Studies of sexual dysfunction typically focus on gender-specific problems: Lack of desire among women and performance problems for men. But women don't have a monopoly on low desire, new research finds. Men struggle with a lack of interest in sex, too.
A new study of 5,255 men in Croatia, Portugal and Norway finds that 14.4 percent report a troubling lack of sexual desire lasting two months or longer within the past year. The numbers are similar to those seen in other surveys, in which low desire plagues between 13 percent and 28 percent of men depending on the region of the globe. Male desire was linked with psychological, relational and social factors, the researchers reported online Oct. 28 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
"Like female sexual interest, male sexual desire is like a kaleidoscope with several little stones," said study researcher Ana Alexandra Carvalheira, a professor of clinical psychology at the University Institute of Applied Psychology in Lisbon, Portugal. "A little movement can change the big picture." [50 Sultry Facts About Sex]
Men and desire
Women report low sexual desire in high numbers. One survey of patients at a urology clinic in New Jersey revealed that 36 percent of 18- to 30-year-old women and 65 percent of female 46- to 54-year-olds reported low sexual desire. Between ages 55 and 70, the number rose to 77 percent.
Those numbers may be higher than the general population, because the women were seeking medical care for various reasons, but other studies back up the existence of the female desire problem. In one 2012 study researchers reported women's desire dropped each month they were in a long-term relationship, suggesting that despite stereotypes of women as commitment-hounds, female sexuality is heavily dependent on novelty.
Meanwhile, sex researchers who study male sexuality have traditionally ignored desire in favor of researching erectile dysfunction and early or delayed ejaculation, Carvalheira said.
"It has been like that since the very beginning of research on human sexuality," she said.
Nevertheless, studies around the world suggesting that a not insignificant number of men sometimes struggled with desire, from national surveys in the United States that placed the number between 14 percent and 17 percent to surveys in Australia and Sweden that put it at 16 percent or so.
Carvalheira and her colleagues, Bente Træen of the University of Tromsø, Norway and Aleksandar Štulhofer of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, wanted to better understand the reasons behind low male desire. They created an online survey for men ages 18 to 75, querying them about everything from basic demographic information to their anxiety and depression, sexual difficulties, body image, self-confidence, relationship satisfaction and levels of sexual boredom.
Complexity of desire
The answers revealed that 10.5 percent of Portuguese men, 17.4 percent of Croatian men and 22.7 percent of Norwegian men who responded had experienced periods of low desire in the prior year. The numbers may not perfectly reflect reality, as the study was advertised in Norway as being for men with sexual difficulties, perhaps explaining the relatively high number of troubled guys who responded in that country.
Delving into the survey responses, Carvalheira and her colleagues found that depression was linked to low desire. Men who had low confidence in their erectile abilities were nearly five times more likely to report low desire than men who didn't worry about their ability to hold an erection. Men who said they weren't attracted to their partner were 2.7 times more likely than men who were attracted to their partner to struggle with low desire, and men in long-term relationships were 1.5 times more likely to do so than men not in long-term relationships.
When asked directly what they thought caused their low desire, men cited tiredness, work stress and poor communication in their relationships. The findings suggest that male desire is as complex as female desire, Carvalheira said.
"Our findings showed that male sexual interest cannot be reduced to a simple equation," she said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.