With a pandemic keeping us indoors day and night, we should be having the sex of our lives. So why is it having the opposite effect? Rosie Mullender explores why so many couples have out-of-synch libidos and shares expert tips on getting them aligned
In my early 20s, I was addicted to magazines: celebrity weeklies, glossies like Marie Claire (of course) and even men’s mags. Filled with half-dressed women, the latter weren’t particularly feminist-friendly, but I found them fascinating – especially when it came to their endless articles about sex.
How to blow her mind, tactics for seducing your best friend, that tip about writing the alphabet on her clit which made so much 90s sex really awkward. But however dreadful the advice, it all boiled down to one thing: how could male readers get as much sex as possible? Every time I read one of these magazines, my heart would sink – because at the time, I had to practically beg my boyfriend to sleep with me. I was surrounded by adverts, movies and even cartoons (in which boy-dogs’ tongues unrolled like red carpets when they saw a hot lady-dog), all of which told me men wanted just one thing – the one thing I, apparently, couldn’t get from my other half.
The vast chasm between our respective libidos eventually broke us up. And in true Goldilocks style, I went on to meet a man who showed me the other side of the coin: we’d be late for dinner because he’d try to squeeze in ‘just one more session’, and he’d wake me up in the middle of the night for some ‘fun’ when really, all I wanted was to catch some extra Zs.
Help! My sex life is missing
If you’re both on the same page when it comes to how much sex you’re having, there’s no problem – even if the amount of sex you’re having is zero. But I’ve seen first-hand how mismatched libidos can impact your relationship. Inevitably, when there’s an imbalance, the partner with the higher drive feels rejected, while the other feels pressure to perform. When your partner isn’t in the mood, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you (although your relationship as a whole might need an MOT). So what can cause low libido in a partner who was previously on fire? And what do you do if it’s starting to cause friction in your relationship?
‘Differences in desire between partners in a long-term relationship is the most common reason couples seek sex therapy,’ says Emily Nagoski of the Feminist Survival Project podcast, reassuringly. ‘And even though the stereotype is that women have lower desire than men, among heterosexual couples who seek sex therapy, men and women are equally likely to be the lower-desire partner.
‘Men are often raised to believe that a lack of constant, spontaneous desire for sex is inherently dysfunctional. Meanwhile, women are taught that they should be chaste and pure, but also perpetually horny sex-kittens. When really, men and women are not fundamentally different.’
Before you start worrying that he’s stopped fancying you or vice-versa, remember there are all sorts of reasons low libido could strike, from hassle at work to your contraceptive pill affecting desire.
‘Both men and women are equally susceptible to low libido at certain times in their lives,’ says Dr Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First. ‘Men can be affected by anxiety, stress and depression, which are major libido-inhibitors. Anything which affects self-esteem can have a knock-on effect on libido – stressors such as work, being anxious about money, or even thinking you’re not making a mark in life.
‘Of course, women can be affected by these issues too, as well as being disincentivised when sex isn’t particularly good – if a woman never or inconsistently experiences orgasms, she’s likely to have less interest. Some women experience pain during sex if they’re not aroused, which can also can cause low libido.’
Working it out together
As with most relationship issues, if you’ve noticed your libidos slipping out of gear, the first thing to do is to talk (and if you find that too tricky, you might consider seeking the help of a counsellor or sex therapist). Working out what’s causing the issue, whether that’s stress at work or something within the relationship, means you can start to address it (and if pain is part of the problem, head to your GP, stat). Chances are that your relationship is healthy, and you’re both enjoying sex, but familiarity means one or both of you have simply started preferring Netflix sessions to naked ones. Which means it’s time to start setting the scene for more sex.
‘When it comes to creating a great sex life, the goal isn’t desire – it’s pleasure,’ says Emily. ‘The research on couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term shows they don’t necessarily have sex very often, and they don’t necessarily crave sex. Instead, they have two things in common: First, they have a strong friendship at the foundation of their relationship, and second, they prioritise sex.
‘Sometimes desire does seem to appear out of the blue, but it’s more common among both men and women in long-term relationships for desire to appear only in response to a sexy context the couple has created together – for example, date night.’
The very words ‘date night’ might make you want to cringe. Surely sex should be spontaneous and fun? But, says Ian, if your libidos aren’t matched, or both are flagging and you’re unhappy about it, you need to put in the legwork.
Make time for fantasy nights
‘One assignment I often give couples is to set aside time not to have sex, but to have a “fantasy and friction” assignment, where you’re setting aside some time to engage in psychological sexual stimulation,’ he says. ‘That might involve reading erotica together, watching porn, listening to an erotic podcast, or something more face to face and direct, like sharing a fantasy, or role playing. The aim is to take the pressure off having sex, and engage psychological excitement – a key element which is often missing from couples’ sex lives.’
Thankfully, like Goldilocks before me (kind of), I eventually found a man whose libido was just right – and whenever we hit a blip, we’re willing to work on it (like, er, road-testing sex apps). So don’t panic: if your libidos aren’t matched, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, or with him. You might just have to talk, listen, and put that date-night in the diary.