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For many women, it isn’t uncommon to experience at some point, a low sex drive or a reduced interest in sex compared to at other times in their lives. In addition, many women complain about not being able to become or maintain adequate levels of arousal to fully enjoy their sex lives.


Interest in sex and the ability to reach adequate levels of arousal can wax and wane over the lifespan for a variety of reasons.


Relationship satisfaction and distress

Research indicates that women who are less satisfied with their relationship are also more likely to report sexual distress and the level of distress women feel is significant to the impact the problem has on the relationship. It may be likely that a woman’s sexual distress contributes to or causes sexual tension in the relationship.


Women in poor quality relationships may avoid situations that could lead to sex. They are likely to avoid their partner’s sexual advances, for fear of leading their partner on - which is ultimately seen as an action that shields the partner from sexual rejection and disappointment. These actions may psychologically protect the individual who does not want the sexual interaction. Women tend to feel that avoiding intimate encounters helps in regulating the frustrations associated with being unable to enjoy intimate experiences.

Whilst negative feelings about one’s partner appears to predict lower sexual interest, positive feelings for the partner and positive expectations for the relationship both cause increased sexual satisfaction, as does the feeling that one is desired and accepted by one’s partner. Not only do women need to feel that they are desired, but they also need to feel that they desire, and are attracted to their partner.


The female response-cycle

One of the obstacles in understanding female sexuality has been the comparison made between male and female sexual responses.  The male sexual response is linear: desire, arousal, followed by climax whereas the female response is considered more circular.  The Masters & Johnson (1970) sexual response cycle was the result of laboratory observations of approximately 700 men and women, conducted over a 5 to 6-year period and resulted in a view of sexuality being a linear construct in a sequential phase of: (a) excitement, (b) plateau, (c) orgasm, and (d) resolution.  The Masters & Johnson view of sexuality has received substantial criticism from modern researchers. Many espouse that this view is more in line with male sexuality only and does not consider the wide range of difference amongst women’s sexual responses.

The female response cycle should be considered to be more individualistic and as overlapping and interwoven phases, rather than existing in a linear sequence. As a result of the conflict in conceptualizing the female response cycle, many women who do not match the linear response model, are likely to be mistaken as dysfunctional.


Sex education and sexual compatibility

Lack of knowledge and sexual ability appears to contribute to the development of sexual issues. Poor sexual performance and insufficient knowledge about anatomical and physiological aspects reduce chances of creating sexual arousal and adequate stimulation.

Likewise, sexual compatibility is an important factor in the success of the couple sexual experience. Sexual compatibility correlates with a woman’s sexual motivation as well as motivation to make change or seek treatment. Even if a woman has low sexual desire but is satisfied sexually by her partner, she may still be inspired to engage in sexual interaction. Satisfaction may also help women to find motivation for sex, to meet not only her own, but also her partner’s feelings for sexual satisfaction.


Thoughts we have during sex

Many women report that frequently during sex, distracting thoughts create desire and arousal problems. Distractions regarding day-to-day stressors are common and in a 29-country study these correlated strongly with a woman’s reduced sexual functioning.

For women, disengagement thoughts, lack of erotic thoughts, sadness, guilt and disillusion presented the most significant lowered levels of arousal. People with healthy sexual functioning are able to better focus their attention on the sexual experience and do not become distracted by other, particularly negative thoughts.


Finally, it has always been thought that men and women respond differently to varying kinds of sexual stimuli.  Women have subjectively reported they prefer softer porn material, whereas men prefer more sexually explicit material. The reasons for the difference in some sexual responses between men and women, are not yet fully understood.

However, studies have shown that some sexual stimuli for women may evoke feelings of anxiety, shame and guilt.


Studies demonstrate that women report greater arousal to a much larger range of sexual stimuli than men do, including stimuli of a non-preferred gender as well as non-preferred sexual activities. Note that here ‘preferred’ and ‘non-preferred’ refers to a person’s stated preferences in sexual attraction. In other words, women demonstrated sexual arousal to not only men, but also to other non-preferred gender and activities. It would seem that there is a significant link between sexual arousal and sexual motivation.


Where to from here

Regardless of the suspected cause of the low sex drive and/or low arousal, sexual issues rarely improve significantly without intervention. Professional therapy is likely to include establishing the original cause and what’s maintaining the issue and implementing strategies to help improve the situation to regain normal sexual functioning.


References and recommended reading:

Basson, R. (2006). Sexual desire and arousal disorders in women. The New England Journal of Medicine, 354 (14), 1497-1506.

Burri, A. & Spector, T. (2011). Recent and lifelong sexual dysfunction in a female UK population sample: Prevalence and risk factors. Journal of Sexual Medicine (8), 2420-2430.

McCabe, M.P. (2005). The role of performance anxiety in the development and maintenance of sexual dysfunction in men and              women. International Journal of Stress Management, 12, (4) 379–388.

Ayling, K. & Ussher, J.M. (2008). “If sex hurts, am I still a women?” The subjective experience of vulvodyndia in heterosexual women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 294-304.

Hurlbert, D.F., Fertel, E.R., Singh, D. & Ferdinand, F. Et al. (2005). The role of sexual functioning in the sexual desire adjustment and psychosocial adaptation of women with hypoactive sexual desire. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality (14), 15-30.

Hinchliff, S., Gott, M. & Wylie, K. (2012). A qualitative study of heterosexual women’s attempts to renegotiate sexual relationships in the context of severe sexual problems. Archives of Sexual Behavior. DOI 10.1007/s10508-012-9903-0.

Graham, C. A., Sanders, S. A., Milhausen, R. R., & McBride, K. R. (2004). Turning on and turning off: A focus group study of the factors that affect women's sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, (6), 527-538.

Mulhall, J., King, R., Glina, S., & Hvidsten, K. (2008). Importance of and satisfaction with sex among men and women worldwide: Results of the Global Better Sex Survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 788-795.

Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston, USA: Little, Brown.

Nobre, P. J. & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2009). Cognitive schemas associated with negative sexual events: A comparison of men and women with and without sexual dysfunction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 842–851.

Barlow, G. H. & Durand, V. M. (2009). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach (5th ed.). Belmont, USA: Wadsworth.

Hald, G.M. (2006). Gender differences in pornography consumption among young heterosexual Danish   adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 577-585.

Gillath, O., Mikulincer, M., Birnbaum, G., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Does subliminal exposure to sexual stimuli have the same effects on men and women? Journal of Sex Research, 44, 1-11.

Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C. & Blanchard, R. (2007). Gender and sexual orientation differences in sexual response to sexual activities versus gender of actors in sexual films. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 1108–1121.

Peterson, Z. D., Janssen, E., & Laan, E. (2010). Women’s sexual responses to heterosexual and lesbian erotica: The role of stimulus intensity, affective reaction, and sexual history. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 880–897.

Suschinsky, K. D., & Lalumie`re, M. L. (2011). Prepared for anything? An investigation of female sexual arousal in response to rape cues. Psychological Science, 22, 159–165.

Suschinsky, K. D., Lalumie`re, M. L., & Chivers, M. L. (2009). Sex differences in patterns of genital sexual   arousal: Measurement artifacts or true phenomena? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 559–573.

Chivers, M.L. & Timmers, A.D. (2012). Effects of gender and relationship context in audio narratives on genital and subjective sexual response in heterosexual women and men. Archives of Sexual Behavior. DOI 10.1007/s10508-012-9937-3.

Bailey, J. M. (2009).What is sexual orientation and do women have one? Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 54, 43–63.         

Basson, R. (2005). Women's sexual dysfunction: Revised and expanded definitions. Canadian Medical Association Journal, (10), 172, 1327-1333.

Ohl, L. E. (2007). Essentials of female sexual dysfunction from a sex therapy perspective. Urologie Nursing, 27, (1), 57-63.

Sobczak, J.A. (2009). Female sexual dysfunction: Knowledge development and practice implications. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care,  45 (3) , 161-172.

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