Award Date

December 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Committee Member

Marta Meana

Second Committee Member

Chris Heavey

Third Committee Member

Katherine Hertlein

Fourth Committee Member

Noelle Lefforge

Number of Pages



Significant theoretical and empirical attention has aimed to classify sexual desire in a way that accounts for its complexities. A recent question to arise from this discussion is whether desire is best conceptualized as a state or a trait. Limited data examine patterns of desire spanning several years, and most data emanate from cross-sectional or short-term follow-up studies. Long-term accounts of desire level variability remain a gap in the literature, as does research inquiring directly about the question of trait desire.

Thirteen heterosexual women and ten heterosexual men, ages 40-63, participated in a semi-structured interview focusing on desire level and variability across the lifespan, causal factors for desire changes, and perception of trait and state-level desire. Men and women also provided a graphic representation of desire level across their lifetime.

The sample of women in this study were generally desirous, and content with their desire level. What emerged from narratives of their desire trajectories was a model of desire development, beginning in adolescence and evolving through middle adulthood, composed of three relatively distinct stages. In their adolescent years, desire was not experienced as its own entity with a connection to their own wants. Instead, what was salient during this time was sexual activity driven by a yearning for validation or by a pressure to fulfill societal or partner expectations, often followed by feelings of shame for having been sexual. Then, as women progressed through their adult lives, they accumulated personal and relational experiences that clarified exactly what and how they desire. Finally, at the time of the interviews they appeared to have defined what desire is to them, to have developed their own expectations for sex and relationships, and to place high value on enacting their desire in line with these expectations. The majority of women in this sample viewed themselves as having a trait level of desire, with fluctuations seen as circumstantial deviations from this trait level. Men’s trajectories did not reveal a developmental model. They largely viewed their desire level as a trait and had a clear sense of desire from late adolescence or early adulthood. In most cases, there were two or three key causal factors that influenced men’s trajectories, falling broadly into categories of Individual (self-esteem, well-being, stress, physical health, and aging) and Relational (positive relationship characteristics, and novelty and stagnation).

Results support the characterization of desire level as a trait characteristic in some men and women. Interestingly, the way in which women determine their trait level of desire, given potentially significant variability across time, appears influenced by satisfaction with desire level. The graphic representations of lifespan desire level indicate a distinction between causal factors that influence the direction of the overall trajectory, versus those that were not sufficiently significant to factor into the trajectory. Results highlight the importance of intra-individual factors in desire development.


qualitative; sexual desire; sexual desire development; sexual desire trait


Clinical Psychology | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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