What Really Turns Men On (and Off)
Many young men do. But after age 30, male libido becomes more like women’s.
Posted April 2, 2021
- The stereotype that men are ruled by lust appears to be age-related.
- After age 30, men's desire becomes more like women's.
- When men mature, their libido depends on feeling desired and enjoying intimate communication.
Popular maxims attest to the pervasive belief that men are always ready and eager to bed almost any woman:
- Men have only one thing on their minds.
- Men lust; women want to feel desired.
- What single word can women say to sexually arouse men? Hello.
Chances are you’ve heard one or more of these, which attests to the prevalence of assumptions about rampant male lust. But sexual urgency, the feeling that I need sex now, is age-related. Yes, lust can animate many young men—and many young women and non-binary individuals, too. But a recent study shows that after age 30, men’s desire for sex becomes more nuanced, more complex—and in contrast to the stereotype, more like women’s.
A team of largely women Canadian researchers conducted extensive semi-structured interviews with 30 men, ages 30 to 65 (average age 43), all involved in heterosexual relationships for at least 2.5 years.
The researchers limited their sample to 30 men for efficiency. A robust literature shows that in studies based on lengthy interviews, after around two dozen, participants rarely produce significantly new responses.
The investigators selected age 30 as their subjects’ lower limit because they wanted to discuss desire with men who were no longer “young,” but in the researchers’ words, “firmly into adulthood.”
And the researchers selected 2.5 years (30 months) as the lower limit for relationship duration to exclude men still in the early, lusty, hot-and-heavy period, which rarely lasts longer than 2 years.
Study subjects were a reasonably representative sample of men in two Canadian cities—Winnipeg, Manitoba (16 men), and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (14). They received gift cards for participating.
To make the men feel as comfortable as possible, the researchers began the interviews with questions unrelated to sex, and only after some time and considerable back and forth, did they address desire. When they did, the investigators asked the men to describe all the factors they could think of that either piqued or inhibited their libidos.
The men came up with 23 factors that turned them on or off, but most focused on six elements—three that increased desire, three that torpedoed it.
The trio of turn-ons included: feeling desired, unexpected sexual opportunities, and the intimacy of the couple’s communication.
• Feeling Desired. This was the #1 factor affecting desire. Almost three-quarters of the men (73 percent) said feeling desired was critical to their libidos. Several mentioned some version of the adage, “Men lust. Women want to feel desired”—and disagreed with it. They loved their partners coming on to them, from playfully initiating erotic touch to saying, “Let’s do it.”
“It’s one thing for her to say, ‘I want you,’ quite another for her to initiate things.” (Age 32/5-years into his relationship)
“When she shows me she wants sex, it doesn’t take me long to get excited.” (Age 51/31-year relationship)
“Feeling desired is a basic human need for both women and men. Everyone wants to feel desired. I want her to want me as much as I want her.” (Age 65/13-year relationship)
• Unexpected Sexual Opportunities. Two-thirds of the men (66 percent) said they turned lusty when their spouse presented sexual prospects that were unanticipated.
Many of the men said their sex was usually scheduled in advance. This is what sex therapists almost universally recommend for long-term couples, especially those with significant desire differences. But the men said occasional spontaneity got them excited, particularly when their partner initiated it.
“When there’s an element of surprise, yeah, that’s exciting.” (Age 55/19-year relationship)
“Some spontaneity, that’s the best.” (Age 33/5-year relationship)
• Emotional Connection. More than half the men (53 percent) affirmed that to become sexually aroused, they had to feel an emotional connection with their partner, a connection best made by self-revealing conversation and shared laughter.
“I’m a musician. [My work hours] have stressed our relationship. Now my band is on hiatus, which stresses me. We were talking about that, getting deep into my sense of loss. Her being so interested in something that’s caused friction in our relationship, that felt validating—and arousing.” (Age 33/5-year relationship)
The men said the most arousing couple conversations had to do with lovemaking.
“It’s healthy for a sexual relationship when the people talk about their sex. When you can talk about what you want and like, that helps.” (Age 65/13-year relationship)
The men’s three biggest libido killers included: illness, rejection, and strained emotional connection with their mate.
• Illness. For most study participants (60 percent), the top—and for some, only—turn-off was feeling acutely ill.
“Just about the only thing that kills my libido is being sick.” (Age 42/11-year relationship)
“When I’m sick, my sex drive disappears.” (Age 33/6-year relationship)
• Rejection. Most of the men (60 percent) cited turn-downs as their other top turn-off, especially chronic sexual rejection.
“If she doesn’t want me, forget it. I don’t feel it anymore.” (Age 30/5-year relationship)
“I’m usually very upbeat, but when you’re always getting rejected, it’s easier not to think about sex.” (Age 42/11-year relationship)
“She’s just not interested anymore, which makes me feel the same,” (Age 55/19-year relationship).
• Strained Emotional Connections. A majority of the men (57 percent) said they could not separate their libidos from how they felt about their relationship’s emotional closeness—or distance.
“I want to feel on the same page emotionally. If we’re disagreeing, I don’t want sex.” (Age 33/6-year relationship)
“When we’re not connecting, I’m not into it.” (Age 52/16-year relationship)
“In all our years together, I’ve said ‘no’ to her only a few times—when she’s made me feel really frustrated or angry.” (Age 42/11-year relationship)
Who Are Men Sexually?
It’s easy to argue that men have only one thing on their minds. A huge research literature shows that compared with women, on average, men think about sex more, have stronger libidos, self-sex more, are more open to casual sex, initiate sex more often, continue to crave sex more after the initial hot-and-heavy period ends, and are more likely to judge the health of their relationships based on the frequency and quality of the sex.
On the other hand, many men don’t feel that way. They bridle at cultural expectations that they should be horny goats. And when couples consult sex therapists for toxic desire differences, in one-third to half of cases, it’s the man who wants sex less.
In this study, the men’s attitudes about desire for partner sex paralleled the stereotype for women. They valued feeling desired and viewed lovemaking as an extension of emotional communication and intimacy.
The myth is that men are wolves, women sheep. Actually, as men become mature adults, their feelings about sexual desire increasingly match women’s.
The myth is that sexually, men and women inhabit different planets—men Mars, women Venus. Actually, all genders hail from the same planet, the one in between those two. Earth.
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