Men, Women, and Sexuality: More Similar Than Different

Esther Perel

The most common misconception about male vs. female sexuality is that men are creatures of nature, while women are creatures of meaning. Biology drives him. Emotions drive her.

But while we say women are so complex, we need to remember that men are not so simple. In my practice, I frequently hear stories from patients that indicate these gender myths make us lose sight of what is actually happening. 

Saddled with these narrow ideas of sexuality, we suffer through unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs. And our relationships pay the price. 
So let's explore some ways that this common script can be turned on its head.

Male Sexuality Can Be Relational -- and Emotional

A major unknown of male sexuality is how relationally-driven it really is. Men hold hidden stories that they often don’t share with anyone. Even themselves. This is as true in sex -- where we expect men to be driven -- as it is in men’s emotional lives. Perhaps even more true in the arena of sex because of the age old concept of what it means to be "a real man." 

Fear of rejection, performance anxiety, guilt, shame, insecurity, and depression -- all these are internal states that greatly influence a man’s feeling about himself and his self-esteem. They seep directly into his sexual self, his desires, and fantasies. And they determine his sense of entitlement and deprivation. This makes male sexuality very emotional.

Male sexuality is about how the man feels about himself in view of the other. This explains why so many men would rather not be with a partner. It is easier to be alone than to feel the pain associated with “measuring up” -- or the anxiety of failing to. 

I often hear men say that nothing turns them on more than to see their partner (male or female) turned on. Women who come into my office rarely express the same sentiment. 

In being turned on by seeing their partners "into it", these men reveal some important features of themselves. They reveal their generosity, their care for the pleasure of their partner. 

I've often found that this pleasure is important to men because it confirms that he is not being predatory. In his partner's blissful face, he knows that he is not hurting, he is pleasing. 

As such, men are dependent on their partners for reaffirmation and proof that they are kind and loving men. It is another way of looking at what the reality is of being a "real man". And it is highly relational. 

Female Sexuality Can Be Narcissistic (in a Good Way) 

In contrast to what I hear from my male patients, many women tell me they’re animated by being the turn on. Her flicker comes from inside, not from the other, and if she is not into it, nothing will happen. 

The unspoken truth about women’s sexuality is how narcissistic it can be -- in the best of ways. The female's ability to focus on herself is the pathway to erotic pleasure. 
By channeling an internal focus, women are freed from their social roles, which often revolve around tending to the needs of others. In that freedom from care and attention to the well-being of others, they are able to find space to experience pleasure.

Female sexuality is widely believed to be rooted in commitment, but that is not always true. If it were, sex would thrive in loving, committed relationships. We know the opposite is often the case - desire flags once commitment sets in. We also know that women lose interest first - after a shorter amount of time, and rather precipitously. 

But If That Is The Myth, Then What Is The Reality? 

The reality is that sexual yearnings of partners are often divergent. 

I can’t tell you how many desperate husbands have shown up in my office with a reluctant wife in tow, telling me that they are tired of the nightly rejections. “She’s obsessed with the kids,” they tell me. “She’s tired every night. No matter how much I try to help out around the house or encourage her to take a break, I can’t get lucky. She’s just not interested in sex anymore.” Often the wives agree, telling me they don’t really care if they never have sex again. 

Couples like this one are in a bind that twists deep below the surface. It’s not that the woman is less interested in sex or the man is always up for it. Rather, the woman is less interested in the sex she can have, while the man is seeking connection through sex with an uninterested partner.

What couples need to understand

  1. For women, lack of sexual interest should not be unequivocally associated with a weaker sex drive. Instead, it helps to acknowledge that female sexual desire is a drive that needs ongoing engagement. It needs to be stoked intensely and imaginatively throughout the years. 
  2. Male desire needs to be looked at through a lens that incorporates relational and emotional factors. Sex is the language through which men have license to ask for love, tenderness, surrender, sensuality, affection and more. Often sex is the only keyhole he has to fulfill these emotional needs. 
  3. For both: sex is never just sex. Even if it is a hit and run. It takes a lot of emotion to make sex emotionless. 
    And for therapists, this conversation is just getting started. 
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