“That’s normal, right?” a young woman recently asked me, terrified that her lack of fascination and “drive” meant that she was abnormal. She was certain that something was wrong with her. She manages, she says, to fake it pretty well with her boyfriend, but she’s living in a world that she is certain would reject her if they knew.
As a sex therapist, I am commonly contacted by people who experience a level of sexual desire different from that of a partner. In other words, they want sex more or less often than a partner, or they want different kinds of sexual experiences. Often, the person who does not desire sex as often will brand a partner by claiming, “He’s horny all the time! He’s a sex addict!” And sometimes, although not as often these days, a person might accuse a partner of being “frigid.”
How Much Sexual Desire Is Just Right?
While easily ignited when romance is new or forbidden, sexual desire can just as easily be extinguished as a result of anxiety or traumatic memories. These days, it seems that the pressure for everyone to be preoccupied with sex, and seek it out whenever possible, may be increasing.
As the late Sandra Leiblum pointed out in a presentation to sex therapists that I attended, complaints about sexual desire resemble the familiar fairy tale of a golden-haired girl who entered a bear family’s cottage in the woods and found three beds. “Too big,” she says as she checks out the first bed. “Too small,” she complains as she tests the next bed. “Just right!” she exclaims as she snuggles into bed number three.
It may not surprise you that Goldilocks’ observations are usually what I most often hear at my practice. “Too little,” sighs a disgruntled mate who’s yearning for more action between the sheets, or at least a more enthusiastic partner. “Too much,” replies a tired mate who feels compelled to fight off a seemingly tireless lover.
What Research Tells Us about Sexual Desire
Recent research has focused on one measurement of sexual desire: worldwide mean frequency of sexual intercourse (what I call “pivi”, or penis in vagina intercourse). Highest rates were reported by European and American women, while the lowest rates were reported by Asian women. There were multiple factors associated with these differences in intercourse frequency: age, parity, relationship duration, pregnancy, time, relationship status, fertility intentions, and use of contraception. Cultural differences, of course, play a huge role.
We’re not keeping score, and even if we were, there is, in reality, no way to measure what comprises normal frequency of sexual interaction.Another question to ask is how women actually experience or report sexual activity to researchers. Desire, arousal, and sexual behavior often do not coincide. In 2003, researchers interviewed women who had recently undergone cervical cancer and who had experienced all the pain and negative genital sensations associated (Schultz and Van de Wiel). These women were statistically no different in terms of reported frequency and motivation for pivi from an age-matched control group! The authors wondered if the respondents’ “love ethos” made them more inclined to adapt to their partners’ demands. As many women have told me many times, “Sometimes it’s just easier to fake it!”
Too Little, Too Much, Too Different
Given the wide ranges reported, as well as the variety of social and cultural context in which sexual behavior occurs, it seems ridiculously arbitrary to decide what comprises “normal” sexual frequency, or to pathologize apparently low or excessive sexual activity.
There is no right or wrong. What’s important is that every couple finds their own unique way of expressing their erotic and sexual connection. Many of us can do that even when there are significant differences in desire. It’s when sexual desire is “too different” that relationships falter and people find their way to my office.
- Schneidewind-Skibbe, A., Hayes, R., Koochaki, P., Meyer, Jl, & Dennerstein, L. ,The frequency of sexual intercourse reported by women: A review of community-based studies and factors limiting their conclusions. J Sex Med, 2008;5:301-335
- Weijmar Schultz, W. C. M., &Van de Wiel, H. B. M. (2003) Sexuality, intimacy, and gynecological cancer. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 29, 121-128.
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