Do you struggle with a lack of sexual interest?
In a landmark 2008 study of women in relationships, researchers found that up to 26% of premenopausal women and upwards to 52% of postmenopausal women described symptoms of low sexual desire. Scientists are trying to understand why.
Take Mary—she participated in a research study that tested whether a testosterone patch would improve women’s sexual desire (libido). She suffers from a condition called hypoactive sexual desire disorder, where she had little interest in sex. Testosterone, thought of as a primarily male sexual hormone, is also produced in females. Scientists think that it’s this hormone which regulates sexual interest in both men and women. The loss of sexual desire can be caused by low levels of testosterone.
After a couple of months on the patch, Mary felt her sexual desire return in leaps and bounds. She was overjoyed! There was only one problem. When the study was over she learned that she had the “placebo” patch. She had received no medication!
It turns out that the brain is the largest sexual organ of them all.
So what sparks sexual desire?
Certainly there is a biological, chemical, and neurophysiological basis for sexual desire. Scientists are trying to learn more about these factors using a variety of research tools. But as Mary’s experience suggests, our mind is an important player when it comes to sex.
Recent brain imaging studies suggest that when females achieve orgasm, the parts of the brain involved in regulating thoughts and emotions become silent. The brain's pleasure centers light up in brain scans in both men and women during sex. This plays a part in sexual desire, which has a clear role in the survival of the species.
Most research indicates that men are more simply triggered by visual cues and touch. They are more easily turned on. Conventional thinking suggests that women’s sexual desire is more complex—requiring an interplay of emotional, relational and mental elements. But this may not be the whole story. A 2007 study showed that women also strongly responded to visual stimuli too.
Other studies suggest that the memory of previous sexual encounters may fuel a sexual desire in women as well. As women with low sexual desire have less sex, that may contribute to their continued lack of sexual interest. It can be a downward spiral. Over the years, I have seen many married couples who haven’t had sex for months or sometimes years. The lack of sexual intimacy itself may contribute to lowered sexual desire.
Fatigue, stress, and anxiety play a big part in sexual desire too. In a survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, one in four adults complained of being too tired to have sex. Multi-tasking, electronics, full-time work, laundry, aging parents, housework, and meal preparation can place a dent in sexual interest. The working woman frequently ends of up doing the lion’s share of housework. It makes going to sleep more important than going to bed.
In longer term relationships, boredom may play a role too. Human beings require a certain amount of novelty in their lives. While we crave predictability, we need a balance of the familiar and the new.
So what can adults do?
- The most important first step—talk with your partner.
- When the issue of low sex drive goes underground, it becomes increasingly difficult to address. Visit your primary care provider for a full physical to make sure there aren’t any underlying medical problems or medications that are contributing to low libido.
- Communication with your significant other opens the door for creative problem solving. Sharing household duties, finding a way of getting more exercise, and getting more sleep can help. But sometimes creativity, novelty, and spontaneity can open the door for greater passion. It’s important in relationships to keep the home fires burning.