching what they want in their intimate lives.
“If we ignore the nuances of sexual desire in men, we risk continuing to perpetuate stereotypes – that men’s sexual interest is uniformly high and independent of context – to the detriment of the many men whose experiences are multifaceted,” said Halifax’s Rosen. “In enhancing our understanding of men’s sexual desire, we can improve individual and couple sexuality and ultimately promote the quality of intimate relationships.”
The Globe spoke to researchers – and men – about busting the most pernicious myths lingering around male desire.
NOT IN THE MOOD
Despite stereotypical depictions in pop culture, real-world men aren’t always fired up.
“The myth is that men are a sex toy that you can pull out of your closet and it’s always ready to go when you are. Well, no, that’s not actually the case,” said CJ, a 41-year-old government employee in St. John’s who is divorced and now in a relationship with a woman he’s known for two decades. (In order to protect the men’s privacy, full names are not used). “If your time and energy is spent on the adulting – paying bills, working overtime, trying to keep your energy up for elderly parents or young kids – is there really time to connect emotionally and build that bridge that ends up in the bedroom?” said CJ.
Adam, a Kitchener, Ont., retiree who’s been with his wife for more than two decades, also disputed the notion that the male sex drive runs non-stop, no matter what. “If I’m focused on something or upset about something at work, I just want to be alone or work something out in my head. You don’t want to have any kind of interaction with anybody,” said Adam, 67. “My partner used to talk about the ‘tent time’ or the ‘bear time.'”
In conversation with Murray, the Winnipeg relationships therapist, men pointed out that sex wasn’t at the forefront of their brains when they were sick, tired, stressed out at work or feeling emotionally disconnected. “Men’s sexual desire is not a static trait that never changes and is impermeable to outside influences,” wrote Murray, who holds a PhD in human sexuality. “We’ve gotten used to talking about the complexities of women’s desire being affected by how much sleep they’re getting, how much stress they’re under or by being a parent, but we simply don’t talk about this with men,” she said.
Halifax’s Rosen is currently recruiting couples for one of the first studies to look at men struggling with lowered desire within their relationships. “There’s so much pressure in how men’s desire is supposed to conform to the stereotype of always being ready and interested in sex,” said Rosen, an associate professor in psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University and director of the school’s Couples and Sexual Health Research Laboratory. “The men I’ve seen clinically feel a lot of shame around it, like there’s something wrong with them. Their family doctors don’t bring it up with them and they don’t see representations of themselves.”
During their first therapy sessions with Murray, men often boasted about their robust sex drives. Subsequent conversations saw them dialing it back. Numerous husbands and boyfriends confessed that “some of their desire was feigned rather than authentic,” Murray wrote.
Men told her that they agreed to sex they didn’t fully want because they felt they had to. Having been socialized all their lives about high-octane male desire, men were playing the part. They were also faking it for the sake of their girlfriends and wives, who took sexual rejection and lagging male libido personally. “Men talked about this fear that their female partner might not be open to them saying ‘no’ to sex,” Murray said.
In St. John’s, CJ copped to faking sexual interest before. “It’s almost on a scale of 1 to 10. I’m not really there but I’m at a 6 and a half so I can go along with it,” CJ said. “Other times you kind of take one for the team, realizing that she’s probably done the same thing for you.”
Through her first interviews, Halifax’s Rosen is finding that men with low sexual interest are still reporting they regularly have sex with their female partners. Rosen said the men felt guilt and obligation to “please their partner to maintain the relationship.”
THE FEMALE GAZE
The standard thinking still goes in heterosexual dynamics: Men do the complimenting (and the objectifying), the desiring and the pursuing – and are naturally content with the setup. Not exactly, the men interviewed said.
“Men really don’t get checked out very often,” said Alexander, a 22-year-old Toronto student who has been with his girlfriend Mary, 21, for more than a year. “We have better sex when she’s complimented me and encouraged me. …It changes the whole tone of the evening,” Alexander said. “If a woman initiates even just one component of sex, that is the biggest vote of confidence.”
In her conversations with hundreds of men, Winnipeg’s Murray found many wanted their spouses and girlfriends to look at them, compliment them and act on their own urges. “Interview after interview, it started to become very clear that the most salient and important experience that increased men’s sexual desire was feeling wanted by their female partner,” Murray wrote. “A lot of women don’t think to outwardly demonstrate their desire for their male partners.”
Waterloo’s Sutherland asked 117 heterosexual couples in long-term relationships about their problems in bed for a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in March, and found men and women voicing pretty much the same concerns: frequency of sex, initiation and how much their partners showed interest. “We used to think that women just wanted to be romanced and men just care about sex. That’s not true. Men want to feel wanted as well, and for women to show interest in them,” Sutherland said.
BEYOND SKIN DEEP
Current assumptions about male libido still often go like this: sex for men is about getting off, a practically robotic function.
Look deeper and many men balk at that assumption. For Kitchener’s Adam, intimacy is how he connects with his wife. “I may touch my partner … I’m not intending to be crude, but sometimes she reacts in a way that [suggests] this is the only motive I would have,” Adam said. “There are times when men are struggling to find a way to show intimacy. A touch is presumed to be a claim on the body, instead of just a way to connect and make some contact.”
Toronto’s Alexander expressed frustration with literature and pop culture that depict sex as solely about physical gratification for men. “If we’ve just had sex, I don’t want to go to sleep,” he said of his girlfriend. “I want to reflect on what just happened with her.”
In research interviews and therapy sessions with Murray, husbands and boyfriends described feeling their sexual-interest spike on date nights, long walks and during close conversations – the stuff of rom-coms. “To hear men talking about romantic and sweet things about their partner that turn them on, it challenged my own assumptions,” Murray said.
The therapist argued that women who are constantly cynical about the nature of their partners’ sexual desire might be missing the bigger picture. “When we have a limited belief about what turns our partner on, we unfortunately miss the more complex, nuanced, and meaningful ways that he feels desire for us,” Murray wrote. “Many of men’s emotional bids for connection go unnoticed.”
MARS, VENUS AND PLANET EARTH
Waterloo’s Sutherland found that women and men voiced virtually all the same desire-related problems in their relationships. Here, she hit on something sexologists increasingly note: When it comes to intimacy, there is often less difference between the genders than there is between individual people. “There used to be this idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” Sutherland said. “We find more and more in our research that it’s just not the case.”
Winnipeg’s Murray found gender norms were limiting couples’ experiences in bed, particularly the sexual scripts that tell men they need to pursue and women they need to be the gatekeeper. CJ agreed: “If you’re conforming to the same roles, if you’re not stepping outside a little bit, it has a detrimental effect. It becomes a flow chart: I initiate. You respond. If yes, then bedroom. If bedroom, then missionary.”
Speaking to distraught couples, Murray noticed that false assumptions about raging male libido left both men and women feeling inadequate: Some women questioned whether their own lower desire was dysfunctional, while some men who didn’t experience near-constant sexual urges told Murray they felt broken.
The author wants relationships to become a place of respite from gendered expectations about desire that have little, if anything, to do with individual couples.
“These misconceptions hold us in antiquated boxes about what men and women should be, and don’t leave room to have a new discourse around what we actually want to experience,” Murray said. “It doesn’t let us be our authentic selves.”