When it comes to sexual desire, there is so much angst around what is ‘normal’ that I decided to devote my next two blog posts on this very issue.
Our (Western) culture and current societal prescriptions dictate that a high libido is the gold standard and the normality that most seek to achieve. The model that many men try to live up to (in my mind) is James Bond. Despite being busy saving the world, he’s always up for sex with the latest Bond babe. Admittedly, there is less pressure on women although not much less due to standard portrayals of females in porn movies.
Given these powerful influences, it’s not surprising that many of my clients think there is something seriously wrong with them if sex is not constantly on their mind. It’s not unusual to find partners with a higher sex drive criticising their lower drive partners and blaming them for the sexual difficulties in the relationship.
So ingrained are our current sexual attitudes that we forget it was not so long ago (in the late 19th century) that a low interest in sex among women was regarded as not only normal and desirable but a sign of virtue.
Before we delve into what is a normal level of sex drive, I want to set the scene by sharing some information about sexual desire in general.
What is sex drive or sexual desire?
Spontaneous sexual desire or what is commonly known as libido, is an individual’s sex drive. It refers to the motivation or inclination to be sexual. In layman’s terms, it is feeling horny and having a strong interest in sexual activity. The more sex drive we experience, the more likely we are to seek out sex, to respond to sexual overtures and opportunities and to act in a sexual way.
Sexual desire is not the same as sexual arousal
In a previous blog post, I focussed on the difference between sexual desire and sexual arousal. To recap, sexual arousal describes how excited or turned on you get when you anticipate sex or engage in it. Although there is a direct link between sexual desire and sexual arousal, they are actually two independent and separate processes.
Certainly, a person with a high level of desire will find it easier to become sexually aroused and the reverse is also true in that a low level of sexual interest will make sexual arousal harder to achieve. Nevertheless, If you are willing to be sexually involved, you can become aroused and enjoy sexual activity whether you experience desire or not.
Can sexual desire be measured?
The answer to this question is “yes” but not in a precise way. Consider differences in physical human characteristics such as in height and weight which we can measure with precision. There is a huge variation or range for height for example as some people are very tall and some short, with the majority falling somewhere in middle which we consider as ‘average’ height. In scientific research, this pattern of variability or difference is represented by a ‘normal’ distribution and usually depicted by a bell-shape curve.
Human biological needs also exhibit a wide range of normal characteristics. Whilst we all need sleep, some people need only 3 or 4 hours, a similar number need 10 or more hours and most people needing around 6-8 hours. When it comes to our need for sex, exactly the same principle applies, with a small group of people having a high interest in sex, another small group having little interest, and the majority of people grouped together in the middle range.
The following represents the variation in sexual desire:
Asexuality refers to a lack of sexual attraction to others, an absence of interest or desire for sexual activity or as the lack of interest in sex.
Low vs inhibited sex drive
Many men and women experience little interest in sex at any time in their lives. They have a low in-built sex drive meaning that they rarely think about sex, engage in sexual fantasy nor tend to express sexual desire through masturbation or sexual initiation.
Then there are individuals who had a much higher interest in sex in the past but whose natural sexual urges are being suppressed. A naturally high level of sexual desire can be inhibited by grief, depression and/or relationship problems. Inhibited sexual desire can manifest as a lack of, or lowered interest in all forms of sex or affecting desire for sex only in specific circumstances.
On the other end of the spectrum, hyper-sexuality refers to having a strong interest in sex, (such as having recurrent, intense sexual fantasies) and experiencing extremely frequent sexual urges. Individuals who are in this range tend to engage in a lot of sexual activity such as masturbation, porn, paid sex, have multiple partners and are more at risk of developing a sex addiction.
Males versus females
The commonly held belief that men have a higher sex drive than women has its origins in the fact that sexual desire is based partly on hormones. The desire centres in the brain are activated or depressed by a number of hormones. Desire in both males and females is believed to be mainly fuelled by the hormone testosterone which is responsible for the development of male characteristics. Men produce 10-20 times more testosterone than women which accounts for why men generally have a stronger interest in sex than women. Although hormones are one of the biological factors underpinning an individual’s sex drive, there are other factors (social and psychological) which also exert a strong influence.
Fluctuations in sexual desire
It is only realistic and normal to expect that an individual’s sex drive will naturally fluctuate according to the ups and downs of life and love. After all, we do not question subtle (or even significant) changes that occur to our appetite and sleep patterns when we undergo periods of stress. In the same way, sexual desire waxes and wanes according to our emotional and physical wellbeing and state of our relationships. And yet, there is still a belief that our level of sexual interest will remain steadfast despite what might be happening to, and around us. Furthermore, we tend to take our partner’s lower (than usual) level of sexual interest personally. This seems to be based on two entrenched but erroneous beliefs:
- Differences in sex drive should not occur in a healthy relationship, the corollary to this is, differing or mismatched levels of interest in sex are abnormal.
- ‘Normality’ is both partners maintaining the passionate interest in sex experienced by the couple during the early days of the relationship.
The above beliefs are typically founded on an upsurge of sexual interest we tend to experience in the early stages of a romantic relationship. It is during these initial months that most couples seem to possess well-matched libidos.
This is caused by ‘limerence’, a term used to describe the intense passionate feelings most of us experience during this period. It is an artificial state of euphoria characterised by physical and emotional changes, fuelled by chemicals in the brain (such as dopamine, noradrenaline and acetylcholine) which are released when we are strongly attracted to someone. In our society, this altered state is interpreted as “being in love”.
What the romance movies and books don’t tell you is that it is a time limited phenomenon, fading after 12-18 months. As limerence wears off, sexual desire drops to its normal level and continues to fluctuate in the usual way. Most couples who were having a lot of sex in the early stage of their relationship will find that it has become more infrequent over time. With the fading of limerence, desire discrepancy emerges for the first time and for many couples, the beginning of ‘the blame game’ leading to an erosion of goodwill.
In my next blog post, I will continue to demystify the intricacies of sexual desire including the psychological and social factors that influence it and answer the thorny question of “What’s normal?”.
- King, R. Good loving, great sex. Random House, 1998.