Dr. Sandra Pertot
Think of any sex scene in the movies - how does the woman play her role? Almost invariably, she is hot for sex, easily aroused, passionate, satisfyingly orgasmic. Often the woman is the seductress, the initiator, sometimes even predatory. Over the last three decades, this concept of the enthusiastically sexual female has replaced the more traditional view of the demure woman who has to be seduced rather than admit openly to sexual desires.
There were several societal developments that influenced this shift. Improved contraception and the emergence of the women’s movement meant that women could have sex without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy, and that they had the right to desire and enjoy sex as much as men. The development of the mass media meant that scenes of erotic, passionate sex became a feature of everyday life, and, no matter how much we might protest against it, we have been susceptible to this repeated exposure and ultimately bought the idea that this is what normal sex is all about, just as any successful advertising campaign convinces us to buy their product.
Perhaps if this hot and happening representation of sex in general and women in particular had been confined to the domain of fiction, the erotic movie version of sexuality would have remained a fantasy. However, support for this top performance level of sex as an achievable norm has come from an authoritative source, sex therapy.
There is no doubt that sex therapy began in the 1970s with very honourable intentions. Those of us who were around at the time really believed that by teaching people how to do sex better, we would eliminate the sexual dissatisfaction that plagued so many marriages at the time. Unfortunately, sex therapy was and is very goal-oriented: there are behavioural programmes for specific problems such as lack of orgasm, vaginismus, premature ejaculation, impotence and inhibited ejaculation. For example, if a woman is unable to have orgasm, there is a set program of exercises to help her learn how to do it.
While this approach has helped many people over the years, it has had some unfortunate consequences. It set up the notions that good sex is about what you do and that sex is a series of behaviours leading to arousal and orgasm. It also means that people who are able to reach the goal of the sex therapy programmes are regarded as successes, and by default those who can’t are sexual failures.
Libido didn’t get a mention at all in the early years. The view was that if people knew how to do sex properly, they would enjoy it and therefore want it more.
Early sex therapists were openly hostile to the notion of differences between the sexes. Time and again sex researchers and therapists strongly proclaimed the view that any differences were quite insignificant and by far outweighed by the major similarities between male and female sexuality. The model that was adopted by sex therapists as the ideal standard was essentially the male stereotype of regular and persistent physical sex drive, easy arousal, prolonged intercourse, strong orgasm, and a delight in sexual experimentation and variety.
Cracks in this ideal picture began to show in the 1980s when, after women became more confident of their ability to orgasm, men had been educated in the importance of foreplay, and couples strived to bring variety and excitement into their sex lives by embracing techniques such as oral sex, we found that there were a lot of women who still didn’t feel any strong physical interest in sex. There were some who did in the early stage of a relationship but found that it diminished over time, leaving the woman wondering what was wrong with her, and the man wondering why he was no longer sexually attractive or, perhaps, fearful that he had been conned.
Sex researchers in the last decade have found that anywhere between one in five to one in three women complain of lack of interest in sex at some stage in their lives, and for some women low libido is lifelong.
Susan and Paul are typical of the couples who consult a sex therapist about female low libido. They have been married for nine years, have two children, and Paul works full-time and Susan works varying hours as an office temp. In the early years of their relationship, they had similar levels of sexual desire and both found sex satisfying. Susan noticed her sex drive slowed down a little once they moved in together, but it took a definite dive once the children came along. Paul is the main initiator of sex, and often Susan feels she just can’t be bothered. However, most of the time if she can get past that, she can arouse and come to orgasm. Paul is confused: if she enjoys it, why doesn’t she want it? When should he approach her? Susan says that sex is important to her but it often feels more of a hassle than it’s worth. "What’s wrong with me?" she asks.
Andrea and Jim have had sex only occasionally for the last two years. Andrea says she doesn’t think of it and she finds foreplay really irritating, so she usually rejects Jim’s attempts to initiate sex. Jim is prepared to do anything to help Andrea enjoy sex, but Andrea finds Jim’s attempts to arouse her and his determination to give her an orgasm make sex hard work. Jim gets upset when she tells him to hurry up, Andrea feels guilty that she isn’t giving him the sex life she feels he deserves, and sex has become a stressful battlefield that both now find easier to avoid.
Female low libido has become the most common reason for a visit to a sex therapist. However, while some cases of lack of interest in sex can be linked to specific problems such as life stresses, or psychological problems such as depression and medical problems such as back injury or arthritis, or relationship conflicts, in most cases there doesn’t seem to be any identifiable pathology to account for the woman’s low libido.
The response of sex therapists to this situation has been to write enthusiastic books that claim to have the latest treatment which will help women boost their libido, become a sex goddess, or soar with ecstasy so that she can experience physical desire and achieve the passionate and erotic sex life that any normal, healthy woman should be capable of. And if these behavioural strategies don’t work, there is now a huge investment by pharmaceutical companies in research on testosterone therapy that might mean that one day a pill will be the answer to a woman’s flagging libido.
Paradoxically, although sex therapists emphasise the importance of validating individual differences in sexuality, the end result of current attempts to solve the "problem" of female low libido has been to blur them. We seem to be assuming that because some women have a strong libido, or some like a range of sexual techniques, or some want orgasm with every sexual encounter, then all women should. This assumption means that women who don’t feel this way must surely have something wrong with them, and in this way modern society is just as rigid and judgmental about sexuality as Victorian England was - it’s just that the values have been reversed.
If, on the other hand, it is acknowledged that sexuality varies in the same way that all other human characteristics do, and that there are differences between the sexes which, while not absolute, nevertheless mean there is a difference in the normal range for men and women, the "problem" of female low libido reduces dramatically. Thus, instead of asking, "what’s wrong with me because I don’t have a strong libido?", the question becomes "what helps me feel like sex and enjoy the experience?", the whole range of sexual realities can be revealed without judgment.
Sex drive is anything that helps a person decide that sex is a good idea. Perhaps it is having sex initiated by soft tender touch rather than direct sexual stimulation, or it may be a feeling of emotional closeness to the partner ("he’s such a sweetheart"). It can be a thinking process ("it’s been a while, we’re a bit distant, tonight’s a better night than tomorrow night, so let’s do it"), or it can be environmental (privacy, comfort, time away from normal routine). The decision to have sex is also influenced by what the woman feels is expected of her. Good sex can be brief and sensual or prolonged and passionate. It can be an expression of emotional connection, so words like quiet, still, gentle, accepting and tender reflect the mood, or it can be the more stereotyped hot, sizzling and passionate. Feeling locked into a specific type of sex can be enough to cause the woman to prefer to roll over and go to sleep.
The downside of this approach is that because people have different abilities in sex as with everything else, even if you desperately want to be able to perform like an erotic movie star, you may not be able to do it. At the same time, the chances of you having a serious sexual dysfunction are quite small, and you can achieve a good enough sex life if you trust yourself, talk to your partner, and appreciate what you can do together rather than bemoan what you can’t.