Sex Drive Definition
Sex drive represents a basic motivation to pursue and initiate sexual activity and gratification and is tightly regulated by sex hormones—testosterone in men and both testosterone and estrogen in women. In other words, sex drive can be thought of as a person’s general urge to have sex.
Sex Drive History and Modern Usage
Sex drive is thought to have evolved to ensure the survival of the species by motivating sexual behavior and hence reproduction. This is consistent with the fact that children who have not yet reached puberty, who have low levels of sex hormones and are incapable of reproduction, do not typically report strong urges for sex (although they are capable of sexual arousal).
The importance of sex hormones (such as testosterone) to sex drive has been demonstrated by studies showing that individuals with abnormally low levels of these hormones report very weak sexual urges and that these urges can be increased by administering corrective doses of such hormones.
Much research has focused on gender differences in sex drive, specifically the fact that women typically report weaker motivations for sexual activity than do men and fewer spontaneous sexual urges and fantasies. Considerable debate exists about whether such gender differences reflect cultural repression of female sexuality or biological differences between men and women. Both factors likely play a role, but it is not clear whether one factor is uniformly more important than the other.
Some researchers have argued that instead of viewing women as having weaker sex drives, it is more appropriate to view the female sex drive as more periodic than men’s—that is, showing notable peaks and valleys over time—because of fluctuations in women’s hormone levels across the menstrual cycle. Whereas men have fairly high and constant levels of testosterone, women’s estrogen levels peak around the time of ovulation (when pregnancy is most likely to occur), and this surge corresponds to an increase in sexual motivation. When estrogen levels subsequently fall, so does sexual motivation. This may be an evolved mechanism ensuring that women are most likely to pursue sexual activity when such activity is most likely to produce offspring.
Although sex drive is regulated by sex hormones, it can also be influenced by social, psychological, and cultural factors. Psychological stress, for example, is commonly associated with decreased sex drive. Finally, it is important to distinguish between sex drive and sexual orientation. Although there have long been stereotypes that individuals with lesbian, gay, or bisexual orientations are more sexual in general than are heterosexuals, and thus have stronger sex drives, there is no evidence that this is the case. Rather, the strength of one’s overall sexual motivation appears to be independent of the object of one’s sexual motivation.
- Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? Theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 242-273.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2002). Cultural suppression of female sexuality. Review of General Psychology, 6, 166-203.
- Fisher, H. E. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature, 9, 23-52.
- Tolman, D. L., & Diamond, L. M. (2001). Desegregating sexuality research: Combining cultural and biological perspectives on gender and desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 33-74.
- Wallen, K. (2001). Risky business: Social context and hormonal modulation of primate sexual desire. In W. Everaerd & E. Laan (Eds.), Sexual appetite, desire and motivation: Energetics of the sexual system (pp. 33-62). Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen.