“Sex is such a chore.”

“Why do I dread it sometimes when he starts to touch me?”

“Am I broken?”

These are some of the statements that I hear from women in my profession as a sex and marriage therapist. Often what lies beneath these statements are feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and fear. Many women feel broken but try and suffer through it by having sex any way—or they find ways to avoid it as much as possible. Sometimes that is tolerable for a while, but slowly over time, a more pronounced sexual aversion can occur. And when that happens, often all sexual intimacy screeches to a halt. Both partners are left feeling frustrated, disconnected, and hopeless.

Step One: Name It to Tame It

Brain researcher Dr. Dan Siegel says it is essential when dealing with emotions to be able to “name it to tame it.” In other words, before we can begin to change something we have to be able to talk about it, understand it, and explore some of the factors that contribute to it. That is the process of “naming it.” After that it becomes more “tamable” or manageable.

What Does This Mean?

It means journaling about how you feel about sexual intimacy, how you feel about your body, what your past experiences have been, what things have impacted you along the way in your sexual development, what assumptions you brought with you to your sexual relationship. Journaling about what healthy sexuality and intimacy look like to you and what consent means to you, even within a marriage relationship. It might also mean going to see a therapist. Often times during the process of “naming” the frustrations along with identifying the problems feelings associated with those frustrations, a more manageable pathway through to a happier place of sexual satisfaction begins to develop .

Step Two: Stop the Bleeding (ie. Attend to Sexual Trauma, Relationship Issues, Emotional Issues and Sexual Pain)

A woman’s brain is the most powerful sexual organ. Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” describes the brain as having an “accelerator,” which responds to sexual stimulation, and “brakes,” which counters with all the reasons not to have sex.

Most women’s brakes are sensitive. The brakes screech sexual desire to a halt with too many responsibilities and too much stress. Addressing the presence of sexual trauma, relationship issues, emotional issues, and sexual pain will do a lot to help decrease the hypersensitivity of your “brakes”.

Sexual Trauma

In the course of “naming it to taming it,” you may discover past sexual trauma that needs some healing. This could range from childhood sexual abuse to sexual assault. Another form of sexual trauma is persistent distress or abuse in a relationship where sex is technically “consensual” because the woman is saying yes, however, she doesn’t actually want sex but says yes out of fear. In cases such as this, she is avoiding being physically or emotionally hurt, feeling trapped in the relationship, or is being pressured.

Healing past trauma is an important step for many women in developing a more fulfilling sexual relationship. Beliefs about one’s sexual self and attitudes about sexual intimacy in general are formed unconsciously and often persist years later. There are ways to heal from your sexual trauma. You do not have to suffer in silence. A trained trauma therapist can help you work through your experiences. Journaling and reading books such as “My Sexual Healing Journey” by Wendy Maltz can also be helpful. Often there is a lingering deep shame associated with the trauma regarding one’s sense of self-worth that needs to be addressed.

Relationship Issues

In addition to sexual trauma, there may be some relationship issues preventing your body from being able to open up sexually. If there is abuse or mistreatment in the relationship, not wanting to have sex with the abusive partner is a healthy natural response! Addressing these types of issues in therapy is essential.

Marriage and couple therapists can help you set appropriate boundaries in your relationship, so you are more empowered. If there is abuse, that can also be addressed, and the partner can be held accountable for their actions. When you are intimate with your partner it is because you are giving full consent and actively choosing to be sexual.

Abuse doesn’t need to be present to still feel reluctant to open up sexually with your partner. Many women are much more willing and eager to open up sexually if they are feeling emotionally connected to their partner. Sometimes having a good deep conversation with your partner prior to sexual intimacy can be just the catalyst necessary to open up sexually. In other situations, building the relationship and emotional intimacy together is a necessary condition for many women to experience desire.

Emotional Issues

Stress, anxiety, and depression cause more than half of women to lose interest in sexual intimacy. When you are experiencing stress, your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response cycle has been activated. The key to managing stress and anxiety is to allow the stress response cycle to complete. It’s not always about “calming down” as much as it’s about allowing the emotion to fully discharge. What that means is going through the beginning (“I’m at risk!”), to the middle (action), and the end (“I’m safe!”). Emotions are like tunnels: You need to walk all the way through the darkness to reach light at the end. Chronic stress that does not complete the cycle just builds and builds contributing to sickness, chronic fatigue, and lack of sexual pleasure.

The “action” part of the stress cycle cannot be understated. When we numb our emotions with drugs, shopping, social media, food, etc. we inhibit the “action” part of the stress cycle which just adds to overall stress level. Science tells us that sleep, exercise, affection, meditation, yoga, tai chi, journaling, body self-care, and sunshine all help to facilitate the completion of the stress response cycle. Taking effective action is an act of self-compassion and self-kindness which promotes emotional and sexual health.

What are your top three stressors? How can you tell you are stressed? What happens in your body? If you were going to “take action” what are some things you might try to move just one step closer in being able to manage your stress?

Sexual Pain

If there is a significant amount of pain (think about a 3 or more on a 10-point scale) during sex, you should see your OBGYN for an assessment to check for scar tissue or other issues that may be contributing to painful sex. There are things that can be done for sexual pain. Pushing through pain will only serve to re-traumatize you as your body will begin to associate sex with pain which then may create an unconscious sexual aversion.

Sex does not need to be painful! Even for women where more complex physical issues are contributing to pain, there are a host of professionals, including sex therapists and pelvic floor physical therapists that are trained to get to the root cause of the pain and find real solutions.

There are many ways to be intimate with your partner that don’t need to include pain. Imagine sexual intimacy as a large umbrella with many options that fit underneath that umbrella. Are there other intimate activities you enjoy or could enjoy that aren’t painful?

Step Three: Nurture your Desire

The standard story we see expressed in media is that sexual desire just appears. You are walking down the street, you see an attractive person and boom—desire. “Spontaneous desire” is how about 75% of men and 15% of women experience sexual desire. About 5% of men and 30% of women experience “responsive” desire. This means that some people only begin to want sex only after sensual things are already happening. And about 55% of women and 20% of men experience “context dependent” desire—a sort of mixture of the two. Context Dependent means many factors in any given moment contribute to sexual desire or not—but it feels spontaneous. Think accelerators and brakes.

So we’ve discussed some common brakes women typically contend with. What about nurturing your desire by tweaking your “accelerator?” That is going to require you to get curious about you and what makes you erotically tick.

Increase Self-Care and Pleasure in your Life

Allow yourself time to feel and get in touch with your emotions. After you tune in to your emotions ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Take action, even if it is a small step, to help nurture yourself.

Make the quest for pleasure more of a rule than the exception. Sexual desire cannot be forced. It is not something we put in our planner to command ourselves to feel on demand. We nurture it by allowing ourselves to manage our stress and slow down enough to enjoy life in general. Make a list of your own pleasurable desires (ie. Long and luxurious baths, candles, listening to sexy music, trying on new clothes. Have exactly the food you want to have, go for a nature walk, shop in a store, meet up with some friends, take an exotic vacation, get a massage, dance.) When planning your schedule, make room for fun and self-care.

Give Yourself Permission to be Sexual

Often women lose their sense of sexual autonomy through messages they internalize from a young age. Messages about how they need to look in order to be desired, what they need to do for others to be worthy, what they need to do to be a “good wife.” Women are often socialized to deny their desires (pleasure) for the sake of others. Unfortunately, this carries over into sexual intimacy, and sexual intimacy can become less satisfying and less pleasurable—which translates into less desire. Duty kills desire. In order to feel desire, women need to be able to transition from “caretaker” to being in touch with her own erotic self.

So, recognize your right to sexual pleasure. Healthy sexual intimacy enhances your life. You get to decide what you would like to do and what you don’t like to do. So much about reclaiming your sexual desire is tied closely to reclaiming your independence. Your right to have pleasure is as important as your partner’s.

Think About What Turns You On

What times in your life or in your relationship have you felt most turned on and in tune to your sexuality? What types of things were you thinking/doing? This can be a roadmap to reclaiming/finding your own sense of sexuality. What things feel good to you now? What things don’t feel good to you? Share this with your partner.

Less than one third of women will orgasm consistently through penetration alone. Two-thirds of women will sometimes, rarely, or never orgasm with penetration alone.
If you are unfamiliar with your body and what turns you on, learn more. Exploring your body and its response, reading books (some recommendations at the end of the article), and having love-making sessions that are slow-paced and focused on your pleasure are all good places to start.

Practice Loving Your Body

You are beautiful. Your body is beautiful. Your sexuality is beautiful. Claim the womanly art of loving your body. What is your own special brand of beauty? What makes you uniquely beautiful—to yourself? Make a list of what makes you beautiful and post it where you will see it. Use positive affirmations like “I am beautiful. I am sexual. I am enough. I exude radiance. I choose sex or not. Sexuality comes naturally.” Claim your “sexy.” What things do you do that make you feel sexy? (Nails, shoes, clothes, hair, workout, good hygiene, etc.)

Change Your Context

If you are one of the majority of women who only experience desire in rare situations and you want to experience more sexual desire in your relationship, then it might be time to figure out your specific brakes and accelerators with as much detail as possible. No two people are alike. Every woman is unique. It is up to you to get curious about what makes you erotically tick (and what doesn’t). Share these with your partner and ask for help in changing the context. For example, if your sexual brakes get pushed when the house is a mess, or you’ve spent all day at home alone with small children, talk to your partner and see if some changes could be made? Experiment with different modifications to see what things make a difference in your sexual desires.

See Your Doctor

According to research, hormones are probably not the most likely culprit of low sexual desire (stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, and attachment issues are the biggest culprits), but there could be real physical conditions for low sexual desire. Antidepressants are known to cause lower desire and there are other options that don’t have this side effect. Changes through menopause, recently giving birth, and other issues can also significantly contribute to low desire. Seeing your doctor, at the very least, could rule out undiagnosed conditions, hormonal imbalances, or other physical causes of low desire.

Making the Decision to Be Sexual

Sometimes—most times—women will not experience spontaneous desire. Accepting and being okay with that (there’s nothing broken about you) can help you get out of your own way in order to start enjoying healthy intimacy with your partner. Sex begets sex. Research suggests that women who remain sexually active after childbearing years have high levels of testosterone. Higher levels of testosterone create higher sexual desire. The more you do it, the more you want it. Of course, what you do with your body is always your choice, whether in a marriage relationship or not. But, if you aren’t opposed to sex, it’s not painful, and the context you are in at the time fits within your value system, why not go for it? Oxytocin, “the bonding hormone,” will flow and you will feel more connected to each other in the process.

Final Thoughts

Low sexual desire is a couple issue. It helps to do what you can on your own recognizing that if you are still not satisfied, talking with a marriage therapist who specializes in sexuality would be wise. Healthy sexuality can add to the overall health and vitality of your intimate relationship and your life.

By Paige Vandersloot MS, LMFT, CST
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

References

1. Binik, Yitzchak, & Hall, Kathryn. 2014. Principles and Practice of Sex Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
2. Davis, Michele Weiner. 2003. The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido. New York: Simon and Schuster.
3. Goldstein, Andrew, Pukall, Caroline, & Goldstein, Irwin. 2011. When Sex Hurts. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.
4. Maltz, Wendy. 2012. The Sexual Healing Journey. New York: HarperCollins.
5. McCarthy, Barry & McCarthy, Emily. 2003. Rekindling Desire. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
6. Nagoski, Emily. 2015. Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
7. Penner, Clifford & Joyce. The Gift of Sex. 2003. Tennessee: Thomas Nelson.
8. Perel, Ester. 2007. Mating in Captivity. New York: HarperCollins.
9. Siegel, Dan. 2015. The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford Press.