Hey, didja hear? Scientists have found a new substance that reduces women’s sex drive by 95 per cent. It’s called wedding cake. And didja know? That’s not just an old joke; it’s one of our deepest-held, across-the-board cultural assumptions: men are supposed to be the hungry dogs, ever-ready. Women? Not so much. Women can only do it when the house is tidy and the kids asleep; men, meanwhile, could do it with the house on fire (of course only if the fire were contained and the fire brigade on its way).
In relationships, the battle of the sexes rages in the bedroom: Men pester for it, women “give it up.” Remember The Cosby Show? The Cos was always hinting, always after it. Phylicia Rashad, eyes rolling skyward, would finally bestow it as a reward for good behaviour. But is it ever the other way around?
It was for Fred Williams.* Wedding cake had a disastrous dampening effect on his libido, not his wife’s. Living together for several years before marriage, the couple always had a healthy sex life, albeit with the usual, cyclical ups and downs. Post-nuptials, however, sex became “this weekly chore I dreaded,” he says. He did it, mostly as a favour to her, but with dimmed interest.
Williams can’t really explain it. “Maybe it was something about domesticity, commitment. I just lost interest,” he says. Eventually, they divorced – mostly for other reasons, he says, though the disparity in sex drives didn’t help. Now, he’s back out on the dating scene, happily “hooking up,” as the kids say these days, though even now the women he’s dating tend to want to get involved in a sexual relationship before he does. “It’s too intimate a thing to rush into.” Sometimes women get annoyed. Still, he doesn’t like to do it just because there’s pressure. In other words, he’s a man who doesn’t put out.
But are there many like him? Men who don’t put out are “no myth,” says Michele Weiner-Davis, a Boulder, Colorado, marriage therapist and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage, who contends that “low desire in men is one of the best-kept secrets in modern life.” According to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999, 15 per cent of men between the ages of 18 and 59 had experienced low sexual desire for several months or more. But men tend to keep mum about it because it’s an issue that strikes at the core of their manhood: To them, it’s their “mojo” that’s at stake.
Dr. Marilyn Miller, a Toronto psychologist, says that issues around pregnancy can be a mood-killer – for instance, when couples have problems conceiving and suddenly “sex is all about getting pregnant.” Just as women don’t want to be considered sex objects, men don’t like to be Johnny-on-the-spot, performing only when the basal thermometer says it’s time to go. Similarly, some men retreat when their wives become pregnant, simply because they’re afraid of harming the baby.
There’s a possible solution, Miller adds. Basically explain, as you serve him a double Scotch in your sexiest maternity negligee, that the baby will be fine and that pregnant women are sturdier and less fragile than they seem. Men who miss this sexual opportunity really lose out, Miller adds, because “a woman’s sex drive is often really enhanced during this period.”
We should probably pause here to make a distinction between low sex drive and erectile dysfunction, though the line between them is often blurred. Both fall into the category of sexual dysfunction and can be caused by a number of physical and psychological factors including serious depression, a life-threatening illness, alcoholism or drug abuse, and male “andropause,” the period starting at about age 40 when testosterone gradually declines.
Erectile problems can usually be treated with testosterone supplements and drugs such as Viagra. Low libido, however, frequently has an emotional component. And it can stem from the different ways men and women communicate. “Women are often critical without realizing how critical they’re being,” Weiner-Davis says. “They think they’re doing relationship improvement, but all the man hears is that they’re unhappy.” For example, a woman might say, “I feel like I’m a single parent lately,” when really what she means is, “I miss you.” A man’s response to this kind of criticism is to feel emasculated. He goes into “passive-aggressive” mode. Or, as they say on Seinfeld, retreats into his shell “like a frightened turtle.”
Men and women also measure “attraction” by different criteria. Women, according to Toronto psychologist Dr. Joel Landau, tend to feel a physical reaction toward men, but not always to a physical characteristic. A woman may be attracted to a man’s sense of humour, his personality, or quirkier body parts, like his hands. I asked a female friend why so many women swoon over Patrick Stewart, who played Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She thought about it a minute: “His air of authority,” she said finally. “And his zygomatic [cheekbone] area.”
Men, however, are initially attracted to a woman’s physical characteristics, what Bridget Jones might call “wobbly bits” – protuberance, convexity, tawniness, lissomeness. “Men tap into the visual at first,” says Landau. “The physical attraction can wear off when a woman gains weight or ages.” This, of course, is the hardest thing for women to hear: Men can get disillusioned when they’re forced to let go of the fantasy of a woman. Therapy can help the man move past the disillusionment and forge a relationship based on intimacy and communication.
Sexual disinterest – like all of life’s evils – can also be linked to stress at work. Bob Johnson*, a never-married serial monogamist, understands this all too well. Normally he enjoys a healthy relationship with his female friends, but, he says, in extreme stress, his body just shuts down.
“People think men just do it like clockwork, no matter what happens,” he says. “That’s not true. I’ve had girlfriends who say, ‘Are we fizzling out?’ We’re not, but if I’m really stressed out, when I come home, I just can’t relax enough.” He feels that women can make too much of these ruts. “Sometimes she’ll get insecure and say, ‘You don’t find me attractive any more.'” This kind of reaction may actually cause the man to retreat further.
Sue McGarvie, an Ottawa-area clinical sex therapist and radio-show host, agrees wholeheartedly with the notion that stress can cause men to shut down, but only up to a point. “Men can experience about ten times as much stress as women before it will affect their sex lives,” she says. True, when they feel so stressed out that they can’t cope, testosterone levels may sink. Then again, “men often look upon sex as stress relief,” while women dismiss the notion entirely in times of stress.
McGarvie contends that performance anxiety is a more credible cause of men not “putting out.” Fear of impotence, or premature ejaculation, leads many men to shy away from initiating sex or even touching and cuddling that might lead to sex. She uses the penalty-box analogy: “If you get put in the box every time you get on the ice, after a while you’re not going to want to play hockey any more.” Obviously, she’s never seen Tie Domi in action.
But what a lot of people don’t realize is how often temporary sexual dysfunction in men occurs at the beginning of a relationship. “The penis is a creature of habit,” she says, and tends actually to be more comfortable in a long-term relationship. When confronted with, ahem, a fresh set of variables, it can behave . . . unpredictably.
Sometimes, a woman – especially a new, unfamiliar woman – might just be too attractive for a guy. Fred Williams can understand that. “This girl I met on a computer dating service was just too hot for me,” he says. “I couldn’t perform. Eventually, she broke it off.” He can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terribly traumatic. “I guess it’d just been too long for me,” he says. “I got too nervous. I was thinking too much.”
Another thing that happens to him as a male dating in his forties is that many women he meets “are in their late thirties or early forties and tend to be in a hurry,” presumably to accelerate the path to babyhood. He likes to wait three or four dates to have sex. “I like to take it slow.”
Sometimes, low libido can have a darker cause. Toronto psychologist Dr. Mel Starr points to one of his patients, a financially successful businessman. “He’s in the top two or three percentile of what people earn,” Starr says, but the man considers himself a failure. Since having a child, he has become worried about being a good provider. “He’s also ruminating on his capacity to function at work.”
The man’s wife is very attractive, Starr adds. “And the crazy thing is, when he has sex, he loves it.” But she’s starting to become frustrated, and their marriage is in peril. In therapy, Starr is looking to find those issues from childhood that might have been triggered when the patient had children of his own. What’s his deep-seated anxiety that “acts as an internal prohibition” for this guy?
In situations like these, couples may eventually stop communicating physically or verbally. In less extreme cases, there are practical steps a couple can take when the man isn’t putting out. Weiner-Davis advocates what she calls “the Nike approach”: Just do it, even if you don’t feel like it. For men, this might be an unfamiliar role (and mechanically more difficult). But women have done this for millennia: Close your eyes and think of the Queen.
The main thing is to realize it’s a shared problem that you need to solve together. Where one spouse wants sex less often, there is bound to be finger pointing: It’s his problem! It’s her problem! If you can’t solve it, it’s a problem for your entire household. Besides, once things get going, you may find you’re both more into the passionate act. “As the Italians say,” Weiner-Davis explains, “appetite comes from eating.”
What’s a girl to do?
Most therapists agree that the burden of change in a relationship where one person wants sex more than the other is on the “low desire partner.” However, if you find yourself married to or involved with a person with low sexual desire, here are some ideas, adapted from The Sex-Starved Marriage by Michele Weiner-Davis:
|• Know you’re not alone. The first step is to believe you are not the only person in the world who has ever experienced, or is experiencing, this problem. A woman who otherwise has high self-esteem, may feel unattractive and feel their self-esteem drop when they come home. Telling yourself you’re not alone helps.|
|• Choose the right help. If it comes to the point where you both need to see a doctor or therapist about your problems, make sure you choose one who is competent and confident when dealing with these issues. If possible, get a personal recommendation. Just because a doctor or therapist is “nice” to you is not enough. Get one that helps.|
|• Avoid criticism. Talk about what you would like to change about your sex life, what you would like to do differently, and what you want. Don’t describe why you’re unhappy, unsatisfied, miserable, etc. You won’t move forward. Avoid blame. Say “what can we do about this?”|
|• Set realistic goals. Just as in other areas of your life where you’d like to see improvement, when you break down the task to smaller goals, it seems more do-able. Don’t try to go flat out at the outset. Look for any signs of improvement in your sex life.|
|• Examine underlying issues. Just as with women, for men sex is at the centre of any number of emotional, personal, and even professional concerns. Untangling some of these might help in the bedroom.|
|• Relax. And snuggle. Often men, like women, will shy away from all form of touch because they might lead to sex, which has become an arena of anxiety. If you make it clear to your spouse that a little touching and kissing doesn’t necessarily have to lead anywhere, he open up.|