There was a time when I went to bed with the hope of finding something other than a good book between the covers – Johnny Depp without his pirate shirt on, for example. But nowadays when it comes to spontaneous sexual desire… well, let's just say it's not often there. Somewhere between picking the kids up at day care and dropping them off at university, my libido went AWOL and left a paperback in its place.
Seems I'm not the only one: in the past few years, the publishing industry has cranked out a bookshelf's worth of literature aimed at helping women fire up their sputtering mojo. Titles such as The Orgasmic Diet: A Revolutionary Plan to Lift Your Libido and Bring You to Orgasm (Crown, 2007) by Marrena Lindberg and I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido (Broadway, 2007) by Joan Sewell point to a problem – or rather, a perceived problem – in the boudoirs of the nation.
Why are we suddenly so neurotic about the nookie (or the lack of it) in our lives?
According to the experts – sex therapists, hormone researchers, gerontologists, family doctors – the discussion of women's libidos is not new; it's been going on for decades at professional levels. What is new, though, is that it has only recently entered the mainstream media and started being discussed among friends over coffee. Everyone has a theory about why we're suddenly OK with talking about the desire deficit: Some say that these days, the societal spotlight shines on whatever issues baby boomers are facing; others suggest that the popular "Sex and the City" TV series made women reassess the quality of their sex lives; and still others think that Viagra has made women wonder if there might soon be a little blue pill with their names on it.
Whatever the reason, women across the age spectrum are turning to their doctors, therapists, friends and even their mothers to ask the burning question: how much sex is normal?
A question of quantity
It's normal to have sex three times a night, seven days a week, says Laurie Betito, a psychologist and sex therapist who hosts "Passion," a popular call-in radio show heard nightly in Montreal on CJAD 800. But don't panic yet, because it's also perfectly normal to have sex once a quarter.
"There is just no such thing as a ‘normal' sex drive," says Betito, who has been in private practice for more than 20 years. "I get this all the time – women who've heard they should be having sex so many times a week, or that they should want it more than they do. There is simply no correct measure."
Page 1 of 4 – On page 2, learn why hormones aren't likely the culprit to your bedroom blues.Hormones: Not the main culprit
Sexual desire rises and falls with the tides of life, say the experts, and a young, first-time mom is just as likely to fret about her low libido as a menopausal empty nester – and not necessarily because they are both swimming in hormone soup. Though it may come as a surprise to many women, the experts agree that stress, fatigue and melancholy are the real enemies of Eros.
"We are not the playthings of our hormones," says Dr. Christine Derzko, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and internal medicine at the University of Toronto. Despite the estrogen peaks and progesterone valleys that occur over a woman's life span, she says. "Hormones are not the major issue in libido – the psyche is a bigger player."
Dr. Rosemary Basson agrees. The director of the sexual medicine program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Basson says, "There is a huge link with mental health. We have found that the vast majority of women who complain about low desire – who perceive they have a problem and seek medical help – are either being treated for depression or, even if clinical depression is not present, they tend to be more anxious, have lower self-esteem and are more emotionally volatile."
Betito echoes that assessment: "Depression is the number 1 cause of low libido, followed closely by relationship issues that usually have to do with long-standing resentments. Sex is an all-over experience for women," she says. "It requires buy-in from the mind, body and soul." So if you're feeling lousy about yourself or your relationship, you may need to look beyond the bedroom for a solution (see "Tips for Improving Your Sex Life," page 4).
Get a checkup
That said, it is possible that a low libido could be the result of something medical, says Betito, so it's worth mentioning your concerns to your doctor. For example, while hormones are not to blame as often as we think, a lowered libido could possibly be the sign of something hormonal, such as menopause. If not physical, a lack of desire is often related to a relationship issue. "It's also important to know that fluctuations in a woman's sex drive will happen throughout her life cycle," says Betito. "Be concerned if it lasts a while and you can't seem to find yourself interested in sex." But in most cases, says one family doctor, women who see their GP with worries about their stalled sex lives need nothing more than reassurance that they don't have a problem.
Meeting in the middle
The bigger challenge is resolving problems that arise in a relationship when partners have an unequal desire for sex. "If you're having sex once a month and neither you nor your partner feel neglected or rejected, then there's no problem," says Betito. The trouble comes when one person's feelings are being hurt by sexual demands or droughts.
Page 2 of 4 – What's the best way to get in the mood? Discover the surprising answer on page 3!
From the start of her marriage 25 years ago, Meg Jenkins*, who is in her late 40s, has never quite been able to keep up with her husband's desire for sex – a disparity that has increased over time, much to her annoyance.
The communications professional in British Columbia, who has one child, says, "Mostly I lack spontaneous desire. I feel bad because it has nothing to do with my husband, and when we do get around to having sex, I enjoy it. It's just that I don't ever think about initiating it anymore, and if he sits around waiting for me to start, it's never going to happen."
Meg's statement is a common refrain, say the sexperts, and it's one that men should listen to carefully because it suggests that just because a woman isn't initiating sex, doesn't mean she won't get into it once the game has begun.
"When I describe this scenario in my talks, all I see is a sea of nodding heads," says Betito. "The majority of women tell me that once they've made the decision to play, they have fun. They get aroused. This is a normal pattern. What would be of concern to me would be a woman who said she felt nothing at all after things got started."
Meg adds that a sexual relationship is something a couple has to consciously work at; as much as you might not like to talk about it, you have to. Even though her own level of desire has changed, she adds, "I feel I have to make an effort to be more receptive to my husband's advances, because it's important to both of us. If you don't ever have sex, you lose that little something that keeps you a couple."
Just do it
Pharmaceutical companies are working on it, but there's no pill or patch to kickstart a woman's desire. Many experts doubt that medical solutions, such as testosterone patches, could ever deliver without unsexy side-effects, such as acne and excess body hair. In the end, the solution to low libido – like the problem – may be in our own heads.
"You have to start by admitting that sex is something you want in your life and start consciously thinking about it," says Betito. "You can build time for sex into your schedule: put it on the calendar for a Saturday night so you can start thinking and planning and fantasizing about it on Tuesday. Build up the anticipation."
Act like you used to when you were younger: Derzko recalls when she and her college friends spent "half a day getting ready for a date. We made sure we looked right, we smelled right. By the time the door opened, we were in the mood for it.
"The longer you go without sex, the more you start to avoid each other completely, because you worry that your partner will misunderstand any show of affection as an invitation to sexual intercourse," says Derzko. "So agree to spend some time being intimate – snuggling, playing games, kissing, massaging – with the understanding that it won't end in intercourse. Though, it just might." *Name has been changed.
Tips for improving your sex life
The experts agree: your interest in sex is usually tied to your physical and emotional health. To see if your lifestyle is getting in Cupid's way, ask yourself these questions.
Am I eating properly? Aim for a balance of carbs, fats and proteins, and boost those omega-3 fatty acids. You'll be in a more positive and receptive mood if you eat properly.
Page 3 of 4 – Are you a new mom? Find 3 tips to get your sex life back on track on page 4.
Am I fit? Exercise stimulates your blood flow, improves your body image, increases your strength and flexibility, and elevates your mood. Is it time to quit my bad habits? Smoking snuffs out desire, as do excessive amounts of caffeine, alcohol and other drugs. The adverse effects of antidepressants and birth control pills may also negatively affect your libido.
Am I angry at my partner? Sex therapist Laurie Betito says struggling couples usually wait about six years before seeking help for their relationship issues. When you start having the same argument over and over without resolution, it's time to get a pro involved so you can hear each other again.
Health perks of sex
Besides helping to build intimacy in a relationship, regular sex also boosts the immune system and enhances your mood while reducing stress, blood pressure, mild pain and muscle tension. "Sex," adds Betito, "can be the best solution to a headache!"
Sex after pregnancy
The first weeks and months following the birth of your bundle of joy can be overwhelming and exhausting. Between late-night feedings and constant diaper changes, sex is probably the last thing on a new mom's mind. Here's some advice from sex and relationships expert Josey Vogels.
1. Give yourself permission to take it slow. Some women are ready to return to an active sex life soon after childbirth – around the six-week mark – while others need more time. Realize that there is a difference between when you are physically able to have sex again, and when you feel emotionally ready and actually want to have sex. Don't be hard on yourself, and give yourself time to adjust to your new role as a mother.
2. Communicate your needs. If you're not feeling sexy, or you fear sex will be painful, tell your partner. Being patient, sensitive and open to what you are both saying and feeling will allow you to maintain a closeness that will eventually lead to renewed desire.
3. Nurture intimacy. Intimacy is much more than just sex. If you have just given birth, you might simply be looking for a physical connection that does not involve intercourse. Tell your partner this. Sharing a bath, cuddling or giving each other massages are good ways to nurture that connection until you're ready to have sex again. – Toni Petter
He's just not that into it
Men can experience a drought in their sex drive just like women. But the chances are they probably aren't keen to talk about it. Why? "There is this notion that all men are supposed to want sex all the time, but that isn't always true," says Josey Vogels, a sex and relationships expert.
Factors that contribute to a low libido for men include work stress, job loss, feelings of inadequacy and an emotional disconnection from their partner. As well, Vogels says a man may feel inadequate if his partner has sexual needs he isn't meeting.
There's no prescription for a man's lagging libido. Viagra will give your guy an erection, but that isn't the same as rekindling his desire for sex. So what can you do? Try to find out why he isn't interested in sex. But don't lay any blame or take it personally. "This can drive couples further apart," says Vogels. "Give your man space to find his desire and think about what might make him feel sexual." For example, entice him with compliments or intimacy (hugging and kissing) outside the bedroom, a massage, teasing or more foreplay. – Toni Petter
Page 4 of 4 -- Is your sex life normal? Find out from the experts on page 1.