The Real Truth About Sexual Desire Discrepancy and Ways to Sync Things Up
A common complaint that shows up in my office, for both males and females, goes something like this: “My partner and I are both in our 40’s, and we’ve been together for 17 years. We enjoy sex but my desire has waned over the years and no matter how many adult toy parties I attend, or episodes of a sexy Netflix show I watch, I just can’t seem to get in the mood. I find myself just going through the motions of making love. I sense my partner is getting tired of my excuses and then I feel bad because s/he says s/he misses the excitement of being lusted after by me, and I really can’t blame him or her. So how do I increase my desire for sex?”
There’s really two separate problems laid out here, one partner’s decrease in desire and how that decrease differs from their partner’s desire. So I’ll briefly address desire discrepancy and then segue into decreased desire.
First, let me start with a quick story: My friend Jimmy was wild. We worked at the same restaurant when I was in my 20’s, and if you’ve ever worked in the restaurant biz, the banter can get pretty explicit. Well, whenever Jimmy had a new girlfriend, he’d say “We were crawling all over each other, like a cheap suit.” That’s quite a palpable visual to describe the early days in many relationships. You’re like polyester clinging to each other’s skin, oftentimes in public places where people are telling you to “get a room.” Sound familiar? The cheap suit phenomena can be ridiculously exhilarating.
Later in the relationship a difference in sexual desire often kicks in, or it can be there from the get-go. Either way, this is THE most common sexual difficulty among couples. Which, when you think about it, makes it “normal.”
In this two-part blog post, I’m first going to highlight some research in the area of desire (because numbers are so sexy). I’ll go into some diagnostic criteria in regards to “disordered” desire, and discuss “what’s normal.” In Part II we’ll look at neuroscience and the most sensitive sex organ and briefly touch on the provocative topics of energy medicine and Tantric sex.
So, what is desire discrepancy and what is normal?
Discrepancy is when one partner wants sex more frequently than the other, and it’s not happening. One reason it’s problematic is because society, the media, and Western culture lead us to believe that “happy” couples are having wild sex at regular intervals. It’s like getting sucked into Facebook where everybody seems to always be frolicking, vacationing, and dining out. It’s a projection and not a real depiction of life. Oftentimes people ask me “what’s normal in regards to how often couples have sex?” There really is no “normal” as far as libido is concerned. It’s when there’s a discrepancy in desire and it’s problematic in your relationship that it’s something to be considered.
Here’s some enlightening research to illustrate how common desire discrepancy is and how it affects relationships:
A 2011 research study conducted on couples between the ages of 16-64, indicated that 42% of women and 54% of men were dissatisfied with their current regularity of sex. So about half of the more than 6,500 people surveyed reported being unsatisfied (Smith et al., 2011). That’s a lot of people!
Not only that, members of both sexes who reported being displeased with their sexual frequency were also more likely to report overall decreased relationship satisfaction. So, taken a large scale, half of the population is dissatisfied with their sexual frequency, and it negatively affects their relationship. So what’s going on, and what can be done about it?
For clarity purposes, let’s look at what the American Psychiatric Association has to say about defining decreased sexual desire. I like to consult with the big purple book, called the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-V. The DSM contains a list of symptoms and criteria to help get a clear picture of whether or not something is a disorder, and it also gives clinicians a language to communicate.
Interesting and important side-note – There’s an “it’s about time” update on diagnostic language that deserves attention:
The old terms for sexual desire disorders are out with yesterday’s shoulder pads and Jordache’ jeans. Yep. According to psychotherapists and authors of the book “Partners in Passion” Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson, “impotency” for males and “frigidity” for females are no longer in use by scholars and clinicians and are generally frowned upon. They’re considered outdated because they suggest worn-out stereotypes. In the past, male sexuality was seen as an expression of power, so sexual problems implied weakness. Standard female sexuality suggested emotional warmth and women suffering from dysfunctions were considered “cold.” (Michaels & Johnson, 2014). So the belief that real men should be like Braveheart and women should be like Snow White is outdated in the diagnostic literature. And that deserves a Round of applause!
In today’s DSM-V, Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (or, HSDD for short), is the currently used term. Both males and females can be diagnosed with HSDD, but it is much more common in females than males. According to the DSM-V, where it is referred to as “female sexual interest/arousal disorder,” it is featured by a lack of interest in sex. This can include a reduction of sexual thoughts, decreased frequency of initiating sexual activity, and unresponsiveness to sexual invitations. For men, HSDD is sometimes related to erectile dysfunction or ejaculatory concerns, but not always. For both men and women, a couple’s attitudes and preferences about sexual initiation play a role in the frequency and the intensity of desire for sex. As for duration and frequency of occurrence, the DSM says there needs to be a decrease in sexual thoughts and activity for more than six months and this effects your daily life (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
There can also be contributing factors in both sexes. For females, HSDD is sometimes related to painful intercourse and problems experiencing orgasm. In men, HSDD is sometimes related to erectile dysfunction or ejaculatory concerns, but not always. This makes sense. Who wants to have sex when there’s very little payoff, frustration, and possibly even unwanted pain?
The problem with the DSM model is it implies a “loss” of the desire for the physical function of intercourse, which is limiting in scope and a set-up for desire discrepancy, something that normally happens in relationships. So let’s look at a more positive and expansive view.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog! You’ll learn about what intimate relationships look like from the standpoint of neuroscience, the Human Energy Field, and how to approach sex from an Eastern model of intimacy.
Written by Julie Schmit, MA, LAMFT
References Part I:
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Michaels, M. A., & Johnson, P. (2014). Partners in passion: A guide to great sex, emotional intimacy and long-term love. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press.
Smith, A., Lyons, A., Ferris, A., Richters, J., Pitts, M., Shelley, J., & Simpson, J. M., (2011). Sexual and relationship satisfaction among heterosexual men and women: The importance of desired frequency of sex. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. 37:2, 10 115. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2011.560531
©2017 Julie Schmit, Shakti Bodyworks, LLC, DBA Jumpstart Counseling Studio.
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