Sexual desire can change from moment to moment. One minute you’re feeling frisky, and the next you just feel like a cup of tea and a nap.
Even though sexual desire is exciting and pretty important in terms of how we ended up here, research on when and why we experience sexual desire is limited.
Our research seeks to shed some light on the nature of sexual desire; how it differs between people and within the same person.
Do men have a stronger sex drive?
Are men hot-blooded, sex-driven creatures that think about sex every seven seconds? Not quite. Men do think about sex more than women (34 times compared to 19 times a day – so about every 1,700 seconds), but men also think about food and sleep more than women. So, men are needs-driven creatures, not sex-driven as such.
It should also be noted that women are far from sexless creatures, and around 20 separate sexual thoughts per day is well over one per waking hour.
Do we desire sex less as we age?
Age is another thing we might think has a big effect on sexual desire. A study of adults aged 18–59 found as we get older we are more prone to sexual dysfunctions. For example, older men are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction and older women are more likely to experience difficulty lubricating, which can lead to vaginismus (pain during sex).
However, ageing is not necessarily associated with a decrease in sexual desire. Two national surveys of Finnish adults aged 18–74 and 18–81 found once a number of other factors were accounted for, including sexual functioning, attitudes towards sex, and relationship closeness, ageing had no effect on sexual desire.
Ageing was, however, related to having sex less often, even after controlling for these factors. So perhaps older people feel just as frisky as they did when they were in their 20s, but, for whatever reason, they are less likely to engage in sex.
Does a high sex drive mean better sex?
Sexual desire, unsurprisingly, is important for our relationship and sexual satisfaction. In one study focusing on couples, they found the more people experienced sexual desire throughout the day, the better their sex lives.
The important point here is that we shouldn’t “switch off” sexually during the day – a healthy fantasy life that boosts our desire outside the bedroom could lead to a better time once the bedroom door is closed and the action begins.
Feeling like sex versus feeling like a nap
When it comes to what factors control sexual desire, hormones are important to consider. For men, as levels of testosterone increase, sexual desire is also likely to rise. For women, however, the effect of testosterone and other hormones on desire is less clear.
There is some evidence women’s sexual desire changes at different stages of their ovulatory cycle. One study found that as levels of testosterone increased (mostly during the time around ovulation: days 12–15), women engaged in more sexual activity.
This association was stronger among women not in a relationship compared to women with a partner. Hence, women’s hormones do appear to play some role in controlling sexual desire, and this effect may be especially strong among single women.
A common belief is that the contraceptive pill diminishes women’s libido. However, a review of existing research found no consistent effect of the pill on women’s libido; most women experienced no change in libido as a result of taking the pill, some experienced a slight increase, and others a slight decrease.
But what about psychological and environmental factors? Does desire change depending on who we’re with? Does it change depending on how we feel about our bodies, or stress, or alcohol consumption? These questions are yet to be tested, so at present, the impact of daily life on sexual arousal remains largely a mystery.