We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Now, onto today's topic: understanding the female libido.
Q: “I’m a bisexual woman in a long-term relationship with a man. My boyfriend is so into sex it’s almost comical. I could tell him I wanted to have sex at any time, and he’d be ready to go in a heartbeat. Me, on the other hand … different story. It feels like it takes so much for me to get turned on. The circumstances have to be just right, and there are so many things that can turn me off in an instant. My boyfriend jokes about me being persnickety, but he’s generally so down for sex that he’ll put up with a lot. I’ve talked about these patterns with some of my girlfriends, and almost all of them agree that they have a harder time getting turned on than their male partners. Why can’t I be more like my boyfriend? Is this just the way women are? Please help me stop feeling like I’m so damn difficult.”
A: Thanks for the question! There are few things that make women as self-conscious as their sex drives (or lack thereof). This is a huge topic, so let’s jump right into eight things you should know about the female libido, plus a handful of tips for finding what works for you.
1. No, Women Are Not Inherently More "Complicated"
In almost all of our conversations about sexuality, men are treated as the norm. If that’s how men’s sexuality tends to function, that’s how women are supposed to function. Women are judged (and judge themselves) for any tiny deviation from these so-called “norms”. For another example of this, look no further than the fact that women are often expected to orgasm from penetration alone, like men, even though that’s simply not how most of our bodies work.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with what you’ve described. Feeling like it takes a while to get turned on, feeling like little things turn you off — totally normal. Sure, it’s different from what your boyfriend is like, but it shouldn’t be seen as better or worse, or more or less complicated. Just different. (We’ll get into what those differences are in a moment.) We could just as easily turn this societal discourse on it’s head and say, “why is your boyfriend so easily turned on? Is he really that simple that he doesn’t need any seduction or eroticism? How pedestrian!" I’m not saying we should do that, but it shows how so much of this boils down to how we’re taught to view our own sexualities.
2. Everyone Is Normal
It’s easy to get caught in a men vs. women gender dichotomy, but the reality is that sexuality is so much more complex than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” We can look at patterns and percentages, but not all men are alike, and not all women are alike either (or even have female reproductive organs). The bottom line is this: we each have to find what works for us, and work towards feeling comfortable with that. Again, there’s nothing “wrong” with your libido; you just have to figure out how to work with it instead of against it.
3. Arousal & Desire Aren’t The Same Thing
Before we go much further, we have to make an important distinction between arousal and desire. Arousal is the physiological response that our body has that indicates it’s ready for sex. For men and women alike, it includes things like increased breathing and heart rate. Women get lubricated, men get erect. Desire, on the other hand, is the psychological feeling of wanting to have sex. One is in the body, the other is in the mind.
Sometimes arousal and desire are on the same page, but they’re not the same thing. Ever felt horny for sex, but noticed that you were dry? Or ever felt really wet but not been in the mood at all? One tends to come before the other.
4. Desire Comes In Two Main Flavors: Responsive & Spontaneous
Last year, sex educator Emily Nagoski released one of my favorite sexuality books of all time, Come As You Are. A large portion of the book is devoted to the topic of libido, and she makes a great distinction between two different types of desire — spontaneous and responsive. Spontaneous desire, as the “spontaneous” part of the title implies, feels like it’s coming out of nowhere. You’re just washing the dishes and the little thought sneaks into your head, “hmm, you know what sounds good right now?” Responsive desire, on the other hand, happens when arousal comes first. It’s your body responding to a stimulus. For example, let’s say your partner starts kissing you. Even though you weren’t originally in the mood the second they approached you, your brain starts to think, “hmm, this is good, I like this, more of this please.”
You can have spontaneous desire at some moments, and responsive in others, but most people tend to lean more towards one pattern than the other. In research presented in her book, Nagoski claims that men tend to fall into the spontaneous camp more often, while women tend to fall into the responsive camp more often.
There’s not a ton of info in your question for me to go off of, but it sounds like you might describe yourself more as a responsive partner, and you might describe your boyfriend as a more spontaneous partner. And again, there's no wrong or right here when it comes to those tendencies. Just different.
5. You Should Work With Yourself, Not Against
If you think your desire tends to be responsive more often, the desire is going to follow the arousal. So the key for you is going to be finding ways for you to get the type of stimulation that gets you going. There’s also a big element around giving yourself the permission for the desire to come into play afterwards. Like I said above, there’s a cultural belief that the “male” way is better, so most people think that spontaneous desire is the preferable mode.
It’s clear that there’s some self-judgment coming across in your email, so it seems like the permission part could be big for you. What’s it like to say to yourself, “this is how my desire works, and that’s just fine”?
6. It Is Possible To Know (Some Of) What Turns You On
Let’s get into some more concrete steps. First, make a list of everything, no matter how small, that makes you feel turned on. Think about all of your senses — touch, taste, hearing, seeing, and scent. Think about parts of your body that like being touched. Words that you love hearing your boyfriend say. Things that he does and things that you do. Here are some examples:
- When my partner tells me how attractive they find me
- Getting kissed on the nape of my neck
- Feeling fully relaxed
- Knowing that I can say no
- Taking a bath
Keep adding to this list as time goes on.
7. ... And What Turns You Off
Then, make a list of anything that has turned you off in the moments leading up to or during sex. What pulls you out of the moment? What snatches your attention away? Again, think through all of your senses, and things that both you and your partner do. Here are some examples:
- Hearing my phone ding
- Being touched on that ticklish spot on my hips
- Feeling stressed
- When my partner initiates with jokes, like, “wanna do it?”
- When it’s too quiet
- When I feel self-conscious about my body
8. If You Want To Increase Desire, Put A Plan In Place
Next, take a look at your “turn-ons” and “turn-offs” list, and see if you can come up with any thoughts for maximizing the “turn-ons” and minimizing the “turn-offs.” This can look wildly different from person to person, especially since desire can be such a complex topic. But you might come up with examples like:
- Remove all clutter from the bedroom
- Read erotic fiction in the bathtub
- Have my partner tell me that he wants to be with me, but without outright asking if I want to have sex
- Change my birth control method
- Schedule date nights so I can feel a sense of anticipation and build-up
Have your boyfriend make his own set of lists, and use this exercise to open up a conversation between the two of you. Share your thoughts with each other sensitively, and see if you can work as a team to get your different approaches aligned.
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