Dossier: Sexuality

Libido: getting the spark back

The libido is our sex drive or the desire for sex. It can be influenced by hormones, the mind and couple dynamics. But we are not at its mercy: desire can be learned.

Author: Anna Miller; photo: iStock

We’d love to go to bed together, have sex, feel our bodies, but what about all the emails, the washing up, the shopping list, phone calls, appointments, the argument last night – the list is never ending. Surveys show that, in recent years, people in western countries are having less and less sex and, above all, are losing interest in having sex. And yet good sex is an important part of life: If we are sexually satisfied and feel a sexual connection, we are healthier, more energised and feel less stressed. What influences our libido? What can we do to actively increase it?

What is libido?

The libido is a person’s sex drive, i.e. their desire for sexual satisfaction,” says Isabelle Christen, sex therapist and psychological counsellor based in Zurich. Everyone has a libido, but some are more pronounced than others. And some people act on it more. “Put simply, sexual arousal is nothing more than increased blood flow to the sexual organs,” says Christen. “But there’s much more to lust, passion and sexual satisfaction than that.”

“Every person has an individual sexual learning experience, which starts when they are born and ends when they die.”
Isabelle Christen, sex therapist and psychological counsellor

Lack of sex drive: what affects the sex drive of men and women?

The libido is affected by a number of factors. “Hormones, for example. The male hormone testosterone drives the libido. Higher levels of testosterone do in fact increase desire and sex drive. Man have around ten times more testosterone in their body than women,” says Christen. Although the female sexual hormone oestrogen also has a sexually stimulating effect, man and women are essentially different from a hormonal perspective. When it comes to hormones, men are designed to be more sexually active than women.

However, many other factors play a role when it comes to pleasurable and fulfilling sexuality: relationship constellations, emotions, commitment and, above all, a person’s sexual learning history. These factors have a big influence on both sexes. “Every person has an individual sexual learning experience, which starts when they are born and ends when they die,” explains Christen. Questions to consider include: What was your upbringing like? Was sexuality a taboo topic at home? Did you talk about sex with your parents? What role models did you have? What experience have you had with sexuality so far? How have you lived your sexuality, what excites you and why?

However great the purely physical, sexual arousal may be, if someone has had bad experiences in sexual contact as a couple, if pressure to perform plays a role or if the person doesn’t really know what they could do physically to increase pleasure, this can lead to sexuality being experienced as less satisfying. “The body performs a cost-benefit analysis,” says Christen. “If, for example, the act itself is experienced as satisfying, but the journey to it as tedious or problematic, the pleasure centre and thus also the centre for natural desire in the brain is less stimulated.” And the next time the question of whether you want to have sex comes up, your libido is not as fired up as you would perhaps like it to be.

Loss of libido taking the pill: myth or reality?

One possible reason for a woman’s lack of desire is the contraceptive pill. For decades it has been the most effect method of contraceptive, giving women new freedoms in the 1970s. But there has been resistance in recent years, with women reporting changes in their personality, depressive moods, vaginal dryness and also a loss of sex drive. In fact, numerous studies have shown that a reduced libido is a known possible side effect of hormonal contraception.

But as with many other medicines, side effects aren’t the same for everyone – women react differently to hormones. Some feel a huge difference and lose desire for sex, while others don’t notice any changes and feel the same. Intolerances or negatives effects usually become apparent in the first few months of taking the pill. Then women can discuss alternatives with their gynaecologist. Changing the preparation may also be an option if the woman wants to continue taking the pill. 

“At my practice, the following guideline applies: If I don’t see something as a problem, then there isn’t one”
Isabelle Christen, sex therapist and psychological counsellor

High or low libido: what is a normal sex drive?

Many people feel under extreme pressure to perform. Society is portrayed as oversexualised, sex is available 24/7 offline and online – and we can’t seem to get away from pictures of perfect people enjoying perfect sex lives. In fact, reality is quite different: some people have sex every day, while others only every few months. Sexual desire depends on your mood, life circumstances, hormones, contraception and your relationship with yourself and your partner. And libido is also a matter of perception. “At my practice, the following guideline applies: If I don’t see something as a problem, then there isn’t one” says Christen. In other words, if someone never wants sex or always wants sex and there are no points of friction, then no therapy is needed.

In many cases, people only want to see a sexual therapist if they aren’t having sex and that troubles their partner. “Interestingly, most women don’t see a therapist primarily because of their own desire, but because sex is neglected in their relationship and they fear that their partner will leave them,” says Christen. 

“Good knowledge of your own sex is important for sexual satisfaction”
Isabelle Christen, sex therapist and psychological counsellor

Women and men often only seek counselling when a separation is imminent

For women, sex tends to be part of a relationship and a commitment. Pure physical pleasure is secondary. However, this is often due to a person’s sexual learning history, where society and upbringing also play a role. “Men generally discover pleasure through their genitals at a much younger age; they explore them, have clear, visual stimuli that trigger arousal, and are more likely to be encouraged to explore themselves sexually and be sexually active,” says Christen. For women, exploring their sexuality and sex drive is more likely to be indirect and associated with shame. And sexual culture is very fixated on the man, his penetration and his actions. “But women can be equally active, seeing the insertion of the penis as an action that she initiates.” The same applies, of course, to same-sex partnerships.

If you don’t really know your body, it’s harder to actively increase your libido. “Good knowledge of your own sex is important for sexual satisfaction,” says Christen. This gives you a feeling of security and you have more opportunities to voice your own desires. And it is also important to relax, regardless of whether you’re on your own or with someone else. Stress – be it in daily life, in a relationship or during the act of sex itself – is toxic for desire. Not just mentally, but also physically, because stress increases the basic tension of the body’s muscles, which hampers the blood flow and in turns dampens sexual arousal. A lack of sex drive can also have physical causes, for example hormonal imbalances, such as androgen or oestrogen deficiency, which can hinder the build-up of sexual arousal and cause pain during sexual intercourse. Medication such as antidepressants can play a role, as can stress and fatigue, alcohol dependence and thyroid disorders.

Tips to boost your libido

If medical causes can be ruled out, there’s good news: you can learn to boost your sex drive. You can boost your libido by positively managing your own sexual learning history. There are a few magic ingredients to help increase your desire: explore your genitals, know how to trigger and increase sexual arousal, communicate open and honestly with your partner and connect the physical perception of desire with pleasant feelings – movement is key. “Going on your own journey of desire can trigger many beautiful, new moments, but it can also be frustrating at first,” says Christen. So it’s important to give yourself time to familiarise yourself with your body and your needs, and explore your own desires and those of your partner. “Sexual learning lasts a lifetime. Ultimately, it’s about embarking on an individual journey towards a pleasurable sexuality”, says Christen. If sex is ‘worth’ it, we’ll desire it.

Isabelle Christen is a sexual therapist and psychological counsellor at ZiSMed, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Sexology and Medicine in Zurich.

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