50 Shades of Sexual Desire: How Much Is Just Right?

Happy couple lying on bed together under the duvet“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.

“Just right” is not something that I hear often, of course, but I’m convinced that many of us are, fortunately, satisfied, if not exulting in our sexual lives. 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.

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.


  1. 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
  2. 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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  • Leave a Comment
  • Bertie

    August 24th, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    This has to be such a unique and individual thing. What works for one couple may very well not be a good fit for another. It is all about finding that right pattern for you and your partner, and if that works, then who really cares what everyone else thinks or is doing?

  • Kelvin

    August 24th, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    I love that my wife and I we don’t keep score, keep track of when he have sex or not. When we are in the mood, then we do it. If not, then you take care of it yourself or you just don’t have sex that day. Where there is love there, there will always be the next day for that.

  • Leslie

    August 24th, 2015 at 4:11 PM

    I have to say that going through menopause was a real crisis point for my marriage.
    I did not have any desire to have sex anymore and so since I didn’t that drove a real wedge between me and my husband. I am glad that I talked to my ob gyn about it and we are working to get the hormone levels resolved and all but it has been hard.
    It’s hard to explain to someone that you love them but the thought of physical touch is just a real turn off.

  • Sally

    August 25th, 2015 at 9:33 AM

    I wouldn’t say that there is a perfect amount, but as long as it is perfect for you and your partner, then that’s enough

  • Christopher

    August 27th, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    Things would be sooo much easier if men and women hit their sexual primes at the same time.

  • rhonda

    August 28th, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    When we struggled with this the most was after all of our children had been born. You know, I was so tired that I didn’t have the energy to add one more thing to my list and that meant that my husband fell further and further down the list of priorities. Thank goodness we stuck it out and the kids are better able to fend for themselves now, but there are still times when I think that we are not on the same page sexually but then we get there and work on it and things feel right again. Marriage is never easy that’s for sure.

  • Der

    August 29th, 2015 at 11:56 AM

    Why the cultural differences? I am guessing that it is because of the differences in how these cultures might all view women and their roles in very different ways?

  • selene

    August 30th, 2015 at 9:24 AM

    My guess is that if you can honestly say that you are happy, you are satisfied, that you never think about straying or have even been tempted to stray, then what you have is good enough. Don’t ask others, don’t talk to others about it, if you are happy and content then that’s it- you have found the sweet spot.

  • Carlita

    August 31st, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    If you are lucky you either find a mate with the same desires that you have or who makes you desire them as much as they desire you.

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