There are a lot of sexual stereotypes reserved for men. At worst, they’re “dogs.” At best, they’re “stallions.” But what about the guys who fall outside that spectrum? What about those who defy the myths attached to male libido? When did we settle on such a limited set of beliefs concerning men and sex? And what kind of damage might it have caused?
Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray, a relationship therapist and sex researcher, has spent the past decade digging up answers to these questions. Her new book, Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships brings to light some of the buried nuances associated with male sexuality. Some findings: Men feel the need to act like they’re always in the mood and emotional intimacy is more important to men than many think (as is the need to feel needed). Fatherly caught up with Murray to explore what we get wrong about men and sex. A little clarity, it seems, can go a long way.
What initially inspired you to explore the myths associated with male sexuality?
I was talking with a girlfriend one day who shared that her husband made a joke to a group of friends that “he was always in the mood.” I had heard these kinds of comments plenty of times as well — that men were “always up for sex.” But I also knew that there were of course exceptions to this rule. I mean, men aren’t robots.
Then the questions kept pouring out of me. I thought, “What if this stereotype we are so used to seeing in the media or hearing about in hockey locker rooms isn’t reflective of what men really want? What do we really know about men’s true experiences?” So I decided I needed to move away from the assumptions so many of us have learned to believe about men and sex and start asking some questions.
What kind of impact do these stereotypes have on men?
Men in my research indicated that they were frustrated by this simple stereotype we have about men and sex. They said it was insulting to be talked about like they didn’t have feelings or that they were just these sex-crazed creatures. The men in my study also talked about how they sometimes felt there was an expectation that men “should” have high desire and sometimes doubted themselves when their desire wasn’t there. But, what I think was perhaps the most unfortunate piece, was that men in my research sometimes said they would feign their interest in sex because they felt it was what was expected of them by society and, more so, they felt their female partner would judge them if they didn’t.
This thinking could do a big disservice to the women in their lives.
From my experience, women are either frustrated by the stereotypical sex-crazed man or think that men should fit this stereotype and are concerned when their boyfriend or husband doesn’t show as much interest in sex as she thinks he should or even turns down her advances.
But my research and clinical observations suggest that men are a lot more touchy-feely than we’ve been recognizing. Sometimes they aren’t sure how to show the softer side of their sexuality. My findings show that men want to be desired, they want to be vulnerable, they want to be close and connected to their partners, and that sex is so much more than just physical stimulation.
The most common response I hear from women when they hear about my research is that they feel closer to their partner and sometimes even feel more sexually charged. They feel closer, safer, and loved. And that’s a huge positive for women who are in relationships with men.
So what seems to pull men “out of the mood” most often?
The biggest reason — other than feeling sick — was because they weren’t feeling emotionally close to their partner. This surprised me a bit because it really highlighted how emotional men’s desire is. Even if men are feeling in the mood, they still might not want to be sexually intimate if they are feeling a fight is unresolved or they are too emotionally distant from, or frustrated with, their partner.
What part of your research do you think provides the most piece of mind for male readers?
I think almost all men are familiar with the stereotypical way men are portrayed as wanting sex anytime, anywhere. But what men are not used to hearing is other men talking about when sexual desire isn’t pulsating out of their bodies. Or having a decrease in desire over time. Or wanting to feel wanted. Or the vulnerable sides of sex and sexual rejection. I’ve been hearing from a number of men who, after reading about the myths presented in my book, will say things like “it’s so good to be seen” or “I thought it was just me, glad I’m not alone.” I think a lot of men haven’t had a chance to hear other men talk about sex in non-stereotypical ways and will feel validated and come to see that their experiences are likely quite normal and more common than they perhaps realized.
You talked to a lot of men and conducted a lot of research on men’s contrasting views of sex. What surprised you the most?
One of the things that surprised me most about men’s desire throughout my research was that men wanted to feel desired. We are so used to having men pursue, initiate, flirt, and push for intimacy while women are used to being on the receiving end of that attention. But men in my research indicated that feeling sexually desired was a huge component of their sexual desire. However, most men also indicated that they felt their female partner wasn’t aware that this mattered to him or maybe didn’t have the language to tell her that her flirting, complimenting his appearance or initiating sex impacted him on such a deeper level than simply a sexual one. That her expressing desire for him let him know that she saw him, wanted him, and needed him as much as he needed and wanted her.
What’s the biggest thing men should take away from all of this?
We have been socialized to believe some very limited gender roles with regards to how men and women are supposed behave when it comes to sex, and they are doing a real disservice to intimate heterosexual relationships. But men are allowed to not be in the mood and women are allowed to want more sex. Women can do the objectifying and men can be objectified.
I think turning these norms on their head helps create a balance in heterosexual relationships. It gives space for men to be softer and more emotional and simultaneously allows women space to step up in their sexual agency. My hope is that my book offers a jumping-off point for couples to start a conversation about what myths about men and sex may be negatively playing out in their relationships and what changes couples want to make together to increase their erotic intimacy.