Unleashing Your Libido
On a scale from zero to 10 – with zero being, well, zero and ten being so fantastic as to completely boggle the mind – Jo* would rate her libido at about two. On many days, she admits, it’s a one.
“There’s nothing wrong with my husband. In fact, he’s a wonderful guy,” says the 38-year-old photographer. “I think he’s incredibly handsome. He’s also pretty generous in bed – sometimes I think he’s more worried about me and my amorous experience than even I am.”
While her lack of sexual ardor has been confusing and frustrating to both Jo and her spouse at times, they are careful not to point fingers at each other.
“There’s no blame to be thrown here. We’re both aware that my sex drive is affected by a number of things – the big one being the [antidepressant] medication I take.”
Additional suspects include Jo’s religious upbringing, steeped in sexual-spiritual conflict, serious struggles with body image, past sexual trauma and two young children who have yet to sleep through a night in their own beds.
“We’ve been in therapy and are finding new ways to initiate the spark in me, but the fact is when those sexy Victoria’s Secret Valentines Day ads show up, I get a little depressed,” says Jo. “It’s like: Am I the only one who isn’t melting with desire on a regular basis?”
The answer, of course, is no. An estimated one-third of American women have low libido. In other words, the arrow on the passion-o-meter seems to be always pointing down. They can be aroused, and may thoroughly enjoy orgasm, but the I-just-gotta-have-it feeling is very rare.
“It’s not just a question of having sex or being able to do it. Libido is desire. It’s passion. You can have sex without feeling desire,” says University of Washington sociology professor Dr. Pepper Schwartz.
Lack of desire is one major reason why 28 to 43 percent of women report problems with sexual function or drive, according to various studies. Take heart. The other side of these numbers mean that two out of three women in the United States enjoy medium to high sexual drive, and the majority do feel sexually adequate, if not fantastic.
Elizabeth, a Seattle executive assistant who recently turned 50, is one of them.
“I have to say that I’m more satisfied than ever before,” she says. “It’s been slowly increasing the last year or two – as I get further into this peri-menopausal phase.”
What’s changed? “Well, for one thing, I’ve found that I’m not quite as lazy as I used to be,” says Elizabeth, who lost 100 pounds two years ago. “The last couple of years have sort of awakened a more unselfish side of me. There’s a lot to be said for ease of movement and release of body shame.”
The fact that Elizabeth struggled with low libido at points in the past – and overcame hurdles to turn the heat up in her life – is a nod of hope for others, says Seattle psychotherapist and sexologist Dr. Joy Davidson. It’s proof positive that it is possible to invigorate a low libido.
In fact, Elizabeth, who is Jo’s friend and colleague, could be a big help to Jo. Experts say honest and open conversations with women friends of all libido levels are among the best ways to help rekindle the sexual fire.
“Before you can fix it, you have to talk about it,” says Davidson, who is a big fan of the frank friendships, sexual honesty and self-pleasuring that made a hit of cable television’s Sex in the City.
Unlike the show’s characters, Davidson says too many women are quick to accept passion’s demise and resign themselves to a lustless but sexually functional life they believe satisfies their partner.
“So, what’s wrong with that?” asks Jo. “I love my partner and I want to take care of his needs even if I am not raring hot. I think he understands that.”
Jo’s husband well may understand. But there is a good chance that he also feels unloved when he doesn’t feel desire flowing from Jo. Even if you are up front and honest and tell your partner it makes you feel good to make him or her feel good, feelings of self-doubt, resentment and relationship doubt are likely to arise for both partners at some point.
“Men put sex and being in love closer together than woman might,” Schwartz explains. “For men, a woman’s passion and desire, their passionate connection, proves they’re in love or they’re not.”
Lesbian partners are not exempt from this potentially destructive desire inequity. Erin, a 32-year-old Seattle architect, says when it comes to desire she and her girlfriend are on different planets: “Mine’s pretty healthy, hers is nonexistent.” Erin says she and her partner talk frequently about their sexual experience together. But she keeps some things to herself.
“I feel like, hey, we’re both women; we’re not supposed to have these classic male-female emotions, but I do sometimes,” says Erin.
Schwartz says such differences in attitudes can develop into a major problem for couples if nothing is done. “And it’s a problem when one person is feeling sexual and desiring and the other person isn’t.”
Where to Start
When it comes to addressing the problem of desire, both Schwartz and Davidson agree, self-analysis and determination are everything. A gal has to want and believe there is fervor to be uncovered. And she has to be willing to fight for it.
“There is no point in life when you have to give up being an erotic creature, no point when you should give up on seeking desire,” says Davidson. “If you are willing to be adventurous – open your heart and your spirit to possibility – and do a little work, you will find your way to erotic pleasure.”
Davidson says analyzing the problems a woman is having with desire requires looking at all the dimensions of her libido that feed into her sexuality. These include psychological, social, cultural, relational and physical issues.
“If you think of yourself as entitled to be sexual, but on the other hand have had experiences or been bombarded with influences that make you fear your interest in sex will be perceived as slutty or out of control, your level of desire may be impacted,” says Davidson. “Trying to pull apart the threads of the tapestry of desire is a complicated project. But it can be done.”
Mary, a 53-year-old strategic planner who lives in Seattle, had to really rethink sexual messages and influences to reconstruct a healthy sense of sexual entitlement. Raised in a traditional Irish Catholic family where sex was equated with marriage and a wife’s obligation to her husband, Mary says intimate issues, such as sex, passion, or male-female attraction were not discussed while growing up.
“In college I ferreted out reliable sources to build a new brain,” Mary says. “But in the early days [my upbringing] affected my marriage. I was very uncomfortable talking about what I needed or wanted.’’
Taking time with your partner, a therapist or trusted friend to explore values, myths, mixed messages and experiences that have paved the road of your sexual confidence and entitlement to desire (or lack of) is the first step in awaking an eagerness for ecstasy. Gaining knowledge about libido killers – inhibition, hormonal issues, trauma, aging, etc. – is a critical second step.
Inhibitions and Ignorance
Whether you are new to the sex game or have been at it for decades, inhibition (that inner voice that questions and restricts sexual freedom, and connects guilt with sexual enjoyment) is the libido’s worst enemy.
“To grow feelings of desire, you have to get comfortable with sex, get comfortable with your body,” advises Schwartz.
And for that, education is key. She and Davidson encourage women to take advantage of the plethora of books, magazines, Web sites, classes and workshops, and videos available today. That includes erotic literature and “experimentation.” In other words: masturbation.
“There’s probably not an America man who does not feel entitled to masturbate, and yet women often do not feel that,” Davidson says. “If you are uncomfortable with your fantasies, you are likely to have inhibition going on in your interpersonal relationships too.”
Masturbation has done wonders for Lori’s sex life. The 35-year-old Seattle nurse finally made the plunge and bought herself a big book with pictures and a vibrator about six months ago.
“I am finding that I think more about sex and look forward to it with my partner more than I ever have,” Lori say. “I really didn’t know what turned me on before.”
Speaking of partners, Schwartz advises, choose wisely. “If they aren’t asking questions or trying to figure out what feels good to you and what doesn’t, you probably don’t want to be in the relationship,” she says.
The Mommy Syndrome
Babies and sore breasts, nothing dampens a sex drive like hormones on a rampage. Ironically, the hormones that begin raging through a woman’s body during pregnancy can often leave her a sexual she-cat in heat, with a dramatically heightened libido.
But once baby arrives, many mommies often report a libido nosedive. That’s due, in part, to added prolactin in the body following the birth. Then there’s mommy’s state of mind. Being a spouse and lover often takes a back burner to the more immediate demands of the new baby. A woman’s breasts feel like they are no longer her own. And the work of being a sexually expressive woman gets taken off the stove altogether.
The answer here is time. Moms, especially those juggling jobs and kids, need to make their own sexuality a priority, for their sexual health as well as for their children. Spouses need to turn up the romance, take extra time with kissing and foreplay and encourage mom to create sexual space for herself.
“Make a deal: ‘I’m going to let you get the kids in bed and I am going to take a bath and be relaxed and fantasize about what I’m going to have you do to me,’” Davidson says.
Schwartz agrees: “It’s actually good for your kids when you (and your partner) get away and isolate your emotions for each other.”
The Art of Aging
Illness, arthritis, more flesh, less hair, incontinence, sleep disruption, the death of lovers, friends and relatives and good old menopause…getting older has its troubles. Decreased sexual desire is often one of them.
“When your estrogen level goes down it leads to a lot of changes,” Schwartz says. “You may be sleepless, sweaty, and have mood swings. Women who are having extreme reactions to menopause are feeling homicidal, not sexual.”
Increases in weight and the thinning of the walls of the vagina during and after menopause can also lessen libido and cause pain during intercourse. Using extra lubricant can help with hormone-related vaginal dryness and thus reduce anxiety around discomfort. For women with low testosterone levels, androgen therapy has proven successful in enhancing sexual interest. There are pros and cons to hormone therapy (a quick Internet search yields thousands of articles). And there is no fix-all drug, Davidson cautions, so don’t rush off to the pharmacist and ignore your psyche.
The bottom line is that sex doesn’t have to end at menopause. Schwartz counsels older couples to talk openly and honestly about how they are feeling about sex and the fears they may harbor, and especially what each partner thinks the other is thinking about physical changes. Let go of the idea that the only good sex is what you had at age 25.
“Tell your partner you need reassurance, you need time, you need to be seduced romantically and not just have sex,” Schwartz says.
Keep in mind your partner is changing and slowing down as well, Davidson says. And many are very interested in taking more time and expanding their own sensual horizons and learning about their partner’s needs.
Both experts agree that instead of seeing menopause as a downward spiral in terms of one’s sexuality, you should look at it as an opportunity to do things to excite and spice-up a long-term relationship. It’s about attitude.
The Toxins: Anger, Stress, and Anxiety
About the furthest thing from a woman’s mind when she’s mad, fatigued, and/or filled with worry is sex. These are all-consuming emotions that leave little room for that sexy feeling.
Anger, stress and anxiety cause chemical reactions in the body, so treat them like the medical influence they are and turn your thinking toward body health. Exercise and diet can go miles to reduce stress and anxiety. Promise yourself eight hours of sleep each night, drink your weight in water and consider meditation or yoga classes.
If anxiety or depression is overpowering your libido, medications can help. Unfortunately, some have the added effect of dousing desire and reducing the chance of orgasm, so work with your doctor until you find one that doesn’t annihilate your drive. If you’ve never considered a vibrator, now’s a good time. Intense mechanical stimulation can be very helpful for women who find it hard to achieve orgasm while on antidepressant medication.
Career as Libido Crusher
When nearly every waking hour is spent speeding down Career Street, there isn’t much room for a dreamy cruise down Seduction Lane. A work-oriented focus on tasks has a way of blinding us to the subtle frictions that can spark the libido, Davidson warns.
“Occasionally, desire comes over you like a crashing wave, but most other times little, barely perceptible cues trigger the slow buildup of desire. If we ignore those cues, whatever was simmering in us is cooled,” she says.
The most effective solution here is a simple one: “Make desire and the health of your sexuality one of your priorities,” says Davidson. “When we notice those little cues, we need to stop and tune into them – maybe sidle up to him or her and give that killer kiss. In everyday ways we can create environments that retain heated sexual energy.”
Emotional Trauma and Sexual Abuse
Desire flows from a yearning for intimacy and physical touch, but for one in four women, physical touch has been tainted by emotional or sexual abuse. Counseling, support groups and a partner willing and eager to deconstruct the abuse and create a safe, loving sexual connection are key to overcoming abuse. Jo, a victim of sexual abuse, realized after a series of lovers that her experience had resulted in an expectation of pain and sexual disinterest from partners. It took her husband’s loving, inquisitive, patient commitment to help her heal feelings of confusion and embarrassment she’d always associated with desire. They sought therapy together.
Yes, It Could Be Physical
If you’ve tried everything to no avail, it’s time to consider the possibility of a medical condition. Hypo- or hyperthyroid conditions, as well as hormone deficiencies in older women, can impact libido. Eating disorders, serious illness, trauma and other metabolic disorders like Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) or chronic fatigue can leave you comparing the possibility of a passionate interlude to the possibility of a hole in your head. Your doctor should be able to help you identify any medical problems that may be contributing to your low libido and help you map out a plan to address them. If your doctor does not take your libido concern seriously, find another.
Make It about You
Wherever you are on the libido spectrum, experts agree that one of the best ways to awaken desire is the old-fashioned way. Awaken the senses.
“We have to stimulate our sex drive through our senses and our psyche because we don’t have that simple hormonal button (like men have with testosterone) to push,” says Davidson.
Candles, scents, long warm baths, full-body massages, low lights, wine, dessert, time by the fire – all of these can help even a low libido get a rise. Reading an erotic book with a partner, removing the clutter and kids from the house, taking things slow and allowing the sensual to become sexual help boost a woman’s spirit, of which her libido is a part.
“What we have is something different, something that is extraordinary in terms of its array of experience and extent of possibility,” says Davidson. “Men often miss out on the breadth of eroticism, but we need it.”
Jo and her husband have recently added 20 candles to their room, enlisted an aunt to take the kids for an overnight every other week, and she has switched medications.
“I’m finding it takes a lot time, I need to warm up and romancing,” she says. “But I am no longer using medications as a way to cop out on desire.”
*The names of some women in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
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