The Gender Sex Drive Gap And What To Do About It

Are there innate gender differences which continue to determine our sex drives or is sex drive a social construct that can be changed as societies, cultures, and technologies change?

As with all the nature-nurture debates, the answer is: yes. As in: both. D’uh.

But there is some interesting science involved that you should hear about.

Some background

The two sources of gender differences are studied by evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Buss and Schmitt, 2011) and social constructionists (e.g., Wood and Eagly, 2012).

On the constructionist side, researchers like to show how gender roles have changed historically, often under the influence of new technologies.

For example, the invention of the plow allowed for a greater food surplus which enabled people to have more children. Women who would previously only have a couple kids, now spent most of their adult lives pregnant or nursing, and thus were effectively too busy to be involved in public life. Women became caretakers and homemakers largely because of the invention of agriculture (Alesina et al., 2011).

Another technological invention has reversed this trend: the contraceptive pill. Since the 60s, women can decide to not be pregnant and thus have more time to be active in politics and business. This fuelled second-wave feminism and the drive to revise women’s home-bound role in society (though the feminist reception of the pill was mixed Silies 2014).

Meanwhile, evolutionary psychologists argue that at least some gender differences, especially those related to mate-seeking and selection, follow from the different adaptive challenges prehistoric men and women faced.

For example, as men have a higher reproductive rate, we evolved to compete for acquiring mates, which likely contributed to our larger propensity for aggression and risk-taking, and gave us bigger muscles (Archer, 2009).

That’s why love our children, too: as women are more vulnerable especially during and after pregnancy, they tend to select more protective and high-investment males (Puts, 2010; this is true even in pre-agricultural societies where women generally do as much providing as men — Marlowe, 2003).

A lot of this research has been picked up in the popular discourse. What is rarely picked up, is nuance. If you only know about them second-hand, you’d be excused to think that the evolutionary and social-constructionist accounts are mutually exclusive and the people who propose them regularly jump at each others’ throats.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Few modern evolutionary psychologists deny that social changes impact our expression of gender, nor do constructionists deny the role of our genes. For the most part, they just focus on their bit, acknowledging that it’s not the whole story.

As with all nature-nurture debates, the answer is: everything matters.


But let’s get to the part everybody wants to read:

Who wants more sex and why is it men?

A large meta-analysis of 150 studies has found that men have a higher sex drive on every possible measure (Baumeister et. al. 2001, quoted below), later confirmed by an updated meta-analysis of 211 studies (Frankenbach et. al. 2022).

Trigger warning — to most guys, the following will read like a litany of despair:

  • men think about sex more often, report more frequent arousal, and have more frequent and variable fantasies (p.246).
  • men want sex more often than women. This appears to be true in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships and at all ages and relationship stages (p.247).
  • Men do appear much more motivated to have a high number of sex partners than women (p.251).
  • Men masturbate more frequently than women (p.255).
  • women find it easier than men to live without sexual gratification (p.256).
  • sexual interest appears very soon after puberty for males, whereas sexual interest is relatively slow to awaken in females (p.256).
  • Women initiate sex less often than men (p.257).
  • Fewer sexual practices appeal to women than men (p.257).
  • men spend a great deal more money on sexual products [and services] than women […] Even in societies where there have certainly been enough rich women to be able to pay for sex (p.258).
  • women are more critical of promiscuity, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and various other sexual activities (p.259).
  • women are more likely than men to report a serious or pathological lack of sexual desire, and couples have more conflicts and problems because of a female than a male lack of sexual desire (p.261).
  • men report higher levels of sexual interest than women, regardless of age (p.261).

Naturally, all of this is statistics expressing general trends:

Most researchers would label the sex drive difference as “moderate to large.” […] about three-quarters of men will have a somewhat stronger sex drive than the average sex drive among women. But […] although a gender difference is clearly observable, there is still much variation between men and women. (Friese 2023)

Still, if you’re like me, you probably started crying halfway through that list:


Why is it like this?!

Sure, there are many evolutionary explanations. Men can have more offspring more easily, so wanting more short-term flings is adaptive (Buss and Schmitt, 1993). The cost of pregnancy is non-existent for us, so we don’t need to be picky about our partners (Trivers 1996). And so on — you know all that.

But there is good evidence that prehistoric women did actually want sex as much or more than men. For one, female orgasm isn’t followed by a refractory period — women have literally evolved to be able to have way more sex than men.

Moreover, women are much more likely than men to engage in ‘sexual vocalization’ (scientists are too prudish to just say ‘moaning and screaming’). Why? Well, naturally to signal what’s going on to everyone around! And why are men aroused by that? So that they can quickly get ready to find the woman and offer her more sex, of course (Prokop 2021). Many non-human primates still do that, by the way (Clay et. al. 2011).

If you need more, go research why human penises are mushroom-shaped. Here’s a handy summary.

Or better — go read Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, but be prepared to be very surprised by a great deal of evidence to support the claim that before the invention of agriculture, gender differences in sex drive were pretty much non-existent.

So what has changed? Did evolution take a turn, or are socio-cultural factors responsible? Again: yes. As in, both.

It’s not great, guys

There are two scientific findings I want to share with you here and I warn you, both will make you go: ‘Oh shit…’

But first, let’s get one thing straight

I don’t care what you think about gender equality in the modern day. You might think we are far from achieving it and men continue to have a great deal of unearned priviledge. You may think that equality has been achieved long ago and modern feminism is about establishing female supremacy. Or you can be anywhere in between.

But whatever you think about what’s going on now, you probably won’t deny that for centuries and millennia past, men have been the dominant force in the world. Past men had the power to determine what the political, economic and social life would look like. They wrote texts which defined what is right and wrong. They led religions which dictated people’s roles in society at all levels. They were in charge of their families. And if women had a problem with any of that, men could simply — and legally — make them comply through law, social pressure, or brute force.

None of us today is personally responsible for any of that, of course. But it’s just a fact. That’s what it has been like pretty much since the invention of agriculture until quite recently.

OK, with this out of the way, let’s get to the two scientific findings.

1. Sexual fluidity

Women’s sexual preferences have been shown to be significantly more malleable than men’s.

This goes as deep as sexual orientation. While guys generally know whether they’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between, women are much more likely to fluctuate (Diamond 2008). Similarly, women are more likely to have their sex drives impacted by social expectations and flexibly adjusting to the environments they’re in (Evensen 2020).

What does that mean? Let’s say you take a group of men and a group of women and place them in an environment in which sex is viewed as something dirty to be ashamed of and tie it with a social expectation to abstain. Say, in most of Western Christian history.

Such an environment will impact women’s natural sex drive to a greater extent than men’s. Guys will hear all the moralising but at the end of the day, the body wants what it wants. Women will be statistically more likely to internalise and adopt it.

Now, top this up by introducing power imbalances such that for men sex is culturally associated with winning something, conquest, power and taking what we want, while for women it’s associated with losing something, being conquered, overpowered and very often forced to do it against her will, often in a way that’s painful. Add the fact that men are praised for their sexual conquests but women are slut-shamed for theirs. And don’t forget porn — most people’s main sexual education. It represents men as getting what they want from the most beautiful women, but women as submissive to and degraded by often rather basic-looking men.

Sounds like a recipe for a cultural setting that is bound to destroy the sex drive in women? Frankly, it’s a miracle that they have any left. How strong it must have been to survive all that!

2. Hereditary sexuality

I warn you, it gets worse. That was part of the nurture side, if you wish, now let’s turn to nature.

Did you know that interest in casual sex — or sociosexuality, as the scientists call it — is more hereditable among females than among males (0.43 vs. 0.26; Bailey et al., 2000)? In other words, the likelihood of wanting to sleep around is more influenced by genetic factors in women.

Now think about all those centuries of putting female chastity, virginity and purity on the pedestal. Of preferentially marrying chaste and demure virgins who wouldn’t have too much of this hysterical need for their own sexual satisfaction, and certainly wouldn’t even think about premarital sex or cuckolding their husbands. Of those women’s children having preferential treatment. Of unchaste women being sent to convents or left without life opportunities, or burned at a stake as witches — yes, we used to literally burn women alive for liking sex too much! Meanwhile, their bastard children awaited a life uphill — if they didn’t die in infancy.

According to the quoted research, the sons of the select chaste women won’t be that likely to inherit their low interest in sex. But the daughters will. Generation after generation.

Let that sink in for a moment.

We have literally spent centuries breeding sex drive out of women.

Thankfully, we didn’t succeed, but we damn well tried.

Who is ‘we’?

Well, here’s the hard truth, guys. All the sacred texts which founded the ethics of chastity were written by men. All the legal codes which determined women’s place in the family and society, as well as that women should be punished for cheating but not men, were also written by men. Until this day, most porn is made by men for men, and it is overwhelmingly men who slut-shame women, not the other way around.

And what do we call a system of power in which it’s men who call the shots?

Exactly. If you ever needed proof that the patriarchy screws men over, too, look no further.

Moving forward

I have written all of this from a very male perspective, but naturally, this isn’t primarily about men. Women want to enjoy sex for their own sake! And they certainly don’t want to have their lives and sexualities curtailed by what some old farts determined as ‘proper.’

On this one, our interests are really pretty well aligned.

The first thing men can do to reduce the sex drive difference and help women reconnect with their sexualities is to just let them. Sex is fun, they already want it! Just don’t make it harder.

It’s really easy because all you need to do is nothing. Don’t slut-shame. Don’t catcall or do other things that make sexuality feel oppressive and sleazy. Don’t abuse, manipulate, or otherwise make sex feel dangerous.

But then, there is so much we can do! Instead of making sex feel shameful, oppressive and dangerous, we can make it feel safe, empowering and joyful. That takes some work, though.

Uphold a culture of acceptance for people’s sexualities, whatever they are. Applaud your friends for their sexual adventures. Defend them from abuse and harassment. Educate yourself about consent and genuinely respect women to make them feel safe. Ask your lovers what they like and do it as well as you can. Invite them to state their boundaries so they may know you will be mindful of them. Be patient if things don’t quite go as you want them to.

Most guys won’t do any of this. Most guys don’t see the big picture. Most guys just do what they want at the moment without thinking that they are actually shooting themselves — and everyone else! — in the foot. Most guys just perpetuate the system and are a part of the problem.

Don’t be a part of the problem.

Be a part of the solution.

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