Sex

5 Ways Women Address Mismatched Sexual Desire with Partners

Qualitative research gives voice to hidden narratives around female sexuality.

Posted Dec 18, 2019

Research on sexuality has historically been portrayed from a male point of view, a tendency reflected in culture at large. The world has been male-dominated, a state of affairs coming under fire notably in the political realm as a trend toward female leadership begins to take shape.

This was highlighted in former president Barack Obama’s proclamation that women are “indisputably better” than men, and that if women ran the world, it would be a better place, right away. It's strange to have that message coming from a man in his position, if not surprising, as he straddles many worlds. It's sad that the message is so powerful coming from a male, even in 2020, speaking to the persistence of gender inequality.

Bedroom Identities

When it comes to the bedroom, power dynamics remain more or less neanderthal, woke culture notwithstanding. In spite of some evolutionary change, men are still sometimes more likely to be seen as having a right to demand sex, and women are sometimes more likely to feel obligated to provide sex—even when it does not suit them—and coercion and abuse remain more likely perpetrated by men against women.

In fact, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, young women are the most common victims of domestic violence, and one in five women (compared with one in 71 men) are raped. Rates of nonconsensual sex and quasi-consensual sex are much higher, and less overt, than frank rape. These abuses of power and acts of violence often go unreported. They are institutionalized, and may even be seen as a fixture of everyday existence.

The research literature on female sexuality has been limited by these factors. How women navigate when sexual desire differs from a partner's hasn’t been the subject of much study. The presumption is that men have greater sexual desire, though that is not always the case.

The question of how to address the situation if there is a mismatch isn’t addressed clearly from the female point of view, as study authors below eloquently discuss. The legacy perspective is that men want sex more, and are vocal about it, and often coercive... and women sometimes silently submit with the implicit, often explicit, accusation that women are to blame for unbridled male desire. A further limitation is that much of the research on female sexuality is on convenience samples, typically of college-aged white women.

Let's Talk About Sex

To begin to understand how women from more diverse backgrounds navigate a discrepancy between them and their partner’s sexual desire, researchers Fahs, Swank and Shambe (2019) from Arizona State University’s Women and Gender Studies Program, and the Social and Cultural Analysis Program, conducted a qualitative analysis of narratives centered around and flowing from the following core question:

"Many women report that their desire to have sex and their actual sexual activity, the amount they have sex, sometimes differ. Some women report that they agree to have sex with a partner because their partner wants them to. Others say their own desire is much more intense than their partner’s desire. Can you talk about your experience with this?"

Researchers used a careful protocol to extract themes from dialogue-based 1.5-2 hour interviews with 20 women flowing from this initial question. The participants were recruited to ensure a level of diversity, with average age around 35 years with a range from younger to older, ethnic breakdown 60 percent white, 40 percent women of color, four Mexican-American women, and two Asian-American women. Sixty percent identified as heterosexual, 25 percent bisexual, and 15 percent lesbian. They were all cisgender. Five were married, five single and living with someone long-term, five divorced, and five single and unpartnered.

All of the participants reported that discrepancies in sexual desire were a significant part of their relationships. Thirteen reported that they generally felt less desire than their partner, usually a male partner. Four reported that they felt more desire than their partner, also usually a male partner. With one exception, who reported having very good communication with her partner, all the women reported “problematic desire discrepancies,” defined as causing “conflict, distress or negative affect.” Looking more closely at participants’ narratives, five major themes came up:

1. Declining Sex

Three women reported that when their partners wanted sex, and they did not, they declined to engage. One participant, who reported good communication with her husband, was quoted: “Man, you know, how about later tonight or wake me up when you come to bed. Like, I don’t want this to go away but right now is not good.”

Another reported feelings of guilt when she did not want to have sex with her girlfriend: “It does get hard sometimes too because I feel like I’m not really in the mood for it. But then I also feel guilty… I feel bad to say know because… I don’t want her to feel like I’m not attracted to her…”

Women in this group, while they often reported doing emotional work around declining sex, did feel entitled to say no, rather than submit to unwanted sex to avoid conflict.

2. Having Unwanted Sex

Four of the women reported that they engaged in sex when they did not want to. One woman, reportedly despondent, described sex as “a boring obligation that allowed her to feel normal.” She described sex as a chore performed to maintain appearances. Another noted that while she normally was not easy to push into doing things, she agreed to sex when she did not want to have sex in order to avoid “a bunch of cr*p because I wanted to go to sleep.”

The other two women described having sex as a duty to give their partners pleasure, without themselves expecting to get any pleasure out of it. Researchers interpreted this lack of agency to decline sex in the context of imbalances related to power and gender.

3. Experiencing Pressure for Sex (Giving and Receiving)

Six women described pressure as part of their sexual relationships, either being under pressure or putting pressure on their partners. One woman noted that immediate interest in sex was very off-putting for her: “That bugs me and annoys me. I feel kind of grossed out, like I probably would want to have sex with you if you acted chill about it, but now that you’re being weird and creepy about it, I don’t want to.”

Another woman noted that her husband’s sex drive was higher than hers, a problem that had become worse over the long years of their marriage: “I mean, when we were first together back in high school, what do I have to worry about? … But now he wants it all the time, at least once a day, still. At this age! He can just tell if I’m kinda not in the mood, but he wants it more than I do now.” Another woman described feeling pressured when having sex with men only, and not with her girlfriends, reflecting a gender-based difference in her experience of sexuality.

Negotiating sex for these women was a tug-of-war when men wanted sex more often. However, they reported that when they wanted sex more than their male partners, the exchange was less tense, more playful generally, and less heavy—though notably the male partners were not interviewed to see whether their subjective experience matched the reported lightness of their female counterparts. Perhaps women were less pushy, cautious about men feeling shamed for not wanting to have sex, in violation of gendered stereotypes that men should always be ready to go.

4. Feeling Disappointed and Staying Silent

Four women reported that they suppressed their desire for sex, felt frustrated and unsatisfied, but said nothing. They might have a higher sexual desire, or their partners might meet sexual needs in other ways, for example with pornography, leaving them high and dry. 

One women said, “I’ve always found that I’m more sexually active than my partners, that I want it more than they do. It’s been so frustrating because men that watch porn, they’re in there saying they’re taking a s**t but they’re sitting on the toilet watching a video and j*cking off. It’s not fair…”

Another participant appeared to pathologize her desire because it was higher than her partner's, reporting that regardless of how much sex she had, “I have this insatiable drive. It’s hard to feel satisfied.” The interview did not go into the origins of high or low sex drive, but it would be interesting to have information about developmental history and biological factors.

Another issue that came up for women who felt disappointment was around attractiveness and sex. One woman, for instance, reported that her boyfriend was less interested in sex after she gained weight. In general, women who wanted to have sex when their partners did not were prone to experience painful feelings of rejection. 

The study authors note that women in this group tended to feel disempowered, resigned to having less sex than they wanted, and therefore experiencing reduced sexual and relationship satisfaction. This was connected with an overall sense of not only being sexually unsatisfied but also being burdened by the whole issue of having to negotiate sex in their relationships.

5. Discussion of Sexual Discrepancies

Three of the women described that in their sexual relationships they addressed mismatched sexual desire with communication, with varying effectiveness. One woman noted that she and her partner would talk about it and arrive at a compromise, sometimes having sex and sometimes “just going to sleep.” In her case, sometimes she wanted sex and her boyfriend didn’t, or visa versa. 

Another woman, when she wasn’t as into it as her boyfriend, described that it was because he wasn’t trying hard enough. Rather than agree to unsatisfying sex, she would get him to try harder and do more. Unlike women who saw sex as a chore they had to do, she said: “That’s probably where it kind of feels like ‘Oh, this is gonna be a chore.’ I try to probably just get him to want it more and put more effort into it… Like, ‘Get more in the mood! Rub my feet or something! Put a little effort into it!’

Another woman cited extramarital consensual sex as a way to resolve differences in desire as well as the need for variety. When she was overworked with children and job, she gave her husband permission to have sex with other women. She wanted him to feel happy and relieve the pressure on herself. Likewise, as they had gotten older and her husband had sexual issues, she pursued sex with other men. However, he was not OK with her extramarital activity, echoing the gender stereotype that men are expected to stray but women are supposed to be faithful. 

She said, “I personally don’t believe monogamy is a workable solution for people overall. I think that is a big problem in our society…” Again, it would be interesting to know more about that relationship, but in terms of how sexual mismatch was navigated, her story illustrates how communication can be used to negotiate relationships outside of the marriage, especially for nontraditional relationships, which are becoming more common.

The Beginning

All in all, this qualitative research, while not definitive, is a provocative and informative first step in looking at sexual negotiation from the woman’s point of view. Readers of all genders can relate to the narratives here, which span the continuum of intimacy and communication from silence to a range of dialogues.

De-centering the male perspective is refreshing and gives voice to how a diverse sample of women experience sexuality in a diverse range of relationships. Rather than being the end of the discussion, this research opens up a new area of inquiry. 

Future research can build on these initial findings and hopefully contribute to a balancing of perspectives and power. Research with reach may enable people to find ways to empower themselves through voice and action and begin to change the circumstances that make victimization so easy to get away with, free from fear of discovery or justice.

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