Intimate love — 30 March 2009
Is low sexual desire a disorder?

Fluctuations in women’s level of sexual desire are common. Women tend to defensively justify low desire as due to: hormonal changes, relationship issues, aging, fatigue, distractibility, level of stress, sleeplessness, children’s and other people’s needs, personal dissatisfaction with themselves or their bodies, among other reasons. Though all these explanations do play a role in women’s amorous interests, these explanations do not improve their relationship when their desire wanes.

Regrettably, a lack of female sexual interest has been labeled “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” or HSDD. A disorder? Research scientists use the medical model to study diseases. Clinicians prefer to see variances in sexual behavior as part of the normal range and due to a combination of factors. Our appetite, energy levels, efficiency, enthusiasm, and other physical, emotional and mental abilities fluctuate without being labeled as disorders.

Stanford University researchers, Bruce Arnow and Leah Millheiser, reported in January’s “Neuroscience”, that specific parts of the brain reacted to erotic images differently in women with HSDD than in women who did not report this problem. To her credit, Leah Millheiser M.D. director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford, concludes, “The results of this study provide yet another valuable tool for understanding the complexity of female sexual function as it relates to desire.” She adds, “The next step is to translate this information into the clinical realm, specifically as it relates to cognitive and pharmacotherapeutic approaches.”

Men who have a low libido often define themselves as “abnormal”, particularly when they hear other men brag about their sexual prowess. They may be plagued by shame, confusion, low self-esteem and fear of being regarded as insufficiently manly by their partner. Some women, in a relationship with a sexually less desirous male, personalize this behavior as reflective of their own low appeal. Pained by mutual self-doubt, shame and embarrassment, these couples’ sexual and emotional relationship is negatively impacted.

Sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein, author of the book “Ask me… anything”, and the writer of a monthly electronic newsletter “Sexual Intelligence”, describes both genders’ lower level of sexual interest as the result of many possible factors. His list includes: early traumatic experiences, unsatisfactory first experiences with clumsy or selfish partners, family or religious teachings, as well as: “discomfort with passion, fear of losing control, fear of intimacy, fear of pleasure, generalized anger at members of the other gender, anger at one’s partner, and dislike for a partner’s technique, needs, or attitude.”

Barry W. McCarthy and Maria Thestrup, authors of a chapter “Couple Therapy and the Treatment of Sexual Dysfunction” identify the desire disorder as the most common clinical complaint of couples seeking sexual therapy. They attribute cultural pressure to the exacerbation of this problem. “The importance of sexuality for couple and life satisfaction is often overemphasized, resulting in confusion, dissatisfaction, and performance anxiety.”

If your partner’s sexual interest differs from yours,

• Realize that sexual interest, as all other physical and emotional needs, occurs on a continuum. As Dr. Klein says, “The concept of low desire, is always relative. Without a partner who desires sex more, a person wouldn’t have the “problem” of low desire, regardless of his or her actual desire level.”
• Accept that though researchers term a lower sexual interest as a disorder, it is most likely a point in a normal continuum.
• Avoid labeling your mate’s sexual interest as abnormally high or unusually low.
• Compromise about your sexual frequency. It is likely to please both of you.
• Cultivate a positive regard for your body, looks and health. It promotes greater sexual interest.
• Be complimentary, respectful, and affectionate with your mate. Express your attraction for each other.
• Tell your partner what interferes with your interest and what arouses you.
• Mutually develop a loving, romantic and erotic style. It will promote arousal and satisfaction for both of you.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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