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Gender Differences in Desire

How responsive desire is related to secure emotional attachment

photo by D. Grande
Source: photo by D. Grande

Desire creates havoc when it is the

only thing between two people,

or when it is what’s missing.”

Mignon McLaughlin

Low level desire is “the number one sexual problem facing American couples,” according to experts in the field of couples counseling and sex therapy (McCarthy & McCarthy, 2014). While this is a problem for both men and women, women more frequently report it as a concern. Roughly 30% of American women versus 15% of men in committed love relationships report “little or no sexual desire” as a concern (Laumann et al., 1994). One of the reasons for this gender difference is the fact that there are two clearly different pathways to desire.

Responsive vs. Spontaneous desire

The majority of men experience desire (motivation for sexual satisfaction) as the first step toward sexual intimacy. It is followed by arousal (the physiological changes associated with sexual behavior). However, for the majority of women, the first step is arousal, which may be followed by desire. This common female response pattern has been called responsive desire rather than spontaneous desire.

Research on the physiological changes that occur with arousal has led to an improved understanding of responsive desire and how it relates to our biological make-up. It does not result solely from the traditionally different socialization of females vs. males in our culture. When the difference is understood as due to “neurological wiring,” couples are better able to communicate about the problem and make behavioral changes which are helpful.

Need for physical safety

The research has shown that women’s sexual response is linked to activity in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is crucial to judgement and decision-making. Before a woman’s arousal shifts to a sense of desire, she must make a determination that she is safe. In other words, women must be able to turn off fear to move from physical arousal to conscious desire. At the basic biological level, her brain is wired to assess her safety and evaluate her risks. These risks include varied threats such as the possibility of aggression (based upon the couple’s history or her past personal history) and the fear of pain during sex, which may be due to various causes. Some of which these causes require a physician’s help for treatment. For more information about possible causes of pain during sex, and solutions, see the article by Dr. Jen Gunter referenced below. Anyone faced with threat due to aggression or the threat of physical discomfort is urged to seek help from a physician and/or a professional counselor.

Need for emotional safety

Attachment theory helps us understand the need for emotional safety in addition to physical safety to initiate desire for most women. As explained by Sue Johnson, each of us needs a “safe haven” or secure base from which to explore the world (Johnson, 2013). The emotional safety provided by a secure attachment to another adult allows us to explore the world, including our own sexuality, without excessive fear of abandonment or rejection. Couples are more likely to increase mutual desire when they address the need of female partners to feel secure in the attachment.

Desire and secure attachment

Sue Johnson assures us that loss of desire among long-term couples (who have ruled out the physical threats noted above) is not about familiarity leading to boredom (as often assumed), but is about emotional disengagement and lack of attunement. Emotional safety regarding a sexual encounter is experienced as assurance that “My partner does truly care about me,” “He is present with me and not thinking about someone or something else” and “He will be responsive to me.” Sue Johnson describes these emotional aspects of intimacy as being “Attuned,” “Responsive,” and “Emotionally Engaged.” A partner whose desire is responsive (vs. spontaneous) is likely asking, consciously or not, “Are you there for me?”


Gunter, Jen, M.D. Sex Hurts. Help! Published in New York Times/Style/The Cycle. January 31, 2018.

Johnson, Sue, Ph.D. (2013). Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels (1994). The Social Organization of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCarthy, B., & McCarthy, E. (2014). Rekindling Desire, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.