Photo: Spencer Charles via Tumblr
Hear me read this post aloud to you. Press play above to listen.
. . .
In my last post, I talked about “just do it” sex, which one expert says is a cure for a sex-starved relationship. “Just doing it” looks like having sex even if you don’t want to, having sex especially if you don’t want to, and having it frequently whether you want to or not. There’s actually scientific evidence that suggests that this method can work for some couples who are experiencing a lengthy period of sexlessness (which I’ll speak to later).
But as someone who was once in a sex-starved marriage, I personally found that the “just do it” philosophy was problematic, counterintuitive, and unhelpful. It deeply triggered my sexual trauma and created a disconnection between my body and my sexuality, to the extent that I stopped being able to trust when my No was sincere.
While it’s true that me and Jonathan were having more sex more frequently, “just doing it” created a whole other layer of issues that I’m still having to heal and unlearn to this day.
So, if “just doing it” doesn’t work, what other options do sex-starved relationships have besides never having sex again?
I have some ideas that have helped me while I was in a sexless relationship and have also helped many of the clients that I’ve worked with.
Most of my advice centers the low-desire person and how they can begin to do some gentle work around uncovering where their lack of desire could be coming from. I am choosing to center the low-desire person because I have personal experience with that as someone previously described as having a low libido, but also because low-desire people are usually—and a little unfairly—tasked with resolving this issue as they’re often seen as the ones with the problem.
Even though this isn’t necessarily for them, I encourage high-desire people to read this article as well, as it’ll give them perspective on what it’s like for their low-desire partners and might help them in supporting and encouraging them. Oftentimes, that’s what we desire most through all of this—support and compassion.
The last thing I want to say is this is not an exhaustive list and it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all. These are just a few tips to get you to approach your sex-starved relationship in a different way. I am not an expert and I make no claims that doing these things will fix your sexless relationship. But I don’t think it can hurt.
. . .
If you are struggling with lack of desire, here’s what I suggest:
1. Be curious about and explore the reasons why you think you have low desire.
One of my biggest issues with the “just do it” philosophy is that it doesn’t address the real reason(s) we’re in a place of sexual stagnation in the first place and it uses the act of sex as a band-aid to cover up the problem—as if the problem is that we’re just not doing it enough, that we somehow “forgot” how amazing sex was, and that the more we keep having sex, the more likely we are to become sexually uninhibited.
But that assumes that the reason we’re not having sex currently has everything to do with the physical, with our ability to have sex. But sex isn’t just a thing we do with our bodies. We have sex with our hearts, our minds, our emotions, our past selves, old wounds. If anything’s out of alignment in one or more of those areas, there’s a high chance that the sex is going to be off, too.
There are so many reasons why someone would feel a lack of interest in sex at any given time. It could be that they are going through a period of dysmorphia that has them feeling disconnected and disassociated from their body. It could be that sex triggers for their past trauma. It could be that they’ve never felt safe to express their wants and needs in bed and don’t have a desire for sex because they know they’re not going to enjoy it anyway.
It could also be that they’re no longer attracted to their partner. Or that they’re going through some mental health stuff. It could be that certain systems of oppression are acting like a weight on their ability to feel worthy, important, respected, valued, and alive (these are crazy, triggering times to be a woman, and even crazier and more triggering times to be a woman of color).
It could be that the medication they’re on—like an antidepressant or birth control—could be dampening their desire. It could be that they are demisexual. Or it could be that they don’t fully trust their partner to hold space for them as they make themselves vulnerable during sex—to name just a few.
If your lack of desire has anything to do with the above, there’s no way “just do it” sex is going to fix anything. It might make the frequency of your sex higher, but it won’t address whatever it is that’s lowering your libido in the first place.
We don’t have sex in a vacuum. The way we show up to sex, the sexual people we are (or aren’t) is being influenced by our immediate and extended surroundings. The emotions we’re feeling, the things we’re experiencing, the state of our relationship with our sexual partners—all of those things matter and directly affect the sex we have or don’t have.
I think that’s why so many of us are enchanted by the idea of taking a little pink pill as a solution to this problem (and yes, it finally exists, but no, it doesn’t really work). To do the hard and heavy work required to get to the bottom of our lack of desire will ask of us to be brave, honest, and patient with ourselves in ways we’d rather not. I get wanting to find the magic cure—it’s totally understandable—but if we want lasting sexual consistency, we’re going to have to do some inner reflection and get curious about why we think we’re not into sex at the moment.
This is going to require asking yourself some hard and complicated questions. Things like—
- When my partner tries to come on to me, what feelings immediately come up in my body?
- Are there ways my partner could come on to me that might make me feel safer to access my desire? What would that look like?
- Where does my mind go during sex? What is my mental chatter like?
- When I avoid sex, what exactly am I avoiding?
- Where might I be feeling obligated to have sex? What “shoulds” am I bringing into the bedroom?
- What happens to me emotionally when I do have sex? How do I end up feeling during? How do I feel afterward?
- What kind of relationship do I have with my body?
- What kind of relationship do I have with my orgasm?
- What sexual needs of mine are not currently getting met in my relationship?
- What shame am I grappling with when it comes to sex? When it comes to my current sexlessness?
- What’s been my consistent state of emotions these last few months? And how do I think those emotions might be affecting my ability to show up for sex?
You might find that the reason (or something close to it) and maybe even the remedy to why you have a low libido lies in your answers to those questions.
If you have a consistent lack of desire for sex, there’s likely a good reason for it that needs to be paid attention to—not overridden.
2. Get educated about and acquainted with the way (and the why) your body gets aroused.
For a lot of people (women especially), desire for sex is sensitive to context. This means that sexual desire doesn’t happen spontaneously, but rather gets nourished, instigated, and even stifled by what’s happening around you. Finding out what accelerates your sexual desire and what puts the brakes on it might help you figure out why your libido is MIA.
You might also find that your lack of desire for sex stems from the fact that you’re surrounded by very little to get your sexual desires inspired and flowing.
By upping your sexual context—i.e., being intentional about bringing sexy things into your life as a way to stoke your erotic desires—you might find that your sexual desire increases a bit.
There’s an incredible book on this by Emily Nagoski who goes way more in-depth about this and gives heaps of guidance and education about the way women’s sexuality and her arousal network works.
If you do nothing else, please read Come As You Are. Even better—if you can read it with your high-desire partner so that they can also know what your brakes and accelerators are.
3. Forget the numbers.
The hardest part for me when going through a period of sexlessness is being reminded of how long it’s been since the last time. But there is no normal when it comes to the number of times a couple should be having sex in a day, a week, a month, or a year—only preconceived notions about what a “normal” sex life looks like.
Those preconceived notions are often created from the very systems of oppression that have told you that your sexuality isn’t good enough.
If it’s possible, try to get rid of the notion that you should be having sex a certain number of times per day, week, month, year. Also, ask yourself where that particular number came from. Did it come from your own desires to have sex that frequently or from some arbitrary idea of what sexual excellence looks like?
If it’s coming from the latter, from someone else’s standard of sexuality, ask yourself what number you’d be satisfied with. If that number happens to be zero, that’s OK. What matters most right now is that you’re honest with yourself, rather than dismissive, about where your sexual desire is.
4. Have different kinds of “sex” with your partner.
Sex isn’t just penetration and it isn’t necessarily a physical act that results in an orgasm. Sex is anything that you can do with your partner that creates closeness between you. Sex, quite simply, is intimacy.
With that in mind, you might realize that you’re not in a sex-starved relationship at all—that you and your partner have lots of sex, it just doesn’t look like what you’re used to sex looking like.
Think about things you can do to nurture other forms of intimacy between you two. Bonus if it involves physical touch because with that you’ll get a wonderful chemical cocktail going in your system of dopamine and oxytocin, both of which help us bond with each other.
- Kissing/making out
- Cuddling on the couch
- Holding hands
- Taking a shower or bath together
- Looking into each other’s eyes
- Other smaller ways of bringing in physical connection, like a hand on the small of the back, your feet resting on each other’s as you go to sleep, etc.
Try to do these things outside of the bedroom—when you’re passing each other in the hall, when you’re watching television, when both of you are focused on your respective screens. Even better: For the low-desire person, tell your partner what kinds of affection you’d like to receive from them, things that wouldn’t make you clam up more but would get you to really relax and be in the moment with each other. And they don’t have to be physical things.
It helps if you can both do these things with a clear intention and boundary that nothing else has to come from it. Sometimes just taking away the expectation of sex is enough to give the low-desire person permission to access their desire to be close to you.
There are many other ways to be physically intimate with your partner, and f we expand our understanding of what sex is, we’ll find that we have a lot more options to express ourselves.
5. Give it time.
I’m a bit hesitant to recommend this one because I recognize that time might feel like the one thing you feel you don’t have. But in my experience—both personally and professionally—giving ourselves time and space is precisely what can help bring desire back.
Right now, there’s likely a lot of charge around the notion of sex for you, and that charge can create anxiety, self-judgment, resentment, and avoidance. With all of that, it’s no wonder we don’t have a desire to have sex. This charge can further reinforce lack of desire, making sex feel too weighed down with baggage to even think about initiating it.
The best way to disperse the charge? Giving it time.
I’m not suggesting that “giving it time” look like sitting and doing nothing. Giving it time can look like taking sex completely off the table, making a pact with your partner that during this intentional inactivity you two will work together on creating intimacy with each other outside of sex. Giving it time can look like working through some of the prompts I gave above to get you clearer on why you don’t want to have sex in the first place.
It can also look like making it a priority to have some hard but necessary conversations with your partner about what you think is holding you back from having sex with them.
Giving it time doesn’t have to be a passive state. It can be a productive one.
I’d also like to mention that sexual energy comes and goes in cycles. It’s not uncommon or abnormal for your desire for sex to change from one week or month to the next—especially if you’re someone going through health problems, hormone fluctuations, or are experiencing stressful times. Not expecting your sexual desire to occur with the accuracy of a clock is imperative to bringing more spaciousness around your desire.
Be easy on yourself and your body.
. . .
How to know when you should have “just do it” sex (because sometimes it works):
As I mentioned earlier, it’s been scientifically proven that “just do it” sex works for some people (women in particular) based on the way their sexual response cycle works. For them, desire follows arousal—meaning that it’s only when they’re starting to get hot and heavy that their bodies realize that they actually want sex. It’s like realizing you’re thirsty after you take a sip of water.
I’ll admit: “Just doing it” has worked for me in the past, but I caution against doing it until you become more familiar with the voice of your desire and with the way your body feels when true desire is present in it. Because if we’ve been violating our No for a while—particularly for the sake of our partner’s happiness and enjoyment—there’s a chance we don’t even know when we actually want to say Yes.
That said, you’ll know if you should override your body’s impulsive No for sex and just do it anyway if there’s a small, quiet desire in the innermost part of you that really wants to say yes but doesn’t feel like you can because of insecurities, inhibitions, or any beliefs you have around sex that don’t serve your arousal.
Basically: You’ll know when you should “just do it” when you want to want to have sex.
How will you be able to tell your true desire apart from the pang and guilt of “should” that you’re used to feeling when sex comes up? It’s going to take practice, of course, but the easiest way I’ve found to better hear (and heed) my own sexual desires is this:
I made pact with myself that I will no longer continue to say yes to sex that I’d really rather say no to.
I’ve noticed that when I honor my No and when my partner can lovingly support me in my No, I become much better at hearing (and heeding) my Yes. When I honor my No, it creates self-trust, self-compassion, and it gives my body and my sexuality a chance to finally see me as their ally, rather than an adversary who is trying to force them into activities they don’t really want to do.
Which brings me to my philosophy about sex:
“Don’t do it.”
Don’t do it if you don’t want to. Don’t do it if you feel pressured or coerced to want to. Don’t do it if there’s any sense of should or obligation. Don’t do it if you’re in the grips of shame or guilt. Don’t do it if your body is practically screaming at you not to. Don’t do it even though it’s been a long time. Don’t do it to make him happy. Don’t do it because she would be more grateful. Don’t do it because they would be nicer to you if you did.
It might seem counterintuitive—that the way to have more sex is by honoring when you don’t want to do it. But when we violate our No, we violate ourselves.
If it’s not a hell yes, then it’s a no. Period.