Rarely are researchers’ findings so satisfying. Women may want more sex than their husbands or partners think.
New research by psychologists at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario, published earlier this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that men in long-term relationships often underestimate how often their wives or girlfriends want to be intimate.
The research consists of three studies, following a total of 229 long-term couples, most of whom are heterosexual. (The sample of homosexual couples was too small to be statistically significant, the researchers say.) Participants ranged in age from 18 to 68 years old; the couples had been together six years on average, and they reported they had sex an average of one to two times a week.
In study one, 44 couples kept a diary for three weeks: Partners reported on their own level of sexual desire each day, as well as their perception of their partner’s level of desire and their level of relationship satisfaction.
In study two, 84 couples came into the laboratory once and reported on the general levels of their desire, their perception of their partner’s desire and their happiness in the relationship.
And in study three, 101 couples kept a diary for three weeks, reporting on the same three issues.
They were also asked to report how motivated they were each day to avoid sexual rejection. All three studies showed the same thing: Men consistently underestimated their female partner’s desire, while the women had an accurate read on whether or not their partner was interested in sex.
How much sex is “normal”? Almost 80% of married couples have sex a few times a month or more: 32% report having sex two to three times a week; 47% say they have sex a few times a month, according to “The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States,” a 1994 University of Chicago study considered the most comprehensive in the field.
“The assumption that women are going to be the lower-desire partner needs to be thrown out,” says Kristen Mark, author of the article and director of the sexual health promotion laboratory at the University of Kentucky.
There are a number of reasons why a man might underestimate how much sex his female partner wants, psychologists say. Some women don’t feel comfortable initiating sex. Others give up initiating after their cues are ignored or missed repeatedly. And many just don’t send clear enough signals.
“I will see women in my office who will tell their husband: ‘Remember when I was joking about that sex scene in that movie we saw? Well, I was trying to come onto you,’” says Sari Cooper, a sex and marriage therapist in New York City. “He may need something more overt.”
The problem of women not communicating well about their desire is more complex than couples think, Ms. Cooper says. The woman may not really know what she wants sexually, so she has trouble communicating her wishes or would feel uncomfortable following through with what she asked for.
Or she may know that she is the higher-desire partner and be trying to spare his feelings, so he doesn’t feel pressured or unmanly if he doesn’t want to have sex.