Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Hormonal Correlates and Causes of Sexual Desire: A Review

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Hormonal Correlates and Causes of Sexual Desire: A Review

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This review defines sexual desire, distinguishes sexual desire from other sexual experiences (e.g. arousal, activity), discusses common operationalizations of sexual desire, and then examines empirical research on the relationship of androgens, estrogens, progesterone and prolactin to sexual desire in men and women. The findings suggest that minimum critical levels of androgens appear necessary (although not sufficient)for the experience of sexual desire.

Key words: Sexual desire Hormones Sex hormones


Sexual desire is associated with several significant individual and interpersonal human life events. Feelings of desire or sexual attraction may prompt individuals to seek and engage in sexual activity; such feelings therefore have implications for reproduction and species survival (for additional discussion, see Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Regan & Berscheid, 1999). Sexual desire also appears intricately linked to relationship adjustment and quality. A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that relationships in which one or both partners experience low sexual desire are believed to be, and often are, characterized by dissatisfaction and poor overall adjustment (e.g., Kaplan, 1979; Leiblum & Rosen, 1988; Levine, 1987; Regan, 1998; Verhulst & Heiman, 1979; Zilbergeld & Ellison, 1980). 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; Kenrick, Gutierres, & Goldberg, 1989; Regan & Berscheid, 1995, 1997), the majority have focused on causes located within or under the control of the individual. A variety of intraindividual factors have been examined, including acute or chronic drug use, age, sex or gender, mood and negative emotional states, personality, and hormonal or biological processes (for reviews, see Regan, 1996; Regan & Berscheid, 1999). Of these presumed correlates of sexual desire, the latter have received the most empirical attention. While human sexual responses are less biologically determined and more volitional than any popular reference to "raging hormones" would have us believe, many men and women believe that biological and hormonal processes cause sexual desire (e.g., Regan & Berscheid, 1995). Indeed, research does suggest that both endogenous and exogenous hormones contribute at least partially to the timing and magnitude of this particular aspect of sexuality.

This paper reviews past and current literature on the experience, measurement and causes of sexual desire and on the role of endocrine factors, specifically androgens, estrogens, progesterone, and prolactin, as causes or correlates of desire.

Each of these hormones, produced variously by the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland, the ovaries in women, and the testes in men, has been targeted as a possible antecedent or necessary precursor to sexual desire. This paper considers the issues involved in defining sexual desire, distinguishes this experience from other aspects of human sexual response, discusses the ways in which sexual desire is commonly operationalized, and reviews empirical research on the relationship between the sex hormones and sexual desire as experienced by men and women. The discussion of each hormone includes an overview of the endocrine glands associated with its production and of the major naturally occurring forms of the hormone and the amounts typically present in the blood plasma of adult men and women. It also examines empirical research on the relationship between the hormone and sexual desire. Because androgens and prolactin appear to have a similar relationship to desire in both men and women, the sections on these hormones are organized according to effect upon sexual desire (i. …

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