Illustration by Beth Nicol
The ability to experience a safe and satisfying sexual life was considered by the World Health Organisation in 2006 as a fundamental human right. But studies everywhere, as well as the attitudes of many, suggest that it is expected for women to lose their sex drive as they get older. It is also commonly assumed that it is normal for young women to experience a lost interest in sex.
Loss of sex drive is typically seen as a very gendered phenomenon. We often hear of this stereotype in popular culture, like the wife who ‘lets him have it once a week’ or the high school girl who ‘won’t put out’. While it appears superficially reassuring that the women seem to hold the cards in these situations, it can be experienced as a colossal burden in the form of a sexual ‘duty’ to men...sound archaic?
Phyllis Greenberger, CEO and President of the Society for Women’s Health Research shows that despite more women reporting sexual problems than men, there is much less research and treatment for female sexual problems. This doesn’t even take into account counselling, research and treatment for sex and relationship problems experienced by the queer and non-binary community. Neurodivergent people are also at a disadvantage when seeking sexual health support. A study in Nursing Times reports the findings of healthcare assistants, who often spend the most time with mental health patients suffering from serious mental illness. Patients often don’t discuss issues of sex drive and sexual health with their psychiatrists, due to shame and taboos surrounding sex and desire, particularly in women. But the conversation about sex is so important, and so often ignored.
I was surprised to learn that it’s not just older women who commonly experience low sex drive. Many young women, even those with a healthy relationship to sex, can experience lack of sex drive, or sexual desire, for a range of completely common reasons. If sexual expression is important to you the experience can be worrying, alienating or confusing, especially if you don’t understand what’s happening. In chatting to my female friends about this issue, they expressed concerns about whether birth control or antidepressants could affect sex drive, which they both can. Additionally, anxiety and depression can lead to a reduced or even absent sex drive. Even for those who are not on prescribed antidepressants, low mood or anxiety can make someone feel unworthy of sexual attention, or detached from the pleasure they experience during sex. Suddenly intimacy with a partner can lead to dissociation or alienation, instead of comfort and stress-relief. So for those already feeling bad, sex-related complications can make things even worse.
And what of ‘Love in the time of Corona?’ For those vulnerable during the pandemic, such as frontline workers, trauma and depression symptoms are common, even for those who are normally mentally healthy. It is important to remember right now, that friendships and relationships - as well as mindfulness and self care - can help us combat symptoms of what is a normal response to an abnormal situation. It is not an easy time for anyone, so don’t underestimate the value of a healthy sex life!
We often see sex as something purely physical. So much emphasis is placed on (often exclusively male) bodily pleasure, when so much of our sex life actually is a mental phenomenon. So it makes sense that when our minds aren’t on form, sex doesn’t work. That said, everyone responds to mental health problems differently, so it’s important to remember that anything on the scale from nymphomania to chastity constitutes a valid and absolutely justified personal response to mental health problems. It is also important to remember that there is no standard for how often you should be having sex, or how, where or with whom you should be either. The crucial thing is communication. If you’re struggling with a partner, it’s easy for them to feel frustrated or to blame, which can impact on the self esteem of both parties. But honesty often helps people come together in working on what is preventing them from enjoying their sex life.
Therapist Daniel Kline argues that education and sex positivity are hugely important factors in reclaiming our sex lives from what many experience as lack of control. Sex and relationship counselling can be one approach, or simply following sex positive social media channels can really reinforce the message that our expression of desire, sexual orientation and gender identity is a fundamental facet of healthy life.
Sex positivity is an important movement working against the taboos and prejudice responsible for some of these issues. Organisations like Sexpression UK and influencers like illustrator and writer Florence Given work to unveil societal taboos in the discussion around sex and pleasure. I loved Florence Given’s recent ‘study’, an anonymous Q&A into early explorations of pleasure in young girls. So many women said they felt that a huge weight had been lifted from the shame surrounding their experiences of pleasure when reading the results. Organisations like Naked Grapefruit are promoting the delivery of their vibrators during lockdown when many people are bored or frustrated at being stuck indoors. These sex positive businesses and individuals are highlighting the importance of sexual self care during confusing times. Whether ‘self care’ is spending 6 hours on Hinge or drunk-texting your ex, communication (in whatever form it comes) is key.
There are loads of resources available to young people on the topic of sexual health and mental health, but taking the first step to online research isn’t easy. But when you are ready, take the time to learn about your body. Give yourself permission to explore and experience pleasure. I also would recommend talking to your friends, partner, family - anyone with whom you can speak freely and honestly - as a first step. You might be surprised by a revelation of shared experience. Remember, so much of what we internalise as a freakish problem unique to us is often really common, even normal. Whether your problem is lack of sex drive or any other sex or mental health related problem, it is important not to neglect the parts of ourselves which deserve care, now more than ever.
Written by Devon Armstrong
Esther Perel: Sex and Relationship Therapist: Esther Perel - Therapist, Author and Speaker www.estherperel.com
Erica Smith Education and Consultant: https://www.ericasmitheac.com
Gender and Sexual Diversity-specific Therapy: https://www.pinktherapy.com
Lack of Sex Drive in women - NHS Advice: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/loss-of-libido/
Sexpression UK: https://sexpression.org.uk
Shan Boody - sexologist and intimacy expert: https://www.shanboodram.com
Mental Health and suicide Helpline: Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org Call 116 123
@ihartericka - Sex Educator, Podcaster, Breast Cancer Survivor, General inspiration