As a sex therapist, one of the most common concerns I see is women who say that they have low desire. This is hardly surprising. Open any popular magazine or online media source and you’re likely to come across some mention of women and low sexual desire. But just what do women mean when they say they have low desire? When I start to talk to women, they typically describe something along the lines of this: a lack of interest in having sex, feeling too tired for sex, and maybe even thinking that they would be just fine to go the rest of their life without ever having sex again. When I ask them what happens when they do have sex, they often say that it takes a long time to get into it but if they can then they end up having a good time. When we explore this a bit more, women typically say that if they can clear their mind and get into sex, they enjoy it.
In fact, what these women are describing isn’t a case of low desire or lack of desire; it is merely a variation of desire. There are actually two types of desire, but in our society we tend to think that there is only one kind of desire. Generally speaking when the word desire is used, people are really talking about spontaneous desire—the kind of desire that hits right away and makes you say “I want sex right now!” It happens when you catch sight of some someone attractive, or your partner grabs you and plants a passionate kiss on you or you have a memory of something sexy, and you immediately thing that sex would be a great idea. This is what we usually mean when we use the term desire.
The other type of desire is responsive desire. This is the kind of desire that develops over time in a situation where you are open to the idea of being sexual. For example, when your partner suggests that you have sex and you think, “well, maybe I could get into that, let’s see what happens.” If you start kissing and touching in a way that feels good, and you’re able to clear your mind and be present, then responsive desire starts to develop. Responsive desire only develops when you’re able to clear your mind of other distractions, including worries about not feeling spontaneous desire, thinking about your appearance, wondering if the kids will interrupt you, or anything else.
Both spontaneous desire and responsive desire are completely normal. Some women may have had spontaneous desire in the past, but now have mostly responsive sexual desire. Again, this is normal. The key with responsive sexual desire is to acknowledge that this is the case and work with it. Rather than waiting for spontaneous desire to strike, know that it is ok to start a sexual encounter without desire being present already…that it can develop as you go. Of course, this isn’t the same as saying you should just go ahead and have sex anyway even though you don’t want to. Instead, it is about recognizing that if you have responsive sexual desire you will be looking for times when you are open to letting desire develop, and that is when you will start an intimate encounter with your partner to see if the desire will in fact develop. For some couples, scheduling protected time for sex can help with this. Knowing that there is enough time to be close and unwind together can help with clearing your mind and being present so that you’re in the best headspace to allow responsive desire to develop. For other women, scheduling sex doesn’t work, but it is enough just to look for times when they are most likely to be open to letting desire develop.
The idea that sexual desire should come spontaneously is so prevalent in our society that most people have not even heard of responsive desire, and believe that there is something wrong with them if they experience responsive desire but not spontaneous desire. In this context, it is hardly surprising that many women struggle to get their sex lives back on track even after learning about responsive desire. If this knowledge is not enough for you, the support of a sex therapist (a therapist with specialized training in both couple therapy and sex therapy) can help you achieve a more pleasurable sex life.