The science of sexual desire is complicated — as it should be, because sexual desire itself is complicated. Sex researchers, for example, have in recent years begun to reconsider the way arousal is conceptualized: Instead of spontaneous desire, in which the urge to have sex strikes seemingly out of nowhere, many people experience responsive desire, where arousal happens in response to some sort of pleasurable scenario.
If sex scientists have only recently upended this conventional wisdom regarding the way desire works, maybe it’s not so surprising that some of us nonscientists are still rather confused. Men, in particular, as psychologist Amy Muise reports in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, happen to be particularly bad at guessing whether or not women are turned on.
When men and women meet for the first time, for example, previous research has shown that men tend to overperceive women’s sexual interest. But Muise’s work often focuses on a trickier aspect of desire — that is, what happens to it over the course of a long-term relationship. After a couple has been together for some time, do they improve at knowing whether or not their partner is turned on?
No, is the answer, at least for the heterosexual men partnered with women that Muise studied. Men in long-term relationships make the opposite error, tending to underperceive their female partner’s desire. In other words: They assume their wives or girlfriends are less interested in sex than they truly are. Women, on the other hand, are pretty good at deciphering their male partner’s desire.
There are a few things that could be going on here. In Muise’s study, both the men and the women who reported higher levels of sexual desire also tended to underestimate their partner’s level of desire; men typically report higher levels of desire than women, so perhaps that helps explain this finding.
But, then again, this takes us back to that misconception of what arousal and desire actually look like. Speaking generally, spontaneous desire is more typical of men; responsive desire, on the other hand, is more typical of women. It’s just that the latter is a less-understood expression of arousal, which may mean that it’s more likely to go unnoticed. Or, in this case, underestimated.