- Interviews with heterosexual men in relationships revealed that feeling desired was "very important" to the vast majority.
- Only 12 percent of men reported that their partners made them feel as sexually desired as they wanted to feel.
- Expressions of desire include compliments, dirty talk, and communicating about sex, flirting, romantic touch, and initiating sex.
- Sexual scripts can be limiting. Recognizing that men and women both want to feel desired may contribute to healthier relationships.
There’s no question that our culture is—ahem—still evolving when it comes to sexuality. Male heterosexual desire is still highlighted more than feminine desire, queer desire or other forms of longing and arousal. Yet there is an apparent paradox. The caricatured version of male sexual desire dominates media and culture while nuanced views remain under-represented, teaching the wrong lesson about what male sexuality is and can be. Undetected, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Does male desire tend to be two-dimensional, exactly because it is so dominant as to assume the guise of truth? Men may feel pressure to be one way, and any other way may feel like a source of stigma and shame. This state of affairs perpetuates unconscious bias which shapes development by presenting a restricted and constraining set of paths to follow and models to emulate.
A Lack of Research on Men’s Need to Be Desired Sexually
Recent work in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy is therefore especially notable. Researchers Sarah Hunter Murray and Lori Brotto tell us how limited and limiting sexual scripts are: “Current sexual scripts for heterosexual relationships in the Western world stipulate that men should be the ones to initiate sexual activity, push to the next level of physical intimacy, and to desire women (and not be desirable themselves).” At the same time, they report that while “there is some evidence that sexual scripts may be evolving over time” there is little research on men’s need to be desired.
A splash of theory lays the groundwork—namely “Object of Desire Self-Consciousness” (ODSC) theory. Knowing that one is desired ties to cognitive schemas which shape sexuality along with influential patterns of thinking, identity and emotion. Conventionally, women are more “receptive” and men are expected to “make the first move.” This is a powerful—and questionable—script1.
Hunter and Brotto conducted structured interviews with 300 heterosexual men between the ages of 18 and 65 who were in a relationship for at least 6 months. Participants responded to 21 open-ended questions as part of a larger study. Those discussed here are:
- Feeling desired refers to being sexually wanted by our partner. How important is it to have your female partner desire you?
- How do you feel sexually desired by your partner (i.e. what is she doing that makes you feel desired)?
- What, if anything, do you wish your female partner was doing more of that would help you feel desired?
Furnished with open-ended yet structured questions, participants were enabled to write narrative responses free from strong preconceived notions. It's helpful when exploring topics people avoid talking or even thinking about to use a format that makes it easiest for people to say how they really feel and what they really think. These responses were analyzed using a standard approach to identify key themes and how common they were.
Most participants (84 percent) were over the age of 30, with 20 percent over 40. Over 60 percent were married. The remainder were mainly in long-term committed relationships. The average relationship was 12.3 years long, with a range from 7 months to over 45 years. Fifty-five percent had at least one child, and most participants were white.
Ways that People Feel Desired
All the men who responded said that feeling sexually desired was important. A large majority (nearly 95 percent) said it was very important. About 9 percent indicated that feeling desired was critical, “paramount” or “essential.” Feeling sexually desired was “by far, the most important factor in sexual satisfaction for me” or “as important as eating and sleeping.” A few reported that in the absence of being desired, they would not be able to have sex at all due to lack of arousal or impact on self-esteem. Over 12 percent of men said they could not answer the question, because they no longer felt desired in their relationship.
Ways of being desired were very important. Different themes emerged. About 40 percent said that verbal expressions of desire were important—being complimented (17 percent), and through sexual (“dirty”) talk (30 percent). Some men felt more desired and aroused when their partner told him what she needed, communication found by researchers to increase women’s sexual satisfaction.
Flirtation was important. This could be open or subtle. A sultry look was important to almost 12 percent of men. Some respondents noted they knew when sex was wanted via “meaningful glances” a fleeting yet unmistakable look in the eye, tilt of the head, movement of the body.
Non-sexual, romantic touch was important for 34 percent. Contact might include a rub of the arm, a snuggle, a quick kiss, and similar sensual or affectionate but not overly sexual gestures. Touch was reported to make men feel not just sexually desirable, but also special, wanted not only for sex.
Over 27 percent of participants said that they felt desired as a result of their partner initiating sex. Initiation could be verbal or physical, but it was crucial. Participants liked their partners to take a more dominant role. That this allowed them to be more receptive themselves. When women show they are turned on, these men felt more desired and aroused. Having the partner initiate leaves less room for doubt about one’s own desirability, and lowers the risk of rejection and disappointment.
Twenty percent noted that having an “enthusiastic” partner during sex was important. Female partners who were active during sex, were open to experimenting, who put effort into sex, evoked greater feelings of desirability. Having a partner who enjoyed sex also increased emotional connection. When partners weren’t into it, men reported feeling less desired.
How many men were satisfied with how desired they felt? Only 12.1 percent reported their partners made them feel as sexually desired as they wanted to be. Eighty-eight percent said they’d like their partners to do more. Very few men reported they felt desired too much for their liking, or sexual capacity.
Male respondents wanted women to be more dominant, more romantic, more flirtatious, and more sexually interested. Having women initiate sex more often would serve two big functions. Always having to initiate was fatiguing, perhaps boring, making it hard to tell if their partner was actually into it, effortful in terms of having to do the work of foreplay and sex. Men wanted women to be more collaborative, active sexual partners.
Fifteen percent of men wanted their partner to communicate sexual feelings more clearly and openly. Almost 5 percent said that they wanted their partners specifically to compliment their body or performance during sex. Clearer communication would lead to more and better sex, reducing the chance of conflict or other negative outcomes due to miscommunication.
Over 18 percent of men said they’d like more romance. Almost 16 percent said they’d like more non-sexual touch, for greater romance and affection. Participants, a small fraction, indicated that they’d like more romantic touch “for the sake of intimacy rather than sex,” reflecting unmet emotional needs. One man wrote he wanted his partner to “pay more attention to the rest of his body” suggesting he felt objectified because of a myopic focus on his sexual organs, writing “I’m not a walking penis.”
Nearly 20 percent of men said they’d like more flirtation and playfulness. Needing greater “sexual tension” in the relationship, they wanted more simmering heat in day-to-day interactions. Almost 15 percent of men said they’d like partners to show more sexual interest overall. When there is mismatched sexual desire and poor communication, relationship and sexual satisfaction suffer.
Countering Myths of Male Sexuality
This work tells quite a different story from the conventional view of male sexuality. The vast majority of men report they need to feel desired, and most men report they do not feel they are desired as much as they wish to be. Assuming that men are always ready to initiate sex, that relationship is less important to sexual arousal than are physical cues, and that men don’t need romance and foreplay for satisfying sexual experiences is likely a myth, one which may shape sexual scripts to everyone's detriment.
These findings are surprising... or are they? Caricatured conventions of masculine sexuality are rampant in our culture, and if you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll never find out what’s really going on. In this study, the authors asked specific, open-ended questions in a confidential online survey format, allowing participants to respond freely and honestly, reducing stigma and fear of reprisal.
Because they looked at a larger group spanning a broad age-range, they avoided bias that can be present in samples of younger men. The study was limited in that respondents were mainly white men, making it hard to discern ethnic or cultural differences.
Sex is tricky, even for partnered couples who may not communicate or understand one another optimally. Subtle cues can be easily missed, and may leave room open for misinterpretation, or worse given the risk of engaging in unwanted sex and how mismatched sexual need is ineffectively communicated.
It may be that men and women are more alike than previously recognized when it comes to needing to be desired, “simply more human than otherwise" (Sullivan, 1947). Recognizing commonality while understanding and valuing difference lays a foundation for more informed, nuanced and effective communication. Future research into male sexual desire will be crucial on many levels, from societal considerations to individual satisfaction.
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1. Prior work (Bogaert and Brotto, 2014; Bogaert et al., 2015) suggest that ODSC is more important for women’s sexual function than men’s, supporting the conventional view, though this research was done on a smaller group of younger men, representing a significant potential bias. Further studies of men aged 30-65 (Murray, Milhausen, Graham & Kuzynski, 2016), authors note, found that men do have a “desire to feel desired”, to have their partners initiate, and to know they are viewed as attractive--though unsurprisingly this was a minor theme compared with mainstream views.
This conception that women need to be desired to become aroused and men are expected to get turned on and initiation sex is problematic at least because 1) stereotypical view of heterosexual intimacy may be culturally-driven, learned behavior through socialization, 2) it reinforced expectations which go contrary to contemporary views of sexuality, including the need for consent and equality rather than power imbalance, and 3) it leaves all parties involved at risk of adhering to over-simplified notions of sexuality and sex-based roles which may undermine personal, sexual and relationship satisfaction by imposing artificial constraints on perception and behavior.
Murray S. H. & Brotto, L. (2021): I Want You to Want Me: A Qualitative Analysis of Heterosexual Men's Desire to Feel Desired in Intimate Relationships, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2021.1888830
Bogaert, A. & Brotto, B. (2014). Object of desire self-consciousness theory. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 40, 323–338. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2012.756841
Bogaert, A. F., Visser, B. A., & Pozzebon, J. A. (2015). Gender differences in object of desire self-consciousness sexual fantasies. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 2299–2310. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0456-2
Murray, S. H., & Milhausen, 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. The Journal of Sex Research, 54, 1–12. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1168352
Sullivan, S. (1947). Conceptions of modern psychiatry. Psych Quar 21, 716. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01654330
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