Where Did My Sex Drive Go?

At times, our libido can feel like it’s on silent mode. Here, experts share why women experience low sex drives and the most effective ways to boost it.

There’s a great line—one of many—in Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel Heartburn: “I couldn’t believe that anyone would be so sexually driven that he might actually skip lunch.… I think of myself as a healthy person with a strong sex drive, but it’s never occurred to me to forgo meals.”

She kids. But even setting lunch aside, the difference between male and female libido is complicated, says Dr. Krisztina Bajzak, a gynecologist and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Newfoundland’s Memorial University. While women generally remain sexually interested throughout their lives, even well into old age—what a shock!—their interest is more easily disrupted by other factors. Women have a lower biologic drive: They produce about 10 to 20 times less testosterone than men. That matters because testosterone is a hormone responsible for sex drive in both men and women.

When desire hits, testosterone enables men to sideline their worries, thoughts and stressors. “It’s as if a freight train is bursting through—there is no background noise,” says Bajzak. But for women, that “noise” tends to be much louder and in the forefront, thwarting desire. Many things can affect a woman’s libido, including ruminating thoughts, hormone changes (for example, during pregnancy and menopause), contraceptives that contain estrogen, and other medical conditions that can cause pain or fatigue.

While age can play a role in a woman’s libido—testosterone levels in women peak in their 20s and drop slowly from there—it isn’t entirely an obstacle. One survey found women feel their most sexually confident in their mid-30s to mid-40s, allowing for more fulfilling sexual experiences. While the overall prevalence of sexual concerns is highest around menopause, everyone’s libido has peaks and valleys no matter their age, says Bajzak. Need proof? Betty White, at the spry age of 88, told AARP The Magazine, “Does desire melt away with age? I’m waiting for that day to come,” she said. “Sexual desire is like aging, a lot of it is up here,” she continued, pointing at her head.

“There are probably hundreds of life experiences that [cause] low desire, which also brings up the notion that low desire is a lot more common than we think it is and is actually quite a normal experience,” says Diana Sadat, a Vancouver-based sex therapist. “You don’t expect to be happy every day for the rest of your life—the same is true for desire.”

Typically, she says, negative experiences can trigger a shift in libido, especially the kind that can affect our nervous system or sense of self. That might include life-changing circumstances, such as giving birth, starting a new job or experiencing a traumatic event. And, of course, changes in our romantic or sexual relationships can affect the libido.

Frustratingly, much of the blame for a low sex drive has been put on women for doing things “wrong,” including—and this is a very partial list—having a poor diet, not drinking enough water, drinking too much caffeine or being too stressed. But stress does deserve some blame. Just look at how the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted bedrooms all over the world: Multiple studies found a dip in partnered sexual activity and libido in 2020. Similarly, a 2021 survey of university students by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada found that sex with casual and primary partners had dropped for the majority of respondents, though they were masturbating more.

The students may be on to something. According to Vancouver-based clinical counsellor Daniel Oomen, one solution to a low libido is spending time on your own and exploring how your sexual desires have evolved. “So much of what sustains low desire is the judgment we hold towards it and the pressure to get rid of it,” they say. Instead, “create space for low desire, to tune in and see what it says about your current circumstances.” Then try to rediscover pleasure through solo sex. Enjoy the act and don’t just aim for orgasms.

Masturbation can, after all, help clear our minds and has been associated with a higher sex drive. That also means, if you’re in a relationship, masturbating (either alone or with your partner) and exploring your desires together can be helpful to open up about what you’re feeling. Plus, it can foster intimacy in new ways that don’t always lead to sex.

Of course, at-home options are just one approach—there are medications that can also help. Vyleesi (bremelanotide), for one, is self-injected under the skin 45 minutes before engaging in sexual activity and works by stimulating the brain hormone involved with sexual behaviour. The catch? There have been few studies showing just how effective this drug is, and where the drug is successful, it only raises sexual desire minimally. Also, it shouldn’t be used more than once in 24 hours or more than eight times in one month.

But better interventions may be on the horizon. In 2021, the Vancouver life sciences company MindCure launched the Desire Project to study whether low female libido can be treated with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Studies have found the drug can enhance sensory pleasure thanks to its ability to release dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. A more approachable and available drug option is cannabis, which countless studies have found can lead to a higher sex drive by helping you relax while increasing blood flow all over the body, stimulating erogenous zones.

In the meantime, sex toys might be a welcome addition to your bedroom. The Womanizer Deluxe, in particular, has been found to help women who struggle to reach orgasm. You place it over your clitoris and it moulds to the contours of your body, mimicing the feeling of (the best) oral sex. It stimulates using air pressure instead of vibration, minimizing desensitization and making it easier to use it again (and again, and again).

It’s also helpful to remember that there is such a thing as “responsive desire,” says Bajzak, which is when arousal occurs and rises due to stimulation, like touch. It doesn’t occur spontaneously, so don’t despair if your body isn’t ready to go right away—a libido isn’t a light switch.

Whether you’re skipping lunch in favour of a quickie or treating sex as an occasional side dish, Bajzak emphasizes that, “everybody’s normal is their normal.” Comparison in the bedroom is a total mood-killer.

Next: Sex Expert Shan Boody on Why People Aren’t Having Sex Anymore

Originally Published in Best Health Canada