Thirty Percent Of Women Lose Interest In Sex. Because….?

Woman Statue
If she's carrying the world,maybe sex isn't top of mind? Image by celesteh via Flickr

Thirty percent of young and middle-aged women, according to a recent New York Times Magazine piece, are going through extended periods of low sexual desire — or none at all. That’s a pretty interesting subject, although the Times‘ take managed to make it so polite as to be snoooooozy. The official term is hypoactive sexual desire — which, like every term describing something emotional, carries a value judgment that there is a specific set-point.

The story, typical of the Times, focused on dry, intellectual academic research and its findings, essentially wandering as far away from the forest as possible to examine a few trees. The larger question is why women feel this way, and research into sexual desire has often focused on men.

The story’s protagonist is a Canadian researcher, Lori Brotto, who uses something called “the Basson Sexual Response Cycle”, filled with arrows and circles. Have we really come to this?

Here’s my personal take on why some women are losing interest in sex:

1) We’re exhausted. If you have kids, certainly several and/or several under five, you’re tired. If you have kids and work out of the home, you’re tired. If you have a long commute on top of that, you’re wiped. If you’re lucky, your commute is by bus or train, allowing you time to sleep. If you don’t have kids, and you’re not super-rich, you’re working yourself to death to grow your income and net worth. Or maybe just trying to find a new job.

2) We’re scared to death — of losing our jobs or of our husbands or partners losing their jobs. Fear doesn’t make you want to shimmy around the boudoir. It makes you want to hide in the closet.

3) We’re broke. Credit card companies have jacked their rates sky-high recently and the stress is insane for anyone carrying large balances. Banks are restricting credit. Anyone who needs access to credit is largely SOL. If you have enormous debt(s) and have lost your job or might, money beats sex on your list of things to think about, probably 24/7.

4) We’re worried, those of us who have kids, about their futures. I know many people losing jobs who have several kids in or about to enter college or job-seeking. We’re worried about them, too.

5) Media images of women deemed sexually desirable are a nasty joke: skinny, white, young — and did I mention skinny? The average American woman is now a size 14, not the size 2 or 4 or 6 shown us relentlessly by women’s magazines edited by women. Every time I see another editorial spread on –ho hum — Sarah Jessica Parker, reputed to be a single-digit size, I want to throw the magazine across the room. Enough already! Fat women love sex too. And fat(ter) women are having and enjoying great sex with men who love them and their curves, but you’d never know it because the only women we ever see held up to us as Gorgeous (i.e. desirable) literally have their bones sticking out above their $5,000 gowns.

6) Power struggles. It’s largely unspoken, but I think it’s real for many women on a daily basis. Micro-insults can sap your confidence and joy. If you head off to work, forced to do battle, (no, not overtly or directly), with sexist and/or racist stereotypes of what you’re actually capable of or educated for or dream of accomplishing, let alone earning almost 25% less than men, you’re pissed. And pissed isn’t going to do a pole-dance for anyone.

Here’s what I think might help:

1) Clean house! Yup. Free the woman you love from the chains of toilet-scrubbing, oven-cleaning, vacuuming, grocery-shopping — soooooooo tedious! — consistently and you’ll find someone with new energy and interest to spare. Most women are still expected to do the bulk of the housework, on top of working and even childcare. Yeah, that’s sexy.

2) Listen carefully. Not with one ear or while texting or scrolling through your Blackberry or while watching TV. There are few things more deeply alluring than someone’s loving, devoted and undivided attention. Remember those first dates when you were trying so hard to impress us? Women are socialized to be indirect, so as not to hurt people’s feelings by really saying what what we want or need. Our most crucial messages may not come through loud and clear.

3) Slow down. We live in a culture addicted to speed and productivity. Great sex is often an activity conducted without some grim-faced, determined goal. It’s fun, relaxed, needs and takes time — as in an uninterrupted, quiet, private hour or more.

4) Address the anger. If a woman isn’t opening up to you, literally, there’s usually a good reason for it. She might be furious, with you or with herself or others. Not fun. It can be hard work to get to the reason(s) and resolve them, let alone talk about them. But until they’re gone, so’s (good) sex.

Keeping it PG, please, what’s turning you on these days? Or off?

Why do you think so many women have lost interest — or never found it — in sex?

8 thoughts on “Thirty Percent Of Women Lose Interest In Sex. Because….?

  1. bobshanbrom

    The Joy of Sex sums sexuality up in a single word, tenderness. Ain’t much of that around, you’re right. We have to work to create it.

  2. inmyhumbleopinion

    I think this research and the “Women’s Happiness” longitudinal study are very much related, and neither one addresses the “why”. In addition to the great points you make above, I think another category might be “Pressure”. Women are great at biting off more than they can chew, because they are far more influenced by their female peers as it relates to keeping up appearances–perfection is the only option. Witness the near-militant stance on breastfeeding that is common among today’s new moms, a notion that is challenged in “The Case Against Breastfeeding”,, and a major contributing factor to the exhaustion you mention. We’ve also been cowed into believing we have to do all the child-rearing ourselves, unlike women in other industrialized nations who get free, or nearly free, subsidized child-care. How many times have you heard combatants in the Mommy Wars say things like, “why did she bother having a kid if she’s not going to stay home to raise it”? Ridiculous. Have you ever heard anyone question a father’s decision to keep working?

    My point is, too many women have been sold a perfectionist bill of goods (Read Judith Warner’s “Perfect Madness” and you’ll see what I mean) and don’t know how to listen to their own inner voices about what’s right for them. How does this relate to sex? Because if we keep setting a non-attainable goal of adult womanhood and keep failing, we feel crappy about ourselves and far from sexy.

    Ladies, stop getting all your validation from your gaggle of girlfriends, and stop reading Martha, Oprah, Parenting, and Vogue. You’ll feel much better about yourselves and the old mojo just might come back.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    inmyhumbleopinion, thanks! Great and helpful insights. I agree that so much of what women (why?!) subject themselves to is peer pressure and trying to keep up with other women. The point is….?

    Women’s magazines are so toxic in setting up impossible expectations of our sexuality. Half of what they suggest seems bizarre to me, but then you can feel bizarre because — hey, 1 million readers must find this appealing.

    I think “mojo” is the word. What makes each of us feel sexy?

    Even my own doctor, a female ob-gyn, gave me advice on sex, which I normally would have welcomed, but she made clear I should have cut and run when things were bleak at our house, which they were for a while. I found that odd, although it’s the conventional “wisdom.”

    I think people’s sexuality — and their souls, minds and bodies, feeeding into that “mojo” — are far more complex than any media outlet can appreciate or describe.

  4. Jen Doll

    Birth control pills are known to have a deadening effect on the libido for many, and a large percentage of young and middle-aged women take them. And on the other side of the fence, of course, there’s the fear of getting pregnant when you don’t want to … not so sexy-feeling-making.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Jen, thanks. I never took the Pill, so wasn’t aware of this — even if I should be!

    How a man handles, literally, (or doesn’t)his responsibility for helping prevent not just unplanned pregnancy but STDs like HPV that can lead to cervical cancer is also, for many of us, a measure of their allure.

    Or as Elaine on Seinfeld would say “his [contraceptive] sponge-worthiness.”

  6. datajunkie

    I actually found the pill made me friskier, but it also gave me worse mood swings and pms, which I’ve heard are the opposite of the normal side effects. I finally decided after several years that it wasn’t worth it, and my husband (bless him!) responded to my announcement that I wasn’t going to take them anymore with a simple “ok”. I know we should expect that kind of respect for decisions about our own bodies and sexuality from all men, but I was incredibly grateful.

    On a related note, I actually think there’s some good news hidden in this study. None of the libido-dampening stressors you mention is unique to our lifetimes, but now it’s being studied as though it’s earth-shattering news. I have to imagine that women have always gone through periods of not WANTING sex, but that what got the attention of the hallowed halls of science and media is women not HAVING sex.

  7. Laurie Essig

    I think you’re right to be skeptical of this research. First, what is the “healthy” level of sexual appetite for women- as you point out. Is it universal? Shouldn’t it depend on one’s circumstances- if you just lost your job do you need to have the same level of desire as if you just got a raise? Also, what do we mean by sexual desire anyway? I found that article interesting because it limits sex and desire to insert penis into vagina- more or less. It never really addressed masturbation with or without orgasm, homoerotic desires, or just sensuality (you know, when you wrap yourself in your cashmere throw, turn on some good music, and eat the chocolate you love with or without orgasm).
    I am also pretty skeptical of scientific research that will lead to not just more pathologizing of women’s bodies, but also, no doubt, a drug that will “cure” us.
    Nice work shining a skeptical light on all this.

    1. cavegal

      Laurie, I especially love your last two lines on the subject. I’m sure we’ll soon be seeing the equivalent of a female viagra released by big Pharma with the accompanying avalanche of ads to get us in the mood.

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