The Hireling Shepherd (1851) by William Holman Hunt. Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images

May 24, 2019   5 mins

Do men have a stronger sex drive than women? The question came up last week because, in one of those quirky moments that modern life provides where you’re not sure if you’re living in a sitcom, the actress Alyssa Milano called on women to start a sex strike in protest to US abortion laws.

It kicked up a great big fuss, because various other women said: wait, hang on, I enjoy sex, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be a thing that I grant to a man like a favour. But it also caused a lot of hilarity, when a bunch of men said things like “women may CLAIM to like sex, but you really don’t”, or “I have yet to meet a hetero woman who enthusiastically participates in sex”. (I’m not going to link: they’ve been piled on enough already.)

As people pointed out, this is what the kids today call a spectacular self-own. “I have yet to meet a hetero woman who enthusiastically participates in sex WITH ME”, they rephrased. Or, alternatively, “People hate food, it’s a known fact! Just ask anyone I’ve ever cooked for.”

It’s obviously true that the “women don’t enjoy sex” guys are wrong: women do enjoy sex. A slightly more interesting question is whether, on average, they want it as much as men do. And the answer, there, is almost certainly no.

The most famous research on the subject is a 2001 meta-analysis by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Catanese, and Kathleen Vohs, combining the results of 150 earlier studies. You can’t measure “sex drive” directly, so the study looked at a wide range of proxy measures. They found that men had more frequent sexual “thoughts, fantasies, and spontaneous arousal” – for instance, one study they looked at reported that “nearly all the men (91%) but only half the women (52%) experienced sexual desire several times a week or more”.

Men’s “desired frequency of sex” was higher, too, throughout the lifetime of a relationship: one study found that “wives consistently reported that they were quite satisfied with the amount of sex they had in their marriages, but men on average wished for about a 50% increase”, another that “a majority of husbands (60%) but only a minority of wives (32%) said they would prefer to have sex more often”.

And men masturbated more frequently. The authors admit that this could be due to social disapproval of female masturbation. But they also argue that male masturbation is discouraged just as much as female – “it’ll make you go blind”, and so on – and point out that boys were more likely to have “discovered it themselves”, meaning it’s not that boys are being “taught” how to do it and girls aren’t. “Anyone who wants to masturbate can probably figure out how to do it,” they say.

Women are more willing to go without sex: notably, female clergy do better at keeping to their vows. Sexual desire emerges earlier in boys than in girls, despite girls usually reaching puberty and physical sexual maturity earlier than boys.

Men initiate sex with their partners around twice or three times as often, and refuse it less often. One experimental study had “a moderately attractive, opposite-sex” person approach men and women and offer sex that evening; 100% of women refused, compared to just 25% of men.

Men are more interested in a wider range of sexual practices. Men sacrificed more for sexual pleasure, whether in financial terms – they spent more on pornography – or in terms of risk – they were more willing to have extramarital sex. In general, men have more “favourable attitudes to sex”, being more permissive regarding casual sex and promiscuous sex. And overall, men are less likely to report low sexual desire and more likely to rate their level of sex drive highly.

And, interestingly, gay men have sex more often than lesbian women: 47% reported having sex more often than once a week, compared to 32% of lesbians.

It’s not just this one study, for the record. The most recent British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) found that 22% of British women aged 16 to 74 had masturbated in the last four weeks, compared to 50% of men; the ratio was consistent across ages. Women were roughly twice as likely to report lack of sexual interest, lack of arousal during sex, or lack of enjoyment during sex. Men were about 30% more likely than women were (61% to 47%) to want sex “much more” or “a bit more” often than they currently get it.

Another, earlier (1993) meta-analysis (by two female researchers) found large gender differences in masturbation practices and attitudes to casual sex. And, fascinatingly, a 1995 study (which was admittedly very small so should be treated with caution) found that when female-to-male transgender people were given androgen hormones as part of their transition, their “sexual arousability” went up; likewise, when male-to-female transgender people were deprived of the same hormones, their sexual arousability went down. (The same effect was seen in levels of aggression and spatial ability performance, while the opposite effect was found in verbal fluency.) This is backed up by anecdotes from trans men, if you want to read about what it feels like.

This isn’t the same as saying that men enjoy sex more than women. I suspect that’s like asking whether alcoholics enjoy a drink more than social drinkers do: “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word.

And, of course, it’s not that all men want sex more than all women. It’s two overlapping bell curves, in the same way that men are usually taller than women, but some women are taller than men.

It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the difference is innate, although the transgender androgen response (if it’s real) sort of hints that it is. There may well be socialisation or cultural effects as well – there is some evidence, for instance, that certain fetishes are affected by how many siblings you have and how old they are. But many of the differences in sex drive are large effects, and most research these days finds that even major events like schooling and parenting have only a modest impact on other aspects of personality, so I would be surprised if socialisation is the only driver.

The thing is, we shouldn’t really be surprised. Men are the ones who commit sexual assaults and rapes, who pay for sex, who visit porn sites, who are found dead wearing stockings and suspenders with an orange in their mouth (deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation are overwhelmingly men).

You can explain this with complex hypotheses about how society is set up, or you can reach for the much simpler explanation, which is that men want sex, on average, more than women do.

And, of course, if it is innate, then that makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, because – as in almost all other sexually reproducing species – females have to invest much more in pregnancy and birth (and, often, childrearing) than males do.

Neither men’s nor women’s sex drives are right or wrong; they just are. And both the “women don’t want or enjoy sex” guys and the “actually women want sex just as much as men” lot are ignoring the evidence. There is wide and overlapping variation in how much women (and men) want sex; it’s just that, in men’s case, this variation is at the higher end of the spectrum.

All this makes Alyssa Milano’s plan rather more understandable. The average woman is more likely to be able to successfully stick to a sex strike (they are more willing to forego sex), and the average man is much more likely to give into it (they are more willing to make sacrifices for sexual pleasure). The Iroquois in 1600 knew this and so did the Kenyan women in 2009. I think it’s a bit of a weird idea – though I would say that, being a man – but you can’t deny the sex strike’s leverage.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.