Most female mammals experience “heat,” occasional periods when they can get pregnant—and as a result, become eager for sex. But human women don’t go into heat. They can become pregnant and feel receptive to sex year-round. Nonetheless, a good deal of research shows that in reproductive-age women, libido is to some extent cyclical across the menstrual cycle, with peak erotic motivation occurring around the time of ovulation midway between menstrual periods. It’s evolution’s way of spurring procreation.

Libido Peaks at Ovulation: The Studies

• University of Virginia, Charlottesville, researchers used standard surveys to chart libido and sexual functioning in 115 women, age 23 to 45. Each participant completed the survey twice, once mid-cycle around ovulation, and once pre-menstrually. The women reported significantly more interest in sex and greater satisfaction from orgasm at mid-cycle.

• Dutch researchers showed erotic videos to 20 women whose genitals were wired to detect blood flow. Increased blood flow is an indicator of physiological arousal. Genital blood flow increased the most around the time of ovulation, and in an accompanying survey, the women said they felt most aroused at that time of the month.

• Researchers at the University of Rhode Island recruited 96 college-age women who were asked to rate their interest in four types of films: comedies, romances, action-adventure, and erotica. The researchers recorded a "surge” in interest in the erotic films as the women approached ovulation.

• Arizona State University researchers asked 236 women to keep diaries tracking their masturbation. They also recorded their basal body temperature, which spikes at ovulation. Masturbation peaked around ovulation.

• Researchers in Canada videotaped 19 women as they walked down a street during ovulation and menstruation. Thirty-five men viewed the videos and rated the women’s sexual attractiveness. Compared with the menstrual women, the ovulating group swayed their hips more, and the men rated them sexier.

• Swedish researchers have reported that women’s sexual fantasies and interest in sex, erotic art, and buff, muscular men all increase around the time of ovulation.

• Finally, Spanish scientists reviewed the literature on sex and the menstrual cycle, concluding that “women at mid-cycle [ovulation] exhibit increased sexual motivation.”

But studies of libido across the menstrual cycle are not unanimous. Australian researchers asked 173 college-age women to rate their arousal to various sexual fantasies. The women showed no significant cyclical differences. In fact the researchers noted “a high level of stability [in arousal] across the menstrual cycle.” 

Nonetheless, the weight of the evidence suggests that women experience a slight-to-moderate libido increase around ovulation.

Why Mid-Cycle "Heat"?

It makes sense for women to be most sexually receptive around ovulation. The biological purpose of life is to reproduce life, so evolution has apparently primed women to feel most sexually aroused when they’re most likely to get pregnant.

In addition, pre-menstrual and menstrual days can cause discomfort that turns women off to sex. Studies vary but somewhere around half of women experience pre-menstrual upsets—irritability, anxiety, and blues—and every month, about half of reproductive-age women experience menstrual cramping. PMS and cramps tend to suppress interest in sex.

Confounding Factors

The menstrual cycle may nudge women to feel more sexual around ovulation, but many other factors also influence women’s libido:

• The Pill. Hormonal contraception alters the natural menstrual cycle. A few of the studies showing cyclic libido divided participants by their use of birth control pills. Women on the Pill showed no monthly libido changes, but those not taking hormonal contraception did.

• Work. Studies of women stressed at work show little cyclic change in libido and decreased interest in sex in general. But While on vacation, these same women experienced libido rebound and cyclic erotic interest became more evident.

• A long-term relationship. Compared with women in established couples, single gals show a greater ovulatory spike in sexual interest. This lends some credence to an old joke among men: What single thing can a man do to destroy his girlfriend’s interest in sex? Marry her.

The Upshot

While women’s interest in sex may not vary much throughout the month, if it does, women might track their own erotic thoughts and feelings, and plan romantic evenings or getaways accordingly.

Meanwhile, not many men follow the menstrual cycles of the women they’re involved with.  Here’s a reason to. You’re most likely to get lucky during her mid-cycle. But always remember, the menstrual cycle is not destiny.

While the research shows a surge in women's sexual interest around ovulation, it's subtle, so I'd love to hear from women about this. Do you notice cyclic erotic ups and downs? What’s been your experience?

References:

Bullivant, SB et al. “Women Sexual Experience During the Menstrual Cycle: Identification of the Sexual Phase by Noninvasive Measurement of Luteinizing Hormone,” Journal of Sex Research (2004) 41:82.

Burleson, MH et al. “Sexual Behavior in Lesbian and Heterosexual Women: Relations with Menstrual Cycle Phase and Partner Availability,” Psychoneuroendocrinology (2002) 27:489.

Clayton, A. et al. “Assessment of Sexual Functioning During the Menstrual Cycle,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (1999) 25:281.

Dawson, SJ et al “Sexual Fantasies and Viewing Times Across the Menstrual Cycle: A Diary Study,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2012) 441:173.

Gangestad, SW et al. “Changes in Women’s Sexual Interests and Their Partners’ Mate-Retention Tactics Across the Menstrual Cycle: Evidence for Shifting Conflicts of Interest,” Proceedings of Biological Sciences, The Royal Society (2002) 269:975.

Little, AC et al. “Preferences for Masculinity in Male Bodies Changes Across the Menstrual Cycle,” Hormones and Behavior (2007) 51:633.

Meuwissen, I. and R. Over. “Sexual Arousal Across Phases of the Human Menstrual Cycle,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1992) 21:101.

Pillsworth EG et al. “Ovulatory Shift in Female Sexual Desire,” Journal of Sex Research (2004) 41:55.

Provost, MP et al. “Differences in Gait Across the Menstrual Cycle and Their Attractiveness to Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2008) 37:598.

Rudski, JM et al. “Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Ratings of Implicitly Erotic Art,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2011) 40:767.

Silber, M. “Menstrual Cycle and Work Schedule: Effects of Women’s Sexuality,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1994) 23:397.

Slob, AK et al. “Sexual Arousability and the Menstrual Cycle,” Psychoneuroendocrinology (1996) 21:545.

Tarin, JJ and V. Gomez-Piquer. “Do Women Have a Hidden Heat Period?” Human Reproduction (2002) 17:2243.

Zillmann, D. et al. “Menstrual Cycle Variation of Women’s Interest in Erotica,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1994) 23:579.

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