Low Sexual Desire: A Fixed Trait, or a Fluid Experience?

New research suggests your answer can play a significant role in your sex life.

Posted Jun 28, 2018

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Do some of us naturally have a stronger interest in sex, while others are simply stuck with problematic, low sexual desire? Or are there things we can do to increase our sexual interest — and if so, should this be what we look to do?

What if it is our belief about which of these statements is true, over and above what research actually concludes, that influences how we cope when we experience problematically low sexual desire?

Perceptions of Sexual Desire

In a new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Siobhan Sutherland and Dr. Uzma Rehman, of the University of Waterloo, explored whether women's perceptions of sexual desire being an "entity" (i.e., believing that sexual desire levels remain stable over time) versus "incremental" (i.e., believing that sexual desire levels can, and will, change over time) might impact how they cope with problematic low sexual desire.

Their study consisted of two phases that included 373 and 407 women, respectively, for a total sample size of 780. Women were recruited from the United States and were between the ages of 18 and 75 years old, with an average age of approximately 35. Just under half the participants were married or living in a common-law relationship; approximately one-third were dating; and around one-fifth were single at the time of the study.

Participants were primed to hold one of the two beliefs about sexual desire. Specifically, one group was asked to read an article which summarized research findings suggesting that women's sexual desire ebbs and flows (the "incremental" belief). The other group read an article which included research findings suggesting that women's sexual desire remains stable over time, and that there is little that can be done to change it (the "entity" belief).

After being primed by one of these research articles, women were asked how true it was that they have experienced, or were likely to experience, a sexual desire problem, and they were given a questionnaire to assess how adaptive (or maladaptive) their coping strategies were.

Our Implicit Beliefs Impact Our Behaviors

The findings suggest that women who were primed to view desire levels as an entity ("stable") were significantly more likely to report using maladaptive coping strategies if faced with problematically low sexual desire. Maladaptive coping strategies included being unlikely to take actions such as talking to one's partner or trying to find out more information about the problem, and being more likely to agree with statements that they would just "give up" on the issue.

Put another, intuitive, way: Women who believe that their efforts may not lead to meaningful changes in their sexual desire levels were less likely to put in the effort to seek support and access to professional resources.

It's important to note that the research used a community sample of women and not a clinical population, so further information is needed to know whether the findings would be applicable to women seeking professional treatment for sexual concerns. Further, the women in this study were all living in the United States, so it is unclear whether cultural and social norms might lead to different findings in populations from other countries. Finally, the sample only included women, and not men with low sexual desire, a topic that is certainly worthy of attention.

Takeaway

Feeling that our sexual desire is problematically low, and that there is little we can do about it, is a very real and difficult experience for a number of women. However, these findings suggest that holding the belief that sexual desire can't change may be a significant barrier to increasing or improving desire, should that be what you're looking to do.

The good news is that researchers and clinicians are continuing to find numerous ways to help women who are looking to increase their low sexual desire. To learn more, consult the resources listed here.

References

Sutherland, S & Rehman, U. S. (2018). Viewing sexual desire as stable versus fluid: The impact of implicit beliefs on women's coping with sexual desire problems. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 44, 4, 410-420. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1405306