For most men, libido is a drive that propels them toward lovemaking. But recent studies show that when many women -- perhaps most -- begin sexual encounters, they feel erotically neutral. Then, according to Rosemary Basson, a clinical professor of psychiatry at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, if they enjoy the sex, they experience desire. In other words, for many women, possibly a majority, desire is not the cause of sex, but the result.
The idea that desire follows good sex turns conventional notions of libido upside down. But Basson’s insight can help men and women better understand each other and enjoy greater sexual satisfaction. Here’s how:
Since Viagra, drug companies have been hot to develop drugs that pique desire in women. But if Basson is correct -- and every sexologist I’ve interviewed thinks she is -- then drugs and supplements may be putting the erotic cart before the horse. The question is not “What provokes women’s desire?” The real question is, “What kind of lovemaking allows women to feel relaxed and cherished enough to enjoy sex and eventually experience desire?”
That’s easy. Women need warm-up time. Many sex surveys show that what women say they enjoy most is leisurely, playful, sensual lovemaking based on whole-body mutual massage that eventually (after 30 to 45 minutes) leads to genital caresses. Women’s top erotic complaint is that men are too rushed and too focused on their breasts and genitals, that men are all finished before women have even become interested. Viewed through the lens of Basson’s work, this makes perfect sense. The classic male “wham, bam” style of sex doesn’t allow women the time they really need to feel sufficiently relaxed and valued so they can experience desire.
So, ladies, if you’re “slow” to become aroused, you’re normal. If you like lots of kissing and cuddling and massage before genital sex, you’re normal.
And gentlemen, if you want her to feel turned on, slow down, then slow down even more. Kiss her, hold her close and gently caress every square inch from her scalp to her feet before you touch her breasts or genitals.
After relationships’ initial hot-and-heavy period (six months to a year), desire cools, and one person (usually the man) wants sex more than the other (typically the woman). Desire differences are virtually inevitable in long-term relationships and often become a festering sore. This joke always gets a grim rise out of men: “What’s foreplay to a man married 10 years? An hour of pleading.” Today, desire differences are a leading reason why couples try sex therapy.
Therapy is a good choice. Sex therapists have developed a deceptively simple yet remarkably effective program for resolving desire differences: Negotiate how often you’d like to make love, then pull out your calendars and schedule it in advance.
Of course, this opens a can of worms. Many people have strong feelings about sexual frequency, and many lower-desire folks cringe at scheduling, saying, “What if I’m not in the mood?”
There’s no “normal” sexual frequency, but for the record, the University of Chicago’s landmark “Sex in America” survey showed that from age 20 to 60, most couples make love from twice a week to twice a month, with younger lovers having sex more frequently than those over 40.
As for reluctance to schedule sex, women who feel that way are probably in the large group Basson has identified, those who don’t experience desire until they’re well into good sex. Sex therapists urge lower-desire lovers to temporarily shelve their doubts and try scheduling for a few months. If they don’t like it, they’re free to stop. But typically, initial reluctance yields to a pleasantly surprised admission that scheduling works quite well. It also improves things out of bed. It reduces resentments and contributes to a happier relationship.
Basson’s research focuses only on women. But therapists say that in serious desire differences, one-third of the time, the lower-desire partner is the man. It’s possible that these men are like so many women, not interested until things heat up.
If you have a serious, long-term desire difference, I’d urge you to try a few months of sex therapy. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research or the American Board of Sexology.
Michael Castleman is a San Francisco–based journalist and the author of Great Sex: A Man’s Guide to the Secret Principles of Total-body Sex. He has spent 36 years as a health journalist specializing in sexuality. He now responds to sex questions for many websites, including WebMD.com, Xandria.com and the site he publishes, GreatSexAfter40.com. This is his first contribution to Completely You.
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