Sex

Are You or Your Partner Sexually Frustrated or Shut Down?

Five tips for rebooting your sex life in the age of COVID.

Posted Sep 25, 2020

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The beautiful brain
Source: Natasha Connell/unsplash

As a sex therapist, relationship expert, and neuroscientist who studies sex and the brain, I get tons of questions about how to deal with a sex life that no longer sizzles. In my experience, the most common issue that motivates clients to seek sex therapy is a lack of desire. And when one partner lacks sexual desire, it isn't unusual for the other to become frustrated.

To date, the most popular article on my website is "Five signs your partner is sexually frustrated," which describes the signs and symptoms of sexual frustration and offers tips about how to handle the desire discrepancy. It is written from the vantage that it's typically the male partner in a heterosexual relationship who is the sexually frustrated one. And there's some truth to that generalization.

As I explain in my book, Why Good Sex Matters, there are some very real differences in how male and female brains are wired during prenatal development contributing to sex differences in sexual desire. A cross-cultural finding is hard to ignore: On the whole, men tend to think about sex more often, want more sex, more sex partners, and desire more sexual novelty.

But there's way more to the story. Our libidos don't just come in two sizes, high and low. 

The first step in working with your libido is understanding the two types of sexual desire.

We need to make a distinction between "active" sexual desire (when we feel "horny") and “responsive” sexual desire. Active desire—the sex-on-the-mind kind—tends to be more robust in men.

Responsive sexual desire is the type that lies beneath the surface and can be jump-started by romantic wooing or physical stimulation. This type of desire tends to be more prevalent over the long haul in women in long-term relationships. It can also kick in under the right circumstances, like when something great happens (a book deal, a big raise, or meeting a fabulous potential partner). We feel more turned on by life.

For women, active desire tends to vary across the menstrual cycle—usually peaking at the time of ovulation.

Fun fact—how do we know this?  

This is the time of the month when women are most likely to initiate sex. Women tend to have 24 percent more sex during the days when they are fertile, even if they aren't trying to get pregnant.

Hot TIP: Some women taking birth control pills experience decreased libido. If this is happening to you, consider speaking to your doctor about finding a non-hormonal method of birth control that doesn't dampen your desire.

What else can squash libido? 

Short answer: stress

Chronic stress can truly derail sexual desire, period. Cortisol, a stress hormone that lingers, is rough on the brain and body. 

And now, we're not only stressed out about COVID. A recent survey done by the American Psychological Association has shown that the government's response to the pandemic is stressing out 7 in 10 adults.

Even before the pandemic, our libidos had been squashed. We were in the midst of a sexual recession. This trend goes across many countries. A major representative survey of Americans conducted in 2018 reported that 23 percent of adults had no sex in the previous year. This includes young adults, too. Wow!

A major source of stress is the way we use our attention. Continuous partial attention (CPA) describes how we are constantly plugged into our devices. Even when we're not actively using them, our devices sit nearby. We are on a perpetual low-level exhausting alert. We monitor the ever-present dings that signal the arrival of notifications: emails, texts, social media stuff, SMS messages, etc. 

FYI: The American Psychological Association's recent survey found that constantly checking electronic devices was linked to significant stress for most Americans.

How can we reboot our libidos?

1. Remember, sex is good for you.

The main way we can reboot the healing power of sexual pleasure starts with de-stressing. (To learn the tools I have cultivated to deal with my own panic-prone nervous system, click here.)

2. UNPLUG from your devices and turn them off for some portion of the day.

I recommend three device-free periods each day. That means that the phone or computer is turned off or in another room. This will give you a break from the drain of continuous partial attention and should also boost your mood

We typically eat three meals per day. You could turn off the devices when you have meals—or when you settle in for an evening at home.

3. PLUG into your body.

Make sure to find ways to elicit the relaxation response. This is how we can use our bodies to calm our minds. Less stress, more libido.

A simple practice that can reduce our stress reactivity: Breathe in for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 6.

4. Understand the ups and downs of what I call the Desire Curve.

Learn to understand how active and receptive desire work. Don't worry if you don't actively feel like having sex. Take advantage of it when you do. And as the course of desire flows over the month, or the course of a relationship, learn how to jump-start the engine of responsive desire.

5. Jump-start responsive desire into active desire.

Get turned on by life. Pursue interests that turn you on. Take risks to ask for what you want in and out of bed. Jump-start the engine by whipping out a vibrator and get arousal going.  

Bottom line: Getting turned on by life is key. Pleasure is not a luxury, but a necessity for a properly functioning brain and mind.

And the more sex we have, the more sex we usually want.