When it comes to men and sex, women may be missing a big part of the story.
From the role of porn and the strength of libido, to the importance of physical attractiveness and the desire to chase, popular culture paints a picture that doesn't always match the reality of what happens behind closed bedroom doors.
“The stereotype that we have in our society around men and sex is that men constantly are in the mood for sex and that they’re always interested,” human sexuality expert Sarah Hunter Murray tells TODAY.com.
“(But) men sometimes don’t want to have sex…. ‘Not tonight dear, I have a headache” — we think about that as something the wife says; we don’t have the same vernacular for talking about men’s low sexual desire.”
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Murray, a relationship therapist in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is author of the book, “Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships.”
The project was based on interviews with and survey responses from more than 200 heterosexual men about their sexual desire. They ranged in age from 18 to 65, and all were in long-term relationships or married.
Murray shared some of her findings in an interview with TODAY.com:
Why are men ‘not always in the mood’?
As men age, their sexual desire decreases. We also find that sometimes in long-term relationships, the stress from work, taking care of kids, paying bills takes a toll on us emotionally. This is something we talk about with women, but we don’t really talk about it with men to the same degree.
Men in my research tell me: “Once I hit 40, sex stopped being so much of a priority. I just had to focus on getting a good night’s sleep so I could go to work in the morning, make sure the kids got to their practices.”
Those pieces of life just start taking a toll on all of us and it’s natural for that to impact our interest in sex.
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What struck you about the emotional needs of men’s sex lives?
The thing I found really fascinating was that if men felt an emotional disconnect from their partner, they might not be in the mood to have sex.
Men were telling me that if they had been having a fight with their partner that hadn’t been resolved or if they just didn’t feel so close and connected, even if she was interested in sex, sometimes, they just wouldn’t be. He just wouldn’t feel sexual desire — it was dependent on feeling that emotional closeness first.
When it comes to sex, we talk about it as this quick physical activity. But we’re naked, we’re as close to another person as we can be. It’s really this emotional, vulnerable act. It’s a way for men to bring those walls down; to feel they can just be themselves. It really is this opportunity to be open, vulnerable, close, connected and emotional.
What do you want women to know about that?
I think women can be a bit dismissive of men’s advances — it’s like “Oh, it’s just a physical act.”
But if we can leave a little more space for the fact that men get a lot of emotional connection, care and intimacy through sexual activity and leave a little bit more space to say, “Maybe he’s initiating sex because he wants to feel close.”
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Do men want their partners to initiate sex?
Yes. One of the things that stood out very strongly to me throughout my research is that men want to feel desired — they want to feel wanted by their female partner.
It’s surprising because it goes against conventional wisdom. We’re so used to seeing women’s bodies being the object of desire. But men were really saying how important it was to feel that those rules were reversed at times. They wanted her to give them a compliment, flirt, seduce or initiate sex.
This was something very important to them and something they didn’t necessarily feel their female partner knew. Initiating sexual activity, they said, was the ultimate, the most clear way they felt desired.
When happens emotionally to a man if he initiates sex and his partner turns him down?
Men indicated it was really a vulnerable act. It’s this idea of, “I want to feel close to you and I’m going to see if you say, yes, you want me, too.” They wanted that connection, they wanted to feel seen.
So when their female partners rejected sex, men felt like it was as if they as a whole person were being rejected because they were getting so much more out of sex than pleasure.
It’s not to make women feel like they need to say “yes” every time he wants sex; it’s totally OK to say “no.” But consider doing it in as kind of a way as possible. If there’s a reason that you’re not in the mood — perhaps it’s been a long day — help him understand that it’s not him. Recognize that maybe he’s looking to feel close and suggest cuddling on the couch.
If you’re the person who says “no,” it’s always a nice idea to be the one who comes back and suggests it at another time.
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Do men want to commit to one partner and be faithful?
The men in relationships were saying, “My partner is the one for me, I feel desire for her.” They noticed an attractive person, but they said over and over again their female partner was the object of their desire.
So there’s this language around caring so much about what their partner wanted. It wasn’t about wanting all these other women’s attention or that they were tempted to be with other women. There was this really strong connection and love these men were talking about in their relationships.
But I can’t guarantee that these were monogamous relationships and each and every case.
How important is physical appearance to men?
Men said they liked lingerie, a low-cut shirt or a short skirt. But the thing that they highlighted almost without fail was: That only matters so much.
What mattered more to them was that emotional connection. The part we don’t really talk about when it comes to men and sex is that if they’re not feeling emotionally connected and their wife puts on some lacy lingerie, that may be fun and nice, but really what they’re looking for to feel that there’s communication, they’re on the same page, there’s that mutual desire to be together.
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What did men tell you about having a sexless marriage?
They said this was usually quite difficult for them because there’s so much that they miss out on.
If their partner was rejecting sexual advances, they would lose interest in initiating after a while because what’s the point? That would lead to these really long slumps where no one was initiating and sex was no longer happening in the relationship.
There may be a point where she’s hoping he’ll pick it up again, but he’s kind of shut down.
What do you want women to know about men and porn?
Men in my research described porn as something that was very peripheral to their sexual experiences. Most acknowledged they watched from time to time — say, when there was a longer time between sexual activity or when they had a higher desire than their partner as a way to help bridge the gaps. It was something that scratched an itch or provided entertainment.
But it was always talked about as a supplement to the primary desire, which was to have a sexual or intimate encounter with his wife.