By Dr. Amy Muise
Sometimes it’s obvious that our partner is interested in having sex—they might give us that seductive look or special touch. But other times it might be clear that tonight’s not the night—our partner might avoid our advances and simply roll over and go to sleep. But often, amidst our busy lives, work responsibilities, and children to care for, it may be much less clear how interested our partner is in engaging in sex. In a recent set of studies, my colleagues and I looked at how accurate people are at picking up on their partner’s interest in sex and how perceptions of a partner’s sexual desire are associated with relationship satisfaction and commitment.1
First I want to share what we currently know from previous research about perceptions of sexual interest. All of the the past research on perceptions of sexual interest has focused on initial encounters between men and women—that is, men and women rating the sexual interest of a person they are meeting for the first time. The results are very consistent: men tend to show a sexual overperception bias where they perceive greater sexual interest in a women’s behavior than she herself reports. The majority of this research draws on evolutionary psychology and explains these findings as reflecting the fact that it’s more costly (in terms of men’s chances for mating with a good partner and having kids) for men to miss a potential mating opportunity than to perceive that a woman is interested in sex when she actually is not; thus, men tend to err on the side of overperception.2
We suspected, however, that things might work differently in the context of established relationships. Across three studies of long-term, established couples, we found that men err in the direction of the opposite bias; specifically, they underperceive their romantic partner’s sexual desire. That is, men tend to see their romantic partner as being less interested in sex than their partner reports. In contrast, women generally do not tend to over or underperceive their partner’s desire.
One possible explanation for men’s sexual underperception bias in established relationships is that underperceiving a partner’s sexual desire might help to avoid complacency and keep people motivated to entice their partner’s interest. For example, if a person overperceives how interested their partner is in having sex, they might feel as though they don’t have to do anything to set the mood or attract their partner’s interest. But, if a person sees their partner as having less desire than they actually report, the person might put forth a little extra effort to ignite their sexual interest. Across all three studies, we found evidence that the sexual underperception bias was associated with benefits for relationships (particularly when it was men who were underperceiving their partner’s desire).
Interestingly, when men underperceived their romantic partner’s sexual desire, their partners felt more satisfied and committed to the relationship. There is more work to be done to figure out exactly what men are doing that is associated with their partners feeling more satisfied, but it is possible that when men see their partner as having lower sexual desire than their partner actually reports, men do things to make their partner feel special and entice their interest, and in turn, the partner feels more satisfied with and committed to the relationship.
Another possible explanation is that men demonstrate a sexual underperception bias in order to avoid being rejected for sex. One cost of overperceiving a partner’s sexual desire is that the person might initiate sex at a time when their partner is not interested in sex and risk being rejected. In general, sexual rejection tends to be associated with lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.3 In fact, we found that on days when men (and women) were more motivated to avoid sexual rejection, they showed a stronger sexual underperception bias. That is, when people were more motivated to avoid being rejected by their partner, both men and women underperceived their partner’s desire, compared to when they were less motivated to avoid sexual rejection. Since sexual rejection tends to be associated with negative consequences for relationships, it is possible that one function of the underperception bias is to reduce the frequency of sexual rejection and ultimately help to maintain the relationship.
Finally, one reason we suspected that men would demonstrate a sexual underperception bias in established relationships and women would not is because men tend to have higher sexual desire than women.4 People with higher sexual desire should be more motivated to attract their partner’s sexual interest and to avoid sexual rejection. In fact, we found that our effects did differ based on a person’s general level of sexual desire. People low in sexual desire did not show a significant underperception bias, whereas both men and women higher in desire significantly underperceived their partner’s desire. Because men, in general, report higher sexual desire than women, this could be one reason why men tend to demonstrate a stronger overperception bias compared to women.
In sum, staying attuned to a partner’s sexual needs and desires can be challenging. But it seems that biased perceptions of a partner’s sexual desire may have some function for maintaining relationships. Specifically, the sexual underperception bias may help manage the careful balance between pursuing sexual connection with a partner and avoiding sexual rejection.
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