Taylor reaches over and begins caressing Sam's leg suggestively. Sam pulls away. Taylor gets irritated and says, "We haven't had sex in two weeks. You're not in the mood again?" Taylor goes into another room to watch TV. Sam sits on the couch and feels guilty and ashamed, but just isn't in the mood and can't force it. The couple goes to bed feeling sad and frustrated, again.
Social stereotypes and conventional wisdom might lead us to believe that Taylor is a man and Sam is a woman. And although the dynamic of women having lower interest in sex than their male partner is common, research shows that it is just as common for the situation to be reversed. That is, in heterosexual relationships, it is just as common for men to have lower desire.1,2 And while having lower sexual desire than a partner does not inherently mean that one's desire is problematically low, several women and men do experience a lack of interest in sex that they consider distressing to themselves and their intimate relationships.
So why do we tend to think that men's low sexual desire is non-existent? And why do we avoid talking about it?
Our belief in gender roles tends to run pretty deep. So even though we see more and more men report low sexual interest — temporarily, or for an extended period of time — the belief in masculine norms, which suggest that men shouldn't experience low sexual desire, seems to override these facts for many of us.
But let’s put those stereotypes and our conventional wisdom aside and look at what the research can really tell us about men’s low sexual desire.
How Many Men Experience Low Sexual Desire?
The number of men who report problematic low sexual desire fluctuates depending on definition and criteria used by researchers.3 For example, when asked whether they had experienced a "distressing loss of sexual desire" over the last 12 months, 8 percent of Norwegian men aged 22 to 67 indicated that they did "all the time," "nearly all the time," or "quite often."4 In a national health study of American men, researchers determined that 15 percent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 59 had "persistent complaints of low sexual desire."5
Although these two studies suggest there could be a range of men who experience problematic low sexual desire, a summary article exploring the prevalence rates of low sexual desire across several studies and countries reported that approximately 14 to 19 percent of men regularly and reliably indicated that they experienced problematically low or decreased sexual desire.3
What Leads to Low Sexual Desire in Men?
Many factors can contribute to men's decreased interest in sex. In my own research, the three most commonly endorsed issues that men described as decreasing their desire was sexual rejection, lack of emotional connection with their partners, and physical ailments or health issues.6 But the men in my study didn't necessarily have problematic or distressing low sexual desire. So what leads to problematic low sexual desire in men?
Men who report problematic or distressing low sexual desire often cite medical and biological reasons, such as certain medications (e.g., some anti-depressants) or the aftermath of a serious medical illness and/or surgery (e.g., prostate cancer). In the study of Norwegian men, the third-most-commonly cited reason for low sexual interest by men was "diseases." And in the American study described above, "health difficulties" was cited as one of the two most commonly reported related issues leading to distressing low desire. Problematic low sexual desire is also regularly found to be an adaptive response to other male sexual dysfunctions, such as erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation.7
But men’s sexual desire is also impacted by social, relational, and other contextual factors, such as parenting and marital or work stress. These stresses can, and do, play a crucial role in decreased sexual interest: In one study, men indicated stress was the most likely reason for their distressing decreased interest in sex, even above health issues and diseases.5
Other factors associated with problematic low sexual desire in men include restrictive attitudes toward sexuality, a lack of erotic thoughts during sexual encounters, concerns about erections, sadness, and shame.8 And there are those who suggest that men’s low sexual desire is actually a mask for some other experiences, such as an attempt to conceal atypical arousal patterns, compulsive masturbation to pornography, repressed issues regarding one's sexual orientation, or a history of sexual trauma.8
How Can We Help Men?
This question has a more complex answer, as it depends on what is determined to cause the problematic low sexual desire in the first place. If there are medical reasons (i.e., medication, physical illness), it is likely best to continue working with a medical professional to have those issues treated and/or managed appropriately.
However, therapists suggest that shame and relational dynamics may ultimately prevent men from opening up and discussing many of the above issues, particularly around sexual abuse, atypical arousal patterns, and compulsive masturbation/pornography use. It is suggested that better communication and supportive partners could potentially reduce the impact of low desire.8
What We Still Don’t Know
Men don't always want to admit that they have less than a high and constant interest in sex, because, unfortunately, there is still a sense that this could make them seem less "manly." As a result, it is difficult to know how many men are actually coming forward and discussing their low sexual desire, and whether their voices are being adequately captured in research or in therapy.
Until there is more social acceptance of sexual desire variation in men, we may never know the true rates of low sexual desire among men or what leads to that decrease. But even with these limitations, it is clear that low sexual desire in men exists, and it may be more common than most people realize.
Sarah Hunter Murray, Ph.D., is a sex researcher and relationship therapist with an expertise in challenging norms and assumptions about men and women’s sexual desire. Follow her on Twitter @SexDoctorSarah or visit SarahHunterMurray.com.
1. Davies, S., Katz, J., & Jackson, J. L. (1999). Sexual desire discrepancies: Effects on sexual and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28, 553-567. doi: 10.1023/A:1018721417683
2. Mark, K. P. & Murray, S. H. (2012). Gender differences in desire discrepancy as a predictor of sexual and relationship satisfaction in a college sample of heterosexual romantic relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 38, 198- 215. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2011.606877
3. Brotto, L. A. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for hypoactive sexual desire disorder in men. Journal of Sex Medicine, 7, 2015-2030. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01860.x
4. Traeen, B., Martinussen, M., Oberg, K. & Kavli, H. (2007). Reduced sexual desire in a random sample of Norwegian couples. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 22, 303- 322. doi: 10.1080/14681990701381203
5. Rosen, R. (2000) Prevalence and risk factors of sexual dysfunction in men and women. Current Psychiatry Reports, 2, 189-195. doi: 10.1007/s11920-996-0006-2
6. Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. 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. Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1168352
7. Carvalho, J. & Nobre, P. (2011). Predictors of men’s sexual desire: The role of psychological, cognitive-emotional, relational, and medical factors. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 254-262. doi: 10.1080/00224491003605475
8. McCarthy, B. & Ginsberg, R. L. (2008). Male hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 11, 29-42. doi: 10.1300/J085v18n04_03