Sexual desire can be a tricky thing---here today, gone tomorrow--and for some, always elusive.
We all want to be that woman--at least for a night. The naughty little sex kitten who grabs her guy mid–cocktail party for a quickie in the coat room, who plans entire vacations around the ideal skinny-dipping spot, who actually has tried all 69 of the moves "guaranteed to drive him wild" and loved every one of them. But even if you were a Lusty Lana once upon a time, these days your libido may be more lifeless than a dorm-room houseplant. Or maybe your sex drive has always been a bit limp.
Either way, you're not alone. In a recent survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, more than one in three women admitted to experiencing low sexual desire in the past month. Hello--that's more than 40 million of us! While men can pop Viagra (those lucky bastards), women can't quick-fix their lack of desire with a magic pill. For us, there's more to it than blood flow.
But there's good news: According to experts, once you ID the possible causes of your lukewarm libido, you can start homing in on a solution. "Take the time to assess yourself--not just physically but emotionally and mentally--and you'll be able to see what might be holding you back," says Patti Britton, Ph.D., a Los Angeles sexologist and author of The Art of Sex Coaching.
To help you reconnect with your saucy side, we asked three women to share their struggles with low desire and then turned to top sex therapists for their analyses. This may not turn you into the woman who speeds home for a lunch-hour power romp, but the following insights and advice will help make you hungrier for lovin' than you may have been in a long time.
Trust Is the Best Aphrodisiac
Guys seem to have it pretty easy when it comes to sexual arousal: Man gets turned on. Penis takes over. Brain shuts down. Enjoyment ensues. For most women, it's more complex. To feel even the slightest bit of desire, our head has to be in the game. A 2003 study at Northwestern University found that even when women show the physical signs of sexual excitement below the belt, if they're not mentally turned on they won't feel a damn thing.
Now, imagine you're busy trying to muster desire, but your brain--the main factor in the equation--won't stop analyzing, fretting, or planning. For Kim, 27, that kind of overall anxiety has left her with "zero sex drive." After working 12-hour days at an ad agency in Philadelphia, she comes home exhausted and way too preoccupied even to consider sex. "I'm always stressing about my job--I even have nightmares about it," she says. Work concerns aside, Kim describes herself in general as a very anxious person, a perfectionist who's always making to-do lists on paper and in her head.
Though the flip advice might be to tell Kim that she just needs a hearty hump session (or a strong cocktail) to feel right as rain, we know it doesn't work that way. For Kim, sex is just one more thing to worry about. "I'll have sex because I know it's important to the relationship, but I never feel a desire for it," she says.
Kim describes her boyfriend of the past year and a half as a sweet, supportive guy, understanding about the fact that she isn't exactly likely to swing from the chandelier. Besides, he leaves for work at 6 a.m. and often doesn't return home until midnight, after she's already asleep (they have sex two or three times a month). "The pressure to have sex, or the guilt over not wanting it, isn't there because, logistically, we can't really have it that often."
When Kim's alone and it's time for a little self-lovin', on the other hand, it's a whole other ballgame. "I find that I'm more in the mood," she says. "I'm able to just clear my mind and get into it."
According to experts, if a woman masturbates regularly, she doesn't actually have a low libido. So what's going on? Probably trust issues, says sex therapist Gina Ogden, Ph.D., author of The Return of Desire. "You're at your most vulnerable--body, mind, and heart--when you're naked with a man," she explains. "If you're afraid of that kind of intimacy, you're going to subconsciously avoid sex, and you certainly won't have a desire for it."
For many, that fear of intimacy can stem from early sexual experiences. If they were filled with angst or with emotional or even physical pain, they can leave women with an underlying sense of 'I don't want to go through that again,' Ogden says.
Kim's issues could be traced back to a high school boyfriend who couldn't keep it in his pants. "In the four years we were together, I always thought he was cheating. I remember feeling self-conscious about hooking up, like he was getting it better somewhere else," she says.
Then in college, she dated a guy who was all about pleasing her. The only problem was that he wanted it morning and night and would get upset if Kim refused him. Around the same time, she went on anti-anxiety medication to help her sleep and noticed an upswing in her sex drive as a result. She didn't stay on the pills for long because her health insurance wouldn't cover the cost; her sexual urge has been pretty much MIA ever since. The few relationships Kim's had in the past several years have been short-lived. "Either the guy would get annoyed with my lack of sex drive, or, since we weren't having that sexual connection, I would end up just viewing him as a friend," she says.
Kim's experience, though more extreme than for most women, is not uncommon. For many women, anxiety and low libido go hand-in-hand, explains sex and relationship therapist Laura Berman, Ph.D., director of the Berman Center and author of the upcoming book Real Sex for Real Women. "If you're not able to quiet your mind, you can't be present in the moment, you can't connect with your partner, feel desire, or achieve orgasm--it's practically impossible." The first step for women like Kim is to unplug the mental ticker tape.
"It's important to redirect the brain away from outside stresses and issues and connect the mind back to the body," Britton says. She suggests a warm bath every night before bed to help feel good in your skin. She also recommends audio therapy three times a week. "It sounds corny, but just lying in bed listening to a CD of nature sounds--waterfalls, birds chirping, wind in the trees--is really good for shutting out the noise in your own head."
After Kim has tuned out her worries, she needs to tune in to her partner. "He probably doesn't know what's going on, much less how to help her fix it, because she doesn't really know herself," Ogden says. "They may want to consider a session or two with a therapist, where she can explain to him what's going on in her head and what's keeping her from feeling desire."
Meanwhile, Britton recommends that Kim and her boyfriend undress and try this: "Get into a position where they're really body-to-body, heart-to-heart, with their legs and arms wrapped around each other, like a seated position with her facing him on his lap. Then they can work on breathing in sync, not only to help relax, but to feel more connected." When Kim's mind starts to wander, Britton says, she should redirect her thoughts to her physical self--what she's feeling, how her body is responding--to try to truly enjoy every skin-on-skin sensation.
The Confidence Cure
Not all psychosexual blocks are anxiety-related. For many women, low self-esteem can be the biggest booty buzzkill. Caroline Burns,* 34, has always struggled with a lack of confidence. "Growing up, my brothers and my dad were pretty brutal with the way they would tease me about my weight. Plus, I always had a sense that my dad was not being faithful to my mom during their marriage. I think he had a few affairs with different women, who were usually thin and blonde; that didn't make me feel any better about what men were looking for," she says.
"Even though my family and I have better relationships now, these self-esteem issues have been a running theme for me." In her early twenties, Caroline turned to sex as a way to feel validated, attractive, and loved. But hook-ups were never fueled by good old-fashioned desire. "I enjoy the cuddling and the closeness, but the act itself just doesn't do it for me," she says. "And I've never been able to orgasm during sex."
Many women like Caroline approach sex from the wrong direction. "We've been fed these messages that sex is supposed to be for him and about his needs," Ogden says, "and has nothing to do with our own pleasure, bodies, or desires." And for Caroline, who was raised in a strict religious household and spent 12 years in Catholic school, there was plenty of guilt around sex. "For a long time there was a part of me that felt that sex was wrong," she says. "That feeling has almost disappeared now, though."
Adding to her cycle of shame, Caroline feels insecure about being so "nonsexual." For reasons she can't figure out, she says, "I just don't have the urge to have sex or even masturbate." It probably doesn't help that her boyfriend of two years has a crazy-high sex drive. "He wants sex in the morning and at night, and is really into trying new things," she says. Although she usually has sex with him when he wants it, Caroline says, her inability to orgasm creates even more tension between them. For the most part, he's been patient and supportive of her, she says, but one time his frustration boiled over and he threatened to break up with her if she didn't take more aggressive steps to fix her sexual issues.
Ultimatums--especially those bred from frustration--only add more pressure to the situation, says sex therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of Sex Recharge. Caroline needs to have honest conversations with her guy, Kerner says, and remind him that, although she realizes this is difficult for him, she is doing "everything she can to improve her sexual response." His patience and understanding will help her achieve that goal faster.
And her boyfriend will really need to put that patience into practice because, in Caroline's case, the best solution is to stop having sex for a while. "She's overwhelmed with her sexual insecurities and needs a serious break," Kerner says. "Instead of having intercourse, she and her partner need to focus on sensual touch, without the pressure to have an orgasm." Caressing each other, trading massages, kissing--they're all ways for women like Caroline to operate outside of the sexual sphere but still feel tenderness, love, and validation. To sell the "no-sex" idea to her man, Kerner suggests explaining that in addition to clearing out the muck in her own head, she wants to focus on finding fun new ways to get him off that don't involve intercourse.
Finally, Caroline also has to address her body-image concerns. She needs to adjust her perception of what's sexy, Britton says, so she can start feeling sensual and sexual. For starters, she could ask her boyfriend to tell her why he finds her so attractive physically. Then she should "find an image of a woman in a magazine that reminds her of herself and that she believes is sexy," Britton says. "She should keep that image in her head when she thinks about her body." Over time, the idea that she's just as sexy as the woman in the photograph will start to sink in.
Bonding Leads to Booty
Sometimes it's not anxiety or hormones but life's rough patches that contribute to a sex-drive nosedive. Last August, Morgan Daniels, 32, went through a debilitating period of grief after the death of her mother. "Imagine your best friend, just gone," she says. "I went completely numb. I lost my interest in and motivation for everything." She also felt consumed with feelings she didn't know how to deal with. "I was pissed off at the world for taking away my mother," Morgan says. "And the person I took it out on was the person closest to me: my boyfriend. I put walls up just to keep an emotional distance from him."
Before her mother's death, Morgan had a healthy libido and wanted sex every day--sometimes twice a day. But in her grief, the sex dwindled to once every week or two. "For me, sex had always been so much about connection, but I was so closed off, I didn't want to be intimate with my boyfriend." Although she'd lost her desire, Morgan still tried to have sex when she could, thinking that the act itself would make her feel better and perhaps make her relationship stronger. "Everyone is different, but for some, it can be very therapeutic to do things that remind you that you're alive, that reconnect you with the joys of life," Ogden says.
After several months, Morgan began to bounce back. "I started really dealing with my grief, talking about what I was going through, talking about my mother with my boyfriend and my friends. That really helped," she says. "My boyfriend and I also started to understand each other better, to communicate and see where the other was coming from, and really be sensitive and sympathetic." As Kerner points out, "Sex for many women is such an emotional experience that in order to really boost your desire for it, you have to nurture that connection with your partner."
Another big help: They started working out together. "We signed up for a triathlon," Morgan says. "I thought that if we were spending time together training, running, and raising our serotonin, it would enhance our sex life." She was right. Studies have shown that exercise is both a mood enhancer and a libido-booster. It increases endorphin levels, Kerner says, and gets you in touch with your body. In Morgan's case, working with her boyfriend toward a shared goal also reinforced their bond, bringing them closer sexually.
Morgan also realized that in order to start having more sex, she would have to make it a priority again. "No one wants to schedule sex," she says, "but I've found that if I carve out time for that purpose, I end up looking forward to it." According to Berman, for many women, sex often begets more sex. It's not necessarily going to be the hot-and-heavy, spontaneous variety, she says, but a roll in the hay--even when you don't think you're in the mood--can actually make you want sex more.
If you can scrape up some extra cash, consider getting away to get it on. A 2006 national study conducted by the Berman Center found that couples who vacation together once or twice a year actually have more emotional intimacy than those who do a weekly date night. "That time away from your life can be rejuvenating," Berman says. "And there's a dopamine effect you get from being in a new environment, with new experiences, and that can also increase your sex drive." (Lounging under a giant palm tree while the sun's rays warm your skin and a frosty piña colada slides down your throat will send your mind straight to the gutter.)
While Morgan's sex life hasn't returned to what it was in its heyday, things have definitely improved. Resuscitating a lackluster libido, or just trying to dig it out from under piles of emotional baggage, takes time and energy. Much the way forcing yourself to do 100 crunches a day will get you closer to an enviable six-pack, doing what it takes to stoke your sex drive has a life-enhancing payoff that's worth every bit of effort--and sweat.
Percentage of women who want sex 'often' at the beginning of a relationship: 60
Percentage who still want sex 'often' four years later: 50
4: Number of times more often than women that men get the nooky ball rolling
Number of women reporting a lack of interest in sex: 1 in 3 (Double the rate reported for men)
For women like Kim and Caroline, hormonal factors might also be at play. One possible culprit is oral contraception. A 2005 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women on the Pill had significantly lower libidos than those not on it. According to the study, the extra dose of estrogen and progesterone increases your levels of SHBG (sex-hormone-binding globulin), which makes testosterone stick to your cells, preventing the hormone from flowing freely through your system.
Without all that traveling testosterone, some women lose their desire to knock boots. If your lust levels plummeted soon after going on the Pill, the solution may be to go back to condoms or try an IUD. Other women's testosterone levels are naturally low. If your sex drive is sluggish, Berman suggests having your hormone levels checked, regardless of your age. If your issue turns out to be hormonal, Kerner says, you can work with an endocrinologist to make sure you're getting enough testosterone. For a handful of lucky women, a testosterone supplement may just be a magic pill.
Happier and Hornier
Most antidepressants will kill your libido. But a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that bupropion, known by the brand names Wellbutrin and Zyban, doubled nondepressed women's interest in sex. Another study by the same researcher found that it improved orgasmic response in premenopausal women. How does it work? Bupropion ups the brain's levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters with energizing, feel-good effects.