- Beliefs about how to maintain sexual satisfaction in relationships are strongly linked to how we make sense of—and navigate—our sexual concerns.
- Growth beliefs (the view that sexual satisfaction requires continuous effort to maintain) tend to be linked with higher sexual satisfaction.
- New research demonstrates that holding sexual growth beliefs is related to higher sexual desire, even among women with clinically low desire.
“Having a passionate sex life is a sign that my partner and I are meant to be together.”
Agree, or disagree?
If you found yourself agreeing with this statement, you may hold what is referred to as a “sexual destiny belief.” That is, the belief that sexual satisfaction is the result of natural compatibility with a partner.
In contrast, if you found yourself disagreeing with this statement, you may be more inclined to hold the belief that sexual satisfaction requires continuous effort to maintain, and that bumps along the way present opportunities to learn and grow in your sexual relationship. In other words, a sexual problem isn't necessarily a sign that you and your partner aren't meant to be together, it’s a sign that you and your partner have something to work on. That line of thinking would be in line with what is termed a “sexual growth belief.”
While there is some research that explores how sexual beliefs affect sexual desire and sexual satisfaction in general (spoiler: sexual growth beliefs tend to be more positively associated with improved sexual functioning given that people who hold these beliefs are more likely to seek out supports and make changes in their sex lives) there is little known about whether beliefs about sexual satisfaction hold among couples who are dealing with more serious, distressing, and persistent sexual problems.
The New Research
In a new study, recently published in the Journal of Sex Research, authors explored whether sexual growth and destiny beliefs were associated with sexual, relationship, and personal well being among women who met the criteria for Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD; the diagnosis for women who experience distressing low sexual desire according to the DSM-5).
While participants were not required to have an official diagnosis of FSIAD from a medical professional, all women in this study met the criteria for the diagnosis as outlined by the DSM-5 and as assessed by the researchers. Specifically, women were required to have three or more of the following symptoms: little or no sexual interest, sexual thoughts, sexual initiation, receptivity to a partner’s sexual initiation, excitement or pleasure during sex (at least 75 percent of the time), responsive desire to sexual cues, or genital/non-genital sensations during sex (at least 75 percent of the time). These symptoms were also required to persist over the course of at least 6 months and be accompanied by significant distress.
Participants included 97 adult women and their partners (88 men, 7 women, 2 other) living in Canada and the United States. Participant’s ages ranged from 19 to 70 years old (mean age was 31.64 years old). The couples were mostly White (74.2 percent), heterosexual (77.3 percent), and 41.8 percent were married. Couples were required to be together for at least 6 months and the average relationship duration was 7.67 years. All participants were required to be in sexual relationships with their partner and either be living together or have in-person contact 4 or more times per week. Women in this study reported that they had been coping with FSIAD for 4.55 years on average.
The authors explored whether participants held sexual destiny beliefs with a scale that included questions such as: “a couple is either destined to have a satisfying sex life or they are not,” or sexual growth beliefs with a scale that included questions such as: “in a relationship, maintaining a satisfying sex life requires effort.”
The authors also asked participants to complete questionnaires that tapped into their perceived sexual compatibility with their partner as well as sexual frequency, sexual desire, sexual distress, relationship satisfaction, conflict, anxiety, and depression.
The researchers concluded that when women who met the diagnostic criteria for clinically low sexual desire (FSIAD) had higher sexual destiny beliefs (i.e., the belief that sexual satisfaction is a result of natural compatibility between partners), they reported lower sexual desire, lower relationship satisfaction, higher levels of conflict, and higher anxiety depressive symptoms. Further, their partner also reported lower sexual desire, lower relationship satisfaction, higher conflict, and more depressive symptoms.
When women’s partners scored higher in sexual destiny beliefs, they also reported having lower sexual desire and lower relationship satisfaction. However, when women’s partners scored higher in sexual destiny beliefs, the women in this study with FSIAD reported lower anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms.
In contrast, women with FSIAD who reported holding higher sexual growth beliefs (i.e., the belief that sexual satisfaction takes continuous effort to maintain), reported higher levels of sexual desire. There were no significant associations noted between women in this study who held higher sexual growth beliefs and any other well-being constructs noted above.
The authors also followed up with couples one year later to see whether there were any changes in the study outcome variables over time. They found that, overall, there was a significant increase in sexual desire for women with FSIAD from time 1 to time 2 as well as lower sexual distress and fewer depressive symptoms regardless of their sexual beliefs at the beginning of the study. This finding is of particular interest, as only 9 percent of women reported that they sought treatment over the course of the year.
What Does This Mean?
Women in this study who met the diagnostic criteria for FSIAD and who endorsed higher sexual growth beliefs (i.e., believing that sexual satisfaction takes work and effort to maintain) reported higher sexual desire—even in the context of having clinically low levels of desire—than women who reported higher sexual destiny beliefs. This suggests that viewing sexual problems as something we can do something about, versus viewing them as a sign our relationship is doomed, may motivate us to read, learn, communicate, and think differently about our sexual problems in ways that help increase sexual desire.
However, it is important to note that while women who reported sexual destiny beliefs had lower desire, lower relationship satisfaction, higher conflict, higher anxiety, and more depressive symptoms at the onset of the study, their desire and distress improved significantly over one year. The authors suggest that participating in their study may have been an intervention in and of itself, as women may have been exposed to different questions and ways of thinking about their sexual problems that could have helped them navigate sexual concerns. In other words, despite some women reporting holding sexual destiny beliefs (i.e., my partner and I are either sexually compatible or we aren’t), participating in a study with their partner which included answering scales and questionnaires that exposed them to different ways of thinking about sexual problems, may have increased understanding about their sexuality and, thus, increased their sexual desire.
Our beliefs about sex (whether that be outdated stereotypes such as “good girls don’t like sex,” “men are always in the mood for sex” or the sexual destiny and sexual growth beliefs outlined in this study) have reliably been found to impact our sexual desire and sexual satisfaction for better or for worse. Generally speaking, sexual growth beliefs are found to have a positive effect on our sex lives, by leading us to seek supports and resources, which may, in turn, improve our sexual satisfaction.
Facebook image: Tom Wang/Shutterstock
Raposo, S., Rosen, N., Corsini-Munt, S., Maxwell, J., & Muise, A. (2021). Navigating women's low desire: Sexual growth and destiny beliefs and couples' well-being. Journal of Sex Research, http://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2021.1884179