Gender differences in sex drive seem to be an ever-inspiring topic of party conversations. Although sometimes passionately debated, many people seem convinced of their nature. "You really needed science to discover that men have a stronger sex drive than women?" "Another study showing the obvious." Reactions like these were not uncommon in response to our recent large summary of research on gender differences in sex drive. These people were right. Already more than 20 years ago, a review showed that in whatever way the authors looked at the issue, the data suggested a stronger sex drive in men compared to women.

In our work, we tried to go beyond this insight: How much stronger is men's sex drive compared to women's, on average? Are there factors that go along with a bigger or smaller difference? And, importantly, is this gender difference genuine or rather driven by women's and men's response tendencies when answering a survey that may obscure their true characteristics?

Before we could examine these questions, we needed to do some groundwork: What is sex drive to begin with, and what are legitimate indicators of sex drive? Trait sex drive is a person's intrinsic sexual motivation—the driving force to obtain sexual experiences and pleasure. Traits are commonly understood as individual differences in consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. People high in trait sex drive think about sex more often, desire sex more often, and are sexually active more often compared to people lower in trait sex drive. In our review, we looked at all three facets of sex drive. Concerning the sexual behavior facet, we focused on masturbation. Sexual behavior with another person happens for many reasons other than a person's sex drive, and, importantly, questions about that are unlikely to reveal notable gender differences at all. We harnessed this insight in our work and will come back to it shortly.

How Much Stronger is Men's Sex Drive?

The "how big" question can be looked at in comparison with other known gender differences. The difference we documented is in a similar range as the gender difference in weight for U.S. adults, but less than half the size of the gender difference in height for U.S. adults. Most researchers would label the sex drive difference as "moderate to large." Looked at another way, our results mean that about three-quarters of men will have a somewhat stronger sex drive than the average sex drive among women. But our data also indicate that when a woman with an unknown sex drive walks down the street, her sex drive will on average exceed that of every third man she encounters. Thus, although a gender difference is clearly observable, there is still much variation between men and women.

The gender difference we found was remarkably consistent across the three facets of sex drive—sexual thoughts and fantasies, desires, and behavior—and also different kinds of studies. The difference did not depend on specific characteristics of the study, or the people being studied, such as their age, their sexual orientation, or the country where they lived. There was one exception though: Men were much more likely than women to think about sex with someone other than their current romantic partner. 

The Ever-Present Problem of Biased Reporting

One big concern in sexuality research is that women may underreport, and men may exaggerate, their answers because of conformity or a desire to look good. The consequences could be dramatic: Seemingly robust gender differences could in reality be much smaller. We, therefore, looked for ways to check this out. One way we looked at this was to also measure gender differences in reports about sexual behaviors with another person, such as intercourse frequency or number of one-night stands. The "truth" here is unlikely to reveal a substantial gender difference, because in a heterosexual population, every time a woman has sex or a one-night stand, a man does as well. Therefore, if men reported larger numbers here than women, this could be an indicator of biased answers. Indeed, a slight difference emerged (with men reporting more), but this did not account for the gender difference in sex drive that we found.

Lessons Learned

It is important to be aware of a few things: For one, our work does not speak to the origins of sex drive. We can only speculate about the influence of social learning, cultural, and genetic factors, and it is left to future research to investigate their roles. For another, a difference is relative. It does not imply that women have a low and men have a high sex drive on any absolute scale. Women's sex drive is just somewhat lower than men's, on average. We did not investigate whether a higher or lower sex drive could be regarded as more desirable. This may change across situations and depend on the social context. Some evidence suggests that within romantic relationships, discrepancies in sexual desire can be associated with lower sexual and relationship satisfaction, but beyond discrepancies between the partners their overall level of desire together as a couple seems to be at least as important. In other words, couples with similarly low sexual desire (that is, no discrepancy within the couple) were less satisfied than couples with similarly high sexual desire.

For Further Reading

Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? Theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 242–273.  

Frankenbach, J., Weber, M., Loschelder, D. D., Kilger, H., & Friese, M. (2022). Sex drive: Theoretical conceptualization and meta-analytic review of gender differences. Psychological Bulletin, 148(9-10), 621-661.

Kim, J. J., Muise, A., Barranti, M., Mark, K. P., Rosen, N. O., Harasymchuk, C., & Impett, E. (2021). Are couples more satisfied when they match in sexual desire? New insights from response surface analyses. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(4), 487-496.

Malte Friese is a full professor of Social Psychology at Saarland University, Germany. His research interests revolve around self-regulation, sexuality and close relationships, and meta-science.