A few nights ago, I met up with a guy in New Orleans who had read some of my articles, chatted me up online, and wanted to put a few questions to me to help improve his dating life. There were so many good things to take away from that meet up (I love meeting with fans, stalkers, weirdos and new people!) but most of them were private, so I’ll keep them between us. One of the questions he gave me permission to talk about though was how to initiate sex with a woman, which was a real issue for him. He said he felt like a date could go really well, and he would ever get invited up to her apartment, but when it came time to change gears, he choked.
In that moment, I wanted to respect her and make sure she was okay with everything that was happening, but… I don’t know! It’s only when I leave that I recognize what happened. In the moment, I got lost in my head. Is she into it? Does she want this? Is she sure? Am I? And then the moment is gone and I feel like I missed it. I just missed it.
When it comes to sex, it’s been my experience and it’s been the experience of the overwhelming majority of men I know personally that “good guys finish last.” Woke bros who know that they need to respect women and check in with her before pressuring her into a situation that makes her uncomfortable. But, despite their best intentions, these same men are amazed when women walk off with a “bad boy” who disrespects them, mistreats them, and, in some cases, abuses them. They did the right thing and she still chose the bad boy. What gives?
So here’s the questions he originally put to me: How do good guys know when a woman is turned on? What are the cues? How does he know when she’s ready for him to take the lead, close the deal, and hope in bed?
First off, there is a huge gap in how men understand women. Before a committed relationship, men assume women want to have sex all the time. Once they are in a relationship, men assume women do not want to have sex with them at all. We’ll address that gap momentarily, but first, women often drop hints about when it’s okay to proceed, especially when you are seeing each other regularly and have established a relationship.
Her Undergarments are Getting Sexier – If she’s suddenly gone from wearing cotton briefs and old t-shirts around you to lacy little numbers, she’s definitely trying to get your attention.
She’s Flirting More – Remember when the relationship was new and she was always flirting with you? Things eventually cooled off into a more natural rhythm, but suddenly she’s back to a more hardcore flirting game.
She Sleeps Naked – When she’s suddenly sleeping naked (or almost naked) a lot with no other possible cause like health or temperature, there’s not a sign that’s easier to recognize.
She’s a Little More Hands-on – Sure, she may love a good cuddle, but lately she’s got her hands all over you like all the time. This is a clear sign she’s hoping to get a reaction out of you.
She Talks More About Sex – It’s no big secret that women love to talk. If her conversation has recently changed to a roll between the sheets every chance she gets, she’s probably telling you she wants more.
She Keeps Getting You Alone – This might just be a request for one-on-one time, so read this sign carefully. If it’s coupled with any of the others, then it’s DEFINITELY a sign she’s asking for more.
She Tells You – This is when she tells you she simply wants sex. There’s really no other way to read that. She wants more sex. Why are you even reading this right now?
The basic assumption in all of these is that, of course, women want to have sex and for a variety of reasons this comes as shock to some men.
A 2016 study by Muise, Stanton, Kim, and Impett, published in the May 2016 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, asserts
Men’s sexual overperception bias—where men tend to perceive greater sexual interest in women’s behavior than actually exists—is a well-documented finding in previous research. All of the existing research, however, has tested this effect in the context of initial encounters or for fictitious or unknown targets. No research currently exists on how people perceive their romantic partner’s sexual desire in the context of ongoing, intimate relationships.
In 3 dyadic studies, we provide evidence that men in established romantic relationships err in the direction of the opposite bias and underperceive their romantic partner’s sexual desire.
We also demonstrate that this underperception bias is functional (particularly for men) in that it is associated with their partner feeling more satisfied and committed to the relationship. In addition, people are particularly likely to underperceive their partner’s desire on days when they are motivated to avoid sexual rejection, and men’s underperception bias is, in part, accounted for by men’s higher general levels of sexual desire than women. The current studies extend previous findings on sexual perceptual biases and demonstrate the important role of context in men’s judgments of a partner’s sexual interest.
In plain language, women want to have sex but male partners overestimate how often when they first get together, then dramatically underestimate how often when the partnership becomes more serious.
Is it fair to say maybe men aren’t entirely off base? Okay, sure, their accuracy is a bit off the mark but there might be a reason why so many men are reading signals wrong. We could chalk it up to a hundred things. Maybe once that initial interest gives way to learning about each other, sex isn’t the primary reason to get together. Maybe they become more comfortable with each other and can say, “Hey, no, that burger made me gassy. Raincheck?”
Whatever the reason, the study says there is nothing medically or psychologically wrong with Men In Relationships. There’s not a timetable where men, at week 10, en masse, begin to read the signals wrong. It’s more likely that something happens in the relationship; an established pattern is discontinued for some reason or, say, a lull occurs as the partner bond begins to solidify, plateau, stabilize, or level off. Call it what you will. Attribute it to whatever you like. But the study confirms some things everyone who has been in a relationship with the opposite sex is aware of – mismatched libidos, miscommunication, and misunderstanding.
This is actually a pretty complicated bullet point because there are all kinds of reasons why two sexually active individuals get off their groove. Diet, psychological health, work related stress, partner related stress, the list goes on. This is kind of a catch-all for biological, psychological, or physical reasons why two otherwise healthy individuals are not making themselves sexually available to one another – but not necessarily relational, which is where miscommunication and misunderstanding are at play. When it comes to mismatched libidos, there are solid areas of concern. Diet, biological, psychological, and physical reasons for either an excessive sex drive or the absence of same are issues you need to talk about and have checked out by doctors. It could also mean of you is sexually averse, which is not uncommon, but I’ll have to save those insights for another article. The fact remains that the partners experience tension or friction because at least one of them wants it either more or less than the other partner would prefer. Instead of it being a relational issue, there could be a treatable reason that exists.
Like the friend I met in New Orleans, the partners can have a mutual desire to engage in sex but miss each others signals. I once had a girlfriend, mid-makeout session, get very frustrated with me because she wanted to have sex and wanted to know why I “never got the hint.” Oh, I got the hint. Just not the right hint. I thought her enthusiasm during foreplay was because she enjoyed kissing. I entirely – and I mean completely – missed her signals.
What I’ve learned since then is that this happens pretty frequently. One friend practically calls me every time it happens, and I know what we’re going to talk about before I pick up the phone. I recently told her I would need to either start charging for our “sessions” together, or she would have to begin putting me on speakerphone with her dates so we could begin establishing a pattern with the men she was dating.
Funny as that may sound, it really does happen a lot. Especially when partners first start becoming intimate and getting on the same page with each other, learning each other’s bodies and the cues that go along with them. You’re not alone, so consider having a conversation with your partner about it. Check in, share what you feel is important for them to know, and listen to what they share with you. There are all kinds of ways to communicate, so make time to make it clear what you intend and to hear what they are sharing with you as well.
If miscommunication is what you (think you) said, then misunderstanding would be what you (think you) heard. This is not limited to the partners, but could be a combination of cultural or social narratives. For example, I remember being told in a Sexual Education class that “girls are just biologically wired to not want sex.” That was a lie, and one that persisted for a number of years before I put two and two together. All of my female friends talked about wanting to have sex. The women I dated talked openly about wanting sex. Most magazine geared towards women talked about women wanting sex. My own mother talked about wanting to have sex. Maybe like me, you were told something about “all guys” or “all girls” or a benign statement about “the way things are” and the misunderstanding has persisted for some time.
We also might misunderstand our partner. One of my first sexual partners said that sex hurt her, so for next few weeks I scaled back all sexual overtures. One day, over lunch, she confronted me on it and we started talking about what was going on. She laughed, “I meant the position we were in, not having sex, you dope!”
I’m a big advocate for talking about sex. Obviously. I write about it all the time, I talk about it all the time, and people call or write to ask me questions about sex almost every day – and I encourage that! Still, while talking about sex is amazing and fun, what is important is that you talk about sex with the person or people you are having sex. Sex is not like politics or celebrities, where you talk about something. Sex is not a celebrity. It’s not a “topic.” Sex is something you do. You have sex. You have a sexuality. You are a sexual person. So talking about sex is really a big part of having mutually satisfying sex. You shouldn’t talk about it at a distance, and if you are with someone who does, go ahead and pull that conversation closer. Personalize it. Make it specific. Strange as this may sound, I feel like talking about sex with my parents as an adult helped change the natures of our respective relationships. Seeing each other as individuals who had and enjoyed sex significantly benefited our friendships with each other.
Circling back to this thing I heard a long time ago about women not wanting sex… umm… Yeah, that’s not only a lie. It’s a pretty stupid lie at that. Of course women enjoy sex. Sure, not all women. Then again, not all men. And while we can account for reasons why each of us are, at times, sexually averse, this misconception about women’s sexuality is steadily being challenged. In an interview for Salon, Daniel Berger, author of What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire talks about how, historically, women’s sexuality has been suppressed because, far from being quiet and occasional, the sexuality of women is “base, animalistic, and ravenous.”
What are the main bits of wisdom about female sexuality that you took away from writing this book?
Well, I guess the first thing to say is how struck I was by the distance between reality and the fable that we’ve been taught most recently by evolutionary psychology, that is, that men are driven to spread their seed and women, by comparison, are more driven to find one good provider, and that, therefore, while men are very poorly suited to monogamy, women are much better suited to monogamy. But that just really doesn’t stand up when you look at the science. The science behind that is flimsy, circular. And the science, when you look at it clearly, that stands in opposition to that is actually fairly strong — still emergent, but fairly strong. And so, that was the first thing that was so striking to me.
You point out some remarkable ways that scientists have ignored evidence suggesting that women — and female animals — are far from passive when it comes to sex and are in fact often initiators. Do you have a favorite example of this?
I really do. Deidrah, a rhesus monkey, a member of the species that we sent into space in the ’60s as our doubles, to see how well we would survive, is one of my favorite characters in the book. I went down and spent a while at a primatology center with a scientist who was trying to take the blinders off the way we see the sexuality of our closest ancestors. And what I learned was that for decades, despite evidence to the contrary, scientists had painted primate sex as male dominated. Males are the initiators; females the sort of almost indifferent receivers.
But standing next to this scientist Kim Wallen, it was clear that that was not at all true — almost comically so. We spent a day following Deidrah, a relatively tranquil, low-key female monkey, who was nevertheless relentlessly stalking — sexually stalking — her object of desire. If there’s any objectification going on in the monkey kingdom, it’s the females objectifying the males, chasing them, and sort of all but forcing them. It wasn’t just Deidrah, of course — it was all the female monkeys that we were following, and it was just alarming how we could be so sure of this other reality, and blind to the truth that was just staring us right in the face. So that was one example of our blindness to female sexuality and, ultimately I think, our fear of it.
Quickly, back to women for a second, a quick example, if we can get a little graphic for a sec, about understanding the size and reach of the clitoris. We’ve been doing dissections of bodies for centuries, pretty effectively, but it wasn’t until very recently that there was any acknowledgment of extensions right underneath the surface of the skin — very rich in nerves, very primed for pleasure, reachable there through the vaginal walls — that rival the size of the penis; probably are greater than the size of the penis. One of the scientists, who was really influential in calling attention to the size, put it this way: the reason we’ve ignored this is because we’ve managed to convince ourselves that one gender is all about reproduction and the other is all about sex. That is, women are all about reproduction and men are all about sex. Again, a complete distortion.
At one point in the book, researcher Marta Meana shows you a pair of joke control panels — one with an on-off switch, the other with tons of knobs. These were meant to represent male and female desire. Is female sexuality really that much more complicated that male sexuality?
I’m glad you framed it that way, because sometimes I think back to that moment and wonder if the answer isn’t, no, it’s not that much more complicated —biologically, innately. I think it’s important to make that distinction, because the force of culture can create all kinds of complications. Of course it does for all of us, men and women.
But I do wonder whether that metaphor has much more to do with the force of culture and if, fundamentally, female desire might be quite straightforward.
Then again, and there’s always a “then again” — probably because I spend so much time thinking about this, but also because we’re human beings and there are lot of “then agains” — I think that most of the researchers I spent time with would caution against sort of the direction of the question you just asked and the direction of what I just said, and say, “Well, wait.” There might be an element of truth in sort of seeing the straightforwardness underneath it all, but there’s also a tremendous subjective quality to the way we live and experience things.
Some of the evidence suggesting that female sexuality is stronger than is typically suggested is based on plethysmograph (a tool used to measure vaginal blood-flow and lubrication) studies showing that women become physically aroused to a much wider array of visual stimuli than men (even as they subjectively report a much smaller range of arousal). But what of the hypothesis presented by researcher Meredith Chivers, that vaginal lubrication might not be a reliable measure of female desire, that it is a separate system, an evolutionary adaptation, meant to protect females from sexual violence and bodily harm? If this proved to be true, what would it mean for all these plethysmograph studies?
Now you’re at the most complicated part of this whole field, I think. So, let me pause and try to be coherent. OK, so, if that were true — underline if –that were true, that is, if there really are two separate sexual systems, one represented by these physical responses and the other represented by the very subjective sense of desiring, then [these plethysmograph discoveries] would be less relevant to understanding desire. But, I think that both Meredith and I have started to wrestle with a simpler interpretation: that the physical responses, registered in the plethysmography, really might well be a measure of being turned on, being in a state of desire. So, with the range of things that she’s exposed women to in the lab — that would be straight women watching two women together, two men together, men and women, and of course, famously, two monkeys having sex — both straight and gay women have consistently responded very powerfully and immediately, physically, to all these kinds of images. And I think, in Meredith’s mind, that really does represent something about desire.
On the subject of rape and sexual assault, and the fact that, also in the lab, women are responding generally to scenarios of sexual assault. Here’s where we get into a really tricky space, so I hope you have space for this when we’re talking about desire. No one, no one, no one — not Meredith, not Marta Meana, and not me — is in any way retracting “no means no.” That’s number one. Number two is, there are different levels of desire and of fantasy, and you know, fantasy and sexual assault in one form or another are pretty common, but does that mean that any of us want to go out and be sexually assaulted? No, it doesn’t. The realm of arousal and the realm of fantasy can tell us something about ourselves psychologically without indicating that we really want to experience that thing, far from it.
Since we’re on the topic of rape fantasies, can we talk about why they are so common among women?
I mean here, again, I want to be careful because, number one, I’m a man. You know I’ve listened a lot at this point and asked a lot of relentless questions, but my answer is going to be inherently a fallible one.
The force of culture puts some level of shame on women’s sexuality and a fantasy of sexual assault is a fantasy that allows for sex that is completely free of blame. So that’s one reason. Another, which Meana brings up, and which I think is very compelling, is this idea that the feeling of being desired is a very powerful one, a very electrical one. And I think at least at the fantasy level, that sense of being wanted, and being wanted beyond the man’s self-control is also really powerful.
That brings up another theory, which is that there’s something “narcissistic” about women’s desire. Can you explain the thinking behind that idea?
Yes, it’s important to underline here that I don’t think Marta Meana, who first introduced that to the conversation, meant narcissistic in a condemnatory or critical way at all, just in a descriptive way that a really powerful engine for female desires is being desired, is being wanted. It’s both — it is a powerful feeling, I think, to have that level of desire coming at you, and an electrifying one.
Is this narcissistic desire innate or is it a cultural byproduct?
I think that was one of the things I wrestled with most in the book, and I can still visibly remember wrestling with it as I was turning in final chapters. I kept thinking back to Deidrah, our monkey, and thinking, OK, that is not a sexuality that seems to depend on being desired. She has a desire; she is going out and getting what she desires. I can’t describe to you how clear that drama was as we watched it. If you’re talking about innate patterns of sexuality, how do you get from that to us? One of the answers is that the force of culture has, to some degree, inverted things. And, you know, maybe that’s the only wise answer, if you want to talk about innate factors.
Culturally, I think there’s all kinds of other ways to look at it. We’ve very strongly eroticized women’s bodies and, of course, women are going to feel that as well as men. And then all the other forces that have, not only allowed, but encouraged men to be the aggressors in all kinds of ways, and constructed femininity around the very opposite kind of characteristics are going to play into this. Then there’s Freud — and no one likes to talk about Freud, he is problematic, but he’s also awfully wise in some ways. He and his protégé Melanie Klein, who eventually sort of split off from Freud in some ways, write about the intensity of an incest relationship with the mother’s breasts, and how much power that breast has, how much erotic power that begins to set up in our psyches. We don’t want to think about the culture; we’re very squeamish thinking about childhood sexuality. But of course to talk about the psychological loops and things, I think we better think about that, and so both Freud, but even more so Melanie Klein, emphasized the influence of the breast on the way our sexuality forms, and so it makes sense to me that, not only men, but women, would still be feeling that erotic influence as adults, both directly, as an attraction to other female bodies but also in wanting to have that power that the mother’s breasts once had. So, being desired with that intensity, puts women back in that sort of omnipotent place that their mothers once had for them as infants.
You write that one of your researchers views monogamy as a “cultural cage” that distorts women’s libido. Is monogamy more suited for men than women?
Certainly, women are no better suited for monogamy than men are. That, I think, is clear. It seems possible, if you look at some of the data, that women are even less well-suited for monogamy than men. It’s important to distinguish between the sexual level of desire, and what we choose in our relationships for all kinds of reasons. But on a sexual level, women are even less suited to monogamy.
Partly, I do think that, ironically, has to do with the force of culture. Now that would take us to a really complex part of neuroscience that maybe is best left for another time. I do think that men who’ve been blessed to happily think that it’s only they who are having trouble with monogamy, and that their wives or long-committed girlfriends are more or less just fine with it, they may have a lot to worry about.
It did strike me while reading the book that some parts might be fairly alarming for male heterosexual readers.
I think maybe it should be. I just had two funny conversations—one with a male writer, a friend of mine, who said that reading the book had inspired deep concern, and another from an editor who said that it had scared the bejesus out of him. [Laughter] I laugh, but I think that maybe it should, and I hope that it at least lets us look past the blinders that we’ve had on.
This is the question you’re probably most resistant to answering, but are there any lessons in your research for couples attempting long-term monogamous partnerships?
It’s nice of you to acknowledge that I might be resistant to the self-help approach. That said, two things. I think there’s real wisdom in what I discuss in the book, which is finding ways to, not only acknowledge, but reinstall the kind of distance in relationships. Our culture has somehow absorbed, or idealized, the merging, the “you complete me” line from “Jerry Maguire.” The idea of unconditional love within couples. And I think we’ve probably way overdone that.
The simple thing is, I sometimes think we have to be a little braver about just caring more. Caring, and being open about caring about sex, with one’s long-term partner sounds like it should be easy, but I think often it’s not because you can fail and you can feel hurt. And so I do think that candor and caring are important and then signing up to welcome distance back into relationships might well be the root to maintaining passion.
To understand why women, and all humans, desire sex is not difficult. All humans enjoy pleasurable experiences. The strange thing is that this narrative that women are averse to sex continues. Humans may experience sex differently, we might say “in gendered ways” or in visible, physical ways, but human sexual response occurs in predictable ways. Attachment bonding happens between partners during climax when the brain releases oxytocin (fittingly called the “love hormone”); a neurochemical capable of relieving pain, decreasing stress, and fostering feelings of closeness. It can also cause someone to confuse sex with love.
As a former student of Victorian Literature, the emphasis on “love” in novels and social literature is rampant and conditioned much of the conversation around sexual expression until the studies of Alfred Kinsey, William H. Masters, Virginia E. Johnson, and many other key figures in sexological studies. After their work began to circulate, American culture began to reconsider their definitions of “love,” particularly when expressed by a woman. Is it possible, a generation wondered, that when women speak of love, that they mean sex? While sex and love are different experiences, we are still unpacking that question and reconsidering long-held assumptions about whether women desire “love” instead of sex. While the two may be different experiences, there is no reason to continue thinking that women want love instead of sex. Instead, for most women, the capacity for sexual desire outpaces men by strides. Women not only want sex but are uniquely equipped to have sex more often, for longer periods, and with more partners.
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- The Truth About Female Desire: It’s Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous, by Tracy Clark-Flory
- Let’s Get It On by Dana Dovey
- Women Are More Interested in Sex Than You Think, by Elizabeth Bernstein