Do men bond with their partners during sex? Does sex mean something different to a man in love or in a relationship?
Pick any comedy that includes sex and you might’ve noticed how many wrong signals continue to circulate. Men are portrayed as hyper-sex-focused, tripping over their own impulses and hormonal bodies in the bawdy pursuit of the women they want to sleep with.
We all know these stereotypes about what sex means to men, but how much of it is real? What does sex really mean for men and what role does love play in that? Here’s what the research says.
Language matters: Sex and gender exists on a spectrum. We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms assigned at birth. However, gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body.
Where sexual desire starts for men
You may have heard that men are visual, aroused by viewing erotic images, while women take an emotional approach to arousal.
But is that true?
Today, we understand that human sexuality is wide and diverse — and it’s not simply gender-defined.
Not everyone desires sex, regardless of their gender, and when some of us do, libido isn’t always the same.
Some people just don’t enjoy sex, or they experience only sexual attraction and sexual desire toward folks they already have a close emotional connection with.
A 2019 metanalysis found that nervous system responses to sexual and erotic images weren’t tied to the biological sex assigned to participants at birth. In other words, a man’s brain didn’t have a stronger reaction to erotic images than a woman’s.
That same review, though, did find that sexual images can jump-start activity in the brain.
Participants’ brain activity was tracked while viewing neutral, then sexual images. In most participants, when sexual material was shown to them, several regions of the brain became more active.
One unique difference in male participants was that their brain activity and physiological responses became less intense after repeated exposure to erotic images.
Simply put, the most intense sexual desire for men might be rooted in new sexual images or fresh experiences with new partners.
A 2001 research review combining the results of 150 studies did find that:
- men had more sexual thoughts, fantasies, and spontaneous arousal
- desired frequency for sex was higher in men
- men masturbated more frequently
- men were more likely to initiate sex more often
What’s love got to do with it
Helen Fisher is an author, human behavior researcher, and anthropologist. She describes human romantic relationships in three stages:
- Lust. This stage is dominated by the physical act of sex, sexual gratification, and casual sex.
- Attraction. Your attention is directed toward your potential partner and spending time with that specific person begins to be your primary focus.
- Attachment. You and your partner form bonds and commit to each other in a way that provides calm and comfort.
Within these three stages, the brain starts releasing hormones to reward you as you move through each stage.
The lust stage is marked by increased levels of testosterone and estrogen to drive sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. In this stage, sex is the goal, and testosterone and estrogen are the drivers in moving two people toward that goal.
The attraction stage is when chemical brain messengers (neurotransmitters) dopamine and norepinephrine start to spike in the brain. These two hormones are tied to feeling good and stimulate the reward system in your brain.
The surge of good feelings is why your partner makes you smile when you think about them.
The role of sex changes in this stage too for men and women. Sex is no longer the goal but is one of the ways your partner boosts your feel-good hormones. Initial bonds are easily formed in this stage because more aspects of your partner’s persona become, in a way, your own personal dopamine injection.
The attachment phase is where increased levels of oxytocin and vasopressin are seen. These hormones are the ones that help you feel calm, comforted, and bonded to your partner. This stage can also be seen as settling down and finding solace and support in your partner.
Fisher’s research also finds that both men and women go through these stages, suggesting that their approaches to love and sex are very similar.
“Love and sexual arousal are typically (by most studies) indistinguishable in the brain,” explains Dr. Nicole Prause, a licensed psychologist, and neuroscientist in Sacramento, California. “This is an uncomfortable research result because we have social pressures to understand love as ‘more serious’ and sexual arousal as overwrought or even base.”
But love is still something that people feel and experience, even if it can’t always be physically measured.
Prause explains, “Interestingly, both men and women rate sex with love feelings as more sexually satisfying on average.” While sexual desire may not be as intense as a couple moves into the attraction stage, having more meaningful sex (and dopamine-charged) becomes much more satisfying.”
What sex means to men at different stages
It’s difficult to draw broad generalizations about what sex means for men because people are all different.
However, sometimes sex could mean the following for some men:
Sex as affirmation
When a man has sex with another person, it could be more about him than the other person sometimes.
“For some men, sex is an affirmation of how good-looking they are — if they’re having sex with someone they perceive as better looking than them, for example,” explains Amanda Pasciucco, a certified sex therapist.
Sex for affirmation or “conquest” generally will occur during the lust stage if he has a specific need to feel affirmed in his attractiveness, desirability, or stamina.
Sex as comfort and connection
“Men generally perceive partnered sex as a way to connect,” explains Pasciucco. “Whereas women perceive emotional conversation as a way to open up their willingness to desire.”
In other words, a man’s desire to have sex with his partner may come from a desire to connect with them on a deeper level during the attraction and attachment stages.
When a man is unfaithful to his partner, many of the reasons why he might cheat can tie back to wanting to restart a relationship in the lust phase, where passion is high and sex is new and uncomplicated.
“People having sex outside of monogamy is rarely predicted by low sexual satisfaction with the current partner,” Prause says.
“People who have outside sex partners probably were likely to engage in those behaviors given the opportunity, but not everyone prone to those activities gets the opportunity. Research has suggested that monogamy isn’t harder for men than it is for women — the reverse might be true.
The only reason we think men struggle more with monogamy is that, culturally and historically, it has been more acceptable for men to seek out and act on a desire for more sexual variety.
The bottom line
Sex experts, and people more generally, used to confidently assert that men and women had different sexual natures, so sex meant different things to them.
Of late, this view is being questioned, though, as our understanding of sexual desire evolves. As a result, sex can mean different things to different people, regardless of their gender.
Someone looking for a quick hookup might be looking for affirmation, while a long-term monogamous couple might find great comfort and connection still being intimate after all those years.
Because humans are complex creatures, sex can never truly be without meaning because there is always a purpose and drive behind it. So what does sex mean to a man? The only honest answer is, it means something to him — but what it means will depend on who he is and what stage of his relationship he is in.