As you are reading this article, no less than one in three women you know are experiencing a loss of interest in sex.
“Loss of libido in women, or low sexual desire, is the most common sexual problem for women and the main reason they seek sex therapy,” says Patricia Koch, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health & Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Adjunct Professor of Human Sexuality at Widener University. “It affects anywhere from 33% to 67% of women, depending on how sexual desire is defined and reported,” according to Koch, whose research specializes in loss of libido in women.
It can happen to men, too – but because it only affects about half as many men as women, it is not men’s top sex problem. (See Loss of Libido in Men for more on that.) So what exactly does loss of libido mean for women and why does it happen? WebMD consulted the top experts in the field of sexuality for answers on not only the causes, but the treatments as well.
What Does Loss of Libido Mean?
“Sexual desire is one of the most difficult to define because it is more psychological than physiological,” says Koch, who is also President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
Edward Laumann, lead author of The Social Organization of Sexuality, a compendium of survey data on sexual practices in the United States, offers a simple definition: “It is a lack of interest in sex for several months of the past year.”
In short, women know it when they don’t feel it.
Is Loss of Libido in Women Normal?
“Don’t call loss of libido a disorder,” Laumann says. “How can it be a dysfunction if one-third of women, no matter what their age, report that they lose interest?
“This is normal,” he says, and a growing number of researchers concur.
“Low sexual desire is not a disease, it is the understandable result of an imbalance in your life…in your relationship, your life circumstances or your body,” writes Kathryn Hall, Ph.D. in Reclaiming Your Sexual Self: How You Can Bring Desire Back into Your Life.
Just because loss of libido in women is normal and common, however, doesn’t mean you can’t fix it. Many women feel as if they are letting their partners down. They also feel alienated and left out in today’s powerfully sexually-charged world where everyone, from the models in lingerie ads to the doctors on TV, seem to think of little else besides sex. It’s as if “you’re the only one who doesn’t get the joke,” writes Hall.
Even worse, losing interest in sex can mean you miss out on a lot more than simply one of life’s few non-fattening pleasures. It can begin to drain the passion out of the rest of your life, as well.
Is Loss of Libido in Women Normal? continued…
“I saw this woman [a patient] yesterday – for eight years she had no interest sexually; all she thought about was taking care of her four children and her husband,” says Esther Perel, a couples and family therapist in New York City, and author of Mating In Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic.
“And then slowly, all the other pleasures went, too. Food. Swimming. Everything about pleasing herself went, one after the other. She was numb,” Perel says.
There are things women can do to rekindle desire and bring passion and pleasure back in their lives. But the first step is to understand why you might be losing interest.
Why Does It Happen? The Causes of Loss of Libido in Women
- Biology plays a significant role in loss of libido.
For women, sex can have serious consequences – a baby to take care of for the next twenty years. Not surprising that females seem hard-wired to approach sex with slightly less abandon than males.
“It’s a control device – pregnancy is a threatening condition for women – it renders them vulnerable, they can’t run from predators,” says Laumann. Men can afford to have sex at any moment, Laumann says – it doesn’t make them vulnerable. But for women it’s much riskier, which can cause loss of libido.
- Socialization in our culture causes loss of libido in women.
If biology doesn’t get you then social standards will.
“We found that the messages women get from society about double standards has a big affect on their sexual desire,” Koch says. “I work with college women, and even though we have Sex and the Cityon TV saying you can be sexual, women still get the message that it is not OK. Men are looked at as studs if they are sexual, but the women are still called sluts.”
- The quality of the relationship affects libido.
“For women, desire is elicited in the connection in the relationship. If we don’t talk and connect, we don’t have sex — for men, they connect in the sex,” explains Perel.
Koch agrees. For women, “it’s not what happens in the bedroom – their desire arises when they are interacting with their partner, just touching, talking, when they go on a hike or a picnic, that starts to get them sexually interested,” Koch says. If the quality of those intimate but non-sexual contacts aren’t being attended to, most women just won’t feel “in the mood.”
- Hormones influence libido.
“Hormonal fluctuations with pregnancy, breast-feeding [resulting in elevated prolactin levels] – and then with perimenopause later in life all can lessen desire,” says Eva Ritvo, MD, Chair at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Florida, and author of The Concise Guide to Marital and Family Therapy.Vaginal dryness, which can result from declining estrogen levels, can make sex painful and cause loss of libido. Testosterone levels also affect libido in men and women -and for women that hormone often peaks in their mid-20s and declines from there until menopause, when levels drop dramatically.
- Medical conditions and medications can cause loss of libido.
Depression and the SSRI anti-depressants used to treat it can also inhibit desire. So can certain blood pressure lowering drugs. Conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids and thyroid disorders can also cause loss of libido in women.
- Changing life stages -and stress — influence libido.
Life changes – especially the birth of a child – can cause a loss of libido in women. “Among women surveyed in their 20s with a child under five or six – their lack of interest doubled and tripled,” Laumann says. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out – physical stress and tiredness are big factors.” Other life changes, such as losing a job or watching kids leave the nest, can all trigger stress and dampen libido.
10 Tips for Rekindling Sexual Desire
Remember, frequency is not the measure of a healthy sex drive. Your feelings are what count. If you look forward to sex, and feel good about it, before during and after, that is the true measure of libido. Here’s how to help make your love life interesting and satisfying again.
- Try selfishness to boost libido. “The thing that most inhibits desire in women is caretaking – taking care of the kids, taking care of the husband,” says Perel. “Caretaking makes a woman think about others. But if you can’t be selfish — in the most positive terms it is the capacity to be focused on the self in the presence of others — you can’t have an orgasm.”
- Focus on small, private pleasures. For the woman with four kids who came into Perel’s office, feeling asexual and numb to all pleasure, Perel did not recommend going on a date with her husband. She suggested that the woman focus on her own simple pleasures. Hire a babysitter and go to a movie, enjoy a fragrant, leisurely bath – to remind herself she deserves to feel pleasure. Start small and build.
- Reconnect safely and non-sexually to combat loss of libido.
For many couples, before you can think about improving the sex, it is important to repair the intimate connection. David Schnarch, director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, CO, and author of Passionate Marriage, recommends the Hug-Until-You-Relax technique. It is simply a long hug, with both partners clothed, lasting 5-to-10 minutes – until you feel relaxed and at peace. This reconnection – “maintaining your sense of self when you are emotionally and physically close to others,” Schnarch says – is the foundation of passion in a relationship.
- Changing the scenery fuels libido in women: Passion feeds on a sense of newness and excitement – boredom is the enemy. “When things get routine it hurts the libido,” says Ritvo. “Get a hotel room, even in your own town, for a night, to spice things up.” Or change rooms in the house – who says lovemaking always has to happen in the bedroom?
- Try self-stimulation to help loss of libido: “Women who are able to masturbate are more likely to be more satisfied with a partner and experience orgasm more consistently,” says Koch. “It is a myth that if women enjoy masturbation, they won’t want a partner – it’s the reverse. You learn what feels good and you can express that to your partner, and guide your partner,” Koch says.
- Talk about what you like and want to boost libido: The worst thing you can do, if you have been avoiding sex together, is to stop talking about it as if the problem will disappear. To keep the distance between you from growing, talk about your willingness to connect. Read sex books together, look at the pictures, laugh – and let your partner know what you’d like him to try with you — next time – to take off any immediate pressure.
- Use lubricants to combat loss of libido in women. Vaginal dryness does not have to get in the way of enjoyment. If you go outside the local pharmacy to a sex shop (see Tip 10), you can find a wide variety of lubricants, in different flavors and aromas. Just shopping for them together can be erotic. Estrogen cream, applied directly into the vagina, can help increase vaginal secretions. Unlike oral estrogens that carry some cancer risks, estrogen creams are considered generally safe. Still, talk with your doctor about whether this treatment might be right for you before trying it.
- Stop worrying about how you look…naked and otherwise. “Research shows that women are harsher on evaluating their own bodies than men are,” Koch says. “Your partner probably finds you more attractive than you think you are.” So relax and be kinder to yourself — enjoy.
- Focus on the whole body to combat loss of libido. Where sexual satisfaction is concerned, paradoxically, the longer, meandering route can be the shortest path to pleasure. Don’t head straight for the genitals – encourage your partner, by example, to tease and take detours. Be pleasure oriented, not goal oriented. Continue to take your time even when you shift gears into a more sexual mode. And remember, it is not only your partner’s job to turn you on, desire should begin with you.
- Have realistic expectations to avoid loss of libido. Be realistic in your expectations. Women can take about three times as long (or longer) to reach orgasm as men and, by some estimates, only “26% of women report that they always have orgasms,” says Laumann. But even without the Big O, women report enjoying the sex and feeling closer to their partner afterwards. So mentally shift gears from Mommy Mode to Sex Goddess Mode. And give yourself permission to try new things — you may surprise yourself. “No absolutes -lingerie, sex toys, pornography – it’s what works and is safe and consensual and pleasing to both partners.