It has long been assumed that men typically want to have sex more often than women because they have higher levels of testosterone. But a team from the University of Michigan found that women with high testosterone had a greater desire to masturbate compared to their peers.
However, they were surprised to discover that women with higher testosterone levels were less likely to want to have sex with a partner.
It suggests that behind the finding is a complex web of factors including anxiety.
Lead author Sara M Van Anders from the University of Michigan, told LiveScience.com: ’People have argued that sex research focuses too much on dysfunction and pharmaceutical treatment as opposed to questions like pleasure or relationships or stress.
‘There is a whole scope of factors that go unstudied.’
The study was one of the few to study healthy adults. Most other research into sexual desire has relied on animal models or people being treated for abnormal hormonal levels.
They recruited 105 men and 91 women who completed questionnaires about their sex lives, answering questions such as ‘Are you self-conscious of your body during sex?’
They also provided a saliva sample which was tested for both testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. Testosterone is a steroid hormone that is released by the ovaries in women and testes in men as well as in the adrenal gland in both sexes.
Van Anders found that levels of testosterone had nothing to do with how often men thought about masturbation or sex.
However, women with higher testosterone were less likely to want sex with someone. Although it may seem counter-intuitive it fits with previous studies that have found women in long-term relationships have lower testosterone.
It could be that the hormone drives them to find a partner to be close to rather than just have sex with, van Anders said. Or it may be that higher testosterone reflects higher stress in women rather than a higher sexual drive.
She told LiveScience.com: ‘When you’re saying you desire sexuality with another person, what are you desiring and are people desiring different things sometimes?
‘Are some people more desiring to be with their partner, to give their partner pleasure, to have a routine, or for their own pleasure?’
The one link van Anders did find was between masturbation and sexual desire. Men were more likely to masturbate than women and also reported a greater desire to have sex. It is not yet known whether desire triggers masturbation or vice versa.
The research has been published online in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour.