In 1978, Rod Stewart famously sang: “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy, come on sugar let me know.” In 1979, the all-male band Cheap Trick sang: “I want you to want me, I need you to need me.” These songs represent an important sentiment that has flown under the radar for at least the last four decades: Do men just do the wanting? Or do men need to feel desired too?
According to traditional gender roles and sexual scripts, men are supposed to make their female partners feel desirable, while not needing to feel desired themselves1,2,3. In a typical romantic movie storyline, a male protagonist is largely responsible for wooing or courting the woman he is interested in. Think about the years Jim spent flirting with Pam on The Office, or of John Cusack holding a boom box high over his head in the hopes of softening the heart of his crush in Say Anything.
The real-life version of this might be a male partner bringing his female partner flowers, giving her compliments about how beautiful she looks, or buying her chocolates and jewelry in contexts where nothing is given in return. And when it comes to sex, men are often expected to be the initiator of sexual activity and take an active role in helping their partner get "in the mood."
But recent research shows that some men may want these traditional norms to change—because feeling desired is also important to their experience.
In a qualitative study of 26 college-aged, heterosexual men’s endorsement of sexual scripts, researchers found that 61.5 percent endorsed sexual scripts that were in line with traditional masculine roles, including “desiring sex without being desired,” but the rest did not actively endorse traditional male sexual scripts4. These men indicated that they resisted the notion of desiring without feeling desired, as well as expectations of initiating most, if not all, sexual activity. In other words, nearly 40 percent of the men described wanting to feel desired by their female partners and wanting their female partner to initiate more sexual activity.
Another qualitative study consisting of 32 college-aged men explored their preference for, and engagement in, various patterns of sexual initiation. Although male-dominated sexual initiation was the most common pattern, 72.2 percent of the men reporting this script indicated a preference for more egalitarian pattern—i.e., equal amounts of initiation between the male and female partner5. Men who wanted a more egalitarian pattern of sexual initiation indicated that they found initiating regularly was too demanding and that they wanted to be seen as an "object of desire" by their partners.
In my own research, I interviewed a community sample of 30 men between the ages of 30 and 65, who were in heterosexual relationships, about their experience of sexual desire6. The need to feel desired by one’s female partner was described by 73 percent of participants as having the largest impact on their experience of sexual desire.
“It’s important to me, to feel that I’m very desirable to her. Like, particularly to her.” —Craig, 33
There were three key ways men said they felt desired by their female partners:
1. Receiving compliments about their physical appearance.
"[Women] get adored quite a bit more, to the point where they feel extra good about themselves. And start feeling like very sexual beings because they get these compliments and getting the little 'woo-hoos' or whatever. Most men don’t get that very often. And when they do, it’s pretty darn good." —Carl, 31
“There was one time where she indicated she and a friend had seen me at a farmer's market amongst a whole bunch of people. Based on just the way I was dressed, the other person commented that she thought I looked very hot. And I hadn’t heard a positive comment or a compliment in a long time. So that triggered [desire] for me that there was a noticeable comment. There was a reflection that I was desired.” —Cody, 65
2. Having their partner show her interest in sex through enthusiastic participation.
“I want to have sex with someone who desires me. I don’t want someone who says, 'Well, my TV show comes on in 10 minutes, get it over with.'” —Hudson, 30
“If I think you’re reluctantly going along with me, it doesn’t make me feel like you’re participating. I need you to participate for me to feel wanted, loved, desired.” —Tony, 52
3. Having their female partner initiate sexual activity:
“It’s one thing for your partner to say they want you. But to have them physically initiate and do it is another.” —Tim, 32
"It’s very exciting when all of the sudden she wants it. When she’s making the motions for it, and she is asking for it, and she is actually the one who initiates everything—when I’m not the one who has to do all the work." —Scott, 42
It’s necessary to note that the previously described studies demonstrate that the desire to be desired is important to some men. It remains to be seen how common this need is, and the various ways that men want to feel desired in their relationships. But Rod Stewart and Cheap Trick are not the only ones to realize that feeling sexually desired is important for men, too.
Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray has a doctorate in Human Sexuality. She is a sex researcher and relationship therapist with an expertise in challenging norms and assumptions about men and women’s sexual desire.
1. Simon, W. & Gagnon, J. H. (1986). Sexual scripts: Permanence and change. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 97-120. doi: 0004-0002/86/0400-0097505.00/0
2. Simon, W. & Gagnon, J. H. (2003). Sexual scripts: Origins, influences and change. Qualitative Sociology, 26, 491-497. doi: 10.1023/B:QUAS.0000005053.99846.e5
3. Wiederman, M. W. (2005). The gendered nature of sexual scripts. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 13, 496-502. doi: 10.1177/1066480705278729
4. Masters, T. N., Casey, E., Wells, E. A. & Morrison, D. M. (2012). Sexual scripts among young heterosexually active men and women: Continuity and change. Journal of Sex Research, 16, 1-12. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.661102
5. Dworkin, S. L. & O’Sullivan, L. (2005). Actual versus desired initiation patterns among a sample of college men: Tapping disjunctures within traditional male sexual scripts. Journal of Sex Research, 42, 150-158. doi: 10.2307/3813151
6. Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. & Kuczynski, L. (2016). A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships. Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1168352