Sexual Differences: Men, Women, and Sexual Desire

Of all the features of sexuality that dominate day-to-day married life, one of the most important is a sort of mismatch in sexual desire between most men and women. As usual, there are exceptions, but, stated simply, the general rule is that men want sex a lot and women want it much less. And this, unfortunately, causes enormous tensions in many marriages.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is the classic statement on this. Annie and Alvy are both shown at their analysts via a split screen. They are both asked how often they have sex. Alvy says, “Hardly ever. Maybe 3 times a week.” Annie answers, “Constantly. I’d say 3 times a week.”

She: Does he love me? He: Will she ever like sex again?

This is on full display in a book called The Sex Diaries, out of Australia, which is based on diaries kept by married men and women regarding their marital intimacy. It is a book that has some useful parts (e.g., the occasional encouragement of spouses to be very thoughtful about the preferences of their spouses). But, overall, it is a very sad book. The majority of the book consists of husbands complaining about not getting as much sex as they’d like and wives complaining about how much they are pressured by their husbands about having sex. (It’s also strange how many of these couples either have sex every day of the week, or once every six months.) The selfishness of many of the couples is so palpable.

But is the news about this frequent chasm between the sexes all bad? Complementariness is one of the key features of sexual differences. Yes, these sexual differences are the source of a great deal of marital tension. But aren’t they also the source of so much that is good in marriage? Can a man learn by being married to a woman who teaches him to appreciate nurturing and personal sensitivity more? Can a woman learn by being married to a man who unflinchingly (sometimes too unflinchingly) pursues noble (often “public”) goals with great effort?

The fact is, I think, that men can learn a great deal from women about sex — most importantly, that it is focused above all on a person, not just the physical pleasure of a very sensually gratifying act (a hard sell to many men). On the other hand, perhaps women can learn that some of their feelings sometimes get too much in the way of straightforward exchanges of physical affection between two people who love each other. (One of the better parts of The Sex Diaries was its pointing out that sometimes women, out of love for their husbands, just decide to go ahead and accommodate their desire for marital relations more than they would like to [they “just do it”] and find it enjoyable it once they are into it.)

The desire of men for relations with their wives may pull them into at least some efforts to “court” their wives more — and in doing so men may find out that the effort is very worthwhile, even from their own narrower perspective. The “price” a wife may demand for relations is, after all, usually a very fair price: that he make an effort to show that he loves her, and that sex isn’t just about the pleasure he gets (his “sexual needs”). He is a better person for being drawn into that, and the efforts on both sides can lead to a deeper affection in the marriage (and a great deal of pleasure as well).

It may seem unromantic, but one way to deal with the mismatch might be scheduling marital lovemaking. Not a rigid schedule, of course (“it’s Tuesday night and it’s 10:00 pm, dear!”) — but an “understanding” that certain times are likely opportunities to get together, and the presumption is that they will have marital relations, unless something else intervenes. This gives a wife some advance notice that her husband is likely to approach her, and she can prepare herself physically (e.g., getting some rest) and emotionally. And it gives a husband something to look forward to, encouraging him to be patient, and perhaps reminds him that he needs to prepare her emotionally as well, as the time approaches.

The danger, of course, is that a husband’s expectations might turn into a demand, and if his wife is just not up to it (which will happen), he may use this against his wife, pouting and laying a guilt trip on her. But he can anticipate this happening occasionally, and by his forbearance in such situations may even earn some gratitude from his wife, which may lead to her being more responsive at the next opportunity.

[For the record, I should remind readers that I am assuming greater male desire for relations as a general rule — but there are certainly marriages in which a wife has greater interest in lovemaking, and the roles described in this post are reversed.]


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