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“My libido is so low. What’s wrong with me? Am I broken?”
Understanding female pleasure and desire.
Welcome to the Lust Report. Every week we explore challenging questions and practical advice to improve our understanding of intimacy, pleasure and relationships. It’s written by Natassia Miller, sexologist and founder of Wonderlust.
In a recent conversation with women’s intimacy coach Rena Martine, she shared that every single one of her clients who initially thought they were either asexual or no longer interested in sex were surprised to discover how kinky they are after working with her.
“Instead of being asexual, they’re actually under-stimulated,” explained sex therapist Dr. Kate Balestrieri, who’s also had a similar experience with her clients.
Most of us don’t have healthy and natural references of what sex actually is. Nor have we learned how to relate to our sexuality, body, pleasure and desires.
We have only been taught about sex. And the little we have been taught is rooted in porn and cultural depictions of it as a performative act, creating a disconnect from our body, pleasure and partners. So it’s unsurprising that so many women feel underwhelmed by sex.
Ignorance as a means of control
Yet women’s sexual liberation is a recent ordeal. Only when birth control was born in 1950 did our relationship to sex transform from a biological one of procreation to a recreational one of pleasure.
Until then, broadly speaking, no one really cared about what women liked and women didn’t know any better to advocate for it. The lack of research on female anatomy and pleasure didn’t help either.
Thanks to Freud, for a long time it was believed that a woman who couldn’t orgasm from intercourse alone was sexually frigid and psychologically inhibited.
“In Freud’s view, if an adult woman couldn’t be satisfied by penetrative sex, she was thought to be ‘stuck’ in an infantile ‘phallic’ stage of her psychosexual development that was clitorally focused and a function of her desire to have a penis, aka penis envy,” writes Dr. Ian Kerner in his book So Tell Me About The Last Time You Had Sex.
More than a century later, his legacy lives on. “Cunnilingus often gets labeled as being dirty, smelly, boring and yucky. Vibrators get labeled as addictive, artificial, replacing or substituting for a penis. Manual stimulation gets labeled as child’s play, fingering is third base, a throwback to the days when you couldn’t have intercourse, aka real sex. The clitoris, and those activities that best stimulate the clitoris, get demoted to being immature or lesser-than,” Dr. Kerner continues.
The majority of women (approximately 70%) rarely or never have orgasms with penetration alone, and the clitoris is the only organ whose sole function is to give pleasure. “The dominance of the clitoris in women’s orgasms explains why 80-90% of women who masturbate typically do so with little to no vaginal penetration, including when they use vibrators,” writes Dr. Emily Nagoski in her book Come As You Are.
Yet for centuries men have known just how powerful the clitoris is. So powerful that female genital mutilation (FGM) – the removal of the clitoris and other parts of the vulva – has been traced back to Ancient Egypt. Today, an estimated 200 million women are still subjected to FGM. It’s justified as a means to keep women faithful. If they can’t feel pleasure, they won’t stray.
“It is so mysterious to want to suppress women. It is even more mysterious when women want to suppress women. I can only think we are so very powerful that we need to be suppressed all the time.” - Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living
Keeping people ignorant is a control tactic as old as time. Whether it’s FGM or the lack of research on the female anatomy and desire, only recently have women started learning more about, and advocating for, themselves.
Australian urologist Helen O’Connell took it upon herself to study the clitoris in 1998, discovering for the first time its full size and scope. Then in 2009, with no research funding, French scientists studied the clitoris when it is aroused and learned that the vaginal orgasm is actually an internal clitoral orgasm. And to top it off, in 2022 we discovered that the clitoris has more than 10,000 nerve endings (2-3x that of the penis).
Even with our knowledge today, women still remain perplexed and ashamed by their inability to orgasm through penetration alone. The root of the problem is commonly found in our upbringing.
Women are raised to be agreeable, selfless and polished. Men, on the other hand, are given the permission to be messy, aggressive, and self-centered. Women are taught to be desired, while men are taught to desire.
At its core, sex is inherently messy and pleasure requires a degree of selfishness. No wonder women have a hard time letting go and speaking up for themselves.
How often do we feel self-conscious when someone goes down on us because we’re taking too long to come? Or become worried about how our body (and vulva) looks? Or have a hard time fantasizing because giving ourselves the permission to desire feels dirty and absurd?
These are real mindset blocks we actively need to work through and they take time. It’s a dichotomy that manifests itself from the pay gap to the pleasure gap. Here are a few stats to highlight the problem:
Studies have found that 39% of women regularly orgasm during sex, compared to 91% of men.
In another study by Durex, 3 out of 4 women said they can’t climax during sex.
In this same study, while more than 50% of women admit to needing clitoral stimulation to reach an orgasm, about 30% of men said they believe the best way to help a woman orgasm is through penetration alone.
Women who make more money than their partners are twice as likely to fake orgasms than women who make less.
More than 40% of women who have faked orgasms say they did so because they didn’t want to hurt a partner’s feelings.
These numbers are only the floor, if you ask me, because being honest about it isn’t easy.
Female sexual desire
“My libido is so low. What’s wrong with me? Am I broken?” This is a question I often get asked.
The common narrative around sexual desire is that it just happens. You’re meant to experience it spontaneously. Yet this is only true for about 75% of men and 15% of women, and it’s what we call spontaneous desire.
“But some people find that they begin to want sex only after sexy things are already happening. And they’re normal. They don’t have ‘low’ desire, they don’t suffer from any ailment, and they don’t long to initiate but feel like they’re not allowed to. Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than, ‘That’s an attractive person right there,’ to want sex,” writes Dr. Emily Nagoski. This form of desire is what we call responsive, and it’s how many of us women experience libido.
We have Rosemary Basson to thank for this understanding. Back in 2000, she published a study acknowledging that women’s sexual desire is indeed more complex than men’s. It’s contingent on a combination of emotional intimacy, relationship satisfaction and sexual stimuli.
While we can experience spontaneous desire in the beginning of a relationship or after being apart from our partners for some time, eventually our desire becomes more responsive.
Then there are the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Whether it’s stress, anxiety, exhaustion, trauma, hormonal changes or body image problems…virtually anything can impact our libido.
Women tend to be more self-conscious about their bodies than men do. And if we’re worried about how we look in bed, it’s definitely a whole lot harder to enjoy the moment and have an orgasm. We punish ourselves by believing that we only “deserve” to have pleasure if we look a certain way.
If we take birth control pills or antidepressants, chances are they have taken a toll on our libido as well. The irony is not lost here: the birth control pills that have given women the liberty to explore our sexuality have also decreased our desire for it. It’s not uncommon to see people beam about their newfound libido when they stop taking these medications.
While hormonal checks and testosterone injections are becoming a more common solution, the truth is that sex is largely a mental practice that requires getting into the right headspace.
The brain is our largest sex organ
To understand how our libido works – and this is regardless of gender – we need to know what our accelerators and brakes are, and which contexts work for us.
Essentially, our accelerators are the things that turn us on and our brakes are the things that turn us off. Having sex in public, for example, is a definite brake for one person, while it’s an accelerator for another.
And contexts are situations that entail where we are, with whom and how we’re feeling. Contexts are what makes an action, such as spanking our butt, feel like an accelerator when we’re in bed and a brake when done in front of the kids.
To improve our libido, we must understand – in detail – what are the situations and actions that get us in the mood. Then we must work on optimizing for these. Like Dr. Emily Nagoski says, we learn how to turn on the ons and turn off the offs.
The problem with monogamy for women
In last week’s newsletter, I shared a few stats on how narrow a heterosexual couple’s sex script tends to be. Queer couples incorporate much more variety, and while they aren’t immune from boredom in bed, this is a great example of how we can expand our definition of sex beyond a few kisses and penetration.
Interestingly enough, women get bored with monogamy much sooner than men precisely because of the lack of diversity in sex scripts.
Renowned psychologist Esther Perel explains that “it’s always been translated as women care less about sex, rather than it’s because women care less about the sex that they have in their committed relationships, which is often not interesting enough for them and it has to do with the fact that the story, the character, the plot is not seductive. The romance, which is an essential ingredient of turn on for the woman, often disappears in a long-term relationship.
It’s like people look at each other at the end of the day and say, ‘Do you want to fool around? You want to do it? You’re up for it tonight?’ Now this is really not very much of a turn on for most women. Foreplay starts at the end of the previous orgasm, and not 5 minutes before the real thing – which to her is not the real thing. To her the real thing is everything else around her. It’s seduction, it’s a plot, it’s a tease.”
This reminds me of a couple in the Netflix series “Sex, Love and goop.” Erika and Damon are a married couple who feel disconnected in their sex life. To Erika, sex feels like a struggle, while to Damon anything she does makes him aroused. After a few sessions exploring their erotic blueprints with sexologist Jaiya, Erika discovers a new world of things that turn her on. It’s the perfect example of how eroticism and sex is all about curiosity, exploration and play.
For some of us, sex is truly no longer of interest, and that’s ok. But for the rest who would like to find new ways of adding inspiration, excitement and novelty to their sex life, there’s so much possibility. As always, communicating with your partner is a great way to start and I invite you to begin the exploration with our Mindful Intimacy Deck.
Thank you so much for reading — I hope you have found this helpful!
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to hit reply. I personally read and respond to all emails.
Until next week,