Gender is a tricky subject. There are exceptions to any generalization you might make about men and women.
But that doesn't mean we can ignore gender completely. The problems that bring couples to sex therapy often have a lot to do with what gender they are.
A straight couple’s problems in bed are often traceable to the fact that they’re of different genders. And many lesbian or gay male couples’ concerns have a lot to do with the fact that they’re of the same gender.
Culture certainly amplifies whatever gender differences we might be born with. But culture is a powerful force, and male-female differences often figure prominently when couples of whatever gender combination run into trouble in bed.
Spontaneous vs. Responsive Desire in Women
Most women, for instance, have a strong wish to feel sexually desired. Men also like to be desired, of course. But among the women I see in my office, it’s often much more of a “thing.”
Many women say they don’t feel any spontaneous desire for sex unless it’s stimulated by someone desiring them. As sex therapists, we would say their desire is purely “responsive.” Many women report that feeling desired is what turns them on the most.
Heterosexual human mating tends to be like traditional couples’ dancing. She needs him to ask her to dance. The dancing itself might be nice, but even more important is that he showed initiative and wanted to dance with her.
Sure, it might be fun once in awhile for her to turn tables and ask him to dance. But if this were the only way to get him out on the dance floor, eventually she might start to feel something was amiss.
Most men are different. They may enjoy it if their partner passionately wants to have sex with them, but they don’t particularly need to feel desired in order to get turned on. Their desire is more “spontaneous."
Spontaneous versus Responsive Desire in Men
Over the past few years, I've noticed that some men in my office don’t fit the typical male pattern of “spontaneous desire.” They seem more like women in this respect.
These men describe their desire as mostly “responsive”—just like the ordinary female variety. What turns them on most strongly is to feel desired.
If such a man happens to be gay, this often isn’t a problem. A male partner might have enough spontaneous desire to provide the necessary spark. But in a male-female relationship, it often constitutes a core erotic dilemma.
A man like this is almost always brought to my office by his very unhappy wife, who complains that he rarely, if ever, initiates sex—thus depriving her of the chance to feel turned on by his passion for her.
If I arrange to see him alone and ask him what turned him on the most, often the first thing out of his mouth is, “I want her to make the first move.”
His desire is primarily responsive—something our culture doesn't yet recognize as normal in heterosexual men.
The Prison-House of Gender
A man like this quickly finds that his deepest need—the need to feel powerfully desired by his partner—violates the prevailing cultural script. This is by no means a trivial problem.
As a culture, we have a lot of trouble with men who want to give up male privilege—in this case, the privilege of being the initiator.
It’s less of a problem if a straight woman’s desire tends to be more “spontaneous” than “responsive.” Sure she may need to find a partner confident enough not to be intimidated by her robust need for sex. But there are many such men out there.
A straight man whose principal turn-on is to be desired finds himself in more difficult territory. Very few women are interested in consistently being the initiator.
A man like this usually learns to keep his responsive desire a secret. If he tries to explain it to a female partner, often the concept will be so foreign to her that she’ll have no idea what he’s talking about.
So What's The Answer?
Can a man like this change his arousal pattern to where he no longer yearns for his partner to make the first move?
Don’t bet on it. Even if this kind of arousal pattern could be proved to be entirely due to culture or upbringing, that doesn’t mean it’s trivial or subject to change. To quote the late Jack Morin, “If you go to war with your sexuality, you will lose, and end up in more trouble than before you started.”
For most couples, the best strategy is probably acceptance. A straight man who yearns to be desired may be analogous to one who gets excited by wearing women’s clothing in bed. Best to just chalk it up to human sexual diversity, and accept it.
New research has begun to demonstrate the reality of responsive desire in men. But the phenomenon is hardly ever discussed. It’s still somewhere in the shadows.
Maybe that will change someday, and responsive desire in men will be generally accepted as just one more example of human sexual diversity.
In the meantime, if you’re a woman in a relationship with a man who doesn’t initiate sex as much as you’d like, you may want to keep in mind the possibility that he might need the same thing you do.
© Stephen Snyder MD 2017
New York City
My new book, Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long Lasting Relationship, launches February 2018 from St Martin's Press.