Part 1 of this blog series described three common kinds of “low sexual desire” concerns.
Whilst different kinds of sexual desire concerns need to be approached in different ways, there are several ideas that can be helpful in all scenarios. And this is what I will cover here in Part 2.
The four key ideas covered here are: Understanding spontaneous and receptive sexual desire, knowing the value of sex in your life, using communication to negotiate a satisfying sex life, and exploring the conditions for good sex.
These four key ideas can help us to think about sexual desire concerns from a range of angles – the practical aspects, the relationship dynamic and the biological factors, as well as personal attitudes and beliefs around sex. These concepts therefore come from a holistic approach to sexual desire difficulties, not a quick fix approach.
Spontaneous and Receptive Sexual Desire
One of the biggest and most unhelpful myths about sexual desire is the idea that “spontaneous sexual desire” (i.e., feeling horny, being in the mood for sex) is the only kind of sexual desire. And people often take this myth even further – that you should wait until you feel horny before initiating or having sex.
This model of sexual desire works great for most teenagers, and it can also fit quite well for many new relationships (6-12 months or less).
But this model does not fit many long-term relationships.
Instead, research demonstrates that many people do not often experience spontaneous sexual desire (or do not experience it at all), and instead this research demonstrates that these people more often have the experience of “receptive sexual desire”.
Receptive sexual desire, also known as responsive desire, is where a person does not often (or ever) feel horny or lusty, but once sex has started (with sufficient stimulation) they then begin to feel the desire to continue being sexual and end up having an enjoyable sexual time.
And, if people who have more of a responsive style of sexual desire wait until they feel like sex or spontaneously desire sex….they may be waiting a long time.
Neither spontaneous nor receptive sexual desire is right or wrong, and either way you can still experience sexual pleasure and satisfaction. Rather than relying on feeling horny to create a satisfying sex life, often the key to enjoying sexual pleasure when you have a receptive libido is to foster an openness to sexual experiences and to trust that your body will respond to sensual and sexual touching once it has begun.
Other important factors for people with receptive sexual desire are to feel clarity about why you want to invest time and energy into a sexual relationship, and to be aware of the conditions for good sex.
The Value of a Sexual Relationship
For people who experience spontaneous sexual desire often, it may be easier to feel that sex is a valued and important part of their relationship, because sex is more readily on the brain.
Some of the reasons why sex may feel valued are listed here.
But for the partner with the lower libido, sometimes the value of sexual intimacy can get lost amongst worries about sex – feeling unsexy, thinking sex will be a chore, worrying about frequency and initiation, feeling guilty or inferior, etc.
For people in this situation, remembering the value of sex can actually require a more active process. This involves reassessing our mindset and purposely encouraging ourselves to develop a more helpful and open attitude towards sex.
One way to do this is by identifying what you want sex to mean for you and your relationship: What do you want sex to be about for you? What is the value of sex for your relationship? What were your hopes for your sex life earlier in your relationship? What does sex mean to your partner? What do you hope your sex life will be about in the future?
Your answer might include things like:
- A way to experience physical and emotional connection.
- A way to experience pleasure and satisfaction.
- A way to feel loved and show love.
- A way to feel wanted, desired, or sexy.
- A way to respect your partner’s value of sexual intimacy.
- A stress release; a way to relax.
- A way to have fun; to be playful.
- A way to express our sexuality and sensuality.
When we have a clear idea of why sex is important to us and our relationship, then we can start to notice the thoughts that take us away from creating this positive sex life (i.e. we can be mindful of unhelpful thoughts), and we can also choose to actively reflect on more helpful ideas about sex – the value that sex can play in our life and relationship.
Conditions for Enjoyable Sex
Satisfying sex is not a given in all relationships, and there are certain factors that can predict a more positive and sustainable sex life. When one person has lower sexual desire, it is very important that the conditions for good sex are prioritised so that this person can more readily find value in sex, and remain open and receptive to sexual experiences.
These factors can be grouped into 3 main categories:
Healthy body & mind
These factors are all related to us as individuals and what we bring into the sexual relationship.
Positive individual factors include good physical and mental health, positive attitudes about sex and masturbation, a positive view of yourself and your body, stress and anxiety management skills, and realistic expectations about how different life stages can impact sexuality (pregnancy, childbirth, infertility, menopause, retirement).
These factors relate to the “relational context” of your sex life – that is, the quality of your relationship and how much it supports positive sexual expression.
Positive relationship factors include constructive communication skills, conflict management, fondness and interest in each other, attraction to your partner, trust and respect, quality couple time, shared values and goals, and a good sense of humour.
It is also very important to have a good ratio of non-sexual intimacy, sexual affection and sexual intimacy. Go here to read more about this.
Note: In a more casual sexual relationship or a one-off encounter, not all of these factors may be present. But, a more positive casual encounter is likely to occur if the casual relationship still holds respect, receptiveness, attraction, friendliness and humour. Plus, openness to discussing and respecting safer sex practices.
Lastly, these are sex-specific factors that help sex to feel sensual and sexy.
These factors include privacy, setting the scene (e.g. de-cluttering the bedroom, mood lighting, music), allowing sufficient time to build arousal, being sexually responsive to each other’s needs, talking about sexual fantasies, letting go and being present in the moment (mindfulness), pleasurable sexual techniques and building a broad menu of enjoyable sexual activities (not just intercourse/penetration).
As you read through this list of conditions for good sex, you may have thought “Oh no, we’re missing a factor!”
Luckily, not all stars have to be aligned in order to create and sustain a good loving relationship and an enjoyable sex life. There may be some factors that you want to work on over time (like communication or body-image or letting go during sex), but if you have a reasonable amount of positive factors in each area, then this is a wonderful platform for enjoyable sexuality as an individual and in a partnership.
Communicating About Sexual Desire
In my post on The Paradox of Sexual Silence, I discussed how common it is for couples to avoid talking about sexual difficulties. And how “silence around sex can become the loudest conversation you even didn’t have – the big, pink, poker-dot elephant in the room.”
For couples struggling to manage differences in sexual desire, the first instinct can be to burrow down and not talk about it, or on the other end of the spectrum, to sling each other with blame and shame.
Although talking about sex can be difficult and awkward for many couples (especially because not many people were ever taught how to talk about sex and intimacy), it is an essential skill for managing sexual differences and asserting sexual needs and preferences.
Topics that couples might discuss to start exploring their sexual desire differences include:
- What does sex mean in our relationship; what do we want our sex life to be about?
- Which aspects of our sex life are going well, and which aspects aren’t feeling so great?
- What kind of sexual desire concern do we have – Desire Discrepancy, Inhibited Desire, Naturally Low Desire – or something else?
- How many times per week/fortnight do each of us want to have sex; how many times per week/fortnight can each of us be open to engaging in sexual intimacy?
- What might be a compromise between our two preferences for sexual frequency?
- What days and times are more likely to be good for sexual intimacy, and which times are not so conducive to good sex for us?
- Would scheduling sex into our week be helpful or unhelpful?
- What are some good sexual or intimate options for when one of us is sick, tired, menstruating, or long-distance?
- What do I wish we did more of during sex; what do I wish we did less of during sex?
- How is the balance of non-sexual intimacy, sexual affection and sexual intimacy in your relationship?
- What factors are getting in the way of a positive sex life?
And I cannot stress enough how important it is to be patient with each other and to withhold judgment, criticism, blame and shame.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, different kinds of sexual desire concerns need to be approached in different ways. And some libido concerns or desire discrepancies are very complex and distressing to manage. But my hope with this post was to share some general ideas that might be helpful starting points.
Dr. Alice Hucker