It was the best sex Margaux* ever had—at first. The vivacious 33-year-old teacher started dating Julian, a doctor, when she was in her mid-20s. “He would always start out with a full body massage; it was intense and definitely always initiated by him,” she says. “I remember thinking I was very lucky.” The spectacular romps lasted for about three years. And then they just…died. “It went from massages to nothing: no effort, no foreplay. His response was always, ‘I’m really tired,’ or he would only take it so far. It was just indifference. That was the worst part,” she reflects. Still, they got married and had sex four times on their 17-day honeymoon. Two years later, they’ve stopped doing it completely. “I feel like I can’t talk to anyone about it,” Margaux says. “And I’m going through hell.”
In an age of sexual freedom, women’s desires can still feel strangely taboo, with the gendered narrative of down to f-ck versus deign to f-ck still stubbornly, stereotypically defining hetero dynamics. Yet studies show that men and women are equally as likely to be the partner with lower sexual desire. Kristen Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, has studied this phenomenon, which researchers call desire discrepancy. “Men are expected to always have such high desire,” she says, “so the expectations that society places on them can be problematic if they’re in a relationship where they don’t fit that framework.”
The women (and man) I spoke to for this piece definitely don’t fit the framework. (And neither do the many people I’ve heard from about this issue over the years.) Some of the women consider themselves higher-desire than most people, while others simply want more sex than their partners—three or so times a week. All of their relationships were wonderful and loving before their tanking sex lives sent them into tailspins. The reasons their dudes cite for their dipping libidos are many (and similar to those women often cite): stress, relationship problems, medical issues, boredom. Or he may just want less sex—always has, most likely always will. Julian (of the full-body massage foreplay) finally told Margaux he’s just not that sexual.
When this imbalance happens, women tend to blame themselves, bludgeoning their self-esteem in the process. Margaux wondered, had she gained weight? Had she become less attractive to Julian? “You think that guys are always wanting it or always thinking about it, so either you’re some sort of sex-crazed individual or there is something wrong with you,” she tells me. Mark says this is common: “One of the effects of a male partner with low desire is isolation—for both the man and the woman. The lady wonders, Well, am I abnormal? Do I have extra-high sexual desire or something?” And men feel deficient, too.
Luke, 30, a bearish photographer, has experienced libido lows. Throughout his twenties, he sometimes forced himself to get busy even when he wasn’t feeling it. “I didn’t listen to my body very well because, as a guy, you’re taught, ‘I want sex all the time, yeah.’” It’s only in the past couple of years that Luke felt comfortable disclosing his low desire to his partners. He blames his years of non-communication on “the dudeness” or the way guys are socialized to shut up about their problems, especially sexual ones, because they might be perceived as weak. He recently dated a woman for nine months who wanted sex three times a night, plus once in the morning. “She was very penetration focused, and for a boy, I’m not very focused on that. And since a lot of men’s self-worth is tied to their penis being ready any time, anywhere, it can be really damaging if you can’t perform.”
And when both partners are frustrated, brutal fights can occur. After a blissful few years of well-matched libidos, Jamie, a feisty 32-year-old student, says her husband’s sex drive took a nosedive when he was doing his own degree. Cam left it to her to initiate almost every time, with a closing rate of less than half. He’d claim exhaustion or work pressure. Eventually, they started arguing. A lot. “The issue was festering so much that every time we fought, I would throw sex in his face, which made him feel pretty shitty. Or sometimes I’d joke, ‘Oh, your biggest problem is that your wife wants lots of sex, like, boo hoo, sorry for you.’ I’d grown up with the idea that if you put it out there, a man’s gonna take it, and that was definitely not the case. I didn’t realize just how much emotions and stress play into men’s desires.”
It can be difficult to talk about the issue to friends who often can’t fathom such a stereotype-twisting conundrum. It took Jamie ages to share her agony because of the stigma: “I didn’t want to be judged. I didn’t want people thinking that I was doing something wrong.” When Margaux opened up to one male friend, he told her Julian must be gay, depressed or cheating on her—none of which was the case, but his assumptions actually brought her some relief. “At least it wouldn’t be about me,” she shrugs. After years of sexless cuddling, Margaux eventually started having an affair with a sports management student named Brian, whose sexual energy was irresistible. She had been living at her parents’ place while Julian was away for work, and her parents noticed she was spending a lot of time with her “friend” Brian. They confronted her, and Margaux finally explained the trouble in her marriage. “Imagine telling your father your husband won’t f-ck you?” she says. His response? “Well, Julian’s a doctor. Can’t he prescribe some Viagra?”
If only there were a drug that opened up male mouths instead of the blood vessels in their dicks. Sexual liberation is moving as fast as Hannah Horvath can strip down, but it has outpaced people’s abilities to communicate about sexual frequency—or sexual anything, really. “Couples end up not talking about it because it’s like, ‘Well, we’re abnormal,’” says Mark. “And they become uncomfortable if they feel like they’re outside the norm.” But she assures me these couples actually are the norm. “It’s more of a feature of relationships than a bug. Sexual desire ebbs and flows through life and through different relationships. If we’re able to anticipate and accept that it’s bound to happen in every long-term partnership, we could find ways to work together and minimize the impact.”
Jamie and Cam were teetering perilously close to separation, so they started seeing a therapist. It saved their marriage. “When Cam finally articulated that these were issues coming from within him, I didn’t feel so neglected,” says Jamie. “It wasn’t about me as a woman anymore.” Now the couple has designated Friday as date night. “We started having fun with each other again,” she says, “which translated into wanting to bone more.” And that effort is all she could ask for.
Margaux isn’t so lucky. Julian stymied her persistent efforts to talk. She remembers the time he took 11 minutes to answer a question about their sex life. Another time, she suggested couples therapy, and he laughed. They grew distant. “Julian and I have lived in a state of purgatory for a long time,” she sighs. She’s currently looking for an apartment and wants a divorce. Margaux worries her friends may blame her paramour (who she’s still seeing) for the separation, because what could be wrong with her marriage to a perfect, handsome and kind doctor? A lot, actually. Without sex, without compromise, without change, there’s not much left to save. She loves Julian and doesn’t regret marrying him, but she’s happier without him. Margaux and Brian have a lot more sex, but they also talk a lot more. Desire discrepancy doesn’t always kill relationships. Silence does.
*Names have been changed throughout.