Gender norms in heterosexual relationships dictate that men are responsible for desiring women and initiating sex while feeling desired themselves is relatively unimportant. But according to a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, the overwhelming majority of men (95%) say that feeling desired by their female partner is important to their sexual experiences, and 88% say there are things their partners can do to help them feel more desired.
Numerous studies have shown that feeling desired is important for women’s sexual arousal. But sexual desire has been much less studied among men, and few studies have explored men’s feelings about being desired by their female partners.
“I started my career researching women’s sexual desire. That’s partially because I am a (cis-gender) woman and was aware of how many factors can impact women’s sexuality. But it was also because when I started studying sexual desire, researchers were only studying women’s sexual desire,” said study author Sarah Hunter Murray, a registered marriage and family therapist who authored the book “Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships.”
“While I didn’t question this at the start of my career, overtime I came to wonder why we were completely ignoring the topic of men’s sexual desire. The assumptions seemed to be: there is nothing to study about men’s desire because men’s desire is simple, straight forward, and surface-level. And I realized I needed to talk to men directly to examine this widely held assumption.”
In light of this gap in the research, study authors Murray and her co-author Lori Brotto asked a sample of 300 men in heterosexual relationships to answer open-ended questions about their sexual desirability.
The men were between the ages of 18 and 65, and the duration of their romantic relationships ranged from 7 months to 45 years. In an online questionnaire, the men were asked how important it was for them to be desired by their partner. They were then asked to describe the things their partner currently does to make them feel desired, and whether there were more things their partner could do to help them feel desired.
The study authors coded the men’s responses and identified common themes. Nearly all the men (95%) indicated that feeling desired by their partner was important to them. The men used different words to express the importance of feeling desired. Most of them (58%) specified that it was “very important” to them, another 20% said it was “extremely important”, and 8% used even stronger terms such as “paramount.”
When the men were asked what their partners were currently doing to make them feel desired, 41% described ways their partners expressed their attraction verbally, 34% mentioned their partners initiating physical touch, 28% mentioned their partners initiating physical activity, and 19% described their partners being enthusiastic/excited during sex.
Next, 88% of men said there were things their partners could do to make them feel more desired. Nearly half of the men (49%) suggested that they wished their partners would be more assertive/dominant during sex. Additionally, 17% wished their partners would initiate sex more often, 15% wanted their partners to clearly communicate their sexual needs and desires, and 14% simply craved more sexual interest from their partners.
Interestingly, when describing things their partners could do to show their sexual desire, many men described actions that were romantic rather than sexual. For example, 18% of the men wanted more romance from their partners, 16% wanted more non-sexual touch, and 19% insinuated they wanted more flirting/teasing from their partners.
“While we tend to believe that men are the ones who ‘do the wanting’ and are the ones to pursue sexual activity and demonstrate desire for their partners, men also want to be desired in return. Men in my study described that they didn’t just want their partner to initiate more sexual activity, they wanted to be romanced,” Murray told PsyPost.
“Examples included having their woman partner rub their feet, give them a kiss in passing, cuddle up to them on the couch, or tell them they looked cute or sexy. The implications for this are, in my opinion, quite large. It not only paints a gentler, more responsive side of men’s sexuality than we typically talk about, it also suggests that we may be getting a lot of things wrong about men’s sexual desire and that we should be thinking more critically about men’s sexuality rather than relying on potentially outdated, harmful assumptions.”
The results run against the notion that feeling sexually desired is not important for men’s sexual experiences. Indeed, only 5% said that feeling desired was not particularly important to them. Themes within the men’s responses also suggested that they wished to feel more desired by their partners and that they wished their partners would take more initiative during sex. The findings may be evidence of a desire from men for more egalitarian sexual experiences where both women and men show desire, initiative, and enthusiasm for sex.
“Social norms about men and women are so very pervasive. We are saturated with very specific messages from a young age and they are reinforced throughout our teenage years and adult life. While we can be critical of these norms as being narrow and outdated, breaking from the norm still takes time and isn’t always as easy as we may wish it to be,” Murray said. “However, I think it can be very rewarding for us to examine whether messages we have received about our sexuality in the past work for us and our relationships now in order to express ourselves in ways that are more honest and authentic.”
The study authors noted that their findings are limited to the experiences of heterosexual men and that it would be insightful for future studies to consider similarities or differences in the ways that men of differing sexualities experience sexual desirability.
“I was particularly interested in how those of us who are raised as and identify as men interact with those of us who were raised as, and identify, as women when it comes to sex. That’s because men and women continue to receive very gender-specific sexual messages and I think it’s fascinating to examine what happens when those widely different messages collide,” Murray explained.
“However, that means that the findings from this study may not be applicable to men who don’t date women or who do but don’t identify as heterosexual. I’m interested to see if we can expand the research on sexual desire to be more inclusive of more sexual orientations as well as trans men.”
The study, “I Want You to Want Me: A Qualitative Analysis of Heterosexual Men’s Desire to Feel Desired in Intimate Relationships”, was authored by Sarah Hunter Murray and Lori Brotto.