No interest in sex? Low libido is more common than you might think. Question is, when is it a problem?
Memo: not everyone else is begging their partner to fake a morning meeting to squeeze in a quickie (or soliciting hookups on Tinder every second night). Far from it. In a landmark study, researchers from La Trobe University, the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales reported that 24.9 per cent of men and 54.8 per cent of women lacked interest in sex.
And we’re not happy with the amount we’re having: in heterosexual couples together for at least a year, 1.84 times a week on average, according to the University of New South Wales study. Marry that with a Survey from Western Australia’s Deakin University, which found that more than half of Australian women have difficulty getting sexual satisfaction, and you’ll see where we’re going with this. Does the dissatisfaction reflect a personal problem, or is it born of comparisons to an unrealistic ideal (in the same way as standing next to Cara Delevingne and deciding you’re fat)?
It shouldn’t be surprising that the concept of what’s a ‘normal’ amount of desired and actual sex is as abstract in this context as it is in the scheme of, oh, collecting Kartell chairs. Would buying one a year when your favourite design blogger spends her evenings bidding on ebay mean you were weird/broken/toxic? (Oddball analogy, but you get it, right?)
“There are some people who don’t think this [average amount] is a lot, but on the other hand, there are those who think that others are having more sex than them. Averages don’t mean much overall,” says GP Dr Cindy Pan.
While there are myriad factors (and as many antidotes) for flagging desire, it’s worth checking in on whether we’re genuinely dissatisfied or bummed by default, against a cultural bullseye: the Samantha Jones effect.
Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton, a sexual anthropologist and author of Sex Drive: in pursuit of female desire, says our self-scrutiny and flagellation reside within a warped paradigm.
“We live in a culture where sex is the new gold – the ultimate status symbol – and thereby none of us are having as much as we ‘should’.”
Why the low libido?
“There may be physical reasons behind a lack of desire,” says Dr Ronald McCoy, spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
“The two main types of problems with having sex is pain on intercourse, which affects around 70 per cent of women. The other is decreased libido, or inhibited orgasm, which affects around 25 per cent of women. In terms of pain on intercourse, it can be physical or psychological: it may be that a woman has had a painful past experience, or if there’s always been pain on sexual intercourse. If a woman has had normal sexual function in the past, then it’s usually a physical cause.” If your doctor rules out physical causes, it may be psychological.
Plan B is to look at your brain. “A lack of interest in sex could be related to low self-esteem, poor body image, weight issues, or concerns over stretch marks. Some women may not feel confident about their sexual response or their ability to please their partner,” says Dr Pan. Or it may be due to external factors. “If you’re experiencing conflict, resentment, anger, frustration, difficulty with communication, or a lack of trust in the relationship, this will affect a woman’s desire to be close, physically, with another person.”
Do we need She-agra?
“With women, sexual desire is probably more complex than just taking a tablet,” says Dr Pan. “They’ve been talking about a Viagra for women for years, but studies have shown that it won’t work.
“The biggest sexual organ is the brain. It’s very much a psychological thing: physically you need things to be in order, but the biggest factor is mental and psychological. As long as you have meaning and satisfaction, from whichever source it comes from, then at some stages sexual desire and response will follow.”
In fact, playful foreplay and putting Barry White on repeat is more likely to work than a pill.
“Most women need to be wooed and courted, for at least 24 hours, in order to get into the mood. A pill alone won’t necessarily solve entrenched problems in the relationship, or within themselves. That’s why almost anything could have a placebo effect,” Dr Pan says.
If you’re dissatisfied with your desire quotient, this can be tough, but back off the perfectionist and control freak pedals. Over time, libido rises and falls according to our current situation, Dr Ellwood Clayton says – and forcing the issue will do you no favours.
“For many of us, our expectations of passionate long-term monogamy are unrealistic. We can’t let movies dictate the way our love life should operate. In reality, it is natural for desire to become less central to our relationship over time,” Dr Ellwood-Clayton says.
When it’s a problem
Just because Jane from bootcamp is doing it ‘morning and night’ (or says she is) and all you want in a Sunday morning kissle (kissy-cuddle), doesn’t mean Jane’s sex drive is healthier than yours. On the flipside, if you notice your Sunday shag has dropped off to monthly or even bi-monthly for no apparent reason, you may have cause for concern.
According to the 2011 Relationships Indicator Survey, 40 per cent of women are experiencing female sexual dysfunction, with a suspected additional contingent not diagnosed or seeking treatment. But there’s a difference between not being in the mood and dysfunction. Female sexual dysfunction (FSD) covers four conditions: lack of sensitivity or ability to be aroused (female sexual arousal disorder); inability to have an orgasm (female orgasmic disorder), and pain during sex (which may be due to vulvodynia, endometriosis, or cystitis). FSD afflicts up to a quarter of women at some point in their lives.
Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), on the other hand, is a deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and desire causing marked distress or interpersonal difficulty. According to an article published in journal CNS Drugs, the tricky diagnosis is made based on the many factors that influence female sexual desire, from menstrual cycles and contraceptives to lactation. Treatments span lifestyle tweaks and marital therapy.
“Low sexual desire in women is never straightforward as female desire is 75 per cent contextual to what’s going on around them,” says sex therapist Tanya Koens (sydneytherapist.com). “When I work with women reporting low libido, I explore the health of their relationship in terms of communication styles, if they’re feeling satisfied by sexual interaction, and also individual factors such as stress indicators (work, family, life) if experiencing anxiety, depression, exhaustion, on any medications or have dietary changes and even dealing with young children.” Koens also recommends that women talk to their partner, rather than leaving them guessing why you’re wearing flannel.
Worried about your sex life? See what Dr Charmaine Saunders says about sexual dysfunction and find out the health benefits of sex.