Have you ever experienced shifts in sexual desire and been unsure about the cause? You may find that sexual desire has waxed and waned over the years based on what’s happening in your life. Stress at work, having kids, or generally feeling zonked can all impact how intense sex drive is and if you feel up for prioritizing sex.
Many individuals have deeply internalized gender stereotypes related to sex that can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, shame, and embarrassment when shifts in sexual desire occur. Buying into these myths can detract from having fulfilling sexual experiences and can get in the way of building confidence in one’s sex life. Though individuals from all gender identities are impacted by unhelpful narratives about sex, this article focuses on some of the most pervasive stereotypes surrounding male sexual desire.
This post will attempt to rewrite the cultural script for men by providing illuminating research on male desire from a scientific lens. We’ll address common factors that influence libido, including biological contributors, relational dynamics, cultural messaging, and psychological factors, with the goal of normalizing the diverse experiences of male desire.
Myth #1: Male sexual desire is more physiological than female sexual desire.
False! It’s important to note that much of the research on sexual desire has focused on women. The research that has focused on male sexual desire has primarily studied physiological factors alone, such as hormones and erectile dysfunction. This issue is likely based on the pervasive misconception that male sexual desire is more biological than female desire. Studies have suggested that psychological factors are more predictive of low sexual desire than hormonal or other physical markers, a finding that is contrary to the assumption that male sex drive is all biology (Corona et al., 2005). Though biology is one piece of the pie when it comes to libido, many other complex psychological, relationship, and cultural factors also directly impact male desire. We’ll get into these in more detail in the myths that follow.
Myth #2: Men are always ready and willing to have sex.
False! Let’s start off by understanding what contributes to sexual desire, a term often used interchangeably with sex drive or libido. Sexual desire (for all gender identities!) can be activated by internal and external stimuli and is affected by three main biopsychosocial components. These components have been described by researchers as (1) drive, a biological process, (2) motivation, a psychological process, and (3) wish, a cultural process (Levine, 2003). Each of these processes is made up of nuanced dynamics that can impact how and when an individual experiences desire.
Drive for sex includes hormones and other biological processes that can contribute to an innate desire for sex. Often, drive is the only thing considered when thinking about the experience of sexual desire. Other contributing psychosocial components can be just as important. Motivation for sex can be affected by one’s current mental and emotional state, the state of a partnership, and one’s social context. For example, if you’re stressed about an upcoming presentation at work or a recent conflict with a friend, sex might be the last thing on your mind. In fact, research shows that having low energy and experiencing depression or anxiety are all associated with low levels of desire (Carvalheira, Traeen, & Stulhofer, 2014; Graham et al., 2017; Nimbi et al., 2018). Wish for sex can be impacted by any number of cultural factors, including one’s social ideals, attitudes, and expectations surrounding sex. Growing up with the expectation that sex should be reserved for a loving relationship, for example, might decrease desire for a one-night stand. As you can see, sexual desire is far more complex than simply being turned on or not. Expecting oneself or one’s partner to always be ready for sex may be setting up your sex life for failure. Instead, communicating about the many factors that contribute to libido can help partners think about how to reduce factors that get in the way of desire and ramp up factors that help facilitate desire.
Myth #3: Men need to have ______ to be a good sexual partner. (Fill in the blank! a big penis, sexual stamina, a strong erection, etc.)
False! Before we dive deeper, I would encourage you to pause and reflect on which of these messages you have internalized to some extent. Where did this messaging come from? For many individuals, these beliefs stem from multiple sources, including movies, porn, books, and social media. These myths create unrealistic standards that can negatively influence one’s beliefs and expectations about male sexual performance.
Research suggests that the myths related to male sexual performance have some of the greatest impact on male sexual desire. Fixation on thoughts about performance and focus on erection, for example, create distress about sexual performance and increase feelings of fear and anxiety, all of which are associated with lower levels of sexual desire (Dosch et al., 2015; Nimbi et al., 2018). Premature ejaculation has been associated with lower levels of sexual desire, with studies finding that greater distress about premature ejaculation is related to lower sex drive (Nimbi et al., 2018). Other studies have also suggested that low sexual self-confidence negatively impacts sex drive (Hendrickx, Gijs, & Enzlin, 2013).
Messages about expected stamina, the strength of erection, penis size, and so forth hold men to incredibly high standards and can create self-doubt, lack of confidence, and anxiety about performance. More importantly, they also detract from a desire to engage in sex in the first place. Fortunately, these myths are just that-myths! Normalizing and accepting one’s own sexual experience can be incredibly powerful. Not only can acceptance decrease performance anxiety and increase sexual desire, but it can also create an opportunity to learn techniques and skills that can contribute to having a satisfying sex life. Check out our other blog posts and the Lover App to learn more about these skills.
Myth #4: If a man doesn’t experience desire in a partnership, it must be because of the partner.
False! This myth is an important one and is partly related to myth #2. The expectation that men should always be willing and ready to have sex can create confusion and feelings of inadequacy or rejection when a male partner turns down or doesn’t initiate sex. These myths can extend beyond the individual and impact relationship expectations and satisfaction, which is no fun for anybody. Let’s take a closer look at what the science says.
Relationship factors, including sexual compatibility, partner conflict, and length of the relationship, have all been found to impact male sexual desire. One study found that relationship-related concerns, including partner passivity, challenges with communication, and conflict, were some of the most frequent reasons that men reported a decreased interest in sex. The same study found that men who were in a long-term relationship of 5 years or more were nearly 1.5 times more likely to report a lack of sexual interest compared to men in a short-term relationship of 1-4 years (Carvalheira, Traeen, & Stulhofer, 2014). There are several factors that can lead to a decrease in sex drive in a monogamous, long-term partnership. These reasons are often less about the partner and more about the nature of long-term monogamy. For example, long-term monogamy naturally pulls for comfort and routine. These can be wonderful components of a relationship and they can also put a damper on sex drive. Having new and exciting sexual experiences and developing separation in the relationship to reduce over-familiarity are all important to cultivate sexual desire. It’s also important to note that an individual’s desire type can change from spontaneous desire to responsive desire as a relationship becomes more familiar. These natural changes in sex drive over the course of a relationship can be confusing for couples and can lead to hurt feelings if there is a lack of awareness or communication. Knowing this information can give partners the language to communicate about factors that impact their sexual desire and provide a roadmap for spicing things up again. More information can be found in additional blog posts and on the Lover app.
Myth #5: Men should intuitively know how to fulfill their partner’s sexual needs.
False! This is another myth that is often perpetuated by cultural messaging and media. It’s not typical to watch a steamy sex scene where a couple has a conversation about their sexual needs and preferences. Sexual compatibility is commonly believed to be something that intuitively occurs without discussion or effort. However, research has found that the easier it is to talk with a partner about sex, the more likely an individual is to report higher sexual desire (Graham et al., 2017). In other words, talking about your sex life with your partner can increase desire for sex! Communicating one’s sexual desires and preferences gives your partner the opportunity to learn how you experience pleasure, which can increase sexual compatibility and overall desire (Nimbi et al., 2018).
Though these direct conversations can feel difficult at first, having positive and enjoyable sexual experiences has a direct effect on future sex drive (Dosch et al., 2015). If an individual is dissatisfied with the sex they are having, chances are they will stop desiring sex moving forward. This can become a self-perpetuating cycle, and studies have found that the less an individual has sex, the lower their sex drive becomes (Graham et al., 2017). The phrase “use or it or lose it” is applicable to libido, and communication is key when it comes to developing sexual compatibility and driving up desire.
Myth #6: Men should not seek professional help with concerns related to sexual desire.
False! Studies have suggested that up to 15% of sexually active men report lacking interest in sex for a duration of longer than three months (Graham et al., 2017). That is about 1-2 men out of 10! However, only around one-third of men with sexual functioning concerns seek professional help (Mitchell et al., 2015). Changes in sexual desire throughout the lifespan are common and normal. If you are an individual who is curious about or bothered by changes in sex drive, know that there are skilled professionals who can provide support. Getting the facts on male libido can give individuals the confidence to bust unhelpful myths and have a more fulfilling sex life.
*This article focuses on binary gender identities (male/female) when discussing sexual desire due to the gender classifications in current research. It is important to note that individuals of all gender identities have varied and diverse experiences of sexual desire. The goal of this article is to begin to debunk unhelpful myths related to the gender binary with the hope that future research will begin to study desire from a more inclusive lens.
Carvalheira, A., Træen, B., & Štulhofer, A. (2014). Correlates of men's sexual interest: A cross-cultural study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11(1), 154–164. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12345
Corona, G., Petrone, L., Mannucci, E., Ricca, V., Balercia, G., Giommi, R., Forti, G., & Maggi, M. (2005). The impotent couple: Low desire. International Journal of Andrology, 28(s2), 46–52. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2605.2005.00594.x
Dosch, A., Rochat, L., Ghisletta, P., Favez, N., & Van der Linden, M. (2015). Psychological factors involved in sexual desire, sexual activity, and sexual satisfaction: A multi-factorial perspective. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(8), 2029–2045. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0467-z
Graham, C. A., Mercer, C. H., Tanton, C., Jones, K. G., Johnson, A. M., Wellings, K., & Mitchell, K. R. (2017). What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? findings from the third British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. BMJ Open, 7(9). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016942
Hendrickx, L., Gijs, L., & Enzlin, P. (2013). Prevalence rates of sexual difficulties and associated distress in heterosexual men and women: Results from an internet survey in Flanders. The Journal of Sex Research, 51(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2013.819065
Levine, S. B. (2003). The nature of sexual desire: A clinician's perspective. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 279–285. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1023421819465
Mitchell, K. R., Jones, K. G., Wellings, K., Johnson, A. M., Graham, C. A., Datta, J., Copas, A. J., Bancroft, J., Sonnenberg, P., Macdowall, W., Field, N., & Mercer, C. H. (2015). Estimating the prevalence of sexual function problems: The impact of morbidity criteria. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(8), 955–967. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2015.1089214
Nimbi, F. M., Tripodi, F., Rossi, R., & Simonelli, C. (2018). Expanding the analysis of psychosocial factors of sexual desire in men. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 15(2), 230–244. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.11.227