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The Truth About Men, Women And Libido

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Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws via Getty Images

In case you missed the memo, women are sex-withholding prudes and men are sex-crazed baboons ready to bang it out 24/7. At least, that's the long-enduring stereotype that was recently perpetuated via Reddit, which posted an actual spreadsheet a man put together to show how frequently his wife denied him sweet sweet sex.

Is this stereotype true? Kind of. But also, as is the case with so many stereotypes, not really.

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Men do seem to be, on the whole, more sexually keyed up than women. One survey out of Florida State University found that men have more spontaneous sexual arousal and more frequent and varied fantasies than women. Plus, the majority of them are reportedly thinking about sex at least once a day, compared to a quarter of women who have the same regular stream of naughty thoughts.

Yet, this hardly means that all men want sex nonstop, while all women would rather watch Desperate Housewives on the couch, clad in PJs and nursing a pint of Ben & Jerry's. These crude characterizations oversimplify both men and women who are dealing with genuine, and often personally devastating, issues with libido.

Women and Sexual Heat

The assumption with women is that they don't want sex because they're cold and uptight. Yet in reality, their sex drive is frequently impacted by legitimate medical and biological issues.

In fact, healthy young women have approximately 10 times more circulating testosterone in their bodies -- which is thought to be the key hormone underlying sexual desire in both men and women -- than estradiol, the most potent form of estrogen. Yet by the time women reach their late 40s, testosterone levels are about half what they were in their 20s.

A couple months ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about another issue at play: hypoactive sexual-desire disorder, a.k.a. a lack of lust. This clinical disorder affects anywhere between 10-15% of women between the ages of 20 and 60, according to the Times -- and is a big enough deal that scientists are working feverishly on a female Viagra called (yes) Lybrido to help with the problem.

Women dealing with these and other conditions may be characterized as frigid when it fact they are contending with problems entirely outside their control. The New York Times Magazine story made it clear that many women suffering from hypoactive sexual-desire disorder want sex. It's not about some innate female revulsion for hanky panky; it's about being physically unable to feel the flame of desire.

Men and Sexual Heat

The presumption with men, conversely, is that they're randy all the damn time. Yet in truth, one out of five males have a low sex drive. Problems run the gamut from psychological issues to low dopamine levels to medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Hell, even some hair-loss products can reportedly impact a guy's ability to get in the mood. Men may also suffer from HSDD (see above!) among other sex drive-reducing medical conditions.

In this case, too, social assumptions can do significant damage. Because men feel they "should" want sex all the time, they may experience feelings of intense guilt and anxiety when they are unable to live up to their "manly" duties.

The bottom line is that -- newsflash! -- it's impossible to reduce sex drive to a dichotomized stereotype. Some men want sex all the time; some don't. Some women want sex all the time; some don't. And there are myriad reasons why each gender may not be interested, and many reasons this desire may be fluid over time.

The Reddit spreadsheet has caught on in part because it enforces an engrained perception of male and female behavior, even to the point of being funny (men, so frisky, haha!; women, so frigid, haha!). But there are many realities that don't fit within these rigid assumptions -- or, for that matter, within the confines of a crude spreadsheet.

This story first appeared at Ravishly.com, an alternative women's news+culture website.