SWM 112 – Do men have it harder when it comes to sexual expectations?
This is a question I received from our anonymous Have A Question page last month that I wanted to address in it’s own post:
Hi Jay, I’ve noticed a dichotomy when it comes to expectations for male and female sex drives and what’s considered desirable sexual performance. As a man, I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to perform sexually. This means being able to become sexually aroused when seeing a naked woman (my wife in this case), being able to maintain the erection and having the sexual stamina to keep from climaxing for a sustained interval (not sure what the average woman considers desirable stamina but let’s say 10 minutes?) Not to mention the societal pressure that men face when it comes to the size of their penis. I myself feel insecure about not having a large enough penis. Who doesn’t want to add a couple of inches to their penis? I’ve become somewhat perplexed/frustrated because I feel like there are very few expectations placed on females. We live in an age when “all women are supposed to be seen as beautiful.” It seems that females are simply expected to be willing to participate in sex when the mood is right, and that’s it. There’s no expectation on the size or quality of female genitals, no expectation on their ability to get aroused or maintain arousal, and no expectations on the level of physical or mental effort they invest in sexual activity. It seems they are just supposed to be the recipient while the man does the thrusting. Even when it comes to the subject of natural lubrication, there’s a stigma around a man who can’t naturally achieve and maintain an erection, but for the woman, there doesn’t appear to be a stigma around the inability to produce sufficient arousal fluid (vaginal wetness). As it pertains to the topic of pornography, I’ve read many articles about the dangers of pornography for men, how it leads to sexual desensitization, and when paired with masturbation, decreased sexual stamina and even erectile dysfunction. I can’t say I’ve read many articles discussing how viewing pornography is detrimental for women. Is it just me, or is there a double standard when it comes to sexual expectations for men and women?
It’s not just you, but it is a false view of what’s going on. Talk to enough women, and you realize they also have an incredible amount of pressure on them as well.
What you’re comparing in your question above is what some men feel is expected of them vs. the societal ideals for the experience of being a woman that we see as men. That’s not comparing apples to apples. It’s like comparing practice with theory, which reminds me of one of my favourite quotes: In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory; in practice, there is.
But you need to talk to them to know what women feel is expected of them. I’m not a woman, but I have spoken with many of them about this topic and heard many of their experiences and expectations. Should they feel that way? No. But men shouldn’t feel the way you state above, either. These are all lies pushed on us.
So, let’s talk about some of the lies women face so that you can know it’s not just the men.
Let’s start with arousal concordance, or non-concordance, as the case may be. Arousal concordance is the lining up of our physical arousal with our mental arousal.
Indeed, men often feel pressure to get and maintain an erection easily in the slightest sexual context. This is spurred by many pop-culture movies (The American Pie series comes to mind) making fun of college-age boys who get erections at the drop of a hat and can’t get rid of them.
And frankly, the issue of maintaining an erection never really comes up because the other joke is that they tend to all suffer from premature ejaculation and then immediately fall asleep.
But what men don’t have to deal with is vaginismus – pain from being penetrated during sex, which somewhere between 5-17% of women suffer from. This is usually anxiety or stress about sex playing out as a physiological response. That is a level of arousal non-concordance that men don’t have to worry about for themselves.
But even if you don’t have that, many women still struggle with lower forms of arousal non-concordance, or just with libido in general. What I hear from many wives is the phrase, “I want to want to. Does that make sense?” and I assure them that not only does it make sense, it’s widespread.
And yes, some men struggle with libido, but they’re generally the minority, not the majority, as with women.
On top of that, even if they can get aroused, the number of women who struggle to orgasm is relatively high. Even more women struggle to orgasm from having penetrative sex. That’s also something few men ever have to deal with. And as much as you say that society tells them they don’t have to orgasm from sex, many don’t feel that way. They want to and feel they should be able to.
This has been a long-standing pressure solidified by Sigmund Freud, who taught that if a woman couldn’t orgasm from penetration, she was sexually immature. Napolean’s grand-niece, Marie Bonapart, was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and spent a good chunk of her life trying to figure out why some women couldn’t orgasm from sex, going so far as to have multiple affairs and pay women to examine their genitals to try and figure out if it was something wrong with her, or what.
So, the idea that women don’t struggle with arousal non-concordance is a complete myth. Are they the same struggles? No, but they’re no less of a struggle.
There is a growing message of acceptance of all experiences, types, etc. This has some serious and obvious problems, of course. Still, it includes both men’s and women’s sexual experiences, so if you say that women are being taught that everything is okay, men are being taught the same – you’re just not listening to those voices. This is pretty typical because our brains tend to learn an idea, ignore any evidence to the contrary, and only listen to messages that support the worldview we’ve already adopted. This is known as confirmation bias.
Regarding performance, yes, men generally feel a burden to have enough stamina to continue thrusting until their partner can orgasm. Built into this is an expectation on the other side – that they can orgasm from this. As mentioned earlier, many women can’t orgasm from penetration. Both spouses should learn that it’s okay to switch it up, change activities, positions, who is on top, flip between penetration, manual, oral, toys, etc.
Many women feel pressure to simply orgasm by any means and quickly, if possible. They worry that it’s taking too long, that their spouse is getting annoyed with how long it’s taking, that they’re going to get sore before they have an orgasm, and that it will just never come.
Also, many of them worry about having an orgasm before their husband runs out of stamina, loses his erection or has an orgasm himself. That’s not pressure she’s necessarily putting on him, but rather pressure she feels herself.
Some men experience something similar with delayed ejaculation, but that’s relatively rare in men, whereas the experience is quite common in women. We see stats often saying that men tend to have orgasms in 5 minutes and women in 40 minutes.
Men are generally expected to be confident, assertive, and dominant in bed, but women are also expected to participate actively. As much as you say they have to lie there while he’s thrusting, I don’t think most men or women accept that as an expectation. I get a great many emails from men who have an expectation of their wife being a more active partner, and I also get a great many emails from wives who contact me saying, “What am I supposed to do?!” because they know there is an expectation, but they don’t know how to meet it. If they do know what to do, they feel a lot of insecurity and inner conflict at being able to act the way they think they’re supposed to. We talk about this in our course Becoming More Sexually Engaged.
In short, many women feel an expectation to act like a porn star, many without even knowing what that means because they’ve never seen porn, so it’s just this vague unattainable expectation without any method of even making baby steps towards what they think is expected. If not, then they expect that it will be like in the movies – they’ll suddenly be in the mood at the right time, and when that doesn’t happen, they’re at a loss for how to fix it.
As for body image, yes, we live in an age where they’re pushing the message that all bodies are beautiful and that messaging is gender-neutral, but this is a relatively new turn. We’ve had decades of Cosmo, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Barbie and more, setting the expectations for women far more than for men. It’s relatively recent that we’re starting to see the three-sixes expectation (6′ tall, 6-pack, 6″ or 6-figures depending on the variation) applied to men. I mean, there was always “tall, dark and handsome” and a fit person, regardless of gender, has always gotten more attention than an overweight person.
Men tend to be expected to earn more, but that’s a psychological effect being played out in reality. Women tend to want to feel taken care of, which translates to wanting a husband who earns more than they do.
It’s only relatively recently that that’s become a more significant issue because not so many decades ago, most women weren’t earning much of an income at all due to choosing to stay home over having a career. Frankly, men can still often earn a higher wage – not because of some contrived wage gap, but because men tend to choose longer shifts, less vacation, riskier jobs and frankly less desirable jobs which pay better. They also tend to be more assertive, leading to higher negotiated pay.
As for pornography, we have way more data on the detrimental effects on men because men have been the primary consumer of porn for a long time. It’s only, again, fairly recently that the rate of porn use in women has been rising and we may see more stats come out about that. More data showing the harmful effects is good, but I’m not in favour of the opportunity.
What is unfortunate, and I agree there is a double standard here, is that pornography in the written form tends to get a free pass, and that is the medium women tend to consume porn in – erotica and romance novels. They, of course, have similar negative effects as porn does for men. Romance novels and erotica showcase fantastic, and I mean that literally, depictions of life and sex that reality cannot regularly match up to.
If you are setting your expectations with any of the above, then you’re going to find problems down the road when you try to deal with real life. You’re not going to have a gorgeous six-and-half-foot-tall billionaire pirate king swoop in on his helicopter to save you from the random volcano that popped up in the city and whisk you away to his castle in the Swiss Alps, blindfold you, tie you up and have his semi-consensual way with you while somehow hitting all the right buttons at the right speed and seeming to be able to read your mind. How can a husband match up to that idea?
It’s not better or worse than other forms of porn, and I agree we need to acknowledge and address it more in our society. But given that all forms of porn are becoming not only acceptable but encouraged, I doubt that’s going to happen. The best we can hope is that the church will wake up and equally condemn them.
The one thing that women tend to deal with that men don’t is the medical field’s dismissal of female sexual problems. If a man goes to his doctor and says he’s having trouble with sex, he’ll be handed Cialis or Viagra, sent for blood work to test his testosterone, or have some other action taken more than likely. If a woman goes to the doctor with a similar complaint, she’s likely to be told, “That’s normal,” and sent on her way. Trying to get your testosterone checked as a woman can be difficult, and some have to ask multiple doctors. Even if you do, if it comes back as a zero (as in my wife’s case), the doctors just sort of shrug and go, “Well, you’re a woman,” or they say, “I don’t know what to do about that.” Trying to find a specialist that deals with female hormones and how they relate to libido is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and if you find one, they’re booked solid and often not taking more patients.
With men, the biggest problem is that the men don’t want to go to the doctor, and they certainly don’t want to talk about the issue. With women, it’s that the doctor doesn’t want you there and doesn’t want to talk about that topic.
When the dynamic is reversed
Lastly, one other thing that I see that’s not talked about often is that in about ¼ to ⅓ of marriages, the wives have a higher sex drive than their husbands, and many of the expectations are reversed. For them, there are very few resources, and they feel very alone because no one talks about that dynamic. The “man wants sex, woman doesn’t” is very loud and prevalent in our culture, but the opposite is considered a myth. So, if you’re a wife in that dynamic, you feel like you’re the only one and that something is wrong with you.
We always think we’re the one that’s worse off
It’s part of our sinful nature to believe that we’re the ones who are the worse off and that everyone else has it easier. As mentioned earlier, we have a confirmation bias that continues to support this idea. We see all the messaging for the other side and go, “I wish I had gotten that messaging,” but when we do, we ignore it in favour of the pressure we’ve adopted as part of our existing worldview.
In the end, we should, as spouses, understand that we both have pressures that include unrealistic expectations about ourselves and our spouses. We should look to mitigate those, find ways around the reality of the situation, and, when possible, try to meet some of the fantasies that are actually manageable and not immoral. Because it’s fun to be able to do it, not when it’s an expectation you feel pressured to meet, but when you feel a desire to rise to it to make your spouse feel extra special. The “Yeah, you did manage to marry an absolute sex machine. Well done.” effect. Those moments are amazing when you both enjoy it rather than feel pushed into it and when it’s appreciated, not expected, without gratitude for the work it took to achieve.
And the truth is, most of the time, the expectations we feel are placed on us aren’t actually being placed on us by anyone except ourselves. I’ve done many coaching sessions where one spouse will say, “They expect me to be or do this,” and the other will say, “No, I don’t! I never said that; I never wanted that.” What I hear the most from both sides is that what they want is a spouse who is content, that they can have fun with, be relaxed and enjoy time together.
That’s the hope and the dream. If it can be achieved with some mind-blowing, intimate and orgasmic experiences thrown in, even better, but not at the expense of the rest.
So, no, I don’t think there is a dichotomy between the expectation of men’s and women’s sex drives – just different experiences that often aren’t well understood or even seen by the other side.