Sex & Sexuality

The Problem with Male Libido:
Voices Weigh In

Does it seem to you that newspapers are devoting whole sections these days to the predators du jour? The rate at which men are being outed as abusers is dizzying. And it brings up the inevitable question: what’s with them?

The New York Times published an editorial last week that stirred up a lot of controversy. In it, Stephen Marche, the author of The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century writes,

For most of history, we’ve taken for granted the implicit brutality of male sexuality. .  . . The crisis we are approaching is fundamental: How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal? How are we supposed to create an equal world when male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal? We cannot answer these questions unless we face them . . . . If you want to be a civilized man, you have to consider what you are. Pretending to be something else, some fiction you would prefer to be, cannot help. It is not morality but culture — accepting our monstrosity, reckoning with it — that can save us. If anything can.

Readers responded by questioning the idea that male sexuality is inherently brutal, an idea that gained scientific traction after Sigmund Freud characterized humans as creatures born with a cauldron of desires that must be tamed by the laws of the civilized world. However, Freud did not make an explicit distinction between the sexes: he saw all people as inherently struggling with primal drives, which, through the dynamics of the Oedipus complex and subsequent repression, become sublimated into more gentle forms.

Some of Freud’s original formulations have been questioned, and new research has shed a lot of light on the differences between the sexes. The Oedipus complex, for example, while a brilliant concept, is now observed as a developmental phase but not necessarily the central determinant of future sexuality and personality.

Meanwhile, evolutionary psychology has advanced our understanding of sexuality, including the idea that the male sex drive may have been different from that of the female for the good of the species. The evolutionary imperative for men was to “spread their seed” around as widely as possible. Some have used this as a basis to understand men’s propensity to seek multiple partners, while women, from an evolutionary perspective, have been better served by choosing a single, protective partner who stays around while the children are young and provides for the family.

Still, even if something is instinctive, human beings are not doomed to be ruled by it. I wrote to The New York Times in response to an article about male infidelity and evolution:

JUNE 8, 1999

To the Editor:

The science of evolutionary psychology is compelling, especially the view it takes of marital infidelity. However, it is important to keep in mind a major factor, which, in humans, mediates between instinct and behavior: self-observation.

The more civilized, mature and thoughtful a man is, the less likely he is to act on instinct alone.


Readers of Marche’s piece had similar objections. Characterizing the male libido as inherently aggressive leads to confusion, and possibly to justification for bad behavior. Psychologists believe that well-integrated aggression is a component of all behavior. This means that it gets modulated and incorporated into our ambition and desires, and is part of the energy that drives us, including sexual energy (also called libido). Without it, when aggression is not well integrated and is either unmodulated or denied, problems can occur at both extremes. Those that deny or “split off” their aggressive impulses are unable to channel this energy into appropriate ambition and drive. The other type—well, let’s just say we have become way too familiar with him lately.

As I have written before, men like Harvey Weinstein are not acting out of the need for sexual gratification. For someone like him, sexuality is actually an avenue for the expression of aggression. According to Harvard psychiatrist Henry Friedman M.D., who wrote to The Times in response to Marche’s editorial,

To start to evaluate male sexuality on the basis of revelations about men such as Harvey Weinstein and Louis C. K., who clearly are dealing with perverse sexual desires, is simply the wrong starting place. If we insist that all men have the potential in their sexuality for brutality, the result will gravely injure the nature of relationships between men and women . . . . This is hardly a result warranted by any fair exploration of the nature of male sexuality, which like all sexuality has a range from healthy to disturbed. Fortunately, the majority of men fall into the healthy category rather than into one that is dominated by the sadistic desire for power and destruction of their sexual partner. Fortunately for mankind, love does exist with equal frequency in both men and women.


Instead, we have to evaluate men’s behavior, including their misbehavior, on a continuum. On the low end, there are rapists and the Weinsteins who serially abuse and debase women. On the other end of the scale are civilized, warm, and loving men who respect women and treat them with care.

However, for too long, a type of behavior in between those two extremes has been tolerated and even assumed to be average behavior. When men say they are just engaging in “locker room talk,” attempting to normalize their bad behavior, they are trying to justify it by saying, “Everybody does it.” We all know that this is not true, but for too long, “good men” have been silent while bad behavior went on around them. For too long, it now seems, those in charge have turned a blind eye to the predatory practices of their employees, especially if they were moneymakers.

Start the conversation