Until a few months ago, I hadn’t pondered female lust, or consider how it differed from its corporeal cousins, desire and arousal. Go ahead and get your guffaws out of the way. Certainly, someone who makes a life out of exploring intimacy should know the distinctions, you are thinking. I sheepishly admit that until the nuances were brought to my attention, I viewed them interchangeably. Shame on me (in a good shame sort of way).
On the other hand, if you’re intrigued and asking if lust is not sexual desire, then what is it? And which comes first, female arousal or the desire to have sex? And how do these change over the course of a woman’s lifetime? Then you’re in the company of a new breed of sexplorators.
The sexually curious are directing their inquisitive lenses to such things as why women lust in the first place, how our sexuality meanders from “hot” to “not,” and why female genitals tell a different story than self-reported levels of arousal.
University of Texas psychologist Davis Buss compared three groups of women—ages 18 to 26, 26 to 45, and 46 and older—and reported the results earlier this year in the journal, Personality and Individual Difference. He and his colleagues discovered that women in their thirties and forties were significantly more sexual than younger and older females.
This wasn’t surprising news to Susan Crain Bakos, author of several books including The Little Book of the Big Orgasm: More Techniques & Games for Amazing Orgasms Than You Could Possibly Imagine Trying (Quiver, 2010). “[Older women have] more intense sexual fantasies, more orgasms, more sex—and even more one-night stands,” she explains.
Nor is it a great revelation that women have a greater capacity for sexual pleasure or become more sexual once they age past their twenties, prime reproductive years from an evolutionarily point of view. What fascinated us both was the next bit. “Older men presumably continue to lust because they are evolutionarily programmed to keep spreading their genes until they drop dead—but why would women continue to lust, beyond an interest in procreation, beyond minilaproscopy tubal ligation, beyond menopause, outside marriage—and from the male viewpoint perhaps, beyond all reason?”
Some have suggested that a woman’s hormonal milieu is to blame. In her teens and twenties, a female’s estrogen levels are peaking, coinciding with her most fertile years. It doesn’t really matter if she wants to have sex much, the theory goes, because the odds are generally good that she’ll get pregnant when she does. However, as female hormones decline (starting in the late twenties to early thirties), the proportion of testosterone goes up relatively speaking. A woman responds by becoming hornier, Buss proffers, because she’s unconsciously driven to maximize her chances of getting pregnant while she still can.
All that lust for all things sexual isn’t synonymous with desire, however. This was brought to my attention recently via a scintillating thread on Facebook. Like a verbal voyeur, I read on the sidelines, and learned the following (forgive me, readers, for I have sinned: I cannot repeat those answers verbatim nor can I find them any longer, so I must paraphrase):
Desire refers to our longings, wishes or yearnings for something or someone. Implicit in the context of sex and this discussion is the idea of reciprocity and mutual joy. Lust, on the other hand, is all about ME. It’s uncontrolled, impersonal, and inordinate, a physical need intent on being satisfied without regard for anyone else. The object doesn’t matter, because they are just that … a means to a self-focused end.
This subtle difference points to kinks in the tale of lust and desire. For women—as opposed to men, the prism by which and until recently, most research was viewed through—sexual desire often follows arousal—defined as our body’s physical response to sexual stimuli.
Even if we are technically “turned on,” genitally speaking, it doesn’t mean we are actually in the mood for sex, subjectively speaking.
The relationship between these two: subjective and genital arousal, is strongly predictable in men. Increased blood flow to the genitals leads to an erection, arousal and desire for sex. What’s more, guys are more candid about being turned on.
University of Toronto sexologist Meredith Chivers analyzed over 100 studies measuring arousal, and found a significant correlation between what a man’s penis was saying, and what he’d self-reported. This was true for straight and gay men.
Not so with women of any persuasion. Their loins could be screaming, I’m Ready For Sex! but that’s not what they admitted. Were they lying? Don’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion.
It turns out that for women, being in the mood to make love is as much a matter of the mind, and effected by many things like the state of our relationships, the length of our to-do list, and how we feel about ourselves, physically and sexually speaking (a truncated list, to be sure). This is one reason why some believe that the female equivalent to Viagra™ isn’t going to have much success for the majority of women with diminished female sexual arousal. All the flushing in the world won’t guarantee that a gal’s mind and genitalia are harmonized.