If “masculine sexual desire” had a code of conduct, it would look something like this:
1. Men’s desire should be high and constant.
2. Men should always be in the mood for sex.
3. Men should initiate all sexual activity.
4. Men should never turn down a sexual opportunity.
But how true are these “rules” about men’s sexual desire?
In my newest study (currently in press with Sex Roles)1 I interviewed men in heterosexual relationships (aged 30 to 65) to better understand their sexual desire. During the study I asked men about how much their experience of sexual desire was in line with, or deviated from, from the types of masculine norms described above.
Most men in the study initially described their sexual desire in terms that offered support for “masculine sexual desire.” Specifically, many men said their desire was “high and constant,” that their desire was higher than their female partner, or that they would never say no to sexual activity if it were available to them.
Which essentially confirms the stereotypes outlined above, right?
But that’s only a portion of the study findings. As men continued with their interviews they described ways in which they felt pressure to demonstrate their interest in sex in certain ways to appear more masculine – both to themselves and to their female partner.
In fact some of the men who initially described their desire as “high” went on to describe times when their sexual desire was feigned or was not necessarily an accurate depiction of their true experiences.
Social Messages and Pressures
The majority of men described social pressures they regularly faced to appear to have a high interest in sex. Specifically, they described messages in the media, music videos that portrayed men surrounded by nearly naked women, and exposure to other men talking about frequent sexual encounters. Interestingly, most men were skeptical of how other men spoke about sexual activity, wondering if it was more “talk” than “walk.” For example:
“I think it’s just the whole masculinity thing. It’s guys not wanting to seem… they think if they don’t want it all the time they’re somehow inferior or they’re not going to look like a masculine male in front of their buddies or potentially in front of women as well. They want to show that they’re like a young stallion or whatever.” (Carl, age 31)
Pressure to Say Yes To All Sexual Opportunities
Men also described feeling pressure to say yes to sexual opportunities from their female partner. They suggested that if they said no to sex when their female partner they worried she would take it personally. And even if she didn’t take it personally, some men indicated that saying no would still feel like he was doing something “wrong.” For example:
“Even in my own relationship when I say no to sex, and I do, it’s not always her. There is a part of me that feels guilt. Like, you know, if she wants to have sex and I don’t and I say no I feel guilty. Even though she doesn’t expect me to and she tries to stop me from feeling that way, I feel it anyway…that comes from a big social construct that says I should want to have sex with anyone that wants to have sex with me. (Joshua, age 33)
Pressure to Initiate Un-Desired Sexual Activity
Finally, men described feeling pressure to initiate sexual activities that they didn’t necessarily feel in the mood for. In other words, they sometimes felt their female partner would hint that she was in the mood for sex, but not take any steps towards initiating. As a result these men said they felt the onus was on them to initiate, even if they were initially in a neutral to “not-really-thinking-about-sex” mode. Men even described that if they didn’t initiate sex, that sexual activity would simply not happen. For example:
“Even when she wants sex she’ll still expect me to initiate….I’ll get home and give her a kiss and she’d say “why didn’t we have sex in the morning? We can’t have it now” and I’m like “well why didn’t you roll over and…if you really wanted sex why didn’t you let me know?” (Ryan, age 34)
This study supports a small but growing body of literature that is finding at least some men are ready to move away from traditional sexual norms and expectations2, 3, 4, and suggests that current masculine norms and expectations may be too restricting for men and their true sexual experiences.