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Does men’s sex drive last whilst women’s fades over time?

August 13th, 2006

Dr Petra

Research reported in The Sunday Times today suggests that as soon as women are in a relationship their sex drive takes a dive.

A German study that will be published shortly in the journal Human Nature claims women who believe they’re in a long-term relationship lose their desire. The researchers claim there are few things (apart from living apart for extended periods) that can keep a woman sexually interested. Men, it seems, aren’t similarly afflicted.

The researcher who led the study stated: “Female motivation matches male sexual motivation in the first years of the partnership and then steadily decreases….male motivation remains constant regardless of the duration of the partnership”

This research was a survey of over 500 people who were interviewed at different ages in order to measure libido changes. The study revealed that 60% of women in their thirties reported wanting sex often at the start of a relationship, over time their interest reduced so by the time they’ve been with a partner for 20 years their desire for regular sex is around 20%.

Rather than explaining these outcomes as related to changing lifestyle factors or practical alterations in women’s lives that may lead to them reporting less desire for sex, the researchers compare the outcomes to the behaviour of female prairie voles and argue the results are due to women keeping her ‘resources’ scarce to keep a male partner interested in her. Males keep a higher sex drive to keep their mate faithful and other males away.

The study will of course get lots of coverage since it has a media-friendly mix of hormones, evolution and comparisons with small mammals which journalists always love.

Unfortunately the research doesn’t seem as robust as first appears. For a start it seems the study questioned around 500 people but they weren’t couples followed up in a relationship, and nor were they people followed in a longitudinal study. By sampling different age bands it is possible to see what men and women feel at different ages, but you can’t make a linear assumption about their changing sex drives with this technique. You can only really say men or women aged 20/30/40 have these views on sex, not claim that you’ve identified changes over a lifespan.

The data aren’t really all that groundbreaking – most sex surveys show that women as they age tend to report less sexual activity or interest. The reasons for this include women feeling unable to admit to sexual pleasure as they age, fewer opportunities for women to be sexy as they get older, and an increase in other life factors that might get in the way of sexual functioning.

However the crucial factor is about distress – something this German study didn’t acknowledge. For many women as they age their sexual activity may diminish – but this usually isn’t a cause for alarm and many women in qualitative studies reveal that whilst the quantity of activity reduces the quality of the experience does not.

What is striking about this study is the claim that men remain consistently interested in their partner over the course of a relationship. Whilst existing sex research shows men may report wider sexual interest at different ages, they frequently report that they lose interest in a spouse or long-term partner and seek arousal elsewhere. These existing findings are not adequately addressed in the current German study.

The study is also lacking since it assumes everyone is heterosexual and in long-term relationships. It doesn’t appear to account for participants who are lesbian or gay (regardless of relationship length), nor does it address that in modern Western society many people are not in one long-term relationship, but may have a series of relationships or be single for long periods.

The Sunday Times piece criticises the study and lead researcher Klusmann for not accounting for social factors, but is also limited as rather than using sex researchers to deconstruct the piece it relies on an agony aunt and relationship counsellor who were unable to fully engage with a critique of the study and point out its problems with measures, outcomes and claims. It was worrying to see one giving a biochemical explanation of desire that draws upon research that hasn’t been widely accepted, whilst both experts portrayed women as being sexually disinterested as an inevitable phenomena.

I was interviewed for the Times piece and suggested as well as a wider critique of the study, that it would be worth identifying who funded this research and what purpose the data serve? (Neither of these pointers appear to have been followed up in the final report). With our current preoccupation with medicalising women’s sexual behaviour (or the lack of it) this study again suggests women are malfunctioning by not wanting sex (although simultaneously presenting said sexual lapse as natural since prairie voles apparently behave in the same way).

It would have been preferable for the Sunday Times to speak to a wider range of academics and also to quote them correctly. I was disappointed to see myself misquoted as saying: “Cuddling is important for women and they may say they want tenderness because they do not like to express sexual desire and can only do so from the dialogue of romance”. This presents a case that women are naturally more interested in cuddles and less sexually expressive, whereas my point was that women are often only allowed to express themselves through a dialogue of romance – and are blamed or shamed for being overtly sexual.

Overall this study picked the wrong method to tackle a complex topic. Rather than a one-off survey a series of qualitative interviews (with perhaps other measures) should have been used. Instead of picking representative groups at different ages the same group of participants should have been followed over time. And the research should have focused on following up couples. It falls down by using a survey method to explain evolutionary theory, matching outcomes from a questionnaire to the behaviour of prairie voles.

However, we can be sure this will be yet another study that’s used to show how men’s sex drives are ‘naturally’ high, long lasting and powerful, whilst women’s are low, drop over time, and weak. Male sexuality is constructed in this research as sexually aggressive and interested in sex – not affection, whilst females is portrayed as passive and more keen on cuddles.

Rather than capturing how sex drives change over time, this research may have identified how different ages respond to a survey on sexual attitudes and behaviour. It’s a very long jump from that to conclude that all women’s sex drives disappear whilst men’s stay constant for life.

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