Too high, too low, or juuust right? If your sex drive isn’t alive and kickin', should you be concerned? Libido, a.k.a. sex drive, varies from person to person and between partners. While stereotypes definitely exist (think teenagers with raging hormones), sex drive is highly personal. In addition, depending on age, stress level, relationship status, etc., a person’s desire for sex can fluctuate. So how do you know if your libido is normal or out-of-whack? And if something is wrong, what can be done about it?
All About That Baseline
Sex therapist and New York Times bestselling author Ian Kerner, PhD, says that “normal is such an elastic word… it depends on what your baseline libido is.” He notes that while it might be normal for one person to desire sex once a day, it’s also completely normal for an asexual individual to have zero libido.
A significant deviation from the baseline is what’s ultimately a cause for concern. According to Kerner, a change in libido is only a problem when it’s a problem for you or for your partner. Sex and relationship expert Emily Morse notes that it’s not uncommon for couples to have mismatched libidos. There’s really no “normal” amount one should desire sex (or actually do the deed). Your libido is unique, as is everyone else’s. But if you feel it swinging up or down the scale, some factors could be at play.
If abnormally low libido is causing concern, it’s time to identify some potential causes. But keep in mind that different factors may affect different people (you guessed it…) differently.
Underlying medical and psychological issues can depress libido to the point of non-existence. Medical conditions such as cancer or other chronic illnesses, for example, can understandably sap a person’s desire for sex. Psychological problems can also contribute to a diminished sex drive. Depression is a common cause of sexual dysfunction, and the treatment of depression doesn’t help matters Sexual dysfunction, depression, and the impact of antidepressants. Kennedy, S. H., & Rizvi, S. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2009; 29:157-164.. Research shows that certain antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) tend to lower sexual arousal more than others Sexual dysfunction, depression, and the impact of antidepressants. Kennedy, S. H., & Rizvi, S. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2009; 29:157-164.. And given that some drugs have more possible side effects than actual effects, it’s not surprising that certain other meds can do so as well. For example, some women may experience decreased libido while on hormonal birth control, but reports aren’t consistent The effects of hormonal contraceptives on female sexuality: A review. Burrows, L. J., Basha, M., & Goldstein, A. T. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2012; 9:2213-2223..
Other psychological troubles such as stress can put a damper on things Chronic stress and sexual function in women. Hamilton, L. D., & Meston, C. M. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2013; 10:2443-2454. Correlates of men's sexual interest: A cross-cultural study. Carvalheira, A., Traeen, B., & Stulhofer, A. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2014; 11:154-164.. Ava Cadell, MD, author and founder of Loveology University, notes that common psychological issues of people who complain of low libido include depression, stress, post-baby blues, performance anxiety after not having sex for a long time, and poor self-image.
We blame hormones for everything from chocolate cravings to crazy mood swings. (And we’re pretty sure we can blame them for this pizza’s existence too.) In women, low androgen levels have been linked to low sex drive, but it’s not clear which one is the cause and which one is the effect Women with low libido: Correlation of decreased androgen levels with female sexual function index. Turna, B., Apaydin, E., Semerci, B. et al. International Journal of Impotence Research, 2005; 17:148-153.. Some research suggests that certain hormones, such as testosterone, may also play a role in lowering or modifying sexual desire, but they are not the determining factor Female sexual function and dysfunction in the reproductive years: The influence of endogenous and exogenous sex hormones. Stuckey, B. G. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2008; 5:2282-2290.. Even if a woman’s hormones are all within normal ranges, she can still experience low libido. For men, it’s a bit more clear cut: if a man has low testosterone, his libido will likely suffer Testosterone supplementation and sexual function: A meta-analysis study. Corona, G., Isidori, A. M., Buvat, J. et al. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2014; 11:1577-1592..
Comedian Louis C.K. said about his troubled marriage that men worry marriage equals sex with just one woman for the rest of life. “Where are you getting that twisted fantasy? You’re not gonna have sex with one woman. You’re gonna have sex with zero women.” Point being, if your relationship is rocky, your libido (or your partner’s) could also take a hit.
A whole range of relationship difficulties can contribute to low libido, according to Cadell. While pretty much anything that negatively affects a couple has the potential to limit lust, poor communication, anger, hurt feelings, or even boredom are common culprits. Kerner notes that poor libido is especially prevalent among couples recovering from infidelity—if the trust isn’t there, neither is the desire.
Other Life Factors
Already plotting tomorrow’s nap? Being overworked, short on time, fatigued, or all of the above tend to bump sex down on the list of priorities. New parents (yes, we’re calling a baby a “life factor”) may be especially susceptible. Who wants to have sex when running on three hours of sleep and dirty diaper fumes?
When it comes to sex, do you feel like a little kid at a birthday-cake free-for-all? That’s OK. Having an unusually high libido isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it can become an issue—known as hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior, or sexual addiction—if it leads to problems with a person’s sex life and life outside of sex. As with low libido, there are a number of things that can skyrocket your sex drive to an unhealthy place.
No, that honeymoon phase of a new relationship when you’re suspending work/life/laundry to get naked with your significant other isn't a “psychological condition,” (as much as your neglected friends may argue). But there are serious mental disorders that can lead to a person making sex into priority number one. According to Kerner, sex can be a form of self-medication for some individuals suffering from anxiety. Low self-esteem, unresolved shame, and other entrenched feelings can increase sex drive as well.
An abnormally high desire for sex may also be considered a psychological condition in and of itself. Experts have come up with a set of diagnostic criteria for “hypersexual disorder,” although it’s not yet an official psychological diagnosis Should hypersexual disorder be classified as an addiction? Kor, A., Fogel, Y., Reid, R. C. et al. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 2013; 20:10.1080/10720162.2013.768132.. A person with the disorder has excessive, intense thoughts and/or behaviors surrounding sex that lead to personal distress or intrusion on other areas of life. Fantasizing about your cute co-worker is pretty normal (and even healthy), but skipping out on work to watch someone shake that a** on the Internet may signal something’s not quite right.
Certain drugs can send libido sky-high. Unsurprisingly, most of them are stimulants such as cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth, and caffeine Stimulant abuse: Pharmacology, cocaine, methamphetamine, treatment, attempts at pharmacotherapy. Ciccarone, D. Primary Care, 2011; 38:41-58.. One class of drugs, known as substituted cathinones, stimulates the central nervous system and may give users a boost in energy, feelings of interpersonal connectedness, and sex drive Emerging drugs of abuse: Current perspectives on substituted cathinones. Paillet-Loilier, M., Cesbron, A., Le Boisselier, R. et al. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 2014; 5:37-52.. Wellbutrin, a substituted cathinone also known as bupropion, is prescribed by some doctors for weight loss—and increased libido is a side effect Emerging drugs of abuse: Current perspectives on substituted cathinones. Paillet-Loilier, M., Cesbron, A., Le Boisselier, R. et al. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 2014; 5:37-52..
How to Level Out Your Libido
First, ask yourself if your libido is noticeably different from your baseline, and try to identify possible causes. Is it negatively affecting your happiness, relationship, or life? Second, if you’re in a relationship, figure out how your partner feels about your sex drive. Are the two of you completely out of sync or do things match up pretty well? If you and your partner feel a-OK about how much sex you want, chances are your libido is just fine. Just keep calm and
carry on get it on.
Low libido got you down and you want to take matters into your own hands? Kerner suggests a number of things to help light your fire. First, give yourself and your partner a little extra lovin’. Masturbation and fantasizing are a great place to start, as is focusing on your partner’s pleasure during sex. But libido isn’t only built in the bedroom. Exercise, in addition to relieving stress and improving self confidence, can encourage feeling frisky. Another option is to go out with your partner and try something fun and spontaneous. And although this sounds pretty much the opposite of "fun and spontaneous," scheduling sex with a partner can get you in a sex-oriented mindset and take away performance anxiety.
High libido, notes Kerner, doesn’t usually prompt too many complaints unless it causes a mismatch with a partner or if it's part of a sexual compulsion or addiction. Talking with a romantic partner may be a good place to start if it’s the former, but seeing a professional is a must for the latter.
See a Pro
If there’s a psychological or medical condition, deep-seated relationship issues, or other factors that might be taking a toll on your libido, fixing the underlying problem is the way to go. While you might be able to resolve some relationship stuff and external issues on your own, talking to a professional can help enormously in addressing the thornier causes of low or high libido. Depending on the nature of the issue, try talking to a physician, psychiatrist, or sex therapist. If you feel that hormones may be contributing to a wonky sex drive, try talking to your general practitioner or OB/GYN.
Concerned about the side effects of medications? A GP or pharmacist might be good people to touch base with. For sexual compulsivity or sexual addiction, enlist the help of a specialist. A psychiatrist will be able to offer guidance and help you to formulate a treatment plan. Group therapy or 12-step programs offer other means of support. For relationship woes, consult a therapist who specializes in couples and/or sex therapy. Bottom line: Don’t lose heart; there’s a fleet of specialist that can help.
Throw away all of your ideas of “normal”—sex drive is highly personal! Libido only becomes a problem when it’s causing you distress, affecting your day-to-day life, or hurting your relationship with a partner. If any of these apply, it’s worth figuring out why and possibly seeking help from a professional.