Addressing low sexual desire in a multi-tasking world
Q & A with Sex Researcher, Dr. Lori Brotto
Reduced interest in sex or fewer sexual thoughts are two examples of low sexual desire—a term used to describe something one in three women experience at some point in their life.
The culprit? Often it’s stress.
That’s according to a recent initiative from the University of British Columbia (UBC) Sexual Health Lab, where a team of researchers studied women’s sexual desire, the impact that mindfulness can have on sexual desire and then turned to social media to raise awareness and debunk myths.
The objective is to share quality resources and to help women understand they are not alone, and that there are solutions for those who want to increase desire and sexual enjoyment, or simply to give their love life a boost.
We sat down with the head of the UBC Sexual Health Lab, Dr. Lori Brotto, and asked her to help raise this awareness for our readers too.
Shirley: What is the difference between “libido” and “sexual desire”?
Dr. Brotto: Libido is an older, somewhat outdated term—it implies that sexual desire is an “either/or” equation; something you have or you don’t, something you could lose. I prefer the term sexual desire because the truth is, desire is a sliding scale—just like happiness or sadness. Some days you might be a 3 and other days you could be a 9.
Shirley: What does a woman mean then, when she says “I have no libido…errr…I mean low sexual desire?”
Dr. Brotto: Up to 40% of women may experience low sexual desire at some point in their life—at any age. A woman who has low desire might describe her experiences as: reduced interest, no sexual thoughts, reduced pleasure, things that used to trigger desire no longer work, or just plain avoiding.
“Sexual desire is different for everyone,” says Brotto. “It’s not an on-off switch like some people may think. It’s more of a sliding scale; something that can come and go, similar to happiness or sadness.”
Shirley: What types of things impact sexual desire?
Dr. Brotto: We know life’s stressors can significantly impact a woman’s sexual desire. This can show up as a result of many things including relationship challenges, fatigue, mood changes—even financial worries. Women told us they often have trouble turning off the many to-do lists running through their heads.
Shirley: Stress—it is the root cause of so many things!
Dr. Brotto: Yes, stress triggers a cascade of hormonal reactions to help our body and mind adapt to perceived threats. The more this happens, the less effective the body is at responding. So, the more chronic the stress, the harder it is for the body and mind to adapt to it. As it turns out, this can impact different hormones in the brain and body, resulting in a decrease in sexual desire.
Shirley: Wow. So what has the stress of a pandemic done for women’s sexual desire?
Dr. Brotto: Great question! Initially people thought the pandemic meant everyone was at home having sex. Our research confirmed that is not true. The reality is that stress levels continue to be extremely high and stress continues to be a major deterrent to sex.
Shirley: What do you want women to know about sexual desire?
Dr. Brotto: Oh, so many things! Sexual desire is different for everyone but if I had to pick one thing, I would say I want women to know they can’t multi-task sexual thoughts with making grocery lists!
Also, it’s very important to me that every woman gets this message: low sexual desire does not mean something is wrong, or that you are broken.
Lower desire is sometimes associated with hormone fluctuations in perimenopause and menopause, but women of all ages can experience fluctuating sexual desire. However, most women with sexual concerns will never speak to a healthcare provider. Instead, they go online or help. We created the #DebunkingDesire campaign for that reason--because social media plays an important role in sharing quality health information and empowering women to have more informed conversations with their doctors, partners and each other.
And finally, I want to tell women this: you are not alone, and there are proven strategies you can work on, on your own, to increase desire.
Shirley: Do you mean better sex through mindfulness? Suddenly I have a reason to mediate!
Dr. Brotto: Exactly! Our research over the last 15 years has shown that mindfulness practices are one of the most effective ways for women to manage their overall stress, and positively improve sexual desire and arousal.
You might have heard this and immediately imagined formal meditation.
But mindfulness can be defined, quite simply, as present moment, non- judgmental awareness. It involves the practice of moving one’s attention to the here-and-now and focusing on sensations of the body and breath.
For some, this might be a walk in the woods or a bath or simply stepping away from their desk and taking a few deep, long breaths.
It is well known that women can be quite judgmental of themselves, especially when it comes to sex. Mindfulness is a skill that helps women to be less judgmental, to observe sensations as they arise, and accept them for what they are.
We have found mindfulness practices help women to be more present during sexual activity, and ultimately to have improved sexual desire and arousal.
Sexual desire waxes and wanes over the years, over months, and even over days. Sexual desire is “responsive” just like other emotions. We feel happy when good things happen in our lives or we think, see, or do something that elicits happiness. Sexual desire works in much the same way in that it is responsive to triggers. We feel sexual desire when something triggers a sexual response and those triggers might include: seeing an attractive partner, feeling sexually aroused in your body, having an erotic thought or sexual memory, or being touched in a way that feels good. Sometimes there may be no triggers that elicit sexual desire in our environment, or we may have distractions and preoccupations that get in the way of responding to triggers. For women across ages and reproductive stages, ups and downs in sexual desire can be entirely normal.
Many people believe that there is a 1:1 relationship between how much you love a partner and how good your sex is. Sometimes very happy and compatible couples experience sexual problems, and sometimes incompatible partners or conflicted relationships have great sex.
For many women, managing stress is key to improving their sexual desire. A myriad of studies have shown the strong link between chronic stress and sexual dysfunction in women, and stress can interfere with both emotional functioning and also thought patterns to decrease a woman’s motivation for sex. And it turns out that mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective ways of managing stress, and in turn, improving sexual desire.
Sex drive, or sexual appetite, is not the same for everyone. It can be difficult to determine what your “normal” is because we are constantly bombarded with messages that tell us we should be wanting sex all the time, no matter the circumstance. But the reality is what your friends, partner, or the media view as a “normal” level of sex might not be “normal” for you, your lifestyle, or your relationship and there is nothing wrong with that.
Sexual pleasure is the physical and/or psychological satisfaction and enjoyment from sexual experiences. This can be through partnered or solo sexual activities, and can include thoughts, fantasies, dreams, emotions, and feelings.
Our goal for #DebunkingDesire is to share evidence-based information about low sexual desire in women to create and amplify lasting dialogues with women, their partners, their health care providers, and the media.
Dr. Brotto is the best-selling author of Better Sex Through Mindfulness & it's new workbook!