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Regan, P. C. (2015). Sexual desire. In P. Whelehan & A. Bolin (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality (1st ed., pp. 291-293). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/9781118896877

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Defines sexual desire and considers the individual, interpersonal, and social and cultural environmental factors associated with this aspect of human sexuality. DOI: 10.1002/9781118896877 PDF is available upon request from the author.
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The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality, First Edition. Edited by Patricia Whelehan and Anne Bolin.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Desire, sexual
California State University, Los Angeles, United States
Sexual desire (also called sexual interest, sexual
attraction, or lust) is the motivational component
of sexuality, and it is commonly experienced as an
interest in sexual activities, a drive to seek out
sexual objects or engage in sexual acts, or a wish,
need, or craving for sexual contact (Regan and
Berscheid 1999). Sexual desire is presumed to be
distinct from other sexual responses, including
sexual arousal (which involves physiological
arousal, genital excitement, and the subjective
awareness of physiological/genital arousal),
sexual activity (which consists of overt sexual
behaviors, such as masturbation or intercourse),
and sexual feelings that are associated with these
responses (such as satisfaction and pleasure).
However, because desire, arousal, and activity can
co-occur, they often are experienced relatively
Sexual desire varies along three dimensions.
The first dimension is quantitative and concerns
the magnitude of the desire that is experienced.
Both the intensity and frequency of an individuals
desire may vary over time. A person may experi-
ence desire on numerous occasions one week, only
to feel none the following week; similarly, he or she
may possess a powerful sexual urge at one point in
time and a much less intense need at another.
People also differ in their chronic amount of desire;
some generally have a low level of sexual appetite,
whereas others habitually experience high levels.
The second dimension is qualitative and
concerns the specificity of the desired sexual goal
and object. A person may wish to engage in a very
specific sexual activity (e.g., intercourse) with a
very specific other (e.g., the partner). Alternately,
he or she may simply have an urge to engage in
some form of sexual activity with an unspecified
partner; in this situation, both the sexual goal and
object are diffuse rather than specific.
The third dimension concerns the origin of the
sexual need. Desire may arise spontaneously from
an innate or internally generated cause, or itmay
develop as a response to an external stimulus.
Because desire is a subjective experience rather
than an overt physical or behavioral event, scien-
tists generally measure it via self-report. For
example, research participants might be asked to
rate their overall level of desire, the frequency of
their sexual urges, or the degree of their sexual
attraction to their partner.
Individual factors associated
with sexual desire
A number of factors are associated with the expres-
sion and experience of sexual desire. Most research
has focused on personal or individual variables.
This body of scientific work reveals that people
with serious physical illnesses (including cancer,
diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Parkinson’s
disease, to name a few) typically report reductions
in sexual interest following the onset of their
illness, and their desire levels are usually lower
than those reported by healthy adults. Depression
and other forms of major mental illness also are
associated with decreased desire, as are various
sex-related emotions, beliefs, and attitudes (such as
feelings of fear, anxiety, and guilt about sexuality;
body image and sexual performance concerns; and
restrictive sexual attitudes). Demographic varia-
bles, too, including age and gender, are associated
with sexual desire. Studies consistently find that
men and women experience a decline in sexual
interest with advancing age, and that women
generally report feeling sexual desire less often
than do men. For example, participants in one
investigation (Regan and Atkins 2006) reported
how often they experienced sexual desire. The
results revealed that women’s estimated frequency
(nine times a week) was significantly lower than
mens (37 times a week).
There has been much speculation about the
origin of sex differences in desire. Most research-
ers ask their participants to report on spontaneous
sexual desire (i.e., on desire that is internally
generated and experienced as a conscious sexual
Regan, P. C. (2015). Sexual desire. In P. Whelehan & A. Bolin (Eds.),
The international encyclopedia of human sexuality (1st ed., pp. 291-293).
Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
urge). However, there is evidence that women are
more likely than men to experience responsive
sexual desire, or sexual urges that develop not
spontaneously from some innate or internal
source, but rather in response to external, contex-
tual cues (Basson 2002). Thus, questions that ask
participants to recall or report instances of spon-
taneously felt desire may more accurately capture
mens experiences and thus exaggerate the true
extent of any sex differences.
It is also possible that sex differences in desire
may be due to the different hormonal environ-
ment present in the bodies of healthy men and
women. Research reveals that levels of the andro-
genic sex hormone testosterone are associated
with sexual desire in both men and women. For
example, in both sexes, treatment with drugs that
suppress the synthesis of testosterone typically
produces reductions in sexual desire. Similarly,
the administration of testosterone to people with
medical conditions that result in abnormally low
testosterone levels generally produces an increase
in sexual desire. These findings not only suggest
that some minimum level of testosterone is
necessary for the experience of sexual desire in
both men and women, but they also may partly
explain the observed sex difference in self-
reported desire. Specifically, under normal cir-
cumstances, a mans bloodstream contains a
much higher quantity of testosterone (and other
androgenic hormones) than does a womans, and
this higher quantity may play a role in allowing
men to experience spontaneous sexual desire
more readily than women. In addition, because
women are subject to greater variation in
hormone levels than men (due to the menstrual
cycle, pregnancy, and other female life events),
they are particularly prone to fluctuations in
desire. Consequently, in any span of time, there
will be occasions when a womans desire exceeds
that of her male counterpart. There also will be
times when his desire exceeds hers, and times
when the two experience roughly equal frequen-
cies or levels. Thus, it is difficult to know the
extent to which men and women truly differ with
respect to sexual desire.
Interpersonal factors associated
with sexual desire
One of the most important interpersonal factors
associated with desire is passionate love. Research
conducted with Euro-American couples reveals
that men and women who are very much in love
with their partners also tend to experience high
levels of sexual attraction to those partners
(Regan 2000). The overall health of a relation-
ship also is linked with feelings of sexual desire.
In general, the more satisfied people are with a
relationship, and the more committed they are to
that relationship, the higher the level of sexual
desire they report feeling for their partner.
Additional support for the association between
relationship functioning and sexual desire is
provided by clinical research using samples of
individuals diagnosed with sexual desire disor-
ders. Generally, such research finds lower overall
marital adjustment among couples with at least
Figure 1 Feelings of desire—sexual and romantic—
are among the most common and joyous experi-
ences that men and women experience throughout
their lifetimes. (Getty caption: “A jubilant American
sailor clutching a white-uniformed nurse in a back-
bending, passionate kiss as he vents his joy while
thousands jam Times Square to celebrate the long
awaited-victory over Japan.”)
Source: Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time &
Life Pictures/Getty Images.
Regan, P. C. (2015). Sexual desire. In P. Whelehan & A. Bolin (Eds.),
The international encyclopedia of human sexuality (1st ed., pp. 291-293).
Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
one desire-disordered partner. Indeed, given the
clear association between relationship health and
sexual desire, many therapists now view desire
disorders asa “couple issue” rather than a “personal
problem,” focus on the partners’ interpersonal
dynamics during treatment, and use therapeutic
techniques that involve both partners (Leiblum
It is important to note that although sexual
desire generally is present in high levels initially
in many romantic partnerships (at least among
Euro-American samples), it may not remain at
those levels throughout a couples entire relation-
ship. Over time, partners commonly experience
decreased desire for each other. Because the
ability to experience desire is associated with the
partners’ health, age, hormonal variations, and
other factors, including the loss of novelty that
occurs as partners become habituated to each
other, a reduction in sexual desire is almost
inevitable. Changes in desire thus do not neces-
sarily imply that a relationship is dysfunctional or
that a person is dissatisfied and has fallen “out of
love” with the partner. Of course, should sexual
interest drop suddenly or precipitously, there may
be an underlying interpersonal reason and the
couple may wish to seek therapeutic assistance.
Social environmental factors associated
with sexual desire
Variables located in the social and cultural envi-
ronments surrounding the individual man or
woman and in which his or her sexual and/or
romantic relationship is embedded also may
facilitate or inhibit the experience of sexual
desire. Examples of such variables include social
norms and customs, laws, religious doctrines,
and cultural stereotypes (often promulgated by
the popular media) pertaining to sexuality. For
example, the concept of “low” or “inhibited” sex-
ual desire is based in part on a cultural view of
human sexuality that presupposes that both part-
ners in a sexual/romantic relationship must expe-
rience relatively high and equal levels of sexual
desire for each other, and that any deviation from
this norm is indicative of personal and interper-
sonal dysfunction. These culturally-based beliefs
may have harmful consequences. For example,
some scholars argue that assumptions about male
sexuality—in particular, the belief that mens
sexual urges are innate, powerful, and uncontrol-
lable—may make it difficult for men to success-
fully negotiate the reductions in desire, arousal,
and other aspects of sexual response that are a
natural part of the aging process. Similarly, other
scholars posit that widely held phallocentric
views of sexual desire (e.g., that desire always
spontaneously and “naturally” arises, that desire
always precedes arousal) have contributed to the
labeling of many women as sexually disordered
when in reality they simply experience desire
differently than do men (Tiefer 2004). To date,
scientists interested in sexual desire have paid less
attention to social environmental factors than
they have to personal or interpersonal variables,
possibly because the former are less clearly visible
and readily measured than are the latter.
Additional investigation into the impact of these
larger, contextual variables clearly is needed.
SEE ALSO: Gender; Love; Sexual Dysfunction;
Basson, Rosemary. 2002. “Womens Sexual Desire:
Disordered or Misunderstood?” Journal of Sex &
Marital Therapy, 28: 17–28.
Leiblum, Sandra R., ed. 2010. Treating Sexual Desire
Disorders: A Clinical Casebook. New York: Guilford
Regan, Pamela C. 2000. “The Role of Sexual Desire and
Sexual Activity in Dating Relationships.Social
Behavior and Personality, 28: 51–60.
Regan, Pamela C., and Leah Atkins. 2006. “Sex
Differences and Similarities in Frequency and
Intensity of Sexual Desire.Social Behavior and
Personality, 34: 95–102.
Regan, Pamela C., and Ellen Berscheid. 1999. Lust:
What We Know About Human Sexual Desire.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Tiefer, Leonore. 2004. Sex is Not a Natural Act and
Other Essays, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Kaplan, Helen Singer. 1979. Disorders of Sexual Desire
and Other New Concepts and Techniques in Sex
Therapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Regan, P. C. (2015). Sexual desire. In P. Whelehan & A. Bolin (Eds.),
The international encyclopedia of human sexuality (1st ed., pp. 291-293).
Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Only within the past decade have social scientists commonly recognized the phenomenon of sexual desire as a distinct and vital component of human sexual response. Of the various factors believed to be associated with sexual desire, gender (biological sex) is presumed by many theorists to be one of the most important. Limited empirical work suggests that men experience desire more frequently than do women; however, sex differences in intensity or level of desire have yet to be examined. This study explored both the self-reported frequency and intensity of sexual desire among an ethnically diverse sample of 676 men and women. As hypothesized, men reported experiencing a higher overall level of sexual desire than did women. Sex differences also were found with respect to frequency of sexual desire. Men reported experiencing sexual desire more often than did women and, when asked to estimate the actual frequency with which they experienced desire, men's estimated frequency (37 times per week) was significantly higher than women's (9 times per week). These results do not imply that men always feel desire or that women lack sexual desire. In fact, virtually every participant in this study reported feeling sexual desire on a regular basis. This suggests that desire may be the most universal sexual response experienced by both men and women.
Full-text available
Previous research indicates that adults believe that sexual desire and sexual activity play different roles in love relationships. Little research, however, has been conducted to document the presumed differences between these two aspects of human sexual response. The purpose of this study was to examine empirically (1) whether sexual desire and sexual activity co-occur in dating relationships; (2) whether desire is more strongly associated than activity with passionate love; and (3) whether desire and activity have different implications for relationship maintenance. The results revealed that sexual desire and sexual activity were moderately (but not significantly) related. In addition, and as expected, only sexual desire was related to passionate love. Sexual desire also was related to relational maintenance; the greater the desire for the partner, the less often participants thought about ending their current relationship, thought about beginning a new relationship, reported being unfaithful to their partner, and felt attracted to others.
Revisits and updates the centrality of the social construction of sexuality, especially in the age of Viagra, FSD (female sexual dysfunction) and the media saturation of sex. Leonore Tiefer is one of the foremost sexologists working in the United States today; she is a well-known and respected scholar who writes engagingly and humorously about a wide array of topics in sexuality to appeal to both students and general readers. Revised and updated with new pieces on the medicalization of sex, FSD (female sexual dysfunction) and the politics of sex, as well as classic pieces found in the original edition, such as “Am I Normal?: The Question of Sex.”
A new model of women's sexual response moves the focus from spontaneous drive with its markers of sexual thoughts, fantasies, and conscious urge to be sexual to an inherently responsive cycle. The model reflects intimacy-based sexual motivation, processing of sexual stimuli to arousal, cognitive, and affective appraisal of that arousal. Sexual desire to continue the physical experience is accessed later. Providing that the outcome is emotionally and physically satisfying, emotional intimacy with the partner is increased. Any spontaneous sexual drive augments this intimacy-based cycle. Analysis of one or many breaks in the cycle has therapeutic implications.
Treating Sexual Desire Disorders: A Clinical Casebook
  • Sandra R Leiblum
Leiblum, Sandra R., ed. 2010. Treating Sexual Desire Disorders: A Clinical Casebook. New York: Guilford Press.
Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays Disorders of Sexual Desire and Other New Concepts and Techniques in Sex Therapy
  • Leonore Tiefer
Tiefer, Leonore. 2004. Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. fuRtheR ReaDIng Kaplan, Helen Singer. 1979. Disorders of Sexual Desire and Other New Concepts and Techniques in Sex Therapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Disorders of Sexual Desire and Other New Concepts and Techniques in Sex Therapy
  • Helen Kaplan
  • Singer
Kaplan, Helen Singer. 1979. Disorders of Sexual Desire and Other New Concepts and Techniques in Sex Therapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.