A Compelling Force
Sexual desire is quite simply the force or motivation that compels us to reproduce, to have sex. It is no different than the desire to eat and sleep. We need to eat and sleep to survive as individuals, and reproduce to exist as a species. It is a primary urge that significantly influences our lives, because it is essential to our survival. It often controls us more than we control it. While we may try to suppress our sexuality, our sexual desire and energy will be expressed in one form or another. Since we now have the means of avoiding conception, our sexual desire often becomes a desire for sexual pleasure and physical intimacy.
Perception of Desire
While sexual desire may have a biological or physical basis, it often becomes a mental perception in adulthood. Sexual desire is what we perceive it to be. Male sexual desire is usually seen as good and beneficial while female sexual desire is often seen as bad and harmful. A man’s desire is often expressed in the form of an erection that is impossible to overlook and is undoubtedly sexual, as defined and accepted by society. The erect penis has been openly worshipped in many cultures. A woman can stand naked before you and experience sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm and you may not know or perceive that she has. The woman herself may not know, since this has often been society’s expectation. Societies have often worshipped nonsexual women, virgins and virginal mothers. Religions frequently label sexual women as sinners and witches. How a woman perceives her desire is then determined and controlled by the society she lives in, if she seeks acceptance within that society. There have always been those who defied society at the cost of being called “sluts” and “whores.”
Denial of Female Desire
Knowing this, a woman, and those around her, may define her sexual desire as something else or deny it all together. In the past, and to varying degrees today, we said a teenage girl or woman was either “in love” or “out of control” when she expressed sexual desire. If she married and had children she was in love. If she had casual sex, multiple partners, female partners, or did not marry she was out of control. Her sexual energy was seen as a sign of rebellion. This forced women to deny and suppress their sexual desire and identity if they wanted to be accepted by their peers. “Good girls” simply were not sexual.
In today’s society, we frequently expect women to be sexual and orgasmic while still remaining virginal. Many if not most men have been taught they should not want a “sexual wife.” Their mother has set the example by which their wife must live. The mother they know is asexual and would never be desirous of sex, she rejects any woman who is sexual; daughters learn from the same role model. A man may brag about the sexual skills of his “girlfriend,” but will become openly angry if anyone should suggest his “wife” does anything of a sexual nature. A girlfriend can be a “slut” but a wife must be a “virgin.” Men often do not want to bring a woman who is known to be sexual home to meet their mother. A “sexual girlfriend” often has to transform herself into an “asexual mother” on crossing the threshold of marriage or motherhood. Female sexual desire must always be controlled and expressed at “appropriate times” and in “appropriate ways.”
We simply do not acknowledge our adolescent daughters, including those who have not reached their teen years, may experience sexual desire. The presence of pubic hair indicates androgen levels are on the rise; breast development indicates estrogen levels are increasing. We usually expect them to be innocent and pure, devoid of sexuality. We deny their sexual desire and simply say they have a “crush,” are experiencing “first love,” or again, are out of control. This leads to confusion and harm because they are not permitted to acknowledge the true nature of their feelings. We certainly make no effort to help them understand what is happening or provide them with a constructive outlet for their sexual energy, i.e. masturbation. Instead, we send them in search of “love.” Love then becomes a hazardous undertaking.
To better understand sexual desire, lets examine the sexuality of a preadolescent girl and a post-adolescent woman. Both may enjoy physical intimacy because it feels good and makes them feel safe and secure, physically and emotionally. If you acknowledge preadolescent girls are sexual, both may masturbate and experience sexual pleasure and orgasm. They may seek out sexual partners because of the desire for physical intimacy, security, because they are curious, to experience sexual pleasure, and quite simply to have fun. The motivation behind these activities exists in the absence of true sexual desire. While their actions may be sexual, their motive may not be. Other than age, there appears to be no obvious difference between girls and women, other than one has the capacity to reproduce. That is exactly what society expects us to believe, that neither desires sex.
There is in fact a big difference between a preadolescent girl and an adolescent or post adolescent woman. That difference is sexual desire. The adolescent girl and post adolescent woman have a chemical messenger called testosterone circulating throughout their body that causes their mind and body to do things they have no control over. Suddenly, their body has a mind of its own. For unknown reasons they experience sexual arousal and are driven to seek out a sexual partner. While sitting in school, at work, and in the middle of the night while they sleep, their body may explode with desire. Their vulva and vagina suddenly come alive and make themselves known. Liquid flows from their vagina, their clitoris throbs, and their heart pounds. Their clitoris, vulva, and nipples are acutely sensitive to touch. In childhood they may have masturbated because it felt good, now they feel compelled to, and may do so frequently. A hollow ache in their lower abdomen may cause them to seek something to fill and soothe it, a vaginal ache. The sight of another person, male or female, may cause them to drift towards them, their feet moving without thought. They do not know why, it just happens. They are full of boundless energy and excitement. Sexual thoughts and images become over powering. They become consumed with one thought, sex. Non-sexual things suddenly become sexual. Everything is about sex. No matter how hard they try to resist these feelings, they cannot. No amount of logic will deviate them from their course. They are a sexual, desirous, horny. They may be innocent and pure, but they are definitely not asexual.
One Size Does Not Fit All
The levels of sexual desire a teen or woman experiences vary considerable from one to the next. A woman’s level of desire and its rhythms are unique to her. A woman should not assume there is something wrong with her if she does, or did not, experience sexual desire to the degree described above. I’ve gone to extreme to make a point, though many women do experience intense desire. What is normal depends solely on the individual. Many may not experience intense desire, or experience it later in life rather than during puberty and early adulthood. A woman should not assume that since her peers are more sexual or experience greater sexual desire there is something wrong with her. It is okay not to experience sexual desire, or at least intense desire. Absence of desire is truly only a reason for concern if a woman believes it is. The catch is, if you do not desire sex you may not see the benefits of having sex. On the other hand, a woman pretending to be more sexual than she is does harm to herself, and her partner. Women may do so because of pressures from society, peers, and partners.
Intimacy, Sex, Sexual Desire, and Sexuality
Intimacy, sex, sexuality, and sexual desire are unique entities that can exist independent of each other, yet are closely linked and interdependent on one another. They each play a role within a person’s life and relationships.
- Physical intimacy may simply be stated as feeling “comfortable” and “safe” as a result of the physical presence of another person or persons. We feel secure wrapped in the arms of another and enjoy the warmth of their body against our own. We desire physical intimacy because we are social animals who must rely on one another for survival. Physical intimacy is very important to our emotional well being. The absence of physical intimacy during infancy and childhood has been found to be very damaging to children and impair adult sexuality. Physical intimacy exists in the absence of physical sex, as in the case of parents and children, and between siblings. Sexual feelings may develop as a result of physical intimacy, even between those in which is it not socially acceptable, because our body often responds of its own accord.
- Emotionally intimacy is associated with trust and disclosure. We are emotionally intimate when we trust someone sufficiently to be ourselves, and feel comfortable doing so. It may best describe what “love” is, and is not often achieved in the blink of an eye. Emotional intimacy may result from or develop into physical intimacy that is sexual to varying degrees. If you feel safe and secure your sexual desires and feelings may exert greater control over you. An example is best friends who unexpectedly find each other sexually desirable. In the absence of emotional intimacy, sexual pleasure can be harder to achieve if you cannot surrender control because you feel vulnerable.
- Sex is the physical, the sexual acts and activities. It is what we do with our bodies. Sex is not intimacy and can exist in the absence of intimacy, physical and emotional. Sex can even be a means of avoiding intimacy. We can go through the physical motions of sex without any emotional involvement, at times reducing sex to nothing more than a reproductive act. This is not meant to suggest that purely physical sex is harmful and best avoided. Sex can certainly be fun and enjoyable without intimacy. It can be down right breathtaking. Our bodies can take control resulting in wonderful sex and pleasure. Intimacy usually enhances physical sex by allowing a person to surrender control, allowing their body to take control. Intimacy also fills in the voids between sexual experiences. Woman are often seen as desirous of intimacy and men as desirous of physical sex, both though must seek a balance between the two.
- Sexual desire may lead to sex and intimacy, but it can also lead to confusion and conflict when there is no intimacy or sexual compatibility. Sexual desire enhances our lives, but it can override logic. Sexual desire is a necessity of survival that may conflict with the other things we desire, the things that also make us feel good, but are less necessary for survival.A person may experience desire for someone they know little or nothing about other than what they see or perceive of them, a person’s public persona. Initial sexual desire is often based on sight alone. We may then seek to develop intimacy prior to engaging in sex or we may place blind trust in them and engage in sex immediately. How we see our partner when under the influence of sexual desire is often controlled more by fantasy than fact, if our desire for a person does not develop after first knowing them. Once the initial sexual excitement has diminished, and if intimacy does not develop, a void forms that may cause us to seek out a new and sexually exciting partner.From an evolutionary perspective our nuclear family would likely provide emotional and physical intimacy meaning our sexual partners would need only fulfill a reproductive role. Our reproductive partner would likely be a passing stranger. Once a woman is pregnant her body often says no to sex, and family becomes of greater importance. That is vastly different from what we may expect as individuals and society today. We want it all from one person, in part because nuclear and large families are becoming a thing of the past, in industrialized societies.
- Sexuality encompasses everything: a person’s biological, psychological, and anatomical sex, sexual orientation, interests, desire, and experiences. We are all sexual, even if that is by being non-sexual. We are sexual from the moment of birth until the moment of death. A woman may desire physical and emotional intimacy but not sex, as a result of not experiencing sexual desire, but she is still very sexual. We cannot escape our sexuality.
Understanding The Hormones of Desire
The subject of hormones is extremely complex. To use an analogy, they are like a jigsaw puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle is made up of many interlocking pieces that connect together to make up a single picture. Each piece of the puzzle fits into only one position in that puzzle. If you do not have all the pieces and they do not fit together correctly you do not get to see the entire picture. Consider trying to assemble a puzzle when you have only half the pieces. Then consider what it is like if you have pieces from two, three, or four puzzles that are all mixed together. Understanding our hormones is even more challenging when you take into consideration that medical researchers have not found all the pieces to our puzzle. We simply do not have all the answers.
Starting at puberty, our bodies produce increased levels of the hormone testosterone and it commands us to seek out a reproductive partner. This is not something we choose or have control over, it just happens. This is true for both men and women. While women may have one-tenth to one-fifth (10-20%) the amount men have flowing through their body, it still influences what they do to a significant degree. A woman’s body is significantly more sensitive to testosterone so small changes in its level can have a major affect on their overall health and sexual desire. Without proper levels of testosterone you will not experience sexual desire, and may experience other health problems.
The adrenal glands and ovaries produce five different types of steroids from cholesterol; androgens and estrogens are two of them. Androgens are commonly considered the “male” hormones and estrogens the “female” hormones, even though both sexes have them circulating throughout their body. Women usually have higher levels of estrogens than androgens. The ovaries and adrenal glands each produce about half the total amount of androgens in a woman’s body. There are five different types of androgens, and testosterone is one of them. Testosterone acts on the body and brain and causes us to desire sex and be more responsive to sexual stimulation. Testosterone also affects several bodily functions and influences our overall health.
After the ovaries and adrenal glands produce the testosterone most of it binds with a protein called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). Only 1-2% of the total production of testosterone is considered “free testosterone” and affects sexual function. When evaluating a woman’s testosterone levels, total testosterone, SHBG, and free androgen levels must be determined. This allows doctors to know how much testosterone is being produced and how much is available to affect sexual function. These tests should be performed before midday and after menstruation starts or soon thereafter, in the early follicular phase of the menstrual cycle.
It should be noted that estrogen increases the production of SHBG which then results in less free testosterone in the body. Estrogen might be said to be an anti-testosterone. This is why high dose birth control pills may suppress sexual desire and why hormone replacement therapy may further suppress sexual desire. It may also explain why some women experience increased desire later in life rather than during puberty when their estrogen levels are high. Estrogen levels drop sharply after ovulation which may account for an increase in desire mid-cycle when a woman is most fertile, and estrogen levels are at their lowest during menstruation, possibly explaining why many women experience increased desire when they are actually least fertile.
A woman may not produce sufficient testosterone or her body may not be sensitive to it so she does not experience sexual desire, or only to a limited degree. The amount of testosterone and a woman’s sensitivity to it is not constant throughout her life. While there is frequently a surge of testosterone production during puberty, its level decreases slowly throughout adulthood. A woman is not likely to notice a difference from one day to the next, but looking back over a period of time notice her desire and pleasure are not what they once were. She will slowly come to realize something is missing. This realization may take place while a woman is in her twenties or later in life. Women whose ovaries are surgically removed, surgical menopause, will experience an immediate 50% decrease in their testosterone level meaning they may notice major changes within days of surgery.
Desire Does Not Guarantee Arousal and Orgasm
It should be noted that desire might exist without the ability to experience sexual arousal and orgasm, as other chemicals play a part in these physical responses. Nitric oxide and cyclic quanosine monophosphate (cGMP) are two of the important ingredients of sexual arousal. Nitric oxide is produced as a result of sexual stimulation and cGMP relaxes the blood vessel in the erectile tissues allowing blood engorgement (labial) and erection (clitoral) to occur. This means a woman can desire sex even if she is not able to experience arousal and orgasm. She may as a result find herself drawn to intimacy, not sexual activity, as sex only increases her level of sexual frustration. Women on antidepressants frequently experience this side effect.
Viagra may help women who experience sexual desire but not arousal and orgasm, even though they once did. Viagra contains sildenafil, which blocks the chemical that suppresses blood engorgement. Blood engorgement is necessary for arousal and orgasm. If a woman experiences desire and has sufficient levels of nitric oxide and cGMP in her body, Viagra may help her experience arousal and orgasm. Viagra has recently been found to help some men who are taking antidepressants and may be of help to women too. While Viagra is a useful tool in the treatment of sexual dissatisfaction, it is not a miracle drug or one size fits all solution to sexual problems.
Note: Clit pumping also increases blood flow to the genitals and may help with arousal and orgasm, as does regular masturbation.
Desire to Do What?
While men and women may desire sex, what they desire is often two very different things. Men can more easily achieve orgasm during intercourse because the vagina is directly stimulating their penis. Women frequently find greater enjoyment in manual and oral stimulation of their vulva, as their clitoris is more likely to be directly stimulated. Men enjoy “sex” women “foreplay.” One wants “sex” the other does not. This frequently results in conflicts between men and women concerning what they desire and enjoy sexually. They both want to experience sexual pleasure, but how they each want to go about it is where the conflict arises. The key things to remember are they ultimately want the same thing, and they do not have to achieve it at the same moment in time for it to be fulfilling.
While we may assume that sexual desire results in women wanting to participate in vaginal intercourse this is often not the case. She is more likely to desire that which sexually arouses her, gives her pleasure, and results in orgasm; without the worry of pregnancy. Women frequently report vaginal intercourse is not as intense or as enjoyable as clitoral stimulation, during intercourse their level of arousal and lubrication decreases, and they do not experience orgasm during intercourse on a regular basis, if at all. Vaginal stimulation alone may actually increase a woman’s feeling of sexual frustration. Even if a woman experiences a desire for intercourse, a vaginal ache, she may find intercourse does not fulfill her sexual needs. She may enjoy it physically, but finds it leaves her wanting more; she wonders what is missing or wrong with her. A young woman may explore intercourse hoping it provides fulfillment but finds it does not, resulting in conflicting feelings. She may find men sexually attractive but discover sex with female partners is more enjoyable because it is not focused on or involve vaginal intercourse.
Society says women should desire intercourse and if they do not, there must be something wrong with them. A woman may feel pressured to have intercourse, which results in emotional conflict and loss of desire. If a woman is not happy, stressed, her body instinctively knows it would not be wise for her to become pregnant and suppresses her sexual desire. If sex is not enjoyable for women and is in fact an emotional burden, their body will say no to sex. It is a vicious cycle.
We make a big deal of intercourse and present the idea that if a couple is having intercourse all their sexual desires will be fulfilled. This can be demonstrated by the way in which Viagra is advertised. Based on these ads, one is led to believe if a man can have an erection, all a couples’ sexual problems are resolved. It ignores the possibility that a woman may want nothing to do with an erect penis, even though she seeks sexual pleasure, orgasm, and fulfillment. One must always remember intercourse is only one small and optional part of our sexual experiences.
Absence or Loss of Desire
Absence of desire is not the same as loss of desire. Absence of desire means you never experienced desire, at least to the degree you would like. An example being a woman that did not experience the onset of sexual desire during puberty. A loss of desire means you once experienced satisfactory desire but do not presently. Loss of desire usually occurs slowly over time, but can occur as a result of sudden and major changes in your life and body like pregnancy, breast-feeding, parenting, disease, and surgery. In medical terms, absence of desire is considered “primary” and loss of desire “secondary.” Do not take these words literally. Loss of desire is secondary as it is usually caused by something else changing. The primary cause must be learned prior to a solution being found. Your testosterone level may have decreased because of reduced hormone production by the ovaries. The solution may be to supplement your testosterone level. Absence of desire means the primary components or building blocks of desire are not present. Something other than testosterone, a key building block, may need to be added to your body. Absence of desire could indicate problems with other adrenal glands, like the pituitary or thyroid glands, or low body fat; body fat has a significant influence over a woman’s reproductive and sexual health. Your ovaries may not produce sufficient testosterone, or you are not sensitive to the amount produced, requiring a higher dosage of testosterone than women with decreased desire. Understanding the nature of a woman’s impaired sexual desire is key to understanding it’s cause and treatment.