In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about why you have no interest in sex.
Q: How do I become re-interested in sex? I used to love it and now I just don't care to have it.
For most people, interest in sex comes and goes; waxes and wanes. It can feel completely mysterious and like it has a will of its own. But the causes of those fluctuations in sexual desire are actually rooted really deeply in some of the oldest parts of our brains.
At least, that’s how Dr. Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., explains it in her seminal book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. And while I was tempted to give you the standard advice — try porn! Change things up! Fantasize! masturbate! — my recent re-reading of Dr. Nagoski’s book is pushing me to push you a little deeper than you might have gone in the past.
Dr. Nagoski explains that the most important determinant for whether or not people want to have sex is context. She gives the example of tickling: If you’re flirting with someone and they start tickling you, you might start making out. But if you’re annoyed with them, you’ll probably just get more annoyed — no making out. Same situation; different context.
But context isn’t just about what’s going on around you. It’s also what’s going on inside you, in the part of your brain that Dr. Nagoski has termed the One Ring. It’s where all of your emotional and motivational systems are processed. That includes all of your love responses and all of your pleasure responses — from fear and aggression to love and sex. She also refers to it as the “monkey brain,” but other people sometimes call it the “lizard brain” because it’s a very part old part of our brains, and it’s not dissimilar to the brains of animals.
Dr. Nagoski puts all of those possible emotions into three categories: enjoying, expecting, and eagerness. And this is way oversimplifying her theories, but basically, you can feel all three toward both negative and positive emotions. If only one or two of the three points to positive emotions, you’re less likely to want sex. Or you might not want it at all.
She also found that, generally, most people need three factors for their context to be sex-positive: low stress, high affection, and it needs to be explicitly erotic. So, for example, a person who is mid-week of week two of vacation (low stress) whose partner brings them a beautiful meal (high affection) and whispers something dirty in their ear (explicitly erotic) is more likely to have all three parts of the One Ring pointing toward “let’s do it!”
But if that same partner brought them that same meal and whispered the same thing on a Wednesday night when it's a year into a pandemic and lockdown, and they haven't had an income in six months, they’re probably not going to want to do it. That’s because of another really important biological factor, which is how our bodies respond to stress. Human stress responses developed when our biggest causes of stress were “acute stressors,” like a lion trying to eat us. But these days, most stressors are “chronic stressors,” like being constantly bombarded with bad news from the internet.
Dr. Nagoski explains how animals don’t have anxiety, even though they have stress because they have a complete “stress cycle.” A lion spots you; you run away; you survive; you celebrate. But with chronic stress, we get stuck in the cycle with no resolution. Because we cannot complete the stress cycle, the hormones and chemicals released by the stress response build up in our bodies and make us sick. They also make it difficult for us to experience pleasure.
So what’s the solution for getting your mojo back? It is, as Dr. Nagoski says, “simple but not easy.” You have to change the context, whatever that means to you. The first step toward that might be completing the stress cycle, so your monkey brain feels more open to sex. Dr. Nagoski recommends working physical activity, meditation, or even a primal scream or a good cry as ways to do this. Try to work whatever method is best for you into your daily life.
As the next step, Dr. Nagoski recommends thinking about three positive sexual experiences and three negative experiences you’ve had. She then walks you through what about them was positive and what about them was negative to help give you a clearer view of what your One Ring needs in order to want to have sex. It’s a great approach to really drilling down into your deeper needs.
But I think the most important lesson to be learned from Come As You Are is that there’s no simple, pat answer for restarting sexual desire that can be applied to everyone. Each individual has to really be willing to do the work — watching porn isn’t going to necessarily solve it for you.
This isn’t to say all of the standard advice isn’t still applicable. It absolutely still is. But all of those “easy,” more concrete things you can do to restart your sexual desire will be more effective if you use them in combination with the deeper psychological work that Dr. Nagoski outlines in her book. So, give it a read. Give it a shot. It might be more difficult, but it will almost undoubtedly be more rewarding.
Dr. Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.