Dead bedroom, sexless marriage, low libido, lack of desire.
We’ve got lots of names to describe what happens when we stop wanting sex.
And according to science, this is a common phenomenon- about 30–40% of all women have at some point experienced a loss of interest in sex for at least a three month period.
The stats are high yet it’s still somewhat of a taboo to talk about.
We live in a very sexualised society in which expectations, judgements and stereotypes around sex are common. So, if you don’t fancy having sex, it can feel like there’s something seriously wrong with you or your relationship.
This was my experience when my sex drive plummeted about three years ago.
I felt ashamed, numb, and totally overwhelmed by what was wrong.
I labelled myself as having a low sex drive, and with it took on an identity that I was “abnormal” or “broken”. I couldn’t ever imagine getting it back, and I imagined I would need to see a doctor or a psychiatrist to help me figure out a way to rekindle it.
However, along my journey I’ve realised that defining what a “low libido” even is can be complicated, and even problematic, for many women.
And that many women don’t need a diagnosis, pills or counselling to find their desire. Because how they feel is NORMAL.
I repeat- NORMAL.
Knowing more about how to define what a low sex drive is can mean the difference between where and whether you seek support- whether it’s from a GP, a sexual health clinic, or if you can sort it yourself at home.
And this makes the world of difference when you’re feeling like the only one who’s not into sex. So, let’s take a closer look at how we define a lack of desire…
How to find out if you’ve got a low sex drive?
1. Is it a temporary issue?
We use the term “low libido” to describe a lack of interest in or desire for sex.
This can seem quite a scary label, however- we ALL don’t feel like having sex sometimes– whether that’s the result of something like drinking too much, having an argument with our partner or feeling unwell.
So experiencing a “lack of desire” might just describe a temporary, on-the-night feeling.
It’s NORMAL to have these fluctuations in our levels of desire because our libido responds to what is going on in our lives and environments. A low libido in this sense can be simply solved with time, a little attention, self-care, sleep or sobering up and reflecting upon a terrible hangover, rather than a medical issue to be “diagnosed”.
2. Having a tough time?
In a study by Relate, relationship support practitioners said the top three most common causes of sexual problems for women were lack of emotional intimacy, lack of communication between partners, and tiredness.
Therefore, many women experience a loss of libido as a result of external pressures, rather than anything medically wrong.
Using medicalised language like syndromes, disorders and diagnosis can make those who experience a low libido fear there is something seriously wrong with them, when in fact a lack of desire might be a NORMAL response (seeing a pattern yet?!) to issues such as:
- experiencing a difficult period in life causing stress or anxiety (e.g. after a bereavement, a new baby, relationship troubles, caring responsibilities, a stressful period at work)
- hormonal changes (e.g. breastfeeding, post-birth)
- sex just not feeling that great (or painful, e.g. vaginismus)
- or difficulties within a relationship (things like unresolved conflict, betrayal, resentment, disagreements around household chores)
This is the same as the message our body tells us when, for example, stress causes our periods to stop. Our sex drives are often a barometer for how connected we feel to ourselves and our own well-being.
Although some women are diagnosed with HSDD (see point 7) or physical/mental health issues and may require specialist help, for many others the solution instead is to initiate a change in lifestyle, better sexual education or work on the relationship to improve her want for sex.
This is a positive message because it suggests the lack of desire isn’t static and the power to recover her libido lies inside her not in prescriptions or therapy.
3. The test is if it causes YOU stress.
Therefore the test of whether a lack of sex drive is a problem is whether YOU feel it is.
In our society, we often paint people with low or no desire as “broken”, however, for many women they are happy with their levels of desire. For others they identify as asexual and do not experience sexual attraction or desire.
In pathologising (medicalising) people who don’t desire sex, we are judging what is “normal” and this varies hugely from person to person. So, if you’re not distressed about not having sex and experiencing no or little desire, this isn’t a problem and don’t worry!
4. But what if it causes my partner stress?
For many women, THEY might be happy with their levels of desire but the distress is coming from their partner who wants more sex than they do.
This is called a mismatch in desire, and can lead to tension and conflict in the relationship, as well as hurt feelings on both sides.
A mismatch in desire is difficult because neither partner is wrong or right- it just is.
So you might not objectively have “low” desire, but rather your partner just has a higher level.
Dealing with a mismatch can feel tough to navigate because there is no “normal” for sex– it’s only what you negotiate between you.
Often, this is where tensions, arguments and resentment forms.
And if you haven’t put the “low libido” label on yourself, but rather your partner or society has, it may not a diagnosable condition but rather something unique to your relationship. In this sense, the lack of sex within the relationship is the issue– rather than you.
In addition, the lower desire partner might also fluctuate during the relationship because our levels of desire aren’t static but respond to what is happening in our lives.
It can feel even more complicated because some women, myself included, don’t label the lack of sex/desire as a problem until their partner does.
When their partner does flag this as an issue, they realise that they too aren’t satisfied with the frequency of sex. For me, I forgot sex even existed for a big part of my life until my partner reminded me I used to love it. Should this happen, the above rule applies because the lack of libido is then causing her distress.
The important thing to consider is what is normal for you, and your partner, not what you *think* you should be doing.
5. Because, what is normal?
What a “normal” level of sex between couples is is VERY subjective. For some normal and happy/healthy sex drive is every day. For others it’s once a month.
There literally is no normal– it’s whatever you feel comfortable and happy with.
So you should never stress about comparing yourselves to others. As long as you are satisfied that is all that matters.
Many couples get tied up in worrying about the frequency of their sexual encounters because they’re concerned with what’s normal. However what is most important is how good the sex feels that you’re actually having.
Hint- often, if you increase the quality of sex, you end up increasing the quantity anyway.
6. Even if you do feel like it’s a problem, is it actually YOU that is the problem or is it the way we understand sex drives?
Much of our understanding of how sex works is based on how men work.
Emily Nagoski’s book “Come as You are” was a game changer in that she put forwards a new model for understanding how women navigate desire.
Instead of the male oriented model where sex is spontaneously desired “out of the blue” (called “impulsive desire”), Nagoksi suggested that it is common for some women to only want sex in response to some sort of stimulation (called “responsive desire”).
Women then do want and enjoy sex, but only after being turned on.
So, we often need more thought in the initiation of sex and more time encouraging arousal before our desire peaks.
This means our sex education needs to equip us with this knowledge and the dominant “sexually impulsive” narrative needs to be dismantled to make room for different types of sexual responses that are all as normal as the other.
And all it takes to increase your desire is an understanding of how you respond, and adapting how sex is initiated in light of this new found knowledge.
7. I still think I need a diagnosis…
If you still felt there was a problem and you went to see a specialist (GP/Gynecology doctor etc), you might be diagnosed with what is know as Female sexual interest/arousal disorder.
The criteria of female disorder of sexual interest/arousal (according to the DSM) are:
- absent or decreased sexual interest
- absent or decreased erotic thoughts or fantasies
- absent or decreased initiation of sexual activity or responsiveness to a partner’s attempts to initiate it
- absent or decreased excitement and pleasure
- absent or decreased response to sexual cues
- absent or decreased sensations during sexual activity, whether genital or non-genital.
(Three out of six criteria are required for diagnosis and have to be present for a period of six months or more and cause significant distress)
Generally, “when a woman is not able to fully, healthily, and pleasurably experience some or all of the various physical stages the body normally experiences during sexual activity” a diagnosis might be made.
For some people, a label can be really relieving to know that you have “something”, and that there must be a cure or some medicine to take to fix it.
However, I urge you to go back and re-read the symptoms of sexual dysfunction again from the point of view of a responsive sexual response person or someone who is feeling stressed/sleep deprived, or a-sexual.
It may be that you don’t have a problem at all, but rather a very different way of being sexual than men (which the diagnosis is based on).
Or, your sex drive has decreased for other incredibly valid reasons, so that the lack of desire should instead be interpreted as a symptom of something else being out of balance in your life, rather than a diagnosable condition.
There are ongoing debates about the problem of medicalising what could be a socially constructured issue. For me personally, my journey has taught me that we need to be more aware of the complexities of female desire, because a great sex drive is made up of much more than just our biology or how we relate to men.
You can find more about my tale to improve my sex drive here.
And, if you’re still concerned about your lack of desire, it’s important not to minimise what it a clearly distressing and difficult issue. It’s useful to speak to a GP or a sexual health clinic who can support and guide you to further assistance.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below- what do you think the problems are with medicalising a lack of desire?