How often do you want sex? And is that enough? Not wanting enough sex is the big problem for most women who consult me as a clinical sexologist. And most sex therapists will agree that having a low level of sexual desire is a problem. But the majority of these women are heterosexual with male partners who are – you guessed it – complaining. Lesbian couples don’t usually present with similar problems. So I guess I should say “relatively low levels of sexual desire!”
Over and over again I’ve found that moving in together does create a drop in frequency of sexual activity for all couples regardless of gender. Long distance romance remains exciting because it provides space and distance interspersed with sexy weekend liaisons. But which is “normal” – the level of desire we experience early in a relationship or what unfolds later on?
Women’s desire levels are generally lower to start with. And we don’t need decades of research to know that men usually think more about sex, fantasize more about it, work harder to get it, place more importance on it, initiate it more often, and masturbate more. What seems to ignite desire for women is the excitement and novelty of a budding new romance.
This is why couples therapist Esther Perel points out that “good intimacy doesn’t always guarantee good sex.” Her book Mating in Domesticity is a classic that I recommend to couples struggling with these issues. In it she points out that “the very elements that nurture love – reciprocity, mutuality, protection, closeness, emotional security, predictability – are sometimes the very things that stifle desire.”
Because we tend to be caregivers, women take care of our menfolk in committed relationships, much as we take care of children and pets. So these guys start to feel like a brother or worse yet a child, and sex with family members is a definite no-no in our culture. Children and pets need caregiving, which we provide as an act of love. Sexual desire requires that our lover does not need us.
Researcher Marta Meana’s recent study documents a severe decline in sexual desire among 19 married women. For some, formalizing their relationship as marriage made sex so available and so sanctioned that it lost the forbidden and erotic quality that had formerly ignited passion. For other women, overfamiliarity with their husband led to a decline in romance and in sexual experimentation, as well as a loss of motivation to care for their appearance now that they had “hooked their man.”
A third group of women reported that holding down a job, being mom, and being a wife was overwhelming and “highly desexualizing,” making it extremely difficult to shift into romantic mode after changing diapers and fulfilling their professional roles. Many of the participants in all three groups specifically noted that while they were committed to their marriage, they thought desire would return if someone new came along who desired them.
As Meara puts it, “Women want a commitment because it signals they are uniquely desired. But once a commitment has been made, your guy is stuck and the meaning of commitment changes. In women, desire may be driven to the same extent as it is in men by novelty and excitement and a stranger thinking they are hot.”
Over and above anyone else, we are our own point of reference for how sexy we are. Feeling good about ourselves emotionally and physically appears to be a bigger mediator of female desire than men’s. This certainly bears out in my conversations with female clients.
Recently, for example, a woman told me that she no longer wanted to have sex “on top” of or astride her mate, “because my stomach sticks out and it would look terrible to him from that angle!” He shook his head, “Honey, I probably don’t even have my eyes open … that used to be your favorite position because it felt best to you … what else could possibly matter?”
What do the rest of you think about all this?
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