Gay Men and Mismatched Libidos: Navigating Difference
Several times recently in my work in sex therapy for gay men, clients have asked me about what to do if they want more, or less, sex than their partner. It’s sometimes referred to as “desire discrepancy” or “mismatched libidos,” and it can happen in gay or straight relationships. For straight couples, the dynamics are often very different because of male/female gender issues and their social implications, and a very frequent misandry that labels men as “sex-crazed monsters” and women and as having the “correct amount” of sexuality. I leave that discussion to other clinicians/authors, but in my practice (for 30 years now), I focus on the dynamics relevant to gay men and their relationships. I’m proud to focus my expertise with this specific population; I think it’s needed and validates the dignity, health, and pride of gay men’s existence in these times of a still-too-omnipresent oppression that we see relentlessly (and perhaps increasingly) in the national and global political news. Gay men have to be continually vigilant to preserve and expand the basic rights we’ve been fighting for for decades in the United States and the world.
Helping a couple (or, sometimes working just one partner) with this challenge of mismatched libido or desire discrepancy is a frequent request, because this causes friction on a variety of levels and important considerations in the domains of a relationship: emotional, physical, relational, and challenges to navigate the difference (and not just simply declare yourselves “incompatible” and break up, when other aspects of your relationship could be just fine).
Let’s look at each of those, in turn:
- Emotional – Despite the misandrist and reductionist stereotype that men (gay or straight) are just sex-crazed pigs who have no meaningful internal emotional life, mismatched libidos in a relationship can create several emotional challenges. Feelings of “what’s wrong with me?” if you don’t desire as much sex as your partner, or if you want way more sex than your partner, are commonly-reported in session. I have to do a lot of reassurance that you’re not, as gay men are so often labeled, “sick, bad, or wrong” because of what you feel in terms of libido or type/frequency of your sexual desires. Let’s start with that reassurance so that you’re not torturing yourself with self-doubt, either way.
There is a pervasive social dynamic that seems to imply that whichever partner in a relationship wants less sex is somehow the “virtuous” and upstanding citizen one, and the one who wants more (sometimes labeled as “constant”) sex is the one of lower character, lower class, or lower adult maturity. The pathologizing label of “hypersexual” or “sex addict” is annoyingly persistent, despite this being a vernacular, not a scientific, word, that really has its roots in religious bigotry wrapped up in some kind “clinical garb” to lend it a veneer of legitimacy outside of a greedy televangelist or opportunistic/charlatan “therapist” trying to make a name and a fortune for himself/herself by tapping into American Puritan sex negativity and shaming oppression. This is cruel. It’s also left over from the pervasive social invalidation of women’s sexuality, the “value” of “marrying a virgin,” or just slut-shaming. It’s a misogynistic notion that’s been carried over to be lobbed at men (gay or straight) who might masturbate “too often” (however one defines that, which is highly subjective) or those who “want to pounce on everything that moves.”
In gay male relationships, the dynamics of entitlement, indulgence, deprivation, scarcity, invalidation, shame, guilt, and frustration can all be present. Guys who want sex less than their partner can be labeled as “just not attracted” to their partner, or “less masculine,”, or “less of a man” (which gay men face almost constantly). Guys who want sex more than their partner can be labeled as exploitive or asking for something “excessive” or “improper.” When gay couples try to navigate through all this, there can be a certain undercurrent of “who is right” and “who is wrong,” and they will each get validation for their point of view, depending on who is being asked.
What’s antidotal to these negative dynamics (other than perhaps a wide variety of topics to address in couples therapy) is for a lot of validation to go on: agreeing that neither one is “right” or “wrong” in this dilemma, but that they are just acknowledging a difference in their emotional, physical, social, and inter-relational dynamics. This is where my previous assertions that the foundational building-blocks of a healthy, happy, and enduring relationship are Commitment, Communication, and Compromise (my previous article on that is here).
The process of what “mismatched libidos” means on the emotional level is that sex within a relationship (with each other, and possibly with outside partners in Consensual Non-Monogamy) addresses the emotional needs of each partner for connection, reassurance, validation, sharing, celebration, satisfaction, relaxation, entertainment, amusement, intimacy, safety, and appreciation, among others.
No discussion of how to navigate the “problem” of mismatched libidos is complete without each partner involved (in a dyad, or in a polycule) expressing, and listening, to the emotional implications and the needs of each partner involved. Guys who want sex less can feel like they are “deficient” in “fulfilling their masculine duty,” and guys who want sex more can feel like they are “doing it wrong” if they have a natural drive to be sexual relative to their partner, even to other guys they just “hear about” as some kind amateur “average” rate of activity.
A good part of this discussion, sometimes guided by a couples therapist, can be, “What does sex mean for you?” and talking about these domains of the emotional meaning (even if relatively little), the physical satisfaction and expression, the implications for the quality of the relationship, and the social/community aspects (perhaps this the least of these).
- Physical – Mismatched libidos is usually just a physiological difference. Think of another variable, such as height. You might have been born and destined by your genetics to grow up to be 5’ 6”. Your partner might be 6’ 2” (the oft-quoted national average for American men is 5’ 9”). Being “short” or being “tall” can have its parallel in relatively higher versus lower levels of libido. In sex therapist training, some material discusses how it can be considered normal for a man to masturbate four times a day, or once every two weeks. Both of these guys would be considered “normal” under a bell curve of the range of frequency. It can help men to feel reassured and validated to understand that, especially when they start to feel “freakish” in how they “think” they compare to others, as if being “average” were a pressing goal (which it’s not).
Variables such as medication side-effects (especially with anti-depressant SSRI medications) might subdue libido, or possibly medications for epilepsy, hypertension, or other conditions. Levels of stress, how much sleep a guy gets, elements of his diet, religious or cultural influences in Family of Origin, whether he has experienced a trauma (sexual or otherwise), whether or not he has depression or anxiety, social anxiety, body image, whether he has physical pain (such as from an injury), or even self-esteem might all influence how relaxed/horny a guy can be.
The problem in our society is that a very naturally low libido has some kind of social implication that he’s “less of a man,” and a naturally high libido has implications that he is a “slave to his own cock” (among other body parts), and this results in a certain “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” about getting it like Goldilocks: “just right.”
In relationships, partners would do well to self-reflect on what their own body “tells” them to do, and to discuss his “natural set-point” with their partners, and then to mutually validate each other’s natural set-points in the context of not who’s right or wrong, but that it just “is.” The partners work hard to take any kind of social or cultural value judgment out of it, and declare that “wherever you are in your natural level of libido, that’s OK.” It’s not a contest, or a competition, and there are no winners or losers. This might take a certain very aware, proactive, conscious rejection of “society’s” messages, but gay men, just in the coming out process alone, have to shrug off negative social pressures and “minority stress”. This is just more of the same “what society says ain’t necessarily so.” Negative social prejudices are not reliable or legitimate foundations to base our values and behaviors on. Instead, accepting yourself (at whatever natural libido level), and then extending that radical acceptance to your partner, go a long way to a peaceful co-existence in your relationship.
- Relational – Once you and your partner become aware that you might be facing the challenge of mismatched libidos in your relationship, the inevitable question of, “OK, great, now what do we do?” comes up. Sure, some couples just break up over this. It feels like an insurmountable, chronically-annoying incompatibility and I’m sure at least some gay couples call it quits and just hope for more libido-alignment the next time around. But I think this is a little bit tragic, because I don’t think even strongly different libidos is an insurmountable challenge in gay male relationships. Like the above-referenced “commitment, communication, and compromise” concept, practical and satisfying solutions can be arrived at, if perhaps with some sincere, good-faith effort and progressive open-mindedness that leads to creative, if perhaps unexpected, solutions. What works for you and your partner might not work for any other gay male couple, and that’s OK. The two of you create a unique entity, and while you might benefit from a model example of another couple/relationship you know, you always have to adapt the situation for your unique chemistry.
Mismatched libidos can certainly be a contributing factor to the decision to be Consensually Non-Monogamous. I had a year-long specialized training to be certificated (from Sexual Health Alliance) in Consensual Non-Monogamy and Polyamorous Relationships/Families which covered a lot of topics on how to help people in this. In my long experience (30 years in 2022) providing therapy for gay male couples, navigating the CNM agreement (articles on that here and here) and troubleshooting the pitfalls (article on that here) has been a frequent function of the therapy (and relationship coaching, somewhat-related but separate professional service).
Agreeing to perhaps incorporating the role of sex with outside partners in a way that works for that couple can be a frequent and welcome solution to mismatched libidos, where one partner wants to be relieved of the implied “pressure” to have sex more than he really wants, and the other partner doesn’t need to feel “constrained” or frustrated in his desire to have more. This is especially relevant when the primary partners enjoy a good, sound relationship overall, such as emotionally and domestically, and they want to be together in a committed, long-term (health permitting) relationship. The role of the sex they have with each other (from not at all, to sometimes, to frequently, or the type of sex (vanilla versus kink, etc.) is a separate discussion from the role, function, and purpose of the sex they might have with outside partners. And, of course, the “consensual” in CNM means a fairly thorough, and frequent, discussion of mutually-accepted “ground rules” for what sex with outside partners might look like.
In couples who both want to elect monogamy, coping with mismatched libidos might involve a discussion of the practical use of masturbation (and porn) in the relationship. It might also involve a “compromise” discussion, where sometimes the partner who is not as often “in the mood” might “be a good sport” and help his partner get off. But the higher-libido partner might also find ways to “get himself off” through porn, toys/devices, and fantasy so he doesn’t be perceived as “pestering” his partner. This kind of balance should be discussed, so that resentments don’t arise that one partner “always gets his way” while the other one “just has to deal.” A good discussion could be, does this feel fair and balanced? If not, what changes could we make in practical, behavioral terms that might make it feel more balanced?
So much of the relational component in coping with mismatched libidos is trying very hard not to be defensive, accusatory, abandoned, resentful, entitled, blaming, or shaming for wherever one falls on the libido spectrum. Coming into it with an attitude of compassion, patience, open-mindedness, mutual-validation, creativity, and just plain calm (remove the screaming/crying drama of it all) are the foundational building-blocks of arriving at an “adaptive coping” for the natural differences. It helps to remember that you’re navigating all of this with someone whom you supposedly love and cherish on a very profound level.
- Navigating Difference – The process of the couple (or polycule) finding its way toward peace of mind in all this is like navigating a ship through narrow channels of rocky waters. So much of couples therapy for gay men is about “navigating difference,” or taking different points of view on many topics (sure, sex, but there are also differences in handling finances, managing a home together, dealing with your respective in-laws, approach to alcohol/drugs, supporting each other’s careers, dealing with health challenges, and so many other topics I write about (see the large archives of my previous blog articles, and use the “search box” option to find the topics most important to you)).
Having a difference, including a big one, in your libido level (or even tastes/preferences in sex beyond frequency and into vanilla/kink, role or function of sexual expression (intimacy to simple entertainment)), is so common in gay male relationships that it’s probably a good idea to just anticipate the need for that discussion, either at first or certainly eventually, years into being together. Accepting difference is a key to important contemporary ideas like diversity and representation in the workplace, or in politics or entertainment. Current social discourse is frequently about the importance of recognizing and appreciating difference and diversity in society of all kinds (race, religion, nationality, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, parental status, ideology, social class, disability status, parental status, etc.). Issues of arrogant, be-my-way-or-I’ll-punish-you attitudes (often seen in religious and social conservatives, such as Republicans) are appropriately seen as hostile and antisocial to the values of a pluralistic society. Tolerance, acceptance, validation, co-existence, and appreciation of diversity are currently seen as virtuous social values. The same can be said on the “micro” level of the gay male relationship in each household.
I often characterize my work as a gay men’s specialist sex therapist as helping guys “improve your quality of life, by way of improving the quality of your sex life.” And while sex therapy for gay men is not all that I do (I’m also a “mainstream” therapist who is a specialist in working exclusively with gay men on a wide variety of challenges, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, ADD, bipolar disorder, trauma recovery, health challenges, etc.), the sex therapy component is often the most urgent request for my services because there are just very few nationally AASECT Certified Sex Therapists in the first place, and even fewer (by a shocking degree) of gay male specialist ones, leaving many guys nearly desperate to find gay-affirmative, gay-specific, informed, skilled, and validating help. While I am licensed to provide psychotherapy in California, I also provide executive coaching, and life/relationship/career coaching to gay men in all of the United States and worldwide. I’m happy to do this work.
For more information on services available, call/text 310-339-5778, or email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com. Self-empowerment to take control of your life starts with the simple idea that it’s possible to do so.