Sexual Desire Definition
Sexual desire is typically viewed as an interest in sexual objects or activities. More precisely, it is the subjective feeling of wanting to engage in sex. Sexual desire is sometimes, but not always, accompanied by genital arousal (such as penile erection in men and vaginal lubrication in women). Sexual desire can be triggered by a large variety of cues and situations, including private thoughts, feelings, and fantasies; erotic materials (such as books, movies, photographs); and a variety of erotic environments, situations, or social interactions.
Sexual Desire Background and History
Sexual desire is often confused with sex drive, but these are fundamentally different constructs. Sex drive represents a basic, biologically mediated motivation to seek sexual activity or sexual gratification. In contrast, sexual desire represents a more complex psychological experience that is not dependent on hormonal factors. One useful way to think about the distinction between sex drive and sexual desire comes from research on nonhuman primates. This research distinguishes between proceptivity and receptivity. Proceptivity refers to a basic urge to seek and initiate sexual activity and is regulated by hormones (for example, testosterone in men and estrogen in women). Receptivity, sometimes called arousability, represents the capacity to become sexually interested or aroused upon exposure to certain stimuli. Unlike proceptivity, arousability is not hormone-dependent; in fact, even individuals with no circulating gonadal hormones show arousability to erotic stimuli, although they are not typically motivated to seek sexual gratification.
Proceptive desire and arousability are probably experienced differently (for example, proceptive desire feeling more like a strong, motivating craving or hunger for sex), although no research has directly addressed this question.
Evidence Regarding Hormonal and Physiological Aspects
Although the capacity to experience sexual desire is not hormone-dependent, developmental research suggests that it might be facilitated or intensified by hormones. For example, children typically report their first awareness of sexual desires and attractions as early as 9 years of age, and some researchers have linked this transition to the development of the adrenal gland and the corresponding secretion of adrenal hormones (which are considered weaker than gonadal hormones). Notably, however, these experiences do not typically involve a motivation to seek sexual gratification or activity. Such a motivation does not typically develop until after age 12, when the maturational changes of puberty produce notable surges in levels of gonadal hormones.
Sexual desire is often accompanied by physiological sexual arousal, most notably increased blood flow to the genitals. Yet, this is not always the case. Some individuals report feeling sexual desire even when their genitals show no signs of arousal, whereas others show genital arousal in the absence of psychological feelings of desire. Thus, physiological arousal is not a necessary element of sexual desire and should not be considered a more valid marker of sexual desire than individuals’ own self-reported feelings. Researchers do not yet understand why some individuals, in some situations, show differences between their psychological and physiological experiences of sexual desire. These differences are likely influenced by the large variety of psychological, emotional, cultural, social, and political factors that can affect individuals’ experiences of sexual desire. In particular, an individual’s immediate social and interpersonal context can have a profound affect on how he or she experiences and interprets moments of desire.
Evidence Regarding Gender Differences
Cultural, social, and political factors are also thought to influence the notable gender differences that have been documented regarding sexual desire. One of the most consistent gender differences is that women tend to place greater emphasis on interpersonal relationships as a context for the experience of sexual desire. This may be because women have been historically socialized to restrict their sexual feelings and behaviors to intimate emotional relationships, ideally marital relationships, whereas males have enjoyed more social freedom regarding casual sexual behavior. Another consistent gender difference is that women typically report less frequent and less intense sexual desires than do men. In fact, among adult women, the most common form of sexual disorder is low or absent sexual desire, which is reported by nearly one third of American women. Some adolescent and adult women have difficulty even identifying their own experiences of desire or find that sexual desires are always accompanied by feelings of anxiety, shame, fear, or guilt. This may reflect the fact that women’s sexuality has historically faced stricter social regulation and repression than has been the case for men, and that women have always faced greater danger of sexual violence and violation than have men. In addition, however, some researchers have attributed gender differences in sexual desire to the different evolutionary pressures that have faced women and men over the course of human evolution. Specifically, these researchers have argued that the different strategies associated with maximum male versus female reproductive success— respectively, multiple matings with different females versus selective mating with a few, carefully chosen males—may have favored the evolution of stronger sexual desires in men than in women.
Broader Implications and Importance of Sexual Desire
There has been much interest in sexual desire as an index of sexual orientation, typically defined as an individual’s general sexual disposition toward partners of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. Historically, researchers have considered same-sex sexual desires to be the most important indicator of a same-sex (i.e., gay, lesbian, or bisexual) orientation. In recent years, however, scientific understanding of same-sex desire and sexual orientation has become more complicated. It used to be thought that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals were the only people who ever experienced same-sex sexual desires. We now know that many individuals who are otherwise completely heterosexual periodically experience same-sex sexual desires, even if they have little motivation to act on those desires. These periodic same-sex desires might occur at any stage of the life course and can be triggered by a variety of different stimuli, situations, or relationships. Having such an experience does not appear to indicate that an individual will eventually want to pursue same-sex sexual behavior or will eventually consider himself or herself lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Thus, researchers now generally believe that lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations are characterized by persistent and intense experiences of same-sex desire that are stable over time.
Some individuals’ desires appear to be more plastic, meaning flexible, changeable, and sensitive to external influence than are other individuals’ desires. In particular, research increasingly suggests that women’s desires are more plastic than men’s. This is reflected in the fact that women are more likely than men to report patterns of bisexual desire (i.e., desires for partners of both sexes) and more likely to report desires that run contrary to their general sexual orientation (i.e., periodic same-sex attractions among heterosexuals and periodic opposite-sex attractions among lesbians). For example, recent research has found that gay men report strong feelings of sexual desire, accompanied by genital arousal, when shown sexual depictions of men, but not of women. Correspondingly, heterosexual men report strong feelings of sexual desire, accompanied by genital arousal, when shown sexual depictions of women but not of men. Very different patterns, however, were found among women. Specifically, both lesbian and heterosexual women reported some degree of sexual desire and genital sexual arousal to both men and women. Women’s sexual desires also appear to be more sensitive than do men’s to experiences of emotional bonding. Some heterosexual women, for example, report having experienced periodic same-sex desires for close female friends with whom they share an intense emotional attachment.
Researchers do not fully understand why this occurs, nor do they understand how feelings of romantic affection are linked to, although distinct from, sexual desire. This is one of the most interesting directions for future research on sexual desire. Other promising areas for future research include how the experiential quality of sexual desire develops and changes over the entire life course, from childhood to late life, and how various biological and cultural factors interact to shape individuals’ experiences of desire.
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