When you’d rather spend a quiet night watching TV, do you ever get the feeling everyone else is having sex? You’re not alone.
Low sexual desire is a common problem that affects many women at some point in their lives.
While it’s hard to know exactly how many women experience low libido, it seems it might be more common than previously thought.
Almost 70 per cent of Australian women aged 40-65 years old reported a lack of sexual desire in a recent study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
The authors noted this was “somewhat higher” than estimates from previous studies, which used different survey methods.
In the 2017 study, low desire was defined as a score no higher than 5.0 on the desire domain of the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI), a written questionnaire that has been validated for use in research. It asks about sexual feelings in the past four weeks.
Lead author Dr Rosie Worsely, from Monash University Women’s Health Research Program, was surprised by the findings.
“We know from previous research that it’s a common problem, but it was a big number to see,” she said. “It’s clearly a concern for a lot of women.”
Let’s get physical
There can be a range of physical causes – from changing hormone levels to illnesses and certain medications.
But sex therapist and relationship counsellor Cyndi Darnell said it pays to remember one of the most powerful sex organs is located between the ears.
Often libido is seen as a force that operates outside of a person’s control. But it’s often a state of mind, Ms Darnell told ABC podcast Ladies, We Need To Talk.
If we think of libido as a “thing” which activates rarely or not at all, we risk writing it off as “I don’t get horny very often because I just don’t”, she said.
“That doesn’t mean you aren’t able or willing to enjoy sex. It just means the physiological impetus isn’t there. But it might come later, if you start,” Ms Darnell said.
Dr Amanda Newman, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health GP, sees libido as a combination of our minds and bodies.
“It is both psychological and physical – a concept like hunger (although you can’t die from lack of sex),” she said.
There are a wide range of factors which might explain why your libido drops.
Physical symptoms related to hormonal changes can play a role, Dr Newman said.
Slap-and-tickle for seniors
For instance, during the menstrual cycle, fluctuating hormones can result in bloating, tiredness, and aches and pains, which in turn can reduce interest.
And simply getting older causes a drop in another hormone, testosterone, that’s known to be linked with desire.
While testosterone is normally associated with males, it exists in females at lower levels.
Feeling stressed can also put a dampener on lust as can the distraction of everyday worries, Dr Newman said.
“Do you have children … who might disturb your privacy? Are you worried about your tax return or the casserole in the oven?” she said.
And then there’s medications like the contraceptive pill or certain antidepressants, which have been linked with reduced sex drive in some women.
Negative emotions triggered by depression and anxiety can also send desire plummeting too.
But sometimes your sex drive can take a dive because you’re just having bad sex, columnist and owner of Australia’s longest-running sex shop, Maureen Matthews, said.
“Putting up with unsatisfactory sex for a long time can make you want to avoid the situation,” she said.
“The more often that you have sex that is distasteful, it acts like aversion therapy.”
Ms Darnell said a poor understanding of women’s bodies could contribute to this problem in some cases.
“A lot of the younger women who I see in my practice are really struggling with basic anatomical knowledge,” she said.
“They’re still struggling with how to ask for what they want.
“We still, as a culture, find it very, very difficult to talk about sex, to talk about what we like, to ask for what we want, and to give feedback during sex.”
Being in a long-term monogamous relationship can make maintaining libido challenging for some, Ms Darnell said.
“When you’ve been with the same person for so long, you share beds, you have children and you smell each other’s farts, it can be a bit of an anti-aphrodisiac,” she said.
“It’s a bit too comfortable. It’s a bit too safe — and that doesn’t feel very hot.”
Something as simple as booking a hotel room occasionally might be enough to warm things up, Ms Matthews said.
Sometimes “it’s really hard to get spontaneously excited in your own home when there’s dust everywhere and bills on the mantle,” she said.
“When you go to a hotel, it’s neutral territory.”
But it may still require a conscious effort. You might decide to have a shower, shave your legs, put on sexy lingerie, and light candles, she said. This can trigger a change in mindset and act a bit like a psychological form of foreplay.
“You just do it and get underway. It can be fabulous,” Ms Matthews said.
Perceptions of exactly when low libido is a problem will vary from one person to the next. And some people are happy to have infrequent sex.
But if it causes you concern, think about possible causes and talk to your GP about appropriate help.
Time and inclination
This could range from reviewing medications, to prescribing a cream for vaginal dryness, to a referral for individual or relationship therapy or sexual therapy.
Ms Darnell said it can also help to think about potential benefits to your relationship of having sex.
“When you’ve got a motivation, then you’re in a better position to make it happen,” she said.
“Like getting up and going to the gym on a cold morning – that first ten minutes of getting up and putting your shoes on and getting out the door — that’s hell!
“Nobody likes that part, but everybody does it because there’s a better reward coming and the same approach has to be taken with sex.”
Ms Matthews said to remember to be kind to yourself – “Just give yourself a break.”
“If you’re not feeling horny at the moment, just do something else, but keep it on the agenda.
“Keep your mind open, but don’t beat yourself up about it.”
Low libido facts
- Low libido can be a sign of other problems, such as mood or relationship issues, but it may also be due to something quite straightforward and symptomatic.
- Vaginal dryness can be safely and effectively treated with an oestrogen cream or pessary.
- Help is available – find a clinician who specialises in sexual counselling. (Source: Jean Hailes for Women’s Health)