What Turns Guys On? Understanding Male Sexual Desire

In truth, male sexual desire is at least a bit more nuanced than expected.

Posted Jun 20, 2015

Photo purchased from iStock, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStock, used with permission.

Are Men and Women Really That Different?

In 1992, Dr. John Gray published his bestselling book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, written to help readers of both genders understand both themselves and the opposite sex. In large part, the book’s incredible appeal centered on the fact that it was the first straightforward codification of the basic emotional, psychological and behavioral differences between the sexes. In a nutshell, Dr. Gray explained that women tend to be more empathetic and community-based than men, while men tend to be more analytical and willing to go it alone than women. With females, emotions and interconnectivity are highly valued, whereas with males they are typically seen as roadblocks to progress.

Unsurprisingly, these gender differences are apparent not just in day-to-day life, but in the formation of sexual desire. Essentially, women tend to be more turned on if and when they feel an emotional connection in addition to a physical attraction, whereas men are usually just looking to get down to business, so to speak, with or without an emotional bond. As a result, female sexual desire is generally multilayered, complex, and difficult to manipulate – primarily because, for them, sexual behaviors are driven more by the relationship than by physical attraction. Male sexual desire? Not so much. Show a typical guy some T&A and he’s probably good to go.

This significant and very basic difference in the formation of sexual desire helps explain why drugs that stimulate a person’s genitalia (Viagra, Cialis, Levitra and the like) are very effective with men, and almost completely ineffective with women. It also explains why there are so many strip clubs and “sensual” massage parlors aimed at men, and next to none aimed at women. Admittedly, for some women the need/desire for emotional connection is less paramount than it is for others. In fact, in today’s world many career-minded women are not interested in serious relationships at all until after they’ve established a life of their own. So for them casual sex is often good enough for now. (See this hilarious YouTube video for evidence.) For the most part, however, women are still connection-oriented.

Of note: There is a general social perception of gay men being hypersexual. In reality, they are no more interested in sex than straight guys. However, because they are pursuing other men, they may be more successful than their heterosexual counterparts. After all, when a straight man is chasing a woman, she likely wants some flowers and a couple of nice dinners before she feels bonded enough for sex. But when a gay man is chasing another guy, that’s just not necessary. For the average guy, gay or straight, sex requires the same basic level of emotional commitment as spotting someone on the bench press at the gym – i.e., none at all.

Unsurprisingly, a large body of research (and a good bit of common sense) supports the idea that male and female sexual arousal are very different. In one well-known study, women and men were shown videos of two men having sex and two women having sex. Their arousal responses were measured subjectively, by their stated level of sexual arousal, and objectively, by a plethysmograph, an instrument that measures blood flow to the penis or the clitoris. (Yes, people really do volunteer for these studies.) The men’s responses were highly gender-specific, with heterosexual men both reporting and displaying sexual arousal only toward the videos of women, and homosexual men reporting and displaying the opposite. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the women, regardless of their stated sexual orientation, reported and displayed sexual arousal to both male and female stimuli. Other research has confirmed this male-female dichotomy, suggesting that women are generally more turned on by the context of what they are watching (the relationship), while men are more turned on by the content (the sexual body parts). For males, the emotional connection just isn’t as relevant.

So in general the timeworn adage about men being sexual pigs (regardless of their sexual orientation) is not so far-fetched. They’ll pretty much go for anything, as long as it’s the right gender.

Or maybe not.

What Men Are Really Into  

In truth, male sexual desire is at least a bit more nuanced than the studies cited above might suggest. Yes, men do tend to focus on sexual body parts, but they seem to have highly individualized preferences about what those parts should look like.

In case you’re wondering, one of the most effective ways to learn what truly turns men on (short of hooking them up to a plethysmograph) is to look at their Internet search histories. After all, most people think that their search histories disappear as soon as they hit the send button, and they are therefore willing to hunt for their heart’s deepest desires, regardless of societal norms, because they fear neither judgment nor reprisal based on these predilections. However, search engines actually keep track of things, primarily because they utilize cumulative data to refine algorithms and become more efficient over time. As a secondary (entirely unintended) benefit, social researchers can see what people are interested in sexually without resorting to highly intrusive mechanical devices and/or surveys that ask people to be honest about things they’re not comfortable discussing (like taboo sexual desires). As such, Internet search engines can help scientists collect unbiased data much more efficiently and accurately than traditional methodologies.

Recognizing this, researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam collected 400 million searches via Dogpile.com, a meta-engine that combines search results from Google, Yahoo, Bing and various other sites. As it turns out, approximately 55 million (13.75 percent) of these searches were overtly sexual in nature, representing the unfiltered sexual desires of roughly 2 million people. In general, Ogas and Gaddam’s findings confirmed earlier research suggesting that women are typically turned on by emotional connection while men are typically turned on by sexual body parts.

Beyond that basic conclusion, Ogas and Gaddam looked at specifics, learning that men don’t just search in a general way for women’s body parts (or men’s if they’re gay). They want something suited to their own unique taste. Predictably, age-related adjectives were the most frequent descriptors utilized, with 16 and 18 being the most popular ages. Other popular ages? Well, hold on to your seats, folks, because 50, 40, and 60 are next in line, followed by 17, 30, 70, 20, and 19. That’s right, folks, more men are searching for granny porn than for 19-year-old college co-eds. So apparently Mrs. Robinson is seducing not just her daughter’s boyfriend, but her granddaughter’s boyfriend.

Nevertheless, among male users of Internet pornography, “youth” and “teen” are still the most desired digital destinations. But MILFs, GILFs and Cougars are not far behind. This fact is probably most apparent on “tube sites,” which are, if you’re unaware, the pornographic equivalent of YouTube. These sites allow users to post whatever pornographic imagery they’d like, and visitors to enjoy these videos free of charge. (Instead of making money from subscriptions, as traditional porn sites once did, tube sites earn money from advertisers.) According to Ogas and Gaddam, the most popular tube site is called PornHub, and the most popular search term on that site is… wait for it… “Mom.” (I assume that most of these searchers are looking for sexual imagery of someone else’s mom rather than their own.)

Another somewhat surprising finding in Ogas and Gaddam’s research is that willowy thin women are typically not what heterosexual men are searching for, despite what fashion magazines might have us believe. In fact, for every “skinny” search there are three “fat” searches, and BBW sites – with “BBW” standing for “Big, Beautiful Women” – are incredibly popular. So it seems the cambers of femininity – even oversized versions thereof – are attractive to quite a lot of men. Yes, wafer-thin, flat-chested women certainly have their online fans, but in general it’s curvier women who are the biggest draw.

Does This Mean Anything?

For the most part, scientific research consistently confirms that male and female sexual desire are very different processes. In general, it is thought that this is an evolutionary imperative. As Ogas and Gaddam write in their book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, “When contemplating sex with a man, a woman has to consider the long-term.… Sex could commit a woman to a substantial, life-altering investment: pregnancy, nursing, and more than a decade of child-raising.… A woman’s sexual desire must be filtered through a careful appraisal of these risks.” Hence a woman’s desire for intimate connection (or at least the appearance thereof) before she wants actual sex. Meanwhile, the male evolutionary imperative may be to spread one’s seed as widely as possible, thereby ensuring the survival of one’s lineage and the species in general, which would explain men’s primary (online) interest in sexual body parts.

Of course, these evolutionary imperatives don’t look quite so imperative in the modern world. But thousands of years of programming are not so easily discarded, meaning women tend to behave as they have for centuries on end, while men tend to behave like cavemen. The good news here is that most men eventually do seek long-term intimate bonding, and that they do so with a far more diverse array of women than many might expect. Sure, plenty of guys do find emaciated teenaged runway models attractive, but lots of other men find real women, with real curves and a bit of life experience, far more enticing. (Similarly, not every gay guy is searching for musclebound bodybuilders.) So, as my grandmother used to say, “There’s a lid for every pot.” And that’s a good thing for everyone.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.