Men tend to report greater sexual desire for their partners than women do, and findings published in the journal Biological Psychology suggest that this sex difference is at least partly explained by biology. In a diary study of newlywed couples, women reported lower dyadic sexual desire compared to their partners, and lower levels of testosterone explained this sex difference.
Sexual desire for one’s partner — also called dyadic sexual desire — plays an important role in healthy long-term relationships. Yet many couples experience a mismatch in sexual desire. This is particularly common among mixed-sex couples since men tend to report higher dyadic sexual desire, and higher sexual desire in general, compared to women.
Discrepancies in sexual desire can contribute to relationship issues. For example, one study found that women’s lower sexual desire predicted lower marital satisfaction for both members of the couple. And yet a clear explanation for this sex difference has not been established.
“Within mixed-sex couples, men tend to have higher sexual desire for their partners than women do. Because there are many potential factors that could contribute to this sex difference — ranging from hormonal differences between men and women to stress or even sex roles that reflect gendered social norms — I was interested in testing the roles of these various factors to help advance and clarify our theoretical understanding of differences between men’s versus women’s sexual desire for each other,” explained study author Juliana E. French, an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University and core faculty in the Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary ANalysis (OCEAN).
French and her colleagues conducted a study to explore sex differences in dyadic desire among mixed-sex newlywed couples. They further sought to test the influence of biological, relational, cognitive, and emotional factors in explaining these differences.
The researchers examined existing data from a study of newlywed couples recruited from Northern Florida. The final sample consisted of 98 participants — 48 husbands and 50 wives. Husbands were an average of 32 years old, and wives were an average age of 30. At the start of the study, both members of the couple completed a survey that assessed cognitions tapping into their identification with masculine and feminine sex roles and attended a lab session where they provided saliva samples to be tested for testosterone.
The couples were then instructed to complete a daily survey before bedtime for 14 days, independently from their partners. These surveys assessed their daily sexual desire for their spouse, marital satisfaction, marital commitment, stress, self-esteem, and mood.
The results revealed that, over the 14-day study period, husbands reported significantly higher daily sexual desire for their wives than their wives did. Mediation analysis further revealed that this sex difference was at least partly explained by higher levels of circulating testosterone among men compared to their partners.
“We simultaneously examined the roles of biological, relationship, cognitive, and emotional experiences for explaining the sex difference in sexual desire for one’s partner, and differences in husbands’ versus wives’ testosterone levels emerged as the only factor that helped to account for husbands’ relatively higher sexual desire compared to their wives,” French told PsyPost.
Still, the authors note that biological factors are not the only influences on sexual functioning within couples. “Other factors were predictive of dyadic sexual desire overall,” French noted. “Take marital satisfaction, for example—people who were more satisfied with their marriages reported feeling more sexual desire for their partners—but these factors did not seem to account for the difference between men’s and women’s levels of sexual desire in the way that differences in testosterone levels did.”
Notably, higher daily positive mood also predicted stronger daily dyadic sexual desire, although this variable similarly did not account for sex differences.
“Sexual desire for one’s long-term partner is complex and can be influenced by many factors,” French said. “We did our best to account for as many factors as we could, but there are additional factors that need to be considered in the future. For example, women are less likely to experience orgasms from partnered sex compared to men, and this difference could additionally lead to differences in men’s versus women’s sexual desire for each other.”
The findings may have also implications for couples sex therapy. “In addition to advancing theory on processes that underlie sexual desire in long-term relationships, these insights could also enable people to better understand why discrepancies in sexual desire between partners occur and thereby limit the extent to which people might attribute sexual difficulties to problems in their relationships,” French explained.
One limitation of the study was that there were no daily measures of testosterone, preventing researchers from exploring how individual variations in testosterone may relate to daily fluctuations in sexual desire.
“Additionally, this work can really only speak to differences in sexual desire experienced by partners in mixed-sex relationships—we need more work in the future to examine the extent to which people in same-sex relationships, as well as other diverse forms of relationships, experience discrepancies in sexual desire for their partners and what the underlying mechanisms for those discrepancies may be,” French said.
The study, “An empirical investigation of the roles of biological, relational, cognitive, and emotional factors in explaining sex differences in dyadic sexual desire”, was authored by Juliana E. French, James K. McNulty, Anastasia Makhanova, Jon K. Maner, Lisa A. Eckel, Larissa Nikonova, and Andrea L. Meltzer.