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The Psychology of Sex

Glenn Wilson on Disorders of Desire

The high proportion of women declaring a lack of interest in sex has resulted in a fashionable new complaint to which sex therapists have recently devoted much attention (Kaplan, 1979). A few decades ago a woman who manifested sexual inclinations like those of the average man would have been deemed pathological by psychiatrists and diagnosed as suffering from ‘nymphomania.’ Today the woman who shows sexual inclinations much like those of the typical woman runs the risk of being diagnosed as suffering from ‘inhibited sexual desire.’ It seems that the medical fraternity, like society at large, is never entirely comfortable with the range of libidos displayed by the female sex. In Victorian times women were expected to behave like ladies; today it seems they are often expected to behave like men.

The term ‘inhibited sexual desire’ has built into it a theoretical assumption that the women it describes have a high libido that has been suppressed by some external, social or environmental force. As with the Masters and Johnson approach to orgasm difficulty, the presumption is that unhealthy attitudes, strict upbringing, religious devoutness, learned anxiety, or some other encumbrance, is responsible for the difficulty. But an alternative possibility is that the desire was never really there in the first place.

Numerous surveys have indicated that a high proportion of women are fairly indifferent to sex for long periods of their life. Studies in which men and women are asked to rank their pleasures in order of enjoyment show repeatedly that whereas sex is the favourite for most men, many women prefer knitting, gardening and watching television. Recently I led some group discussions among ordinary British women about their attitudes towards sex. I was amazed how frequently expressions like ‘My husband’s very good – he doesn’t bother me too often these days’ cropped up. Other women would proudly describe the tactics they used to avoid sex with husbands and boyfriends – pretending to be asleep, feigning headaches, etc.

As with orgasm difficulty and premature ejaculation, lack of desire for sex appears as a major problem because average male and female arousal patterns are poorly synchronized. Typical male sexuality includes ready arousal to a wide variety of stimuli, starting from visual stimuli alone. Men may become sexually aroused just by looking at women, whereas most women need something more than this – usually the addition of olfactory and tactile cues (not to mention favourable emotional circumstances).

To the evolutionary theorist the reason is obvious. While it is advantageous for men to be easily turned on by the mere sight of a nude woman, since this serves gene proliferation, quick arousal is disadvantageous for women because it interferes with their strategy of careful mate appraisal. Inhibited sexual desire is therefore, like orgasm difficulty, better regarded as a normal rather than a pathological condition.

Since lack of desire occurs as a result of a male-female discrepancy in sexual inclination, we might ask why sex therapists define it more as a female problem than male. After all, if the male partner was equally uninterested in sex there would be no problem, so it is really as much his ‘fault’ as hers. Perhaps the reason is that libido cannot easily be reduced except by chemical or surgical means, whereas an interest in sex can be developed by the use or erotica, fantasy, role-playing, subtle foreplay and other forms of psychological stimulation (Gillan and Gillan, 1976). Thus the female partner is more usually seen as a suitable case for treatment than the man.

There is of course one ‘disorder of desire’ that affects men more strikingly than women – the boredom that arises from repetitive sex with the same partner. (Recall the discussion of the ‘Coolidge Effect’ in Chapter 2.) The need for periodic recharging of libido by novel females that is seen in most mammals is another manifestation of the male’s reproductively optimal ‘promiscuity strategy.’ This presents a problem, for men especially, over the course of a long marriage and is responsible for a great deal of adultery. Progressive ‘contempt due to familiarity’ (at least as regard sexual excitement) is an almost inevitable outcome of sexually exclusive marriage. As noted earlier, it is not unusual for sex therapists to see men who are unable to achieve erection with their wives but perfectly capable of stud-like prowess with their new secretary. Again, what is observed is not a disease but a normal biological phenomenon based on natural sex differences, and realistic solutions must therefore be sought.

Despite the recent women’s movement, sex remains much less of a preoccupation, and much less rewarding as an experience, to women than to men. While it would be nice to hope that this state of affairs could be altered by a revision of sex-role attitudes, socio-biology gives little cause for optimism. The sort of problems that men and women experience in their sex lives seem to be more a part of their basic nature than the particular social climate in which they are raised. It seems inevitable that women will continue to have problems based on lack of desire, discomfort during sex and difficulty in achieving orgasm. Men will continue to have problems with being aroused by inappropriate and unacceptable stimuli (ranging from rubber garments to the neighbour’s daughter) and in maintaining romantic attention and physical stimulation long enough to satisfy their legitimate partners. The belief expressed by Griffitt and Hatfield (1985) that ‘the momentum of contemporary cultural change might be expected to erase (or perhaps reverse) current male-female sexual response differences in the relatively near future’ is not just over-optimistic, it is totally forlorn.

Glenn Wilson, The Great Sex Divide, pp. 92-95. Peter Owen (London) 1989; Scott-Townsend (Washington D.C.) 1992.

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