One of the most common complaints heard by sex therapists today is low sexual desire. But when we talk about low desire, are we all talking about the same thing? The differences in how we experience (or FEEL) sexual desire may hold the key to what is really going on.
Terri, a 36 year old marketing expert arrived in my office wondering why she doesn't feel as much sexual desire as she used to. She lamented how she is missing spontaneous and "passionate," sexual desire. Frustratingly, her boyfriend of 10 years still easily feels sexual desire, whereas Terri describes only fleeting warm thoughts or twinges that don't last for more than a few seconds. What used to absorb her with hot anticipation has been replaced by her focus on financial worries, desires for a good meal, and her recent successes at work.
Sexual thoughts should just pop up naturally on their own, shouldn't they? This is the commonly held myth reinforced by popular media (the place most of us learn what sex 'should' be like). Terri has seen her gynecologist, her naturopath and now a sex therapist. She craves that type of desire again. "What is wrong with me?!" she implores.
Nothing! It may be that we are asking the wrong question. It is not uncommon to believe that everyone shares the same experience of sexual desire. And it is this belief that could be working against women.
Let's start with how the differences in male and female anatomy may be playing a part in how we "feel" desire.
Outies get more attention than Innies.
OUTIES: The lime-light-loving penis is the sexual organ that attracts the most attention, primarily because it peeks its head up to be admired, signalling, often in not too subtle ways, "I'm here; pay attention to me!" When Terri's boyfriend sees something sexy or thinks a sexual thought, his body is pre-programmed to react automatically with an erection -- often even before he is conscious of his desires.
While, Terri's body has similar programming -- with her vagina lubricating and the vulva swelling -- there is an important difference between genders in what happens next.
A man can see his erection, and his eyes send a message to the conscious part of his brain with the message, "Look, I'm aroused!" Since, in many cases, a growing erection is associated with pleasure, this visual cue creates a positive feedback loop that encourages conscious sexual desire -- the more he senses his erection, the more desire he feels. Even if he can't 'see' the erection, he can often get tactile feedback from his penis as it touches or presses against his clothing. As long as other factors (such as anxiety, etc.) don't get in the way, more cues beget more sexual desire.
INNIES: This feedback loop lies in stark contrast to the "Inny Sexual Organs" of women. The vagina can barely be seen without a mirror, wetness can be difficult to notice, and the shy clitoris actually becomes less obvious (by hiding beneath the clitoral hood) when aroused. The practical reality is that women don't always see or feel the overt arousal cues that can fuel sexual desire.
When Terri thinks of, or sees, something sexy, her body starts a similar automatic arousal process (lubrication and swelling) akin to her boyfriend's. BUT because most of these signs are not obvious, she can easily miss or ignore them, and instead pay attention to the more pressing issues of her day. In other words, a woman can start the process of arousal, but miss the positive feedback loop that encourages more arousal and eventual conscious desire.
Newer research suggests that a woman not only missing the cues, but be thwarting them. In other words, though she might be feeling wet or tingling, she may also "decide" (for a potentially long list of good reasons) to ignore those cues.
In contrast, men must wait for an erection to subside, making it not so easily ignored. In other words men (or penis-owners) have more of a 'nagging' reminder that demands attention and is more difficult to over-ride.
So what is a woman to do?
Self-reminders may be one answer. To Terri, a reminder to think about her own sexual cues sounded a little bit prescribed. But when she started to notice desire clues that were distinctly her own, cues that did not conform to what others had told her desire "should" feel like, she started feeling a version of desire that was right for her. The delicious "yearning to feel a weight on her body" was a particular clue that told Terri she was feeling desire. When she started to trust those feelings were real, and that she had been ignoring other clues, her desire increased dramatically. She commented on how the myth of spontaneity had been holding her back.
We all want to be in touch with our own desire. But if we discount our feelings because of some "ideal," we can miss out. We all experience desire slightly differently. Let's honor that!
Can you identify your own cues to desire? Find out what type of cues you use most and which ones you may not be missing out on. Cues of Sexual Desire Test
Understand your own unique desire with the test for Cues of Sexual Desire