The Power of Pleasure

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What Predicts Men's Sexual Desire?

Men's sexual desire is more complicated than some might assume.

For my years as a sex researcher, I have been fascinated with women’s sexual desire. There has been a good deal of attention brought to women’s sexual desire in the mainstream media, particularly with the medicalization of women’s sexual problems and the search for the little pink pill. With so much focus on women's sexual desire (unfortunately usually on it being low), I find it interesting how little men's sexual desire is studied. I think there is a pervasive (inaccurate) assumption that men are always ready to go and full of sexual desire, and therefore not deemed important enough to study when it comes to desire.

Well, researchers Carvalho and Nobre, who published in The Journal of Sex Research, turned that around for once. The paper, “Predictors of Men’s Sexual Desire: The Role of Psychological, Emotional, Relational, and Medical Factors” (2011, v.48, i.2). 

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These University of Aveivo researchers in Portugal surveyed 205 men (average age of 35, range of 18-72). Half of the men surveyed were married (47.3%) and around 40% of the men were single. These were quite educated men, with 40% of them having had over 15 years of education.

The researchers asked the men about the following variables: psychological adjustment, dysfunctional sexual beliefs, automatic thoughts and emotions during sexual activity, dyadic adjustment, and the presence of medical conditions.

Significant cognitive and emotional predictors of sexual desire included (each of these factors negatively impacted sexual desire):

  • Restrictive attitudes toward sexuality
  • Lack of erotic thoughts during sexual activity
  • Concerns about erection in a sexual context
  • Emotions of sadness in a sexual context
  • Shame in a sexual context

Relationship satisfaction (measured by dyadic adjustment) and the presence of medical conditions were not significant predictors of male sexual desire in this sample.

All significant variables were then entered into one regression model of men’s sexual desire to assess what the strongest predictor was. They found lack of erotic thoughts during sexual activity was the only significant predictor of men’s sexual desire.

These findings indicate the importance of cognitive dimensions in men’s sexual desire. It appears that maintaining attentional focus and erotic thoughts really contributes to men maintaining desire. There is a wonderful body of research on mindfulness and sexual desire by Dr. Lori Brotto at University of British Columbia that could be applied here. From my knowledge, I believe most of her work on mindfulness is applied to women’s sexual desire, but these findings lend support to the idea that perhaps this framework may be useful for men as well. Also, I found it interesting that relationship satisfaction and medical conditions did not impact men’s sexual desire.

Since this research was conducted using a convenience sample in Portugal, it does make me wonder how generalizable their findings would be to North American men. Having never been to Portugal myself, I am not sure what the climate is like surrounding issues such as sexual desire. But there are certainly areas of Europe where findings regarding sexual desire (particularly women’s sexual desire) would not be generalizable to North American women. So the results should be taken in this context.

Regardless, it is good to see researchers conducting studies that examine men's sexual desire. It is just as important to battle the myths about men's sexual desire being everpresent as it is to battle the myths about women's sexual desire being everabsent.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH, is a sex and relationships researcher and assistant professor at University of Kentucky and a managing editor at Good in Bed.

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