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The Two Distinct Types of Low Sexual Desire

Different circumstances may lead to low sexual desire in romantic relationships.

Key points

  • Couples may begin with average sexual desire and may transition to a low sexual desire group over time.
  • Poor sexual communication or life stress might cause couples to experience low sexual desire.
  • Not all couples with low sexual desire are dissatisfied with their relationships.
  • Not all couples seeking treatment for low sexual desire should be considered equivalently.


Interpersonal intimacy is strongly associated with sexual desire, especially for women. This connection led researchers to investigate whether women with low sexual desire might have arrived there via different circumstances within their relationships.

Sutherland and colleagues (2020) investigated whether the experience of low sexual desire might be different for different women. The authors define low sexual desire as “a lack of motivation to pursue and or become receptive to sexual activity.” They argue that women with different types of low sexual desire may not share common experiences. Therefore, women seeking medical or psychological treatment for low desire should not always be treated similarly.


The authors recruited more than 500 female participants from the U.S. (via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) who were currently in long-term relationships. The women completed questionnaires assessing sexual and relationship satisfaction as well as life stress and communication in two 30-minute sessions.


The researchers found evidence for three different subgroups within their sample. The first group was designated as the “average desire group.” This group reported higher sexual desire and better sexual communication versus the low desire groups. The authors contend that better sexual communication skills may drive increased sexual satisfaction within this group.

The second group was called the “globally distressed group.” This group had low sexual desire as well as low relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and poor sexual communication skills. Women in this group were dissatisfied with their relationships across both sexual and nonsexual domains. The authors speculated that these women may have been dissatisfied with their relationships in general which then might cause their low sexual desire.

The third group was referred to as the “sexually dissatisfied group.” This group experienced low sexual desire, low sexual satisfaction, and difficulties with sexual communication, but had average relationship satisfaction. This group, therefore, was dissatisfied with their sexual experiences, but not with the non-sexual aspects of their relationships.

Although the globally distressed group experienced dissatisfaction with other aspects of their relationships, this group and the sexually dissatisfied group did not differ from one another in their average levels of sexual desire. Similarly, women in the two different low-desire groups had equivalent relationship durations. Additionally, both low-desire groups reported more life stress than their counterparts in the average desire group, suggesting that although life stress might contribute to low sexual desire, it did not help to distinguish between the two low-sexual-desire groups.


The researchers suggest that women might move between low or average desire groups over time. For example, couples might experience average desire at the beginning of their relationships, and factors such as poor sexual communication or life stress might cause movement into one of the lower desire groups over time. However, this project was cross-sectional and the authors could not test this possibility. The authors conclude that women with low sexual desire differ in qualitative ways from one another and should not necessarily be considered equivalently when seeking treatment for low sexual desire.


Sutherland, S. E., Rehman, U. S., & Goodnight, J. A. (2020). A typology of women with low sexual desire. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(8), 2893–2905.

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