Life

What Men Really Want in Bed

Think you know what drives male desire? Think again.

Updated: 
Originally Published: 
A close up of a woman's body in underwear.
Getty Images

What do men want in bed? “More sex” probably sounds like a good guess, particularly for couples in long-term relationships. But as traditional gender expectations are challenged at home and in public, research is revealing a much more nuanced picture of what’s important to men when it comes to sex.

A lot of 20th-century studies of men’s sexual health focused on their propensity for sexual violence (like this 1991 study that followed the arousal patterns of 60 college-aged men), what kind of men pay for sex (see this 2004 Australian study), and what causes their erectile dysfunction (an ongoing inquiry that has been fascinating scholars since 1668). Studies in the last few decades, however, show that men care about their partner’s pleasure and have much deeper emotional needs than was acknowledged in the past.

Many men, for example, and contrary to popular belief, aren’t actually ready and willing to have sex at any given opportunity. Yet in order to keep up that stereotypically masculine front, some guys will pretend to be more interested in sex than they are, a 2017 study found. That persistent myth can be damaging to men who feel like if they’re not perpetually up for getting down, their sexuality must be “broken” in some way, says Tom Murray, a licensed sex and relationship therapist in Greensboro, North Carolina.

It’s easy to succumb to delusions about sexual norms. Vaguely gendered ideas — prejudices — color our wants and desires and cloud the wants and desires of our partners. It’s a problem that can and often does impact everyone’s pleasure by introducing dishonesty in the bedroom. Take the study published last month that concluded the more women sensed their partners’ masculinity was fragile, the more likely they were to fake orgasms. The women were also less sexually satisfied and less likely to have honest conversations with their partners about sex.

It’s time to get back to honest orgasms, guileless groans, frank…well, you get the picture. Where to start? With some facts. Here’s what academic researchers, sex surveys, and sex therapists revealed about what men really want when it comes to sex.

Men Want to Feel Emotionally Connected

A lack of emotional connection to a long-term partner is one of the top inhibitors of sexual desire for men, a 2017 study published in The Journal of Sex Research found. Seeking to fill a research gap about men’s wants and needs when it comes to sex, researchers interviewed thirty 30-to-65-year-old men about the things that tend to boost or put a damper on their sexual desire. Three of the most consistent concerns the men cited were the need to feel wanted, fear of rejection, and a lack of emotional connection with their partners.

There’s a largely held assumption that women need to feel connected to have sex but men don’t. However, emotional connectedness is really important to most men, says John Petersen, PsyD, licensed psychologist, and certified sex therapist in South Bend, Indiana. Men’s partners might not realize this, and sometimes men themselves might not either.

“Many men have difficulty with the language. They might say, ‘I don’t have enough sex,’ when some of the time what they really mean is, ‘I don’t feel close to my partner,’” adds Doug Braun-Harvey, a San Diego marriage and family therapist, author of Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction, and founder of The Harvey Institute. “Those are not things that just flow out of men’s mouths.” Sex, says Braun-Harvey, becomes the stand-in, the less vulnerable word. The listener, he says, assumes that when they said “sex,” they meant it, because why wouldn’t they? But what they really mean is “connection.”

Men Want to Feel Desired

A study published in 2021 noted that gender roles are shifting and evolving, and that the male participants — adults recruited from Reddit — said the “desire to feel desired” was very important to them. Twelve percent of men didn’t feel desired at all in their relationships. And for 8.4 percent of the men, feeling desired was “critical” or “essential.” When researchers asked respondents what made them feel desired, most reported that their partners simply telling them that they wanted them was enough to do the trick. So were flirting, initiating sex, and acting enthusiastically during sex.

In general, the need to feel desired can’t be understated. Another study, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that sexual desire between couples on one day would spill over to feeling desire the following day, even when they hadn’t had a sexual encounter. People who felt loved and wanted by their partners were more likely to engage in and enjoy sexual activity, suggested a 2020 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

However, another study concluded, rather sadly, that many men said feeling desired was a “rare occurrence” and that they didn’t think their female partners had any idea that feeling desired was important to them.

When men feel that their sexual interest is one-sided, it can feel hollow and like their partners have sex just to placate them. “It’s not just erotic pleasure that’s wanted,” says Petersen. “It’s feeling he’s desired and a need for connection.”

Men Want Women to Take the Initiative More

In many heterosexual relationships, men still are expected to be hypersexual, strong, and without vulnerable emotion, Petersen says. This sometimes can mean that even in the most progressive, egalitarian-seeming relationships, men are expected to be the “doers and pursuers,” or the ones initiating sex more often than their partners.

A 2004 study in which researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 32 male community college students in New York City found that participants longed to share the “sexual labor” of initiating encounters and that even when they generally did the work pursuing sex with their partners, their attitudes were much more egalitarian.

Understanding this factor has the potential to create happier relationships. For instance, the authors of a paper published in The Journal of Sex Research in 2013 asked 44 heterosexually active men how often their behavior and interactions in sexual relationships adhered to traditional expectations of what’s feminine and masculine. They concluded that rewriting “gendered sexual scripts,” or the traditional ways straight men and women are supposed to interact with each other, has the potential to increase gender equality as well as sexual satisfaction and well-being of partners.

Men Want a Little Tenderness

The authors of the paper published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in 2021, mentioned above, also found that men felt desired when hearing compliments about their appearance, clothing, and body. One study respondent told researchers he loved that his current partner called him her “beautiful man.” No one he’d been with in the past had ever said anything like that to him. Another said that as he had gotten older and his body was starting to show its age, he loved hearing his wife tell him she felt lucky to have him.

(It’s good to note that poor body image increasingly is a problem affecting men as well as women. A 2018 study found that it has a negative impact on men’s sexual satisfaction, and the authors suggested that their sexual satisfaction would likely improve if they had more body confidence.)

Loving words and contact, in general, are largely appreciated. A decade ago, Indiana University researchers with the Kinsey Institute noted that both men and women were more likely to report sexual satisfaction in their long-term relationships if they also reported frequent kissing, cuddling, and sexual caressing. Less intuitive, they also wrote, was that “tenderness” mattered more to men than it did to women in the study.

Men Want Their Partner to Have an Orgasm

Another conclusion of the Kinsey Institute study was that men tended to be happy in their relationships if they were in good health and if they considered their partner’s orgasms to be important.

A paper published in 2017 explored how men felt about making their female partners have orgasms, but with the specific focus of whether men view women’s orgasms as some sort of masculinity trophy. The authors read more than 800 men with a median age of 25 a story in which they were instructed to imagine an attractive woman either did or did not have an orgasm during a sexual encounter with them. They then asked them to rate their self-esteem and how masculine they felt after each imagined scenario.

Unsurprisingly, the men reported higher self-esteem and feeling masculine if the women had orgasms, and those reactions were even more robust in men who felt more pressure to be stereotypically masculine. But men are often motivated to make their partner orgasm simply because they love them, Braun-Harvey says. In fact, a study from 2017 suggests that men are more motivated to please their partners and enhance closeness than to react to a sexual desire.

Now, wanting a partner to reach climax can be an endearing expression of love. But it can also be taken too far.

“A common misunderstanding men present is feeling responsible for their partner’s orgasm,” says Braun-Harvey. He adds that this is among straight men, and that researchers don’t see this nearly as much in men’s partnerships with other men.

Feeling like you must perform and achieve a goal of orgasm can lead to sexual perfectionism, Murray adds, which can make men feel pressured and lead them to pull away from sexual encounters for fear of failing or disappointing their partners.

“This can get off track when men get too goal-oriented in measuring pleasure, where the most important thing is, ‘They had this many orgasms or were this vocal,’” Petersen says.

Men Want to Share Fantasies Without Judgment

Men in long-term, heterosexual relationships were happier with their relationships and sex lives when they maintained open sexual communication with their partners, according to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Truly open sexual communication is tough for a lot of couples, Braun-Harvey says. For example, the influence of traditional gender roles makes bisexual men often unwilling to disclose past relationships with other men, found a 2019 Archives of Sexual Behavior study. Men who kept that secret also reported less sexual satisfaction in their current hetero partnerships.

“We live in an erotically illiterate society,” Braun-Harvey says. “People have to work hard to say these things, and there’s a very real fear of shaming or dismissive mockery.”

Avoiding talking about sexual needs and desires means not fully getting to know one’s partners. And, as Braun-Harvey adds, “When you tell your partner who you are erotically, there’s a potential to develop a closeness that a man may never have known in his life.”

Men Want Variety in the Bedroom

Despite anal sex becoming more commonplace among heterosexual couples in recent decades, the doggy style and cowgirl sex positions reign supreme in sex surveys year after year. Missionary is up there, too, the Skyn annual sex survey found. What’s more, 44 percent, or nearly twice as many married people than singles said they experimented more (“enhanced lube,” clit vibrators, and dildos were cited tools of experimentation) in the bedroom since the start of the pandemic.

In general, men want things mixed up in the bedroom.

“Desires for different positions in a couple’s sex life are the product of sex that is repetitive,” Murray says.

A need for “variety” might have more to do with sexual positions, too, he adds. Many couples he sees develop “rules,” such as only having sex on Saturdays. An inability to break such a rule can widen distance between them.

Parents are often challenged when it comes to keeping sex lives spontaneous and fun. Everyone is tired, and the idea of cleaning up yet another bodily fluid can feel exhausting.

“People get very efficient with sex,” Petersen says. “We know which buttons to push to get an orgasm efficiently because we’re all tired and need sleep, so sex can get perfunctory.”

One way to make it fresh and more fun is to worry less about penetrative sex and focus on sensual touch and feeling good, he says. This can be particularly helpful for couples experiencing some sexual dysfunction, because it takes the pressure off about “performing.”

“When it’s about penetration and orgasm, the issue of performance comes into play, and that messes things up,” Petersen says. “Touch without the expectation of intercourse also removes the risk of someone saying no to penetration and all the things that can come up with that.”

Men Want Their Partners to Communicate

Studies indicate that men find it difficult to get women to open up about their preferences in bed. They also say they wish women would just ask them what they like. Sounds simple, right? But sex therapists hear all the time that many couples, heterosexual couples especially, never talk about such things.

For instance, one of the studies cited earlier found that 30 percent of male respondents said that when a partner let him know what she wants in an intimate way, it made him feel desired. A whopping 88 percent of men felt like their partners could do better in this regard.

People and their desires change over time, which can be easy to forget in a long-term relationship, Murray says. Open and fruitful sexual communication shouldn’t be a one-and-done conversation — although for many people, one such conversation would be a great start.

Not All Men Want the Same Things

Because of course they don’t. All of the experts Fatherly spoke to for this story, by the way, reiterated that there’s no “normal” number of times per week or month that couples should have sex. Every couple is different and will have their own ideals in terms of frequency, style, how many partners are right for them, and more. This is why some of the studies cited here might have you scratching your head, because they might not apply to you and your relationship. What matters is that experts, finally, are devoting study to men’s sexual and emotional health, and that couples have the space and safety to talk about what they want and need in their relationships, whatever they look like behind closed doors.

This story is part of Romper & Fatherly’s Sex Issue, The Moms & Dads Are Horny. Because it’s Valentine’s Day, and parents deserve good sex, too.

This article was originally published on