Why We Constantly Underestimate the Female Sex Drive

Female sex drive
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

It's a stereotype that has played out on every sitcom on network television and probably in most bedrooms across America: the ever-horny husband and the less-than-enthusiastic wife.

But new Canadian research about long-term partners suggests this stereotype is mostly just in guys' heads. Male participants in the study persistently underestimated their female partners' desires to get freaky. Women, it turns out (unsurprising to anyone with a vagina), want to get freaky on the regular.

While the study is being reported as news by many, the truth is that academics have spent the better part of forever trying to understand women's sexual desires and libidos with mixed results.

The ongoing fascination with how amorous women really are comes in part from the many-times-proven fact that a whole lot of women lie about their own pleasure, desires, and sex lives. And that is due to the outdated notion that men are sexual, while women are recipients of that sexuality. But as cultural norms shift and researchers get better at checking their own biases, new studies are now showing that women's libidos may be just as hopped up as men's.

"Our sexual motivational systems are set up very differently in different human beings."

First things first: what exactly is a libido?

Our libidos, or sex drives, are often considered on par with the body's need for water or food: inescapable, animalistic, and necessary for survival.

But as Dr. Emily Nagoski explains in her book Come as You Are, the sex drive is not a drive. Like, not at all. She calls libidos "incentive motivational systems;" things inside our brains that make us want to go toward attractive things... like other sexy human beings. But the lack of sex will not kill us. Seriously. It won't.

As with many different human motivational systems, our sexual motivational systems are set up very differently in different human beings. "Even though we’re all made of the same parts," Dr. Nagoski says, "the different organizations of those parts results in different experiences."

In her book, Dr. Nagoski breaks down some of the most common types of sexual desire including the popular and much-sought-after "spontaneous" desire (sexual urges seemingly arising out of thin air) to the less valued responsive and contextualized desire (sexy feelings that grow within an erotic context like during foreplay). However, she points out all people are a mixture of these desires. Seventy-five percent of men and 15% of women describe their sex drives as primarily spontaneous; with 30% of women and 5% of men claiming to be more responsive. That still means that about half of all women and 20% of all men fall somewhere in between -- so it's awfully hard to draw a line between two every-graying genders to determine who's more sexual.

Women have falsified their own sexuality for a long time

Dr. Terri Fisher and colleagues in 2013 conducted an experiment in which they asked undergraduate students to complete a survey on their masturbation practices, porn use, and number of sexual partners. Students were asked to turn completed surveys over to classmates, submit the survey anonymously, or answer questions while connected to a "lie detector," which was fake.

While men's answers were relatively similar no matter what the condition, women who submitted anonymously or were connected to the fake lie detector admitted to masturbating more, using porn more, and having more sexual partners. In fact, women hooked to the lie detector actually reported more sexual partners than the men.

"Less than 7% of lady hard-ons are connected to sex on the brain."

Female libidos are actually "omnivorous"

Another study, headed by researcher Dr. Meredith Chivers, measured women and men's genital blood flow as well as their self-reported sexy feelings while being exposed to different types of sexual and non-sexual images of heterosexual and homosexual sex. The take-home, news-worthy finding was that although women reported specific sexual preferences, their genitals seemed to get indiscriminately excited. The discovery led journalist Daniel Bergner to call female libidos "omnivorous" in his popular 2013 book What Do Women Want?.

Dr. Chivers' research has consistently found that men have more "concordance," or agreement, between their boners and brains -- when they feel sexy juices pumping, their brains say hell yes. Women had more "discordance," with their bodies responding sexually even as the female brains were thinking meh, I wonder where she gets her hair done. The study concluded that around 44% of jolly stiffness can be explained by men's sexy thoughts -- but less than 7% of lady hard-ons are connected to sex on the brain.

There are a lot of explanations for the brain-to-body gap. Dr. Chivers posits that males have more concordance because their physical arousal is physically more evident (boners!) than women's, more accepted, and more discussed. Others suggest that higher levels of female physical arousal are there to prepare women's bodies for sex in all situations and at different times. And some people use this study as evidence that all women are bisexual.

Having no definitive answer furthers the tired argument that women's sexuality is just too complicated -- and perpetuates the oversimplification or outright dismissal of female desire.

"Dr. Conley found the women to be equally as likely as the men to choose casual sex with the hot movie star."

Historically, studies of female sexuality have been a total mess

Also, our studies of libido have been fundamentally flawed. A perfect example is a study from the '80s that involved male and female undergraduates approaching their peers to ask for casual sex. Seventy percent of men offered no-strings sex said yes... while ZERO women who were asked, agreed. But the study didn't take into account the possibility that the propositioned women might be fearful of sexual violence… or know that some strange guys asking to go to bed with them probably weren't invested in getting them off.

Dr. Terri Conley adjusted this experiment by giving undergrads scenarios where they could have casual sex with Johnny Depp or Donald Trump. The men were offered Angelina Jolie and Roseanne Barr. Dr. Conley found the women to be equally as likely as the men to choose casual sex with the hot movie star. While this study doesn't necessarily point to a higher libido in women, it does suggest that women, within the context of a safe space with a skilled, sexy lover, are just as willing to jump on it as men.

And probably, there's not going to be some definite answer on which gender wants sex more. Different people have different libidos -- some men might be less horny after a crappy day at work; some women might skyrocket after a kick-ass workout. When we start sexamining men and women, we have the habit of dividing them into these two discrete groups and assigning them characteristics. Then we start to only see the patterns we want to see and stop seeing the nuance and incredible variance of the sexual desires of HUMAN BEINGS.

So how do we know what our partners want, if they're horny little beasts, or subdued cuddle monsters? Well, the biggest lesson of all sex research is that people vary; they vary by every single characteristic you could throw at them, they vary by mood, by season, by lifespan. People's sexual desires vary. And that is good news for men, women, and everyone in between. Because now we know: all you need to do is ask.

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Niki Fritz is a writer of feministy and occasionally funny words, a drinker of coffee and whiskey, and a studier of pornography. (Legitimately! She’s a grad student in the Media School at Indiana University.)