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Sex Drive: How Do Men and Women Compare?

Experts say men score higher in libido, while women's sex drive is more "fluid."

By Richard Sine
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Birds do it, bees do it, and men do it any old time. But women will only do it if the candles are scented just right -- and their partner has done the dishes first. A stereotype, sure, but is it true? Do men really have stronger sex drives than women?

Well, yes, they do. Study after study illustrates that men's sex drives are not only stronger than women's, but much more straightforward. The sources of women's libidos, by contrast, are much more difficult to pin down.

It's common wisdom that women place more value on emotional connection as a spark of sexual desire. But women also appear to be heavily influenced by social and cultural factors as well.

"Sexual desire in women is extremely sensitive to environment and context," says Edward O. Laumann, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and lead author of a major survey of sexual practices, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States.

Here are seven patterns of men's and women's sex drives that researchers have found. Bear in mind that individuals may vary from these norms.

1. Men think more about sex.

The majority of adult men under 60 think about sex at least once a day, reports Laumann. Only about one-quarter of women report this level of frequency. As men and women age, each fantasize less, but men still fantasize about twice as often.

In a comprehensive survey of studies comparing male and female sex drives, Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, found that men reported more spontaneous sexual arousal and had more frequent and varied fantasies.

2. Men seek sex more avidly.

"Men want sex more often than women at the start of a relationship, in the middle of it, and after many years of it," Baumeister concludes after reviewing several surveys of men and women. This isn't just true of heterosexuals, he reports: gay men also have higher frequency of sex than lesbians at all stages of the relationship. Men also say they want more sex partners in their lifetime, and are more interested in casual sex.

Men are more likely to seek sex even when it is frowned upon or even outlawed:

  • About two-thirds say they masturbate, even though about half also say they feel guilty about it, Laumann says. By contrast, about 40% of women say they masturbate, and the frequency of masturbation is smaller among women.
  • Prostitution is still mostly a phenomenon of men seeking sex with women, rather than the other way around.
  • Nuns do a better job of fulfilling their vows of chastity than priests. Baumeister cites a survey of several hundred clergy by Sheila Murphy in which 62% of priests admitted to sexual activity, compared to 49% of nuns. The men reported more partners on average than the women.

3. Women's sexual inclinations are more complicated than men's.

What turns women on? Not even women always seem to know. Northwestern University researcher Meredith Chivers and colleagues showed erotic films to gay and straight men and women. They asked them about their level of sexual arousal, and also measured their actual level of arousal through devices attached to their genitals.

For men, the results were predictable: Straight men said they were more turned on by depictions of male-female sex and female-female sex, and the measuring devices backed up their claims. Gay men said they were turned on by male-male sex, and again the devices backed them up. For women, the results were more surprising. Straight women, for example, said they were more turned on by male-female sex. But genitally they showed about the same reaction to male-female, male-male, and female-female sex.

"Men are very rigid and specific about who they become aroused by, who they want to have sex with, who they fall in love with," says J. Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University sex researcher and co-author with Chivers on the study.

By contrast, women may be more open to same-sex relationships thanks to their less-directed sex drives, Bailey says. "Women probably have the capacity to become sexually interested in and fall in love with their own sex more than men do," Bailey says. "They won't necessarily do it, but they have the capacity."

Bailey's contention is backed up by studies showing that homosexuality is a more fluid state among women than men. In another broad review of studies, Baumeister found many more lesbians reported recent sex with men, when compared to gay men's reports of sex with women. Women were also more likely than men to call themselves bisexual, and to report their sexual orientation as a matter of choice.

4. Women's sex drives are more influenced by social and cultural factors.



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