Past studies typically asked participants things like, “Over the last month, how much desire have you experienced?” When that question is posed, men do typically rate higher than women. But when the question is revised to ask about in-the-moment feelings – the amount of desire experienced in the midst of a sexual interaction – scientists find no difference between men and women. “This challenges our gender-related stereotypes about women being passive and not sexual,” says Lori Brotto, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of British Columbia, and a private practice psychologist. “It also suggests that the factors that elicit desire in the moment might be equally as potent for men as for women.”
Others have found that women’s desire waxes and wanes with their menstrual cycle. “During women’s peak period of arousal, which occurs around ovulation, their sexual motivation is just as strong as men,” says Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah. “Women don’t have lower sexuality than men. What they have are more variable patterns.”
This makes sense when thinking in terms of sex’s ultimate purpose: making babies. “Biology, which helps to drive reproduction, is an element of sex,” says Anita Clayton, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. “It’s only in modern times that reproduction and sex are uncoupled.”
Previously, doctors had also assumed that the male sex hormone testosterone could be linked to female desire. In fact, it probably does not play a major role: several studies found no difference in testosterone levels in women who have high levels of desire and those diagnosed with a desire disorder. Despite this finding, women continue to request testosterone as a treatment for low desire, and doctors continue to prescribe it – often based on lab tests that erroneously use male levels of testosterone as a marker for what normal levels of that hormone should look like in a woman’s body.
Other research finds that testosterone and desire are linked only very indirectly, and that sexual activity has more of an effect on hormone levels than hormones do on whether someone actually desires sex. Sexual thoughts increase testosterone in women, as does sexual jealousy. “Thinking that sex just comes out of testosterone is such a falsehood,” says Sari van Anders, an associate professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, whose lab led the investigations. “Hormones have such small – if any – influence on desire.”
Read the full article "The enduring enigma of female sexual desire" at BBC.