Rhythms of Desire: The Association between Menstrual Cycle Phases and Female Sexual Desire

By Regan, Pamela C. | The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Rhythms of Desire: The Association between Menstrual Cycle Phases and Female Sexual Desire


Regan, Pamela C., The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality


ABSTRACT: The recognition that sexual desire is associated with several significant individual and interpersonal life events has led to a corresponding interest in delineating and exploring the correlates and potentially causal antecedents of this sexual phenomenon. Researchers interested in biological causes have focused on the sex hormones and on hormonally-mediated (female) life events. In this review, I first define sexual desire, distinguish sexual desire from other sexual experiences (i.e., arousal, activity), and discuss commonly used operationalizations. I then summarize empirical research exploring the relationship between one hormonally-mediated female life event -- the menstrual cycle -- and sexual desire. I conclude that sexual desire does appear to increase during certain menstrual cycle phases for some women (in particular, at ovulation and during the mid follicular and late luteal phases). However, no single rhythmic pattern emerges that can be said to definitively characterize the sexual experience of the human female.

Key words: Sexual desire Sexual attraction Menstrual cycle Ovulation Hormones

INTRODUCTION

Sexual desire is associated with several significant individual and interpersonal human life events. For example, feelings of desire or sexual attraction may prompt individuals to seek and engage in sexual intercourse; such feelings, therefore, have implications for reproduction and species survival (e.g., Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Sexual desire also appears intricately linked to relationship adjustment and quality; a growing body of clinical evidence suggests that relationships in which one or both partners experience low sexual desire are often characterized by conflict, power struggles, anger, and hostility (e.g., Kaplan, 1979; Leiblum & Rosen, 1988). Consequently, a number of theoretical and empirical attempts have been made to delineate and explore the correlates and presumed causal antecedents of sexual desire. Although some researchers have examined external causes located in the physical or social environment (e.g., physically attractive others, erotic or pornographic media), the majority have focused on causes located within the individual. A variety of intraindividual factors have been examined, including age, gender, personality, mood, and hormonal or biological processes. Of these presumed causes of sexual desire, the latter have received the lion's share of empirical attention. Certainly human sexual response is less biologically determined and more volitional than any reference to "raging hormones" would have us believe. Nonetheless, many young adults believe that biological and hormonal processes cause female (and male) sexual desire (e.g., Regan & Berscheid, 1995), and research strongly indicates that endogenous hormones contribute at least partially to the timing and magnitude of this particular aspect of sexuality.

OVERVIEW

One method of examining the relation between the sex hormones (e.g., androgens, estrogens, progesterone) and sexual desire involves investigating life events and changes that are hormonally-mediated. The majority of major, hormonally-mediated life events are exclusively female (e.g., pregnancy, menstruation). Women experience greater variations in circulating hormone levels during their lifetimes than do most men and, for this reason, women make ideal participants for researchers interested in the relationship between hormones and sexual desire. In the following review, I will: (1) provide a definitional overview of sexual desire, distinguish this experience from other aspects of human sexual response, and discuss the ways in which sexual desire is commonly operationalized; and (2) examine empirical research conducted to determine whether the hormonal fluctuations involved in one female life event -- the menstrual cycle -- are reliably associated with rhythms, peaks, or changes in sexual desire.

DEFINITION AND OPERATIONALIZATION OF SEXUAL DESIRE

Sexual desire is commonly defined as a subjective, psychological experience or state that can be understood broadly as an interest in sexual objects or activities, or as a wish, need, or drive to seek out sexual objects or to engage in sexual activities (e. …

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