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The Science Behind Your Sex Drive

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
We tend to assume that women don't have as much of a desire for sex as men or that female arousal is some kind of eternal mystery that no scientist — let alone the rest of us mere mortals — could ever really decode. But thankfully, none of that is true.

In the actual research, "we don’t see the kind of gender differences people assume exist," explains Kristen Mark, PhD, at the University of Kentucky. So why do we assume they exist at all? "Women have always been [seen] as not as sexual as men," she adds. "And women's sexual pleasure for the sake of it has been ignored, whereas for men, it's been celebrated. This directly impacts how we see the way in which women experience sexual desire."

Part of the reason sex drive might feel like a mystery is that it truly is a complex response, involving multiple factors. "Sexual desire is a motivational force that brings people toward sexual behaviour," Dr. Mark says. "It's the more psychological piece [of your sex drive], whereas arousal is the physical piece." And your level of sexual desire is determined by physiological things (such as your hormones), psychological things (such as stress), as well as more contextual things (such as the quality of your relationship with your partner).

But it's not always straightforward to study the way our libidos work. Because researchers aren't usually able to follow participants around to track their sex lives, they have to rely on those participants to report their own experiences, Dr. Mark explains. Each individual participant might interpret questionnaires differently, which introduces opportunities for inaccuracy. Another option is to include a physiological measure of arousal (e.g. blood flow) in studies. But that can make it easy to conflate physical arousal with sexual desire. "Although they're very related, they are also different processes," Dr. Mark says. This distinction is especially important in situations of sexual assault, for example; it is possible for a victim to be physically aroused but absolutely not into what's happening.

We don’t see the kind of gender differences people assume exist.

The challenge for researchers, then, is to create questionnaires that accurately and consistently reflect the nuanced experience of sexual desire for as many people as possible, as it changes from day to day. And that's exactly what Dr. Mark has been working on: building a way to investigate the question, What do we really want out of our sexual experiences?

What she and other researchers have found so far — contrary to popular opinion — is that women don't have a lower baseline level of sexual desire than men. But when we zoom out to look at it overall, Dr. Mark says there are some slight differences (women's desires tend to be a bit more context-dependent, for instance). For example, one of her papers, published in 2014 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine surveyed 406 people and found that, while the levels of sexual desire didn't differ between genders, what they desired did: All participants agreed that pleasing their partners was important, but women also desired emotional intimacy and "feeling sexually desirable" where men placed more value on physical sexual release and orgasm.

For non-heterosexual women, the picture is much murkier, unfortunately. For decades now, research looking at LGBTQ populations has focused only on the risks for STIs associated with sex, explains Dr. Mark. "That has not allowed a lot of room to look at sexual desire and pleasure." But she and other researchers have done some work looking at sexual desire in lesbian and bisexual women, shedding light on the complexities of sexual fluidity and the differences between sexual desire and romantic bonding. For instance, a 2014 study in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity found that women who identify as bisexual tend to be less supportive of traditional views of monogamy than heterosexual women. However, there's still plenty of research to be done in this area.

Your gender doesn't necessarily determine your level of sexual desire, but being in sync with your partner's drive is still an important factor in a relationship. Luckily, if you're not matched up in that particular department, Dr. Mark says that is something you can work on. However, "partners should always try to meet in the middle rather than placing all of the pressure [to change] on one member of the couple, which typically falls on the individual with lower desire," she explains.
Instead, work towards a compromise: The partner with a higher level of desire can rely on masturbation more frequently. And the partner with lower desire may need to expand their idea of getting turned on beyond simply being an in-the-heat-of-the-moment thing: "Like their partner did the dishes or took care of the kids, for example, and that helped make them want to 'reward' their partner with sex," says Dr. Mark.

There are also health issues to consider. For example, anxiety and depression can lower sex drive. In fact, Addyi, a drug developed to treat low libido in women, was originally developed to be an antidepressant. However, other antidepressants (such as Prozac) are known to lower sex drive for some. So once again, it's complicated.

If you're in a long-term relationship, your sexual patterns are bound to change anyways. In some cases, that does mean you'll be having less sex, but that doesn't have to be the case. "People shouldn't expect desire to look the same as it did earlier on in a relationship," Dr. Mark says. Later on, it's not so much "I want to tear all your clothes off right now" as it is "You were really funny with our friends at a party and seeing you be in your element got me excited." But if it feels like you two just aren't on the same page, a sex therapist can help you sort things out.

As with all things in a relationship, sexual desire is a dynamic thing, and it may take some work to keep it humming along. But we think it's safe to say it's worth the effort.