Low sexual desire is incredibly common, especially for women.
In her book Better Sex Through Mindfulness, Vancouver sex researcher Lori Brotto points out that low sexual desire affects a third of women (according to a major British study). That’s twice as many women as men.
Our sexual energy is a major part of who we are. Connecting to our erotic selves isn’t just about sex, it’s about our energy in general, our creativity, our willingness to take risks, our passion. There’s nothing wrong with having stretches of time where we don’t want to have sex (and maybe don’t have a partner anyway), but our erotic energy still matters. When we can’t access our sexual desire, that often means we’re having a hard time feeling anything. Everything is a little flattened. Sexual desire is related to our vitality, and we want that light to be on.
There’s good news. Aside from illness or medications, there are two simple reasons for low desire, and they are both highly treatable.
The first major reason for low sexual desire is stress. Anyone surprised?
When we’re under stress, we’re in fight or flight mode—we’re preparing to deal with a threat. This is not the time to get busy. The blood and energy in our bodies exits the digestive and reproductive systems and floods to the limbs, which we’ll need to fight or run for our lives. In order to manage the high energy costs of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, the body essentially steals from our sex hormones. When we’re relaxed and feel safe, the blood can return to our internal organs and rebalance our hormones, supporting reproductive function and digestion. For this reason, the rest and digest state is sometimes called feed and breed.
Stress is an issue we all have to deal with, and there are many ways to do manage it (check out my online course Stress Management Skills for Real Life). But if you’re dealing with low desire and stress is a factor, setting the right mood for a sexual experience is really important. People often feel weird about planning for sex, but making intimacy dates can be a fantastic tool for busy, stressed-out couples who value their sex life.
Besides, it’s an illusion that sex is easy and spontaneous, even at the beginning of a relationship. Don’t we shave our legs and put on the nice underwear on those first few dates? Don’t we put clean sheets on the bed and kick out the roommate? Sex early in a relationship isn’t spontaneous—it’s carefully planned! You can do this in a long-term relationship, too, and put that same level of effort into seducing your partner and allowing yourself to be seduced.
As you do, though, focus on reducing stress. Make sure there is nowhere either partner has to be for a few hours. Make sure the kids are being taken care of elsewhere. Turn off the phones. Don’t put on the news. Don’t talk about work. Focus on creating a calm, safe environment dedicated to play. Don’t overly focus on having orgasms, which can cause its own kind of stress. It might be a good idea even to take sex off the table at first. Sometimes stress comes from a sense of disconnection in the relationship, and an intimacy date that focuses on affection and communication instead of sex can be a fantastic way to reconnect, reduce stress, and eventually get those sexy times back.
Now we come to the second major reason women have low sexual desire: They’re not enjoying the sex they are having. If a woman is experiencing pain, discomfort, or boredom during a sexual experience, her nervous system starts to associate sex with those things, which will activate stress along with her sexual inhibition system (SIS). Her body learns that she doesn’t want sex.
Women are having bad sex for a lot of different reasons, and one of them is that our culture (and porn) is so incredibly focused on the act of penetration. Women’s vaginas are not the most sensitive part of our sexual anatomy: That’s the clitoris, the organ that wraps around the vagina and peeks out just above the vaginal entrance like a little pleasure button. The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings—that’s double that of a penis. Penetration alone is quite unlikely to give a woman an orgasm (though it may still be quite a delight).
If you or your female partner has vaginismus or vulvodynia, there is pain with sexual penetration. If every time a woman has sex she has pain, then the pain is only going to increase along with her aversion to sex. If this is the case, then a great tool for increasing her desire (and likely getting her closer to being willing to have penetrative sex) is to take penetration off the table for a while. Both partners have to get creative about other ways to give and receive pleasure, and sex can be fun and exploratory, which is how it should be. Now her body starts to associate sex with play and pleasure again, and if she’s not too stressed and is getting the right sexy signals coming her way, her sexual excitation system (SES) will activate.
(If you want more tips for pleasurable sex, please read Ian Kerner’s book She Comes First. Do talk to your partner, however—working on sexual communication is huge, since everyone is different and we can’t read each other’s minds.)
The best way to improve a woman’s sexual desire is to create a low-stress environment and focus on play and pleasure rather than penetration and orgasm. Practicing pleasure takes some time and work, but it is a delightful process that can go a long way toward increasing our desire and, along with it, our vitality.
An Exercise For Intimate Touch: Giving and Receiving Pleasure
Many of us aren’t really fully present when we’re having sex because we’re distracted by our own performance. We worry about how we look, whether our techniques are working, and what our partners think. We don’t pause to actually feel the pleasure that sex is supposed to be about. This simple little exercise is a really fun way of exploring pleasure and touch that is very low stakes—all you need are your hands.
First up, ask for consent and agree with your partner that if anyone gets uncomfortable at any time, that person will speak up and the exercise will stop.
Set a timer for one minute. Partner A holds Partner B’s hand. Partner A’s job is to touch Partner B’s hand in a way that is pleasurable for Partner A. Partner A must focus on what feels most delightful to touch and explore B’s hand with an intention to feel their own pleasure. B’s job is to receive this: do not touch back, do not give instructions, just stay quiet and stay present with how it feels to receive touch that is pleasurable for the other person. The exception to this is of course if B gets uncomfortable and wants A to stop.
Then the partners switch, and B has a chance to touch A with the sole intention of experiencing pleasure. A’s job is now to relax and receive.
Then the partners discuss how it made them feel to be both the toucher and the receiver. If desired, they can try this with other parts of the body for longer periods of time. This does not have to include the genitals. Especially if there has been stress in the relationship or stress with sex, you may like to agree that there will be no genital touching, and that this exercise will only be practiced on places like the forearm, the calf, the back, or the face.
Even if you want to go straight to the genitals from here, I advise you not to! Try at least two other body parts first so you have time to let your body get completely comfortable with this practice. And it is a practice!