By Christine Webber
Women with poor libido often ask if there’s a female equivalent of Viagra. The answer, alas, is ‘no’. But even if there were, it wouldn’t help with a flagging libido because Viagra does not increase desire.
Its function in men is to widen the blood vessels so as to enable more blood to flow into the penis and stay there – thus creating sufficient hardness for penetration. In other words, it helps guys who want sex, to have it – but it doesn’t turn them on to sex if they’re not interested.
However, the fact that there is no female Viagra or anything like it actually highlights a broader issue, which is that women’s sex problems have always been the poor relation in the medical and pharmaceutical world. Why? Well, because traditionally we are here to produce children and – unlike men – we can make a baby without enjoying it.
I know this may seem awfully unfair. But it’s how it is.
It also seems unfair that libido in men is a much less complicated issue than it is for us women. Our fluctuating hormones – as well as pregnancies, child care and periods – tend to make the female libido a much frailer and more uncertain commodity than its male counterpart.
What causes low libido?
There are a number of ‘enemies’ of desire – and these include:
• various physical illnesses
• lack of fitness
• drinking too much alcohol.
• body-confidence issues
All these are important. But any sexual medicine doctor or therapist will tell you that by far the biggest cause of loss of libido is a difficulty within the woman’s relationship. So, if you have little interest in sex, you might want to start looking for answers very close to home.
Maybe your partner has never cared about your sexual fulfilment. If this is the case, then it could well be that your desire for sex has gone on strike. Women who lie awake unsatisfied after their selfish partners have fallen asleep, become so used to being disappointed in the bedroom that their libidos often disappear.
Other real turn-offs include:
• Partners who have retired from work and who assume that being home all day gives them access at all times to their partner’s body. This is fine if both of you want loads of sex, but if you actually want to be able to get on with your career or other aspects of your life, and not worry about being leapt upon at every opportunity, you may have a problem.
• Partners who control the agenda in bed, and are of the view that if they go through their tried and tested techniques, a woman must enjoy it – and if she doesn’t there is something wrong with her
• Partners who are not particularly nice, except when they want sex. If you have spent years feeling unappreciated, or not listened to, the chances are that your libido has suffered because of that.
• A partner who has let him or herself go and is not particularly hot on personal hygiene.
So, if you’ve lost interest in sex, please don’t assume that it’s your hormones, or your age, or your fault – instead, take a long, cool look at your relationship. Is it going to last the course? Or is part of you wondering if it’s time to make your escape?
Common sense tactics
There are, on the other hand, plenty of great relationships where people still enjoy each other’s company and really love each other – but where the excitement has gone out of sex. Often such couples remain good companions, but tend not to discuss lovemaking, even though they might want to.
Does this sound like you? If so, there are some strategies which might kick-start your dormant desire.
1. Take charge of your own fantasies. For most women, sex is largely in the mind! Is it possible that your love life has become so routine that you never think about anything new? Your imagination is a wonderful thing – perhaps you need to let it wander into hitherto unexplored areas. Try visualising sex with someone younger, or of a different gender from usual, or from a different culture.
You might find that you uncover surprisingly exciting thoughts. Sometimes people worry about giving their fantasies full rein in this way – for fear of it changing them or leading them into difficult situations in real life. But vast numbers of adults secretly imagine scenarios which they would never act upon. Often it does them a power of good!
2. Find and read erotic stories on the internet. Most women respond more positively to words rather than pictures, so finding some sexy literature could open up a new world.
3. Go on a romantic break with your partner. Years ago, when I was writing a book on orgasms, I conducted a small survey in which I asked women to tell me what made them feel sexy. 96% of them said ‘holidays’!
There’s something about being away, having time to chat, and eating in a more leisurely fashion that allows our mind to relax and makes lovemaking not just possible but a thrill.
4. Make sure that when you have sex, it is comfortable. Use loads of lubrication. No one feels aroused if they are anxious that they are going to be hurt.
5. Take a trip down memory lane with your spouse. Talk about when you first met. Look at some old photos of the two of you together before you had children. Recall the excitement that you used to feel when you knew you were going on a date that evening. Frequently, such a chat can end up sparking off fresh desire in both of you.
If all else fails, you might want to get your hormones checked. But if you are reading this in the UK, I must warn you that you may not get much help on the NHS – though you should be able to get your GP to do a blood test just to establish if your hormone levels are normal.
If your hormone levels are low, what then? Well, apart from HRT, you are not very likely to be given any free help or treatment. Whether or not you should take HRT is not something I can go into here.
Can it help? Well, there is no doubt that some women feel much better when they are on it, and their increased sense of well-being helps them feel more sexy. But I don’t think you can assume that taking HRT will suddenly turn you onto sex in a big way. And it certainly doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not safe for everyone either.
Then there is the thorny issue of women and testosterone.
Professor and gynaecologist John Studd, among others, has long maintained that many women who have lost their libido lack androgenic (male) hormones, like testosterone. This view remains extremely controversial.
However I do remember, a couple of decades ago, talking to a very well-known agony aunt who had recently been treated privately with testosterone. She said: ‘For the first time in my life I understand what it is to have a man’s sex drive.’
I have no idea, however, whether she stuck with the treatment or later abandoned it.
If you want to explore this yourself, you will find it expensive because you will almost certainly have to go privately.
My belief is that if testosterone were the answer to loss of libido in women, then it would have become an accepted form of treatment a long time ago.
Back in 2007, a testosterone skin patch called Intrinsa did become available in the UK. This was trumpeted as a breakthrough treatment for women – but suddenly, in 2012, it was withdrawn by the manufacturers for ‘commercial reasons’.
There are, however, other testosterone preparations available, though the number of doctors prepared to prescribe them for women is limited.
You also have to consider the side effects.
• a deepening voice;
• an enlarged clitoris
• skin problems, such as acne
• weight gain
• increased appetite
So, where are we with this incredibly complex and contentious subject? Well, I think it’s fair to say that there is no definitive answer to the problem.
In my opinion, your best bet is to eat healthily, keep yourself fit, have as happy a life as you can, get adequate sleep and rest, and be in a sustaining relationship with someone you love.
Sadly, even if you achieve all the above, your libido may still be less healthy than you would wish. But try to remember that for a lot of women, sex drive can fluctuate, and often becomes stronger again when you least expect it.
Finally, many women do report that instead of avoiding sex when they don’t feel in the mood, they sometimes find that doing it actually arouses them. Obviously this is not going to be the case for you if your relationship is in dire trouble and you actively hate your partner, or if sex with him or her is painful. But getting close up and personal with someone who matters, does tend to increase levels of oxytocin – the anti-stress and bonding hormone – in your bloodstream. And that is often a great feeling.
Editor’s note: Vaginal estrogen in the form of Vagifem can help with dryness and ease of orgasm (thereby having a positive knock-on effect on libido). It’s available on prescription in the UK and just two doses per week can be enough.
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Christine Webber is a psychotherapist, broadcaster and author. She specialises in writing non-fiction and fiction for midlife readers. Her latest novel Who’d Have Thought It? is a romantic comedy about finding love again after divorce.