When it comes to sex it can feel like women just can't catch a break. There's the frustrating pleasure gap, stigma, particularly for new moms, about feeling “touched out,” and even vulnerability around simple bodily functions like vaginal lubrication. Another roadblock standing in the way of sexual satisfaction is the shame around however much you do — or don't — want to have sex.
Science says sexual desire ebbs and flows with life (sometimes from week to week), and some people naturally want sex more or less than others. But there’s still judgment and shame lurking on both ends of the spectrum.
Why women can feel shame about their sex drive
“We grow up getting these messages that we're not supposed to want sex too much because that would make us ‘slutty,’” says Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist and sex therapist. “But we're also not supposed to not want it because then we're a ‘prude.’” Sounds like a lose, lose.
Part of what perpetuates these messages have to do with the phrase “sex drive,” itself, says Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of “Come As You Are.” The word “drive” implies that it’s necessary to our survival, she says. “When an organism is being pushed to solve a problem, the consequence, ultimately, is death. Sex is not one of those [problems],” says Nagoski. The narrative of sex as a drive perpetuates the idea that women are somehow obligated to perform sexually in a certain way, for the sake of their (and their partners’) wellbeing, she says.
Why sexual desire changes
The concept of the dual control model of sexual response has two parts, says Nagoski. The first is the sexual excitation system (which she calls the sexual accelerator) which “sends the turn-on signal that many of us are familiar with.” Then there is the sexual inhibition system (or “the brakes,” per Nagoski), which “are noticing all the good reasons not to be turned on right now,” and ultimately keep you from getting aroused. These two signals are always working in tandem. Some people have really sensitive accelerators (and can get aroused easily) and others have more sensitive brakes, who find that the littlest thing can shut things down, says Nagoski.
Many different internal and external factors can impact your sexual desire. Some factors that could decrease sexual desire, according to Marin and Nagoski, include:
Pain during sex
Lack of emotional connection with a partner
Feeling obligated to have sex
Mental health issues
Your relationship to your body
A history of sexual trauma
How to increase your sex drive — if you want to
The best strategy to increase your sex drive first gets to the root of what’s causing your brain to hit the brakes, says Nagoski. Meaning, “if you have anxiety, treating the anxiety is the strategy. If you are feeling unsafe in your relationship, fixing that is the strategy, rather than doing anything about your brakes [themselves],” says Nagoski.
Part of that is making sure your basic health needs are met first. “When we’re not sleeping, eating well, resting enough, our bodies … [are] not going to take any resources to work on our sex drives,” says Marin. Then, make sure you’re asking for and receiving whatever gets you in the mood, says Nagoski. If you’re not sure where to start, she recommends asking yourself these questions:
What kind of sex do you enjoy?
What is it that you want when you have sex with a partner?
What is it that you don’t want during sex?
If you don’t want to increase or change your sex drive, you don’t have to, reminds Nagoski. And if that means you don’t want to have sex — right now, later, or ever — for any reason, it’s not something you have to “fix.”
It’s time we got rid of this idea that there is a “perfect” level of sexual desire and ditch the idea that sex is something you can succeed or fail at. Instead, focus on what brings you the most pleasure, when you want it, how to ask for it — and forget the rest.
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