In light of my recent move to Las Vegas, I wanted to talk about something that is near and dear to Sin City: SEX! Starting in October, I will be hosting an online women’s sexual health group (with potential to move to in-person once I secure a location, and once things are less Covid-y). To kick off the launch of this group I want to talk about one of the issues that frequently comes up when it comes to women’s sexuality: sexual desire. Before we talk about desire, it is important to define some key terms. Desire is the mental WANTING to have sex. Many women often lament about having low sexual desire. Those afflicted say things to me like, “I want to WANT to have sex” or “my partner doesn’t understand the art of foreplay, and I am not about it.” By contrast, arousal is the physical response we may (or may not!) experience in response to sexual stimuli. It is vitally important that we understand that physical arousal does NOT equal sexual desire. In this article we will break down just some of the possible culprits of low sexual desire, and we will discuss some possible solutions so you can get back to enjoying your sex life.
Culprit #1: There is no foreplay. The reason this is important comes down to what is known as Responsive versus Spontaneous sexual desire. Spontaneous sexual desire is what you see all of the time in popular media such as movies, TV shows, porn, etc. Spontaneous desire is what happens when you’re walking down the street and suddenly-BAM-you feel like having sex. This type of desire, according to top sex researcher Emily Nagoski, PhD. is like being struck by lighting. Spontaneous desire comes on quickly and for seemingly no reason (there are reasons, but they often fly under the radar, and we will get to that in a second). This is most often experienced by biological males, according to research, although there are definitely some women who fit this description as well. By contrast, responsive desire comes on much more slowly. This type of sexual desire is most commonly associated with biological females. The most common metaphor used likens responsive desire to a convection oven, whereas spontaneous desire is more like a microwave. Responsive desire is slower to warm up, and various stimuli (such as a crying baby, a bad smell, or feeling anxious about the way your body looks) can shut this type of desire down quickly.
Solution: The first solution is to communicate turn ons and turn offs with your partner as honestly as possible. Does it bother you that your partner is sweaty from working outside when trying to initiate sex? Talk to your partner about cleaning up before sex. Does deep/stimulating conversation get you in the mood? Try starting with the article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” and discuss these over dinner multiple nights a week. Do you need more clitoral stimulation before having penetrative sex? Try noticing what creates a sexual response in you, no matter how small. Keep a list of these things and communicate them to your partner and brainstorm ideas of increasing these turn ons in your relationship. Keep a list of turn offs, and try to reduce these as much as possible. It is about “turning off the offs” and “turning on the ons”. Remember, foreplay can look different to each couple, and it is often a combination of mental, physical, and emotional stimulation when it comes to responsive sexual desire.
Culprit #2: You have unresolved (sexual) trauma. Trauma impacts every facet of our lives: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. You might be in a safe and loving relationship but experiencing flashbacks or trauma reminders with your current partner. This can be quite distressing, and even more so when we don’t understand why this is happening to us! We might be trying to get our sexy groove on with our current partner, only to be triggered moments later. The most common scenario I see in my practice is individuals being triggered by the way their partner initiates sex. It feels like pressure to the previously traumatized person, and this reminds that traumatized individual of a time they were perhaps coerced. Optimal sexual functioning understandably shuts down at that point.
Solution: Couples/sex and trauma therapy is the first line of defense here. Trauma can be so complex and affect us in so many ways that it is nearly impossible to resolve sexual trauma without the help of a therapist. In addition to this, work on slowing things waaaaay down with your partner. Not all sexual and intimate contact must involve penetration. Focus on touch/cuddling/caressing and notice what feels good. At no point should there be any pressure from the non-traumatized person to move forward. Look up sensate focus. This is a somatic, or bodily approach to help individuals heal from sexual trauma.
Culprit #3: Your emotional relationship with your partner has been neglected. This can happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps you or your partner is not well versed in talking about feelings. Maybe talking about feelings growing up was discouraged. Perhaps you or your partner have been through something traumatic, and you don’t know how to talk about it. Maybe one or both of you copes by shutting down emotionally. Maybe your emotional energy is being occupied by stress or major life changes. Whatever the reason, it is important to learn to communicate about feelings, regardless of what our culture may tell you. Our BRAIN is actually the largest sex organ in the body. Arousal starts there, and if emotional needs are not being met or communicated, it makes sense that sexual arousal might be hard to come by.
Solution: Check out the emotions wheel, a quick google search will do. The emotions wheel is modeled off of the color wheel. Each emotion correlates to a different “shade” of color. For example, deep crimson is rage, whereas a light orangey red might be annoyance. It is important to learn to accurately communicate these emotions, because this helps others be able to accurately identify and empathize with our emotional experience. For many responsive desire types, feeling seen and understood is an important piece of the puzzle to sexual desire.
Culprit #4: You and/or your partner are not comfortable discussing sex. This is understandable given the culture we live in. We live in a culture that are “perverts in private and saints in public”. Everyone is seemingly obsessed with sex, but nobody talks about it in ways that are helpful and informative. If you are like me, your sex education may have even sounded like, “Abstinence is the only way. If you have sex, God will strike you down and you’ll have a horrible and broken marriage. And you will get chlamydia and die! But if you have to be a failure and have sex, don’t forget to use a condom.” This message is obviously problematic for reasons that are too many to list in this article, AND it fails to talk about how sex can be a pleasurable, fun, and bonding experience.
Solution: First, get comfortable naming your body parts. So many people are uncomfortable just saying the words “penis” or “vagina”, even with their long term partners! Being able to describe what you like or dislike in explicit detail is essential to having increased sexual desire. How can your partner know that you want him to “lick your clitoris” if you can’t get the words out? Often times, people will wait until the heat of the moment to talk about what they like or dislike, and this can lead to disaster and even trauma. As a society and as individuals we HAVE to get comfortable talking about this stuff.
The Bottom Line: Human sexuality is much more complex than media, porn, and your friends may have you to believe. Low desire is multi-faceted and often takes a relationship with a trained sexuality and mental health professional to help uncover your reasons for low sexual desire. If you are reading this, I want you to know that your sexual desire CAN increase, and you CAN enjoy the sexual part of yourself. If you or someone you know is struggling with low desire, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an individual appointment. Inquiries about the women’s sexual health group can also be sent to the same e-mail.