Tip to all heterosexual men in long-term relationships: women’s sexual desire operates differently than your own.
Although research has found that heterosexual men in the early stage of relationships typically overestimate a woman’s sexual interest, this overestimation doesn’t persist once relationships evolve into long-term. Recent studies have found that men in ongoing, romantic relationships seem to underestimate their female partner’s sexual desire. In other words, men in long-term relationships appear particularly bad at guessing whether their wives or girlfriends are turned on.i
Sexual desire is of course complicated. In recent years, sex researchers have begun to think of arousal not only as something that occurs spontaneously — the urge strikes suddenly and without warning, familiar to a great many men — but as a response to some sort of pleasurable experience. Spontaneous desire versus responsive desire. Women in long-term relationships tend to experience responsive desire.
So while it may not take much for men to feel turned on — what’s happening in the moment may not play that big a role — for many women the context is critical. Am I feeling emotionally close to him these days? Is he treating me especially well? Is the mood conducive to romance? Perhaps because spontaneous desire is what most men experience in themselves, they don’t recognize responsive desire when it stirs in the woman next to them. (By comparison, surveys have found women to be pretty good at identifying when their male partner is interested or not.)
As a relatively new concept in the field of sex research, responsive desire has been less studied than spontaneous desire, which may explain why it’s less understood. This may be the reason why it’s more likely to go unnoticed, leaving a lot of men missing out on opportunities waiting to be enjoyed.
So what should men do? Don’t assume she’s not interested. Boldly make the right overture and see where it goes. Or offer a simple wink and playfully ask, “Are you in the mood right now?”
i Muise, Amy et al. “Not in the mood? Men under- (not over-) perceive their partner’s sexual desire in established intimate relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 110(5), May 2016, 725-742. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000046