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Ok, no point in being coy: Does the thought of having sex with your partner ever make you kinda cringe? Maybe you’re too distracted with a million things around the house. Maybe you’re too stressed about work drama. Maybe you’re just exhausted and sleep is the only action you can fathom between the sheets?
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that every woman in any relationship feels this way at some time or another, and it’s a pretty crappy feeling. You love your partner, you love being intimate, and you know a healthy sex life is good for your health and your relationship—and yet. You just can’t flip a switch and make yourself in the mood for a romantic evening (or even a let’s-get-this-over-in-15-minutes-or-so romp).
If it’s any comfort, you’re probably more the rule than the exception. “Low or absent sexual desire and interest is the most common sexual issue among women of all ages,” says Nagma V. Clark, PhD, a Bay Area, California-based sex therapist. According to the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes & Lifestyles, 41 percent of women ages 16 to 44 reported lack of interest in sex for the preceding month.
Low female sexual desire is usually a complex combination and physical and emotional factors. In younger women, it tends to be more tied to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as relationship factors like emotional connection and trust or partner technique. In women approaching menopause, low libido could be due to hormonal or other medical issues that contribute to painful or less enjoyable sex, as well as getting stuck in a sexual rut after years (or decades!) of being in a long-term relationship. And at any age, stress and fatigue certainly play a role in pushing sex lower down on the priorities list.
No wonder you can light a room full of Diptyque candles, listen to the most sultry songs in your music library, and slip on your favorite figure-flattering piece of lingerie and still not be in the mood for sex. But every expert we interviewed for this story assured us that low libido can be very much a temporary dry spell—if you work on turning things around. Here, sexperts share the tips they give their patients to get their sexy back and actually crave intimacy with their partners.
We’re not talking about only sex or sexual activities. “Enjoy the sensations in the physical world,” says Marla Mattenson, MA, a Los Angeles-based relationship and intimacy expert. “The texture of your clothes, the smell of fresh flowers. Use your visual senses to take in the beauty of the world. Get in nature and observe the complexity and simplicity and allow it to refuel your internal engine.”
“Once you decide you want to increase your libido, you will unlock this door to your birthright as a human: pleasure,” she adds. “When you can feel pleasure from the little things in life, you naturally increase your libido.”
“It’s much more difficult for women to compartmentalize, but it could be an extremely handy tool when it comes to sexual desire,” says Dr. Clark. If you’re not already meditating, boosting your libido could be a good reason to start. According to sexologist Jess O’Reilly, PhD, even short interventions that involve meditation and mindfulness can have significant improvements in sexual desire, lubrication, and orgasm. “Start with just a few minutes per day using an app like Pacifica or Headspace. The exercises aren’t sexual in nature, but the results can translate into the bedroom.”
If meditation’s not your thing, Dr. Clark suggests yoga, manicures/pedicures, massages, soaking in a bathtub full of Epsom salt—“whatever it takes” to pamper yourself and quiet your mind down. “A rejuvenated, rested mind and body is more likely to respond favorably to sexual cues and stimulation.”
If you look sexy, you feel sexy, and this can increase your desire for sex. “Grooming is an important ritual for intimacy,” explains sex therapist and clinical psychologist Shannon Chavez, PsyD, of Beverly Hills, California. “It can build confidence and make you feel comfortable for intimacy. Even if you are staying in for the night, get ready by putting on something that makes you feel sexy. Let your hair down, literally.” In other words, resist the urge to slip on sweatpants or PJs the minute you walk in the door after work. If you can’t remember the last time you bought new bras or underwear, it’s time to splurge (and purge the old stuff from your underwear drawer). “Feeling your best helps create an environment for desire to grow and it improves sexual self-esteem,” says Dr. Chavez.
It’s a sexual medicine fact: Orgasms beget more orgasms. If you can find pleasure solo, you’ll be more likely to crave sex with your partner. “Masturbation helps you learn about our own bodies and reactions,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “As your body relishes in the dopamine and endorphin release, you are more likely to crave more, resulting in an increase in desire for sex.” Sexy, Dr. Chavez says, is an attitude that requires an open mind and playful behavior. Start slow when experimenting. “Start with fantasy and self-stimulation. Learning to pleasure your own body improves sexual confidence. Get a vibrator and use it all over the body to release tension and to awaken nerve endings in erogenous areas.”
“Exercise is one of the most effective ways to boost sexual desire—it can increase testosterone levels as well as augment confidence and desirability,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “Research shows that 80 percent of men and 60 percent of women who exercise two to three times per week feel sexier; those who get their sweat on four to five times per week rate their sex lives as higher than average.”’
If medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease are affecting your sex drive, exercise—and the weight loss that accompanies it—may help. “Weight loss in obese diabetics—and non-diabetics as well—has been shown to not only to improve blood sugar control, but also libido as well,” says Swati Sharma, MD, a New Jersey-based endocrinologist.
This technique is not meant to be pleasurable like masturbating, but to help release painful knots, spasms, and trigger points in the pelvic floor muscles.
“Maintaining good blood flood to the vaginal tissues is vital for a woman’s libido,” says physical therapist Isa Herrera, MSPT, CSCS, founder of PelvicPainRelief.com. “My go-to technique is the pelvic floor half moon massage. This massage improves suppleness, flexibility, circulation, and tone.”
To try it, imagine that your vagina is a clock: 12 o’clock is toward the clitoris, 6 o’clock is toward the anus, 3 o’clock to the left and 9 o’clock to the right. Insert your thumb into your vagina up to the first knuckle (and ONLY the first knuckle to avoid pressing too hard). Move your thumb in a crescent-like stroke (hence, the name half moon), starting at 9 o’clock and stroking down to the 6 o’clock for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then move to the 3 o’clock and massage downward to the 6 o’clock, for about 30 seconds to one minute. You can do this exercise daily or a couple times a week. If there’s any pain, do the half moon very lightly and expect some soreness.
When was the last time you and your partner held hands or hugged for no reason? New York-based sex therapist Michael Aaron, PhD, stresses the importance of simply touching your partner on a regular basis. “Take pressure off ‘having to have sex’ and focus on doing something that feels pleasurable and relaxing, like taking a shower together or cuddling.”
Oftentimes, he says, those actions will lead to further intimacy. “But trying to force oneself to just try to have sex is often counterproductive. You can’t force desire. When you are forcing yourself to have sex, oftentimes you feel resentful and don’t enjoy the experience.”
Instead, he says, try “placing yourself in situations where you feel desire organically, rather than feel an obligation to follow through on something that doesn’t feel right—you’ll have better results.”
Couples often stop having sex, Dr. Aaron says, not because they don’t have time, but because the sex they have is not satisfying. Sex may lose its appeal in a long-term relationship due to predictability or boredom, so a more straightforward fix for your low libido might involve novel experimentation. You might suggest to your partner that you visit a sex toy website and splurge on a couple of things that look interesting. Or confess to each other a position or a fantasy you’ve always wanted to try.
“Experiment with new approaches, techniques, and role-plays to discover new pathways to pleasure,” suggests Dr. O’Reilly. “Do not get hung up on the act of sex, but engage in playful games, affection, and other types of touch to reignite passion in your body and mind.”
Ever had amazing vacation sex during a weekend getaway or a special anniversary trip? “Going on vacation is a great way for couples to ignite passion, especially when responsibilities like kids and jobs tend to disrupt intimacy,” says Chris Donaghue, PhD. “This allows couples the chance to spend quality time together, which is one of the most important elements of intimacy.”
But if you don’t have the time or funds to run off to a jaunt in the Bahamas, just spend time together to re-connect—it can be THAT easy. For starters, agree to unplug. On vacation, chances are you’re not on your phone checking work email or social media feeds every few minutes. If you’re attaching to your phone, you’re not talking to your partner, let alone cuddling them—not exactly the right mood for foreplay and connection.
Have a relaxing lunch at a favorite spot with a sunny outside seating area, spend a day at a local beach, pool, or lake, or go for a relaxing hike near your home. “Simply spending time outside in the sun can help improve your mood, and ultimately help connect you with your partner,” Dr. Donaghue says.
Maybe your partner always wants to have sex right before bed when you’re exhausted; maybe you’re in the mood first thing in the morning when he wants to jump out of bed and start the day. According to New York City-based sex therapist Megan Fleming, PhD, the foundation of arousal is relaxation. “It’s not uncommon for one partner to be more relaxed in the morning and the other at night,” she says. “Create the conditions that work for you both; oftentimes weekends afford the most opportunities to find a time somewhere in the middle that works for both people.”
We know what you’re thinking: “Obviously! Most of the time I’m way too exhausted to brush my teeth, let alone have sex.” It can be tough to trick your brain and body into desiring sex when you can barely keep your eyes open. Try to prioritize sleep on the nights sex isn’t on the agenda, so you’ll have more energy for the times you want to get busy.
One recent study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine showed that getting just one extra hour of sleep can lead to a 14% increase in the chances of having sex the following day. The same study found that the more hours of sleep women got, the more interested in sex they were. Lack of sleep throws your hormones off balance and can decrease testosterone, which is crucial for both male and female sex drive. Try some of these doctor-approved sleep tips for a better night's rest.
“Gynecological pain can be a primary deterrent to sex; if it hurts, why would you want to do it?” says Angela Jones, MD, a New Jersey-based ob-gyn. “Pain can be a real mood killer. Endometriosis, vaginal atrophy—due to menopause or vaginal dryness—are common medical conditions that affect women.” Low libido can affect your mental and emotional health, and mental health can affect sexual health. “Mental health is one of the more common factors for low libido,” explains Terry M. Gibbs, DO, a ProMedica ob-gyn.
Women with diabetes may have an increased risk for low libido. “Symptoms of hyperglycemia, or high, uncontrolled blood sugar, include fatigue, depressed mood, and irritability, which contribute to low libido,” explains Dr. Sharma. Long-term, uncontrolled diabetes are at higher risk for neuropathy, or nerve damage, and vascular complications, which can affect your ability to become aroused. Medications used to treat high blood pressure can affect libido as well. Bottom line: There are many medical reasons your libido could be low. Consult with your doctor if you believe your decreased libido could be related to a health issue.
“Libido issues are very common throughout a women’s life span, but they are highest at midlife; 60 percent of women report having sexual problems at this stage of life,” says Dr. Gibbs. “Very few women admit they have low libido to their doctor and very few patients are asked by their doctor. It’s an under-recognized and undertreated problem.” If women have low libido and want professional guidance, consider seeking out experts with knowledge in sexual medicine or sexual therapy. You could ask your ob-gyn for a recommendation, or check out the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, which you can use to find experts near you.
“It’s important to get help because it’s healthy to be sexual. There’s a lot of help available for both women and men, and sexual health is related to good psychological health,” says Dr. Gibbs.