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All about sex drive & desire

Sexual Health 11 min read
Smile Makers

At Smile Makers, we often see the words desire, arousal, libido, and sex drive all lumped together. Much like how vulva and vagina are treated synonymously, we believe that truly understanding the differences will empower us to live our best sexual lives! So, if you often ask yourself how do I increase my sex drive – female and vulva-centric sex ed can go a long way – trust us!

Put simply, your libido is your desire for sex or any sexual activity. Before we go any further, let’s define the difference between arousal and desire, because there is an important distinction. Arousal refers to the body's physiological changes in reaction to sexual stimuli. Vaginal lubrication, erected nipples etc. Arousal is purely biology in action, it is not voluntary. You can learn more about arousal in our section on the sexual response cycle in our Vulva Talks course.

How Female Body Works To Produce Sex Drive

The Types of Sexual Desire

A person’s desire refers to their emotional want for sex. You may have heard of terms such as libido or sexual appetite - these are referring to a person's sexual desire. Sex educator Emily Nagoski gives a brilliant alternative definition to the concept of the female sex drive:

If sex is a drive, then desire should be spontaneous, like a hunger. When you see a sexy person or have a stray sexy thought, it activates an internal craving or urge for sex. That’s called ‘spontaneous desire’.

There is another way of experiencing desire which is also healthy and normal, called “responsive desire”, where your interest only emerges in response to arousal. So, your partner comes over and starts kissing your neck and you’re like, “oh, right, sex, that’s a good idea.”

What Affects Female Libido?

While libido is often thought of as sex drive caused simply by biology, it’s so much more than that. The desire for sexual activity is driven by human biology, but physical, environmental, and psychological factors all play a huge part in our want for sex. Changes in hormones, medication, and other factors affect the dopamine pathways in your body, which directly affects your sex drive.

Libido is directly related to how you relate to and interact with the world around you. It’s personal, and that’s why every vulva-owner should acknowledge theirs – it’s part of our sexual being and can impact our wellness.

Sex Drive Throughout Life

Libido is different for everybody. Everyone has a different mental, physical, sexual, and environmental experience. Each of these factors affects libido stimulation or repression, and that causes major differences between all our sex drives.

For Those That Menstruate

For menstruators, the cyclical phases, pregnancy, and menopause can all really impact libido. However, this doesn’t mean we have to accept nor expect low sex drive. We’re often told to these things will happen to us, and our sexual selves take a backseat. But pleasure can always be a priority of ours if we want it to be – and, nobody should tell you otherwise. Instead, let’s be armed with the knowledge to nurture our sexuality. Let’s create safe spaces for mums to talk about motherhood and sexuality. Let’s continue to have more and more prevalent conversations about how all the seasons of the menstrual cycle, not just periods, impacts menstruators’ days.

For others it could be other parts of our physical and mental; wellbeing illness, depression and antidepressants.

Mental Wellbeing and Libido

We asked Dr Donna Oriowo, a sex and relationship therapist, how mental wellbeing and medication that is part of the patient’s treatment, impact their sexual health - does it work together or against each other?

There's a myriad of ways that those things can impact one another. So, depression, it can strip you of your desire to have sex - to engage sexually with yourself or with partners.

If you’re partnered up, depression can make you feel anxious if your partner has been asking for sex. So then when it seems like they might ask for sex, again, now you have a heightened anxiety, and you create your excuse, and then you plunge deeper into a depression, because now you feel like you're messing up a relationship. So, it can cause you to be more distant, and to be even harder on yourself.

But those that have been on medication, what we found is that for some people, they just lose all interest in sex, they have no libido, based off whatever medication that they're on, because they don't feel like themselves.

‘Often people say “I feel off". Which makes sense! The way that the medication is messing with the various neurotransmitters, and all that stuff in the brain and in the body, it's messing with the body chemistry to make you less depressed, but at the same time, to not have any sexual desire, which is really messed up.’ Donna Oriowo

It seems like a vicious cycle, right? What ends up happening is sometimes people just will have sex just to do it, just for their partner, but not for themselves. They felt no desire, but they're going to put on a performance with their partner. This can cause resentment, that they have to put on this performance and that their pleasure, or lack of, isn’t being put first.

Listen to the full podcast episode with Dr Donna.

Common Reasons for Low Sex Drive for Women and Vulva Owners

Social Aspects of Libido

Many of us know that we’re sometimes not in the mood for sex. However, it can be more than just our mood causing decreased sexual desire. Libido is, in many ways, a learned behavior. Unsurprisingly, just like with our sex narrative, social factors play a role in our desire for sex as vulva owners.

Social factors that affect female libido include:

  • Sexual History - Positive and negative sexual experiences change the future of our sex drive. As we have positive experiences with sex, we may find that our body desires sex more frequently or it's easier to reach arousal. For those of us who have had strongly negative experiences or sexual trauma, libido may wane and be more difficult to increase.
  • Education or Conversation About Sex and Libido - It is common for women and non-binary folk to suppress sexual desire, particularly if they have not had the opportunity to discuss sex and sexual desire at home, with friends, in society, or at school. Without open conversation about sex and libido, our body can subconsciously stifle sexual desires.
  • Lack of Privacy or Intimacy - When we do not have the space to explore sexuality, libido can decrease. The mental state of feeling like sex or sexual activity is not possible is internalized, and the body can struggle to express a healthy sex drive.

Other Factors That Impact Libido

Libido is complex. Not only is it different for every one of us, but it’s also different from day-to-day. One of the most common causes of low libido is stress. When stressed, the hormones in our body change and this decreases sexual desire in most vulva owners.Body esteem has also been shown to have an affect on how desire develops in us. When we have low confidence in our self-image, sexual desire can have trouble developing.

Ways to Improve Sex Drive for Women and Vulva Owners

With all the above considered, it’s most likely that we may all experience low sex drive at some point in our lives. When we find ourselves with a decrease in sex drive, how can we take back control of the steering wheel for our own pleasure’s sake?

  1. Create positive experiences of sex! As you have positive experiences with sex, you may find that your body desires sex more frequently or it’s easier to reach arousal. Masturbation is a great way to build a positive experience of sex. Women who masturbate often have higher, regular libido increases. Knowing your body’s sexual preferences and regularly exercising your sexual desires, especially as a solitary act, can help you increase and hone your libido.
  2. Talk about sex: Mindfulness therapy that focused on education was shown to increase sexual desire in women, showing that openness about sex encourages good sexual health. Since sexual conversation and education are not available for so many of us, unconscious repression might be decreasing libido. Sexual education and respectful conversation about sex can prevent repression from slowing down your sex drive.
  3. Explore your erotic imagination! Allowing yourself to embrace sexual thoughts and experiences can help increase your desire. Our brain is our first sexual organ and plays a major role to get us aroused. Erotic books, audio erotica, graphic arts can be a great way to educate your sensual imagination. There’s a whole world to explore, far from the vulgar porn industry you might think of.
  4. Fighting stress. We know, easier said than done. But, there are certain nutrients found in food and supplements that can help support hormonal changes caused by stress coursing though our veins. There are, of course, natural aphrodisiacs too that can give our libido a direct boost.

While there have been several medications for females developed in recent years that aim to boost sexual desire, pills focused on the female libido are still too new to be the right solution for many vulva owners.

Libido is a personal experience. Everybody is different, and each of our desires for sexual activities is different, too. It can also fluctuate and be so easily impacted by the world around us, as well as other things going on with our body. It’s worth noting that a low sex drive isn’t a bad thing! If you’re happy with your desire for sex, try to avoid the pressure to perform to society’s script it’s written for us vulva owners. You do you – literally, or not.

For some of us, it can be a cause of frustration during partner sex or in a relationship.

Steps To Help Mismatched Libidos

1 in 3 couples have desire differences, so we asked Kaycee from @k_spot_therapy to share a guide on how to have the sexual experiences you want to have! There are two things to remember when it comes to libido...

  • Your sexual desire for your partner is no indication of your love for them.
  • If you are the low libido partner, that doesn't mean you're less attracted to your partner!

Step One

Here’s some questions you can ask each other to help get you both on track to have the sexual experiences you want and deserve. Take notes, because the answers might change month-to-month, and you really want to see where you’re making progress. It’s all about learning to appreciate each other’s desire differences.

  1. What can I start doing that will make you feel more loved and appreciated?
  2. Are there any mental health or medical issues that are impacting your ability to fully experience sex, pleasure, and intimacy?

Step Two

Rethink sex. Stop putting limits on it. There are no limits. Especially if one of you is a penis haver, remember that sex is not confined to penetration. There are so many things you can do to engage in sexual activity with your partner, it’s not always about penetration. There is mutual masturbation, sensual touch, playing with sex toys… Broaden your sexual horizons.

Step Three

Connect to your sensual self. Why is this important? Because each partner needs to validate their own sensuality, you can’t rely on a partner to give that to you. This is a unique individual experience, as well as a shared one. One of the ways you can do this is to take sensual selfies. It’s a wonderful way to recognise your sexuality. You don’t have to be nude – it’s just a connection point. Each person needs to connect to their own sensuality and see themselves as a sensual person.

Step Four

Use sex to connect to mindfulness. This is a way to practice being in the moment. Fully indulge all your senses into this sexual intimacy. Don’t think about meal planning, work projects, laundry… this isn’t the time for that. Be fully present in the moment.

Step Five

Learn your sexual response cycle. You need to know your cycle so that you can communicate that to your partner. That self-awareness is key. Now, you’re asking, what is a sexual response cycle? It’s the emotional and physical changes that occur when we get aroused, and guess what? Yep – it’s different for everyone. So, you both need to know yours. Kind of like how knowing your love language can help you appreciate and understand each other more, so can knowing each other’s response cycle!

This is a journey, and eventually these steps may make it easier and easier to not only communicate with yourself and your partner, but also increase your sex drive.

Watch the full episode with sex therapist Kaycee Polite.

Masturbation is a great way to cultivate your libido. Discover our collection of vibrators for beginners to find new and exciting ways to spend time with yourself.

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