5 Issues That May Contribute to Low Sexual Desire
You know what you like; you're just not asking for it.
Posted Feb 21, 2017
“I could take it or leave it.”
"I don’t have much of an interest in sex anymore.”
"I would be happy to never have sex again.”
It has been estimated that as many as 32 percent1 to 43 percent2 of women experience low sexual desire at some point in their lives. In fact, low sexual desire is one of the most commonly presented sexual issues that women bring to therapy.3 Treating women with low sexual desire can be a complex undertaking, as a myriad of potential elements can impact desire, from personal experiences to social factors, cultural messages to relationship dynamics, and everything in between.4
However, despite sexual desire being impacted by so many interconnected aspects of their lives, many women still blame themselves for their lack of sexual interest and believe something is inherently "wrong" with them. Yet in many cases, sexual desire could still be there, but it may have been dampened, tucked away, or put in hibernation.
The following is far from a complete list of what could contribute to low sexual desire, but it represents five of the most common reasons why women might experience a reduced interest in sex, and what to do to address them:
1. Your partner wants more sex than you do.
Your partner seems to want sex every day, but you feel that you could be okay having sex once a week (or once a month, or maybe even less). Many women, if they are the partner with lower desire, use their partner as a barometer for "normal" interest, and assume something is wrong with themselves for not wanting sex just as often. In contrast, we don’t tend to suspect that the person with the higher level of desire has an issue (i.e., we don't ask, "Why do you want so much sex?"). As a society, we value sex and think that wanting lots of it (if you’re an adult in a relationship) is good and healthy.
The term “desire discrepancy” describes a scenario in which two individuals in a relationship have different levels of sexual desire.5 Although this term could apply to all couples at least some of the time, there are some couples that have more obvious and consistent differences in their levels of sexual desire.
But desire discrepancies don’t mean that one person has the "right" amount of sexual desire. In other words, the goal isn’t to get the lower desiring partner to meet the needs of the higher desiring partner. As with any compromise or negotiation with our romantic partners, we figure out a middle ground, as we do when we have different spending habits, eating preferences, travel preferences, etc.
Try this: Ask yourself, If my partner didn't want sex as often, would I be worried about my level of interest in sex? Have I had any previous partners who didn't want sex as often as my current partner, and so I never really thought much about my lack of interest? Depending on your answers, some sexual-frequency conversations with your partner might be helpful. Having lower desire than your partner does not mean anything is "wrong" with you, but it does mean that you and your partner have some negotiating to do.
2. You don't give yourself enough time to get "in the mood."
We know from the research that many women have sexual desire that is responsive as opposed to spontaneous.6 In other words, many women don’t feel a sudden urge to have sex as they run from work to yoga class or while watching a true-crime documentary on Netflix. Instead they respond to sexual cues in their environment and often take some time to "warm up" to the idea of sex.
I’m not just talking about engaging in sexual foreplay. It’s very common for women to need a sexual space before foreplay even begins. For example, maybe you need a romantic encounter (or two) with your partner during the day; flirtatious or loving texts while you're apart; a longer kiss when your partner gets home; or something else to set the mood before the possibility of sex is even on the table.
A lot of women I work with describe saying no to sex because their partner approaches them in a way that feels out of the blue. And, because they aren’t feeling sexual at that exact moment, it reinforces their belief that they don't have an interest in sex: They turn the sexual encounter down, their partner hurts from the rejection, and nobody is happy.
Try this: If your partner suggests having sex, give yourself a moment to think about it, instead of immediately turning it down. If the timing isn't right, or you're not in the mood, say something like, "Not this second, but let me see if I can warm up to it," or, "I wasn't thinking about sex now, but let's have dinner, or watch a movie, or go for a walk, and see how things unfold." Needing time to warm up to sex doesn't mean your desire is low or problematic, but that it needs to be considered as part of the sexual equation.
3. You don't know what you like.
Women are more likely to experience an interest in sex if they are looking forward to the sex they are going to be having.7 So how do you have great enjoyable sex that is worth desiring? To start, you need to know what feels good.
I often work with women with whom I discuss the nuts and bolts of sex — How much, and what kind of, foreplay do you need? What positions work best for you to experience an orgasm? What time of day do you find you're most in the mood, or least likely to want sex? — but many don’t have the answers to these questions. In fact, some tell me they have never even thought about them. On the other hand, these same women more often than not do know exactly what they don’t like.
Think about that dynamic for a moment: Your partner offers to make you dinner, asks you what you want, you say, "I don’t know," and then they make spaghetti and you say, "I don't really like spaghetti." Wouldn’t it be better if you said, "I like chicken parmesan; could you make that?" And your partner made chicken parmesan for you, and everyone was happy?
Try this: It’s not easy to know what we want sexually, especially if we haven't thought about it before. But a good place to start is at the beginning: Think about your early introductions to sex with your partner. Maybe you liked when you and your partner used to make out on the couch all night. Try that again, and see if it still feels good. Or if you really only know what is not working, take it one step further to consider why not, and what could be better. For example: "I don’t like having sex in the spooning position because we can't kiss. I like kissing while we make love. Maybe a position where we are facing each other would help?"
4. You know what you like; you just don't know how to ask for it — or you think your partner should just know.
Some of us picture sex like it appears in the movies: Two lovers fall completely in sync with one another, know exactly when and where they should have sex and how to touch and please each other, and then they climax in a simultaneous, mutually pleasurable explosion.
Real life isn’t like that. Sometimes a sexual position we liked last time doesn’t feel so good this time. Or we need a little more oral sex before penetration, while other times we want to jump right in. Or we want to be on top for a moment. Communication about our shifting needs and preferences is critical to sexual satisfaction.8
It’s surprisingly how many women report feeling uncomfortable telling their partner what they want. They think they shouldn't tell their partner (e.g., it would be rude or insulting), or that they shouldn't have to tell them (e.g., their partner should "just know" that a particular move isn’t working, or that they are ready to try something a little more spicy).
If you on any level believe that your partner should be more responsible for your sexual pleasure than you are, then you're taking a passive role in sex and are less likely to enjoy the process. Remember that your partner cannot know what is going on in your head.
Try this: If you know what you like, or if something doesn't feel good, or if something else would feel better, try telling your partner. Or maybe consider how you're telling them: Non-verbal messages like pulling away or moaning less are open to interpretation or can be completely missed. If you are in a respectful relationship in which your partner will listen to your wants and needs, try telling them explicitly what you like and what's working. Most partners want to know. You can speak up between sexual encounters or during them, but verbal encouragement gives you the best chance of enjoying sex and having a higher likelihood of wanting it again in the future.
5. You were taught that women shouldn't enjoy sex.
As girls and adolescents, many women receive warnings about embracing and acting upon their sexuality. We are told that we might get pregnant (and, if so, that we would carry the brunt, if not all, of the work after the baby is born). Not to mention the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and diseases. And then there is the “slut shaming” of women who are single, promiscuous, and enjoy sex.
But then you get into a relationship, or get married, and suddenly you are expected to put all of that behind you. You're expected to be a confident sexual person who loves having sex with her partner.9 How do you make that transition? Well, it doesn't happen overnight, but things can change.
Try this: Reflect on the messages you received earlier in life about sex. Were you taught that "good girls" don't like sex? Were you taught anything about sex at all — or was it a taboo topic? Consider the impact these messages might have had on you, and if they might still affect you now. Letting go of messages isn't easy, but identifying where they came from and what you think about them in your current situation is a good place to start.
Every woman’s sexual experience is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment to increase sexual desire. Some women have sexual desire issues that run much deeper than what is addressed in this post (e.g., sexual abuse histories, physical and hormonal changes from early menopause, unhealthy relationship patterns that can't be overcome by having more sex, etc.). For those women, seeking therapeutic treatment could be a helpful option.
I have a doctorate in human sexuality. I am a sex researcher and relationship therapist with an expertise in challenging norms and assumptions about men and women’s sexual desire. Follow me on Twitter @SexDoctorSarah or visit my website at SarahHunterMurray.com.
1. Laumann, E. O., Paik, A. & Rosen, R. C. (1999). Sexual dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and predictors. Journal of American Medical Association, 281, 537- 544.
2. Laumann, E., Gagnon, O., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
3. Leiblum, S. (2010). Treating sexual desire disorders: A clinical casebook. New York: The Guilford Press.
4. Tiefer, L. (2001a). A new view of women’s sexual problems: Why new? Why now? Journal of Sex Research, 38, 89-96.
5. Zilbergeld, B., & Ellison, C. R. (1980). Desire discrepancies and arousal problems in sex therapy. In Principles and Practice of Sex Therapy, New York, NY: Guilford Press.
6. Basson, R. (2000). The female sexual response: A different model. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26, 51-65.
7. Kleinplatz, P. & Menard, D. (2007). Building blocks toward optimal sexuality: Constructing a conceptual model. The Family Journal, 15, 1, 72-78.
8. Fredrick, D. A., Lever, J., Gillespie, B. J. & Garcia, J. R. (2017). What keeps passion alive? Sexual satisfaction is associated with sexual communication, mood setting, sexual variety, oral sex, orgasm, and sex frequency in a national U.S. study. The Journal of Sex Research, 54, 2, 186-201
9. Tolman, D. (1994). Doing desire: Adolescent girls' struggles for/with sexuality. Gender & Society, 8, 3 324-342.