To boost female libido, change the conversation about it
Where it exists, the conversation around female libido goes something like this. There is long and tiring speculation as to whether the g-spot exists and general confusion about what female ejaculation actually is. There are stereotypes that define how women (docile) and men (in command) behave sexually. And orgasm? It’s something women are woefully reminded may just not happen to them.
This isn’t particularly constructive for women wanting answers. In fact, this confusion could well exacerbate any anxiety they may be feeling about their libido, which can make it more difficult to approach a doctor or get treatment.
The latest available data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsat-3) reveals that on average, just over a third (34.2%) of women across all age groups lack interest in having sex, with 16.3% having trouble reaching climax. For young women (16-24), this figure grows to just over a fifth. The Sexual Advice Association estimates that one in three young and middle-aged women, and about half of older women will experience female sexual dysfunction, which is a blanket term that describes a range of problems a woman experiences when having sex, including low libido.
How can these women get the help they need if they’re not sure what they are feeling or why they are feeling it?
When defining what affects female libido, researchers and medical professionals all seem to agree that, well, it’s complicated.
“A woman’s libido — or sexual desire — can be affected by many factors,” says Dr. Sharron Hinchliff, psychologist and deputy director of Sheffield University’s Centre for Gender Research.
“But it is not straightforward because sexual desire is influenced by many factors and can be highly subjective.”
Hormones have an undeniable influence on libido. Known as the sex hormones, oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone specifically contribute to sex drive. For functional nutritionist Clare Goodwin, a lack of testosterone often explains low libido in women she treats. Clare specialises in polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) nutrition, a condition which affects the ways ovaries function and raises testosterone levels. However, she notes, testosterone is not always to blame: some patients have a low libido despite high testosterone levels.
Libido is not totally hormonal, says Dr. Shirin Irani, consultant gynaecologist at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull. “If libido was only hormonal you would be experiencing this in cycles and you would mate with anything that moves”, she says, explaining that social circumstances can have substantial influence on sex drive.
Being tired is one such circumstance. And unfortunately, modern life brings women no shortage of things to tire them out: child care, work, illness, stress, sleeping poorly. “So many women are stressed in their daily lives,” says Dr. Irani, “and the last thing you want to do is have sex because your brain is working overtime”. And, she adds, motherhood often has huge consequences for our libido.
“Females have a very interesting kind of psyche. When we are younger we are sexually driven, we are rabid. You want to have it off with people you fancy. This is when everything is ok. Then something happens to a woman’s brain once she has a baby. A woman is a tigress, and child care comes first. It can be difficult for the male ego to understand that.”
This, along with other social pressures can cause a negative feedback loop that dampens arousal and desire.
A landmark study by Roy Baumeister in 2000 suggests that female libido is affected by social factors, such as values, customs, and attitudes within a society, in a stronger way than the male libido is. For Baumeister, women are more sexually adaptable than men — meaning that their sexual behaviour varies over time more so than men’s.
There is some truth to this, Dr. Hinchliff explains. Aspects of our upbringing can influence how we view and experience sexual desire, including dominant values and beliefs of our culture, along with religious views. “For example, if we are brought up to see sex as something only for reproduction, rather than pleasure, then we may view sexual desire as abnormal,” she says.
Clare also describes the impact of how women are socialised to understand their sexuality. “In terms of the ways that we’re socialised it is that women’s sexual needs are often put behind.”
“All [women’s] sexual education is about not getting pregnant. We’re so concerned about young girls not getting pregnant, we’re not speaking about how to understand their cycle.”
Drs. Irani and Hinchliff, along with Clare all agree that women are too often ashamed to seek help and advice on libido — something Clare says has the potential to affect the way one’s hormones are signalling. In Clare’s experience, women often preclude questions about health conditions such as PCOS with a marker such as “TMI” (too much information); even in safe environments such as dedicated Facebook groups.
And then there’s pressures placed on women to project a particular type of sexual identity. “Women often feel they are not normal for experiencing a lack of sexual desire, comparing themselves to other women they see in magazines or colleagues who always seem to talk about sex, and wonder why they are different,” says Dr. Hinchliff.
These barriers impose a culture of shame and silence upon women seeking to better understand their bodies, and can also prevent them from getting the treatment they need — a process that’s already complicated enough.
For Dr. Irani, treatment depends on the individual, but gets tricky when a patient presents as physically healthy. “Suppose I was treating someone for early menopause,” she explains. “Then we know that their body has been depleted of oestrogen and testosterone so we give them the hormones back.”
“The difficulty is if someone is well and healthy physically. It’s treating the head — and that’s where the hormones don’t work. You have to give them a pep talk and make them believe in themselves.”
To understand libido then we need to look at the broadest possible picture of what a woman’s life is like and understand how various factors intersect within it. We need to imagine the mind as the lens through which all of these things pass through and are shaped by. This perspective is what is sorely missing from the current conversation about female libido.
Confidence in being able to openly discuss and seek help for libido comes from understanding how various aspects of our lives affect us. It comes from embracing one’s body and desires, which sometimes means looking past what we’ve been taught or pressured to believe. Against the haze of scurrilous commentary and conjecture surrounding the topic, this isn’t easy but is in no way impossible.
Taking the time to plainly consider what we are feeling is something that ultimately starts from within. And it’s something in the hands of every woman to change for herself.
- The Lancet, Sexual function in Britain: findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) November 2013, published online http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(13)62366-1.pdf (accessed May 17 2017).
- Sexual Advice Association, Women’s Sexual Problems, March 2015, published online http://sexualadviceassociation.co.uk/womens-sexual-problems/ (accessed May 17 2017)
- Baumeister, RF., Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive, Psychological Bulletin, Vol 126(3), May 2000, 347-374