That tingle in your loins, the deep heat between your thighs, the images and sounds of sweaty bodies intertwined flashing through your brain—libido is all of these things!
What is libido?
In short, libido is your mental, physical, and emotional desire for sex, masturbation, and/or orgasm.
While the oft-cited psychologist Sigmund Freud theorized that libido is an innate sexual drive that influences all that we do, we now know that sexual desire is not necessarily something that is inherent in all of us — if you need evidence of this, just look at the many asexual people living perfectly happy, healthy, lives sans desire for sex.
There’s also no “normal range” when it comes to libido. We each have our own baseline which differs from person to person. Not only does our libido fluctuate throughout our lives — decade to decade, year to year, day to day, and even hour to hour — our baseline can also change permanently during our lifetime for myriad reasons.
What are some of these reasons? Well, to understand why we might experience shifts and changes in libido, we first need to understand, on a more biological level, what things influence and determine our libido to begin with.
What determines libido?
Dr. Lyndsey Harper, board-certified Ob/Gyn and libido expert, tells us our “horny meter” is mostly influenced by two key components: stress/anxiety levels and hormones.
Hormones, namely estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, are largely responsible for how “in the mood” you feel. Therefore, spoiler alert: anything that has an impact on your body’s hormones will likely, in turn, have an impact on your libido.
The second culprit in libido composition is stress, which can cause increased levels of cortisol in the body that can inhibit our desire. Additionally, whatever is stressing you the hell out is also likely to be frequently on your mind, and may prevent you from being interested in getting down.
A specific kind of stress that many of us are experiencing very vividly right now, survival stress, particularly hampers our libido. When we're faced with a threat like COVID-19, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally, the body can enter a state of fight-flight-or-freeze. When we experience these nervous system states, it’s hard for our bodies, and minds, to be interested in much else.
What affects libido?
Because stress (aka cortisol) levels and hormones are the dirty duo responsible for making or breaking our libido, anything that affects them ultimately affects our libido. These triggers can include, but aren’t limited to:
- Financial stress
- Relationship troubles
- Mental health and/or trauma
- Menstrual cycle
- Diet, sleep, and exercise (not enough or too much)
- Medication (especially anti-depressants and birth control)
- Hormone Replacement Therapy
- Vasectomy or Hysterectomy
- Body or sex shame issues
But don’t worry, while there are plenty of stimuli dead set on ruining a good time, there are just as many, if not more, factors that are trying to get you going. I’ll get to those soon!
Why is your libido especially low?
In addition to stress, there are also some more material and physical factors that contribute to low libido. What we have access to and what we choose to put in our bodies can have a big impact on the body’s desire for sex and orgasm.
Lack of access to safer sex materials
Ran out of condoms? Got your IUD taken out and haven’t figured out what your new birth control method is? If you don’t know that your sex can be guaranteed “safe,” for whatever reason, your desire may be stifled.
During and after menopause, the body produces fewer hormones, namely estrogen and testosterone, contributing to lower levels of desire.
The reduction in hormones may also cause vaginal dryness, and subsequently vaginal atrophy, which can be painful and have an impact on someone’s desire for sex. It’s also important to note that people who use hormonal forms of birth control, like the pill, may also experience vaginal atrophy.
Drugs or alcohol
While, yes, drugs and alcohol often relieve some of our inhibitions and may allow us to feel more emboldened sexually, prolonged or excessive use may have a negative impact on your libido.
So, if you’ve been drinking more than usual during quarantine (no one is judging!), that could be contributing to a lower sex drive.
Why is your libido especially high?
So many reasons! Low stress, improvements in mental health, stopping certain medications (always consult your doctor before you stop taking or change your medication) a positive change in your diet, hormone replacement therapy, or exercise.
But that’s not all!
You feel confident
Feeling confident in your body and your sexiness can largely contribute to less stress around sex and intimacy and have you feeling more ravenous than usual.
Similarly, if someone is starting to unlearn toxic messages around sex or beginning to release some of the shame they previously had when it comes to pleasure, they may experience a stronger desire for sex or masturbation!
Your sex life is great!
Sex begets more sex! If you’re having particularly good sex with someone and releasing all of those feel-good, horny hormones, like dopamine and oxytocin, you’re going to be more likely to have sex on the brain.
Take advantage of it, is all I have to say.
You’re in the thirstiest part your menstrual cycle
Two of the hormones that play important roles in your menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone, also play a big role in sexual desire.
In the days leading up to ovulation, the levels of estrogen and progesterone peak, leading to many menstruating people feeling particularly riled up during this time, falling off in the days following as the hormones level out.
When is high or low libido a problem?
High or low libido is a problem only when you feel like it’s a problem, or if it’s having a significant negative impact on your life or interpersonal relationships.
For example: masturbating so often you miss work, feeling guilt or shame around your desires, or avoiding your partner because you don’t want to talk about your low libido. These might be a few reasons to reflect on how your libido is impacting your life and explore ways to address the issue.
What to do if you and your partner have mismatched libidos
Libidos that align perfectly, like simultaneous orgasms, while wonderful, are pretty uncommon, so don’t fret. Seventy percent of people have experienced mismatched libidos (aka desire discrepancy) in a relationship at some point. Here are some things you can do to sync up with your partner:
Talk about it
The first step, according to Dr. Lyndsey Harper, is to talk to your partner about how you’re feeling. They aren’t mind-readers and a lack of communication can lead to unresolved miscommunications and misunderstandings, so it’s important for the health of your relationship that you discuss what you’ve been feeling. Here are some things you can say:
“You’re an absolute babe and I love having sex with you, but this intense project at work has me so stressed out right now, and it’s killed my libido.”
“Hey, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been in the mood lately. I found this article about libido that explains what’s going on with me. I’d appreciate it if you read it and we could talk about it together.”
Talking about a low sexual desire can feel awkward, but keeping your person (or persons) in the loop is always better than leaving them guessing.
Reassure your partner
If sexual intimacy is an important part of your relationship dynamic, it’s common for the high libido partner to feel insecure, or take their partner’s low libido personally.
Being honest with your partner about what is affecting your libido is paramount. Here are some other things you can say to reassure your partner and let them know you care about nurturing a sexual relationship you both enjoy:
“Just because I’m not feeling all that sexual right now doesn’t mean I’m going to feel like this forever.”
“Me not being in the mood right now doesn’t make you any less sexy. What can I do to make you feel loved/desired/supported?”
“This is something that’s really important to me. I really want to work on this aspect of our relationship, so let’s talk about how we can do that together.”
It’s important to put effort into finding ways to nurture your relationship that are pleasing for everyone involved.
Empower your partner and their pleasure
If you’re experiencing low desire, and your partner is not, it isn’t fair to expect them to suddenly turn theirs off and be on the same page as you.
Make sure your partner feels emboldened to satisfy their own desires; encourage them to masturbate and offer them the time and privacy to do so. Maybe even buy them that toy they’ve been eyeing or a subscription to Dispea!
If you’re the partner with high desire, it’s just as important to make sure your low-desire partner feels supported as well. Sex may be off the table currently, but that doesn’t mean intimacy and closeness are off the table. Communicate with your partner to find other ways they would like to be shown love and affection outside of sex.
Intimacy isn’t just about sex, and finding ways to enjoy non-sexual intimacy will keep your relationship strong. Plan a date night. Massage each other. Play video games together. Cook together. Cuddle.
Make sure to keep open lines of communication going with your partner so your intimacy needs, sexual or otherwise, are being met as best as possible and in the ways you each desire.
Responsive vs. spontaneous desire
When it comes to desire, there are two types, spontaneous and responsive. This concept, popularized by author Emily Nagoski, has been at the forefront of Dipsea’s work and mission.
Spontaneous - as you’re going about your day, a sexy thought pops into your head and you feel a spark in your genitals.
Responsive - as your partner gives you a massage, things get hotter and heavier, and you start to feel turned on.
If you tend to experience more responsive desire, then your body relies on sexual “cues” to get turned on, and so it’s important to take initiative with your intimacy and sex life and offer yourself opportunities to get turned on, in response to stimuli. Stimuli can include things like:
- Listening to audio erotica (like Dipsea!)
- Reading erotica
- Watching porn
- Kissing or making out
- Sexting/exchanging pics
- Sensual bath or massage
- Masturbation/mutual masturbation
- Sensation play
- Playing flirty sex/hookup games
- Arousal gels or lubricants
Figure out what things work for you, and communicate that with your partner. Filling out a Yes/No/Maybe list can be a useful way to find out your sexual desires, interests, and boundaries, and easily discuss them with your partner.
What if you’re solo?
Get sensual with yourself! Feeling sensual, sexy, and confident in your body is likely to have a positive impact on your libido and desire to be intimate.
As discussed, stress is a major culprit of wacky libido. So anything you do to lower and level out your stress levels is going to help create a physical and mental environment in which you’re more likely to experience desire.
Think things like yoga, deep breathing, meditation, therapy, getting enough sleep, acupuncture, exercise, full-body massage, even just finally making those appointments you’ve been putting off.
Just like developing any other skill, or healthy habit, improving your libido is about consistency and dedication. Set aside some time in your schedule deliberately for masturbation. You may not necessarily be jazzed about it, but once you get started — and once you finish — you’ll be happy you did.
According to Dr. Harper, "The pleasure experienced through masturbation is incredibly positive — it’s really a wellness activity."
Well, ladies and gentlemen and friends beyond the binary, if that isn’t one of the best endorsements for gratuitous solo sex I’ve ever heard. Now get to it!
The bottom line
Remember, there is no such thing as a “normal” libido or sexual desire. It will change throughout our lives, so one of the best tools we can work on improving is our communication skills so that we can have these ongoing conversations with our partners and work on the healthy sex lives we envision for ourselves.
Jamie J. LeClaire (they/them) is a sexuality educator, freelance writer, and consultant. Their work focuses on the intersections of pleasure-positive sexual health, queer and transgender/gender-nonconforming identity, body politics, and social justice. You can find more of their work at their website, and follow them on Instagram and Twitter.