Dear Em & Lo,
I’m a 23-year old woman in a relationship with a wonderful guy — we’re celebrating two years together this month. We’re pretty serious about each other, but we have a serious hangup: I have very little sex drive. I’m not sure if he’s got an average drive or if he’s got a high drive, but he wants it a lot and I’m not usually wanting any part of it. I don’t think it’s him, because I don’t even want it when I’m not around him. We are close to each other and open, we experiment a lot with toys and have tried just about everything short of heavy bondage and adding in other partners. I just have no drive at all.
Even masturbating, once it’s over, I just think to myself, “Okay, moving on…” I don’t really enjoy it. I read that having orgasms promotes sexual interest, and so I figured that if I masturbated more, it would jump-start my drive. I mostly masturbate out of a sense of obligation to myself/us, as opposed to my own personal interest. I could live without it easily.
I climax most of the time we have sex thanks to clitoral stimulation, but I find that sex is fun for five or ten minutes, then I orgasm, and I feel like I could have just as easily used that time for something else (non-sexual).
Lately I’m not even interested in us focusing on me once we’re done with him. He feels very badly that I don’t pursue my “ends.”
Please give me some advice, because I feel broken inside for this lack of interest.
–Just Not That Into It
We very nearly skipped your question, as we are tempted to do whenever we get a letter that makes our heads hurt. But you sound so nice and you’re clearly trying so hard to do the right thing that we feel obliged to answer — even if we’re not sure that we have a simple answer for you.
One thing we will say is that there are two kinds of desire when it comes to sex: there’s a physical desire to get naked, and then there’s an emotional desire to be close to your partner. You clearly have the emotional desire. And you know what? Maybe that’s all you’ll ever have. Or maybe you’ll feel emotional desire most of the time and once in a blue moon your physical desire will show up.
But that doesn’t mean you’re “broken inside.” To think that way is to take a very male-centric approach to libido. Just because your physical drive doesn’t match your boyfriend’s, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It just means you’re different.
We commend you for being so open to trying new things! You may not think it, but your boyfriend is a lucky guy. That said, we don’t think you should force yourself to do anything that doesn’t feel good. But five or ten minutes of fun in bed is nothing to sneeze at — maybe you two should just compromise at regular quickies. Plenty of women are happy with ten minutes of sex at a time, there’s nothing strange about that. In fact, most women who masturbate regularly can climax in just two or three minutes — so don’t get hung up on this idea that you should enjoy hour-long sex sessions. For some people, that’s heaven — and for others, it’s just plain annoying.
There are a million more things we could say on this topic — because it’s not a simple question, and there’s no simple answer. Rather than try to wrap up this letter with a snappy one-liner, we’d like to reprint an article we wrote a few years back for Red magazine in the U.K. It was inspired by an excellent memoir on this very topic called I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido by Joan Sewell. The article begins below — at the very least, we hope it will convince you that you’re not broken inside.
Em & Lo
The Libido Cure
by Em & Lo
Can you imagine any of the men you know “working on” their libido? Do they linger in a bubble bath to awaken their nerve endings, do they hit the treadmill to get their juices flowing, do they insist on a backrub to help them warm up to the idea?
Not so much, right? In fact, a strong breeze gets most guys in the mood. So how come it can be such hard work for the rest of us?
According to recent research, 33 percent of American women and 32 of the ladies over here have “low libidos.” Of course, the astute reader will notice that therefore 68% of British women don’t have sagging sex drives (just hope your best friend isn’t one of them when you finally get up the courage to confide your libido woes!). But still, how is it possible that a third of all women experience this so-called sexual dysfunction? Are we that screwed up? Or could it be that what’s really screwed up is our concept of “normal”?
“The gold standard is men, that’s what we’re being measured against”, says Joan Sewell, author of the new memoir I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido. [read an excerpt here] “It’s politically correct to say that we have equal libidos because we want to feel equal to men socially, but anthropologists and socio-biologists all agree that, across all cultures, women have a far lower libido than men.”
Pity the poor woman with a low libido — these days she doesn’t even have cultural stereotypes on her side. Once upon a time it was pretty much assumed that women weren’t as sexual as men, or weren’t even sexual at all. Then along came feminism, the discovery of the clitoris, and decent sex education, all of which gave women permission to embrace their sexuality. But now, thanks in part to shows like Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and Footballers’ Wives, having anything less than a hyperactive sex drive is considered, well, kind of uncool. “It’s become a point of pride,” says Sewell. “Women brag about their libidos and talk about men as if they’re consumables, and if you don’t feel that way, you’re branded as inhibited or sour grapes.”
Don’t get us wrong: We think it’s brilliant that women are now comfortable dishing about their sex lives over tea or cosmopolitans. But sometimes all this openness results in inflated expectations that can make sex feel like a competition. And those women who aren’t “winning” may experience a double-dose of anxiety: They worry “How is my partner is coping without a regular roll in the hay?” and they wonder “What the hell’s wrong with me?”
“My libido is really, really low and I hate it,” says Francesca, a 35-year-old mother and business owner who is still head over heels for her husband — but that love just isn’t translating to lust right now. “I feel guilty, not just on my partner’s behalf, but on my own, too, in a way.”
Unfortunately, thinking that you’re somehow defective in bed can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Nothing squashes an already anemic libido quite like diagnosing yourself — based on a particularly moving episode of Oprah, perhaps—as sexually dysfunctional. In other words, if you can’t beat that 32 percent, then join them.
Dr. Patti Britton, PhD, author of The Art of Sex Coaching, thinks we shouldn’t give in so easily. “There’s this trend toward the medicalisation of sexuality,” she says. “The model is: There’s something wrong with you, we can diagnose and name it, and then we can give you a pill or a cream to cure it.” Like Sewell, she believes that our approach to what is normal in the sack is problematically male-based. “We are not bags of raging hormones who are horny around the clock,” she says. “That’s just not how female desire works.”
The traditional model for sex has five phases: desire, excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. And, sure, sometimes it happens in this order for women, especially in a new relationship or after a week apart or a few vodka tonics. But not always — which doesn’t mean these women are out of whack, it just means they have a different natural order.
“Many women need to actually be aroused and move up that scale and feel excitement and maybe even plateau in order for desire to kick in,” Britton explains. “They don’t initially have desire, they have an openness and a willingness, and then, lo and behold, that desire shows up as a desire to continue.” In other words, what looks like low libido might just be a delayed start — and a so-called low libido doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman enjoys sex any less.
In fact, almost every woman we interviewed who claimed to “suffer” from a low libido said that when her partner initiates and she just goes along for the ride, she typically ends up having a good time: “I often have sex when I’m not in the mood,” says Amy, a 39-year-old divorced writer. “But it’s with the full knowledge that the mood will kick in — and it usually does.”
“Women need to understand that they’re not usually going to feel like they’re about to explode in the groin like their male counterparts,” says Britton. “And men need to understand that the reason she doesn’t ever initiate is that she’s not itchy, so she’s not going to scratch it.”
“My husband can never understand how I can happily have sex with him five nights a week, but then if he goes away for two weeks on business, I won’t think about sex once!” says Melanie, a 34-year-old TV researcher who’s been married for two years. “He’ll masturbate every night in his hotel room, and he can’t believe that it never occurs to me to do the same.”
Often, a woman won’t even realise that her partner is the one making all the first moves. We asked a couple who have been married for nine years who typically initiates sex. “It’s about 50-50,” reports the Missus. “Um, it’s actually more like me 90 percent of the time,” says her husband. “Oh!” she replies. “Well, I love it that you’re always asking me to have sex.” In her mind, the ratio is 50-50 because she figures she’s enjoying the sex at least as much as her husband. But no one could blame him for thinking that his sex drive is nine times as powerful as his wife’s.
Of course, waiting for your guy to initiate and then lying back, thinking of England, and hoping for the best is not exactly a proactive (or particularly healthy) way to get what you want in bed. That’s where Britton’s holistic M.E.B.E.S. (Mind, Emotions, Body, Energy, Spirit) approach to sex comes in. Understanding that the libido often manifests itself differently in men and women is only the first step in this plan (“Mind”). Step two, “Emotions,” involves dealing with all the guilt, shame, and fear that are part of the package. The panic can set in: If I don’t lust after him, maybe he’ll turn to someone else who does. “Many times, it’s in her imagination,” says Britton. “If she talks to her partner, those fears are often stilled. He might say, I have no intention of leaving you, I just wish we could have sex a little more often!” And then at least your worst-case scenarios are dismissed. Because giving a blowjob just so your husband’s secretary won’t isn’t exactly the number one way to get in the mood.
“We used to have lots of long chats about our sex life,” says Maggie, a 34-year-old floral designer who got married a few years ago. “It involved lots of crying, hugging, sympathizing and apologizing. Now, we giggle about it and make it part of our daily conversation, like, You know, we haven’t had sex in about a month, and I feel very distant from you these last few weeks, wanna go away for the weekend and reconnect?”
Next comes the all-important “Body” step. A research presentation at the most recent gathering of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality showed that body image is now the single most important component of a woman’s sex drive. “If a woman doesn’t have a good image of herself, she probably has low desire,” says Britton. “It’s almost a correlate you can count on.” So accepting the things you can’t change (aging) and courageously changing the things you can (with decent nutrition and regular exercise) is essential.
But it’s not just a matter of how you feel about your boobs or your belly: It’s what you (or your partner) can (or can’t) do with that body, too. If you think you’re not good in bed or at giving head — or if you know that your partner is skilled at neither — then it’s no wonder you’re not giddily rushing into the bedroom. Britton’s recommendation? Educational DVDs about sex: “Watching people being sexual is the best teacher of all.”
But all the blowjob skills in the world won’t matter if you’re just too tired to get down there (the “Energy” factor). “With email and texts and P.D.A.s, we’re always in demand and on tap,” says Britton. “There’s not a lot of energy left to be sexual.” Her suggestion is to allocate time when you’re not on-tap: turn off the phones, turn down the lights, use scented oils. And don’t pressure yourself into feeling that this is supposed to be “sexy time.” It’s simply “me-time” — and you may have to bank quite a bit of it before you’re ready to invite someone else along.
Finally, there’s “Spirit,” which basically just means not losing your sense of self in the process. We live in such a fix-it culture that it’s tempting to approach something like a low libido as if it were simply a matter of changing the batteries or oiling the parts. But this step is about figuring out what works for you. “Most women don’t use sex as a way of recharging,” says Britton. “Whereas for men, sex is often their de-stressing zone. It’s their discharge and their recharge!” For you, maybe it’s a day at the spa, maybe it’s tantric sex, maybe it’s a little masturbation before hubby gets home — and maybe it is a bubble bath, the treadmill, or a backrub.
Heidi Raykeil, author of Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido, went searching for her sex drive after the birth of her daughter, and along the way addressed all five of Britton’s steps without even knowing it! First, she got her head straight: She tells us, “I just accepted that I have my own, sometimes fickle, sometimes feral sexuality — not some TV version of sexuality.” Second, she and her husband dealt with their emotions: “In the process of writing about what was not going on with us, we actually started talking about it. Not fighting, or blaming, or guilting — but really communicating.” Third, she got medical help with a thyroid problem that was negatively affecting her libido. Fourth, she found more “me-time” with her husband’s help: “He realized there was a connection between me feeling sexy and getting time away from the baby, so he would take her more or arrange childcare he knew I trusted. Also, as lame and old-school as it sounds, he started cleaning more and helping out around the house. Not as a trade for sex, but because he realized that walking past a stack of dirty dishes on the way to the bedroom doesn’t do much for my mood.” And finally, they figured out what they each needed to feel sexy individually (sleep, time alone, exercise, de-stressing), and what they needed to do to stay feeling sexy as a couple (turn off the TV, have fun outside the house, communicate better). Raykeil says, “When we connect emotionally and spiritually, the door opens a lot wider for us to connect physically.”
But Raykeil’s story may make a libido-makeover seem easier than it is. Sewell, the author of I’d Rather Eat Chocolate, tried everything: therapy, thongs, naughty thoughts, dirty talk, quickies, slow sensual sex, chocolate icing (for his penis), housework (by him), instructional videos, initiating, masturbation, romance, role-playing, and just going along for the ride to see if she’d get in the mood (she didn’t). None of this changed the fact that she just couldn’t imagine wanting sex more than three or four times a month — and even then, she’d always choose chocolate or a good book over the boot-knocking. Her husband, given his druthers, would like it five to six times a week.
It wasn’t until Sewell’s relationship was headed for divorce court that she finally hit on something that worked. She did it by figuring out what she dreaded most about sex (soldiering through it no matter what) and what she didn’t mind so much (dressing up in lingerie, doing stripteases, and, luckily for her husband, giving blowjobs). So they came up with a kind of sex contract: “I agreed to sexual contact three times a week, so long as I could determine both the pace and the content of these sessions,” says Sewell. This meant her reserving the right to take a break in the middle of sex if she needed to — maybe she’d grab a can of Coke from the fridge, stretch her legs, have a Kit-Kat. It also meant that on some nights, there’d be full-on sex or a blowjob, while on others, she’d just entertain him with a lapdance while he rubbed one out.
Now, she no longer dreads sex — in fact, most of the time she kind of enjoys it. (And trust us, if she can, then almost anyone can.) Oh yeah, and her marriage got a lot better. “Kip became a more loving, attentive, and communicative man,” she writes. “Our marriage became more intimate in other areas. He became more affectionate, happier. To me, it was impossible to fathom that sex could make such a difference, but it did.”
While Sewell’s plan is intricately tailored to her relationship, her approach can be generalized to anyone’s situation: Be honest with yourself and then your partner about what you like most and least about sex, and then work your love life around that. Maybe your only problem is that six nights a week doesn’t give you enough time to miss sex — and chances are, your partner would rather have you gagging for it once a week than going through the motions night after night. Or perhaps the rapid-fire jackhammering so fancied by men (and most pornos) doesn’t appeal to your sensibilities.
“My husband and I have much better sex when a bit of time has passed between our seshes,” says 34-year-old Anne, whose husband usually waits for her to initiate so he knows she’s really in the mood. “Still, he’d like it more. So I’ve told him, If you want it more, then the onus is on you to get me in the mood and do it the way I really like.” For Anne, that means building up slowly with lots of teasing, occasionally tying her up, and limiting actual thrusting time to ten minutes.
Finally, after all the self-exploration and self-improvement and mutual compromise, remember that it’s okay to just say no. After all, consistently having sex when you don’t want to can lead to bad sex, which can lead to not wanting to have sex even more. Explains Heidi Raykeil, “Saying No, I don’t want to do it tonight without hemming and hawing or lying or making excuses is a lot more empowering and feels a whole lot better.” And if you go to sleep feeling good, then who knows? Maybe you’ll wake up in the mood for a little morning nookie.
Five Easy Ways to Feel Really Good
Have you heard of oxytocin? It’s known as the body’s feel-good hormone (not to be confused with the infamous feel-good drug OxyContin), and studies show that when we don’t have enough of it, we’re not going to feel much like reaching out and touching someone. “Oxytocin won’t necessarily increase your sex drive,” says Dr. Laura Burlen, M.D., Ph.D., who has studied the role of hormones in women’s sexual health for decades. “But it does make you more receptive to touch, it helps with increased vaginal lubrication, and it makes the climax better.” We’ll take that for starters! Burlen recently founded the Balencia Wellness Spa, where she often prescribes her low-libido clients oxytocin in the form of a pill or nasal spray. But she also prescribes simple human touch, which can naturally boost oxytocin levels. This is why a low libido is often a vicious circle: The more oxytocin we have, the more we crave touch, so touch begets touch — and no touch begets, well, no touch. But the good news is that this touch can come from anyone. Here are Burlen’s favorite D.I.Y. tips for upping your oxytocin levels this week:
1. Get a facial or a mani-pedi during your lunch break.
2. Make an appointment to have your hair straightened—and then spend the night in.
3. Have lunch with your girlfriends. Who knew that scientists actually studied this stuff? But yep, a good natter with good friends can up the feel-good factor, too.
4. Snuggle up on the couch together for Dancing with the Stars.
5. Get a professional massage, either alone or with your partner.
And if you’re wondering why you often crave the massage or the pedicure instead of sex? “The massage is just bringing you up to the normal level of oxytocin,” says Burlen. “Then you need more touch, like foreplay, to get the surge you need before sex.” So the ideal date night, according to Burlen? “A facial, then a massage from your husband, and then sex!” Just tell your bloke it’s what the doctor ordered.
[article orginally appeared in Red magazine (U.K.), 2007]