Let’s begin this month’s column with a thought experiment. I’ll give you four words, then you take a minute to free associate to these words. Let any images or thoughts come into your mind.
Here we go: WOMEN, MEN, SEX and RELATIONSHIPS.
What do you have? I suspect that most of us started to think about widely-held sex and gender stereotypes within relationships. Perhaps you thought about a seriously amorous guy constantly trying to convince his wife or girlfriend to have more sex with him. Perhaps you thought about who initiates sex more in your relationship.
Or, maybe you thought longingly about how you used to have more sex with your partner, but he just doesn’t seem that interested anymore.
Despite what our gender stereotypes tell us (amorous man, headachy woman), I’ve spoken with many women who have told me that it’s their male partners who have lost steam in the bedroom. It’s true: men can lose interest in sex, too.
Observing a change in frequency of sex can leave many women feeling like a failure for not arousing their man’s true horny self. It can prompt troubling self-doubt: Is he attracted to me? Does he still find me sexy? Is he having an affair? Why is he looking at pornography when he can have his way with me?
In trying to sort through all of this, I turned to the research literature to help find out what’s “normal” in terms of changes in men and women’s sexual desire within a relationship. Turns out, this is not an easy question to answer. But there are a few trends that keep cropping up:
Men want sex more. Consistent with the commonly-held stereotype, men, on average, have more desire for the physical act of sex than women. Men think about sex more than women do and are more likely than women to emphasize the importance of the physical act of sex relative to the emotional side of sex. In short, men have far more permissive sexual standards than women, and this is relatively well-known.
Assumptions lie. These average differences between genders mask substantial variability within each gender. Said differently, the sexual desire of any two women is likely to be more different than the sexual desire between any man and woman. This fact suggests that our stereotypes about gender and sex are mostly wrong.
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