One of the most common and distressing sexual difficulties that couples present with when they see a sex therapist is that one partner in the couple has “low desire” or “no desire”.
This can translate into a variety of bedroom scenarios:
- One partner feeling unhappy that sex and intimacy is not occurring at the frequency they wish.
- The other partner feeling unhappy that sexual initiation is occurring far too often.
- Both partners feeling sexually depressed – this is not how they envisaged their sex life to be.
- One partner feeling inferior, guilty, pressured and hopeless.
- The other partner feeling out of control, rejected and also hopeless.
Another situation can arise when both partners realise that sex has become a low priority, and interest has decreased over time for both of them.
One of the first steps in helping couples struggling with these difficulties is to clarify what “low desire” actually is in their relationship.
Are we talking about a longstanding difference in desires? Are we talking about a reduction in sexual appetite over time? Or someone who has never had any interest in sex? Is this a kind of joint sexual-apathy? Or perhaps something else?
Three Kinds of Low Desire
In general, couples and individuals present with three different kinds of “low desire” problems. And you might have guessed by now, not everybody who presents with a self-diagnosis of “low desire” really has a problem with desire at all.
The three different categories that concerns over low desire generally fall under are: Desire Discrepancy, Inhibited Desire, and Naturally Lower Desire.
A “desire discrepancy” is where one person in a relationship has a higher sexual desire (higher libido) while the other person has lower sexual desire. In fact, it is quite uncommon in a long-term relationship to have two adults with exactly the same libido, and the person who has the higher libido can also change over time – depending on stress levels, fatigue, life stage changes, etc.
A desire discrepancy does not have to be a major issue in a relationship, and many couples manage this well with good communication, and negotiate a satisfying and pleasurable sex life. But for other couples, the gap can become bigger and bigger, and the frequency and quality of sex can become less and less.
Different people have different levels of natural sexual desire (explained more below under Naturally Lower Desire). But for some people, “low desire” may actually be inhibited sexual desire – where one’s natural libido has been masked or pushed down by various factors. If you have inhibited desire, you are more likely to remember certain times in your life when you had a stronger sex drive (although this is not true for everybody, as some of these inhibiting factors may have been present from very early on).
Some factors that commonly inhibit sexual interest include:
- Negative or unhelpful beliefs about sex.
- Relationship issues such as ongoing conflict, a lack of trust, and power imbalances.
- A lack of affection and non-sexual intimacy in the relationship – ie., too much focus on sexual intimacy at the expense of general intimacy.
- Unpleasant experiences during sex.
- Sexual routine – boredom or choredom.
- Conditions that lead to sexual pain, such as vaginisumus (painful spasms of the vagina), dyspareunia (sexual pain arising from different conditions, such as endometriosis and dermatitis) or vulvodynia (a nerve pain condition affecting the vulva).
- Lack of sexual stimulation or insufficient stimulation.
- A lack of communication about preferences, needs, wants and desires.
- Lack of attraction to a partner.
- Lifestyle issues leading to stress and fatigue.
- Medical and mental health issues.
This is not an exhaustive list by far, and one or a combination of factors can be the cause of decreasing sexual interest and sex having a lower value and priority in a relationship. Individuals and couples struggling with inhibited desire may benefit from taking the time and patience to focus on the precipitating and perpetuating factors inhibiting sexual desire and enjoyment.
Naturally Lower Desire
Lastly, some people just do have a lower than average sex drive. Sexual desire can be thought of on a bell curve with a majority of people sitting in the middle of the curve, and others sitting on the lower side or the higher side. Different people naturally sit on different points of the bell curve due to a variety of factors, including genetic make-up, health, and hormones.
There is no right or wrong level of libido, and some people may just naturally have a lower libido than others. People in this category are less likely to remember times of high sexual interest, except perhaps at the very beginning of a relationship when hormones are raging.
If this is the case, then no amount of “spicing up your sex life” will change your libido. Some people in this category do respond to testosterone treatments, but many people with naturally low desire do not have issues with testosterone, or have no response to this treatment – plus there can be negative side effects (especially for women).
And trying to increase your libido with sex toys, horny goats weed, and funky new sex positions can lead to more pressure and more guilt when your sexual interest remains unchanged.
But this is not a doom and gloom story.
Naturally low sexual desire certainly does not mean you cannot still enjoy sex. And low sexual desire certainly does not mean that you cannot still build a sustainable and enjoyable sex life.
What it does mean, is that if you want a long-term sexually intimate relationship you cannot just rely on feeling horny in order to make this happen – you will need to be more creative and strategic, and pay greater attention the positive benefits of sex and the conditions for good sex. More on this in What is Low Sexual Desire? Part 2.
Lastly, a small group of people in this category may actually identify as asexual. Asexuality refers to a sexual orientation where a person does not experience sexual attraction and generally has no interest in building a sex life. People who identify as asexual still have emotional and relational needs, but not those of the sexual variety.
If you would like to find out more about asexuality, you may like to visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.
Dr. Alice Hucker