Low Sexual Desire

“I could take it or leave it.”

“I don’t have much of an interest in sex anymore.”

“I would be happy to never have sex again.”

It has been estimated that as many as 32 percent1 to 43 percent2 of women experience low sexual desire at some point in their lives. In fact, women’s low sexual desire is one of the most commonly presented sexual issues that women bring to therapy.3 Treating women with low sexual desire can be a complex undertaking as there are a myriad of potential elements that impact desire — from personal experiences to social factors, cultural messages to relationship dynamics, and everything in between.4

However, despite women’s sexual desire being impacted by so many interconnected aspects of their lives, a lot of women blame themselves for their lack of sexual interest and believe something is inherently wrong with them. Yet in many cases sexual desire could still be “there” but it has been dampened, tucked away, or is on “hibernation.”

Although this is far from an extensive list of what could be contributing to low sexual desire, here are five common reasons that women might experience a reduced interest in sex, and what you can do about them if they apply to you:

1. Your Partner Wants More Sex Than You Do

Your partner seems to want sex every day and you feel you could have sex once a week (or once a month, or maybe even less). Most women, if they are the partner with lower desire, use their partner as a barometer for “normal” and assume something is wrong with them for not wanting sex as often. In contrast, we don’t tend to think that the person with higher desire has an issue (i.e., we don’t often ask: “why do you want so much sex?”). That’s because, as a society, we value sex and think that wanting lots of it (as long as you’re an adult and in a relationship) is good and healthy.

The term “desire discrepancy” is used to describe when two individuals in a couple have different levels of sexual desire.5 And although this term could apply to all couples at least some of the time, there are some couples who have more obvious and stable differences in their levels of sexual desire.

But desire discrepancies don’t mean that one person has the “right” amount of sexual desire. In other words, the goal isn’t to get the lower desiring partner up to the needs of the higher desiring partner. It’s like any compromise or negotiating we do with our romantic partners — we figure out a middle ground with different spending habits, eating preferences, places to travel…and sex.

Consider Trying This: Ask yourself — if my partner didn’t want sex as often, would I be worried about my level of interest in sex? Do I have any previous sexual partners who didn’t want sex as often as my current partner and I never really thought much about my lack of interest? Depending on your answer to these questions, some sexual frequency conversations with your partner might be helpful. Having lower desire than a partner does not mean anything is wrong with your desire. It just means you and your partner have some negotiating to do.

2. You Don’t Give Yourself Enough Time To Get “In The Mood”

We know from the research that many women have sexual desire that is responsive versus spontaneous.6 In other words, many women don’t feel a sudden urge to have sex as they run from work to their yoga class or while they are watching a true-crime documentary on Netflix. Instead they respond to sexual cues in their environment and often take some time to “warm up” to the idea of sex.

And I’m not just talking about engaging in sexual foreplay. It’s very common for women to need a sexual space before foreplay even begins. For example, maybe you need a romantic encounter (or two) with your partner during the day. Flirtatious or loving texts while you’re apart. A longer kiss when your partner gets home. Something to set the mood before the possibility of sex is even on the table.

A lot of women I work with describe saying no to sex because their partner approaches them in a way that feels out of the blue. And, because they aren’t feeling sexual at that exact moment, it reinforces their belief that they don’t have an interest in sex, they turn the sexual encounter down, their partner hurts from the rejection and nobody wins.

Consider Trying This: If your partner suggests having sex, give yourself a moment to think about it instead of immediately turning it down. If the timing isn’t right or you’re not in the mood right then try saying something like “Not this second, but let me see if I can warm up to it.” Or “I wasn’t thinking about sex now but let’s have dinner, or watch a movie, or go for a walk, and see how things unfold.” Needing time to warm up to sex doesn’t mean your desire is low or problematic but it needs to be considered as part of the sexual equation.

3. You Don’t Know What You Like

Women are more likely to experience an interest in sex if they are looking forward to the sex they are going to be having.7 So how do you have great enjoyable sex that is worth desiring? Well, to start, you need to know what feels good.

However, I often work with women where we discuss the nuts and bolts of sex (e.g., “How much, and what kind of, foreplay do you need? What positions work better than others for you to experience an orgasm? What time of day do you find your most in the mood/least likely to want sex?”) and many women don’t have the answers to these questions. In fact some tell me they have never even thought about them. On the other hand, these same women more often than not know exactly what they don’t like!

But think about that dynamic for a moment. Your partner offers to make you dinner, asks you what you want, you say “I don’t know,” they make spaghetti and you respond with “I don’t really like spaghetti!” Wouldn’t it be nicer if you said “I like chicken parmesan, could you make that?” And your partner made chicken parmesan for you and everyone felt good?

Consider Trying This: It’s not easy to know what we want sexually, especially if we’ve never thought of it before. But a good place to start is at the beginning. For example, think about your early introductions to sex with your partner. Maybe you liked when you and your partner used to make-out on the couch all night. Try that again, see if it still feels good. Or if you really only know what is NOT working, take it one step further to consider why you don’t like it and what could make it better. For example: “I don’t like having sex in the spooning position because we can’t kiss. I like kissing while we make love. Maybe a position where we are facing each other would help?”

4. You Know What You Like, But Don’t Know How To Ask For It (Or Think Your Partner Should “Just Know”)

Some of us picture sex like it appears in the movies. Two lovers fall completely in sync with one another, knowing exactly when and where they should have sex, how to touch and please the other and then climaxing in a simultaneous and mutually pleasurable explosion.

But real life isn’t like that. Sometimes a sexual position we liked last time doesn’t feel so good this time. Or we need a little more oral sex before we try something penetrative whereas other times we want to jump straight in. Or we want to be on top for a moment. Communication about these changing needs and preferences are critical to sexual satisfaction.8

Yet it’s surprisingly common how many women describe feeling (either explicitly or implicitly) that they are uncomfortable telling their partner what they want. They think they shouldn’t tell their partner (e.g., it would be rude or insulting to do so) or that they shouldn’t have to tell them (e.g., their partner should “just know” that a particular move isn’t working, or that they don’t like sex right before bed, or they are ready to try out something a little more spicy).

If you on any level believe that your partner should be more responsible for your sexual pleasure than you, then you are taking a passive role in sex and are less likely to enjoy the process. Your partner cannot know what’ is going on in your head. Chances are your partner isn’t Mel Gibson and life isn’t a scene from “What Women Want.”

Consider Trying This: If you know what you like, or if something doesn’t feel good, or if something would feel better, try telling your partner. Or maybe consider how you’re telling them. Non-verbals (like pulling away, moaning less, etc.) are open to interpretation or get completely missed. If you are in a respectful relationship where your partner will listen to your wants and needs, try telling them explicitly what you like and what’s working. Most partners want to know! You can try talking between sexual encounters or during. Verbal encouragement gives you the best chance of enjoying sex and a higher chance of wanting it again in the future.

5. You Were Taught That Women Shouldn’t Enjoy Sex

As girls and adolescents, most women receive warnings about embracing and acting upon our sexuality. We are told that we might get pregnant (and, if so, warned that we could carry the brunt, if not all, of the work after the baby is born). Not to mention the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Oh, and then there is the whole “slut shaming” of women who are single, promiscuous and like sex.

But then you get into a relationship (or get married) and suddenly you are expected to put all of that behind you. You’re expected to be a confident sexual person who loves having sex with her partner.9 How do you make that transition? Well, it doesn’t happen over night, but things can change.

Consider Trying This: Reflect on the messages you received earlier in life about sex. Were you taught that “good girls” don’t like, or have, sex? Were you taught anything about sex at all — or was it a taboo topic that was never addressed? Ask yourself what impact those messages might have had on you, and if those messages might still affecting you now. Letting go of those messages isn’t easy, but identifying where they came from and what you think about them in your current situation is a good place to start.

Final Thoughts

Every woman’s sexual experiences are unique and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment to increase sexual desire. Some women have sexual desire difficulties that run much deeper than what is addressed in this article (e.g., sexual abuse histories, physical and hormonal changes from early menopause, unhealthy relationship patterns that can’t be overcome by having more sex, etc.). For those women, seeking therapeutic treatment could be a helpful option.