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5 things to know about female desire according to this sex researcher

By Emma Elizabeth

Lori A. Brotto, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, a sex researcher, and the author of the newly-published Better Sex through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire. A member of various sexuality organizations, she is also Canada Research Chair in Women's Sexual Health and an associate editor for Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Here are five major things to know about female desire according to Lori.

1. Sexual hang-ups are pervasive, even though society is dripping with sexually saturated messages 

On television, conversations about sex between parents and teens come across as easy and well-informed, and lovers bring each other incredible pleasure without ever having to discuss their sexual turn-ons and turn-offs. But this type of mind-reading about where and how our partners enjoy sexual touch is unrealistic and often destructive!

In truth, many people experience enormous discomfort talking about sex, even within their most intimate relationships, and as many as 40% of women experience lasting sex-related difficulties.  

The contrast between the sexual liberty we see in media and our sexual reality reveals a disconnect between who we think we should be sexually and who we actually are. When it comes to sexual desire, we crave things that feel good and target the reward systems in our brain. And if those systems aren’t lighting up during sex, we need to talk about it. Ask your partner for what you want until it starts to feel good. Sometimes the problem isn’t that you have no desire for sex, but that you have no desire for the sex you are having.

2. Changes in desire are normal in a relationship. So is feeling attracted to others 

"I love him. I love our life. But I’ve lost desire for sex with him. Does this mean we’ve lost our chemistry?” As a sex therapist, I've heard this story from countless women who appear otherwise happy in their relationships, fulfilled with their life paths, and blessed with well-adjusted children. Science has repeatedly shown that sexual desire declines with time in most relationships. Early on, sex often seems adventurous and exciting, takes place spontaneously, and is fiery and frequent. But it is completely natural and normal for that spark to fade with time. As Esther Perel writes in her book, Mating in Captivity, we gain stability, security, dependability, and companionship in the long-term, but we often relinquish some of the desire and mystery that comes with the unknown. And that’s completely normal. Feeling attracted, even sexually attracted, to others is not a sign that your relationship is doomed; it is simply a reminder that the flame of sexual desire requires novelty. Years of experience and research have shown me that there are plenty of ways to bring some of that novelty to even a decades-long relationship. 

3. Sexual desire is more psychological than biological 

Because a reduction in desire is so often masked by the other joys in life—for example, of being a mother, working a fulfilling job, or having devoted friends—it can fly under the radar for years before we become motivated to address it. Although there are many possible causes of low or lost sexual desire, one of the most common culprits is stress: having too many things to do, paired with immense personal and societal pressures to do those things well. Many of us view our ability to juggle several tasks at once as a saving grace, as the only way we can get everything done. But training our brains to multitask makes it difficult remain focused on the here and now. As a result, our minds become otherwise occupied during sex. They aren’t focused on the sensations of contact or the emotions unfolding in the moment. Instead, they may be running through to-do lists, planning tomorrow's events, or even wondering "How much longer is this going to take?" 

Research has shown that psychological factors such as these have a much stronger effect on desire than those of biological factors such as hormones. This isn’t to say that what happens in our blood vessels and brain synapses isn’t important, just that the negative emotions and catastrophic thoughts we carry impact sexual desire far more. The good news is that these are arguably easier to address.

4. You've got to plan sex!

Many of us believe that sexual response is like a reflex: touch the right spot and the body will respond. We also believe that good sex is always spontaneous, that planning or scheduling sex takes away its fiery appeal. But this couldn't be further from the truth! Stimulating the body of a partner whose mind is not fully present is like turning the key in the ignition of a car whose engine has been removed. As for planning, ask yourself this: What else do you do in your life that is exciting and fun and rewarding and thrilling but unplanned? Planning sex means that you have time to anticipate it, think about it, and imagine what it will look like. And that anticipation can be some of the best foreplay you can ask for. 

5. Low desire doesn’t just affect older women 

It may be a surprise, but low sexual desire is common in all women, not just those who have experienced menopause. In fact, research shows that even teenagers can be affected, with up to a quarter of women in the 16-22 age group experiencing low sexual desire. That same research finds that the “sexual double standard”—the idea that girls should acquiesce to boys’ sexual solicitations at the expense of their own sexual autonomy—is one probable cause. 

Because sexual difficulties in earlier life can set the stage for a lifetime of sexual concerns, it is imperative that young women get the care they need. But this happens far less than it should, in part because family doctors and health care providers rarely ask young women if they enjoy the sex they are having.

If heart disease, asthma, or diabetes affected so many people, especially young people, we’d see an immediate surge in resources dedicated to assessing, diagnosing, and treating these conditions. But, for some reason, problems related to sexual health or satisfaction do not elicit the same call to action. It’s time we start taking sexual pleasure seriously: for ourselves, and for the generations of women to come. 

You can follow Lori Brotto here!

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