For many couples, sex plays an important role in overall intimacy. That doesn’t, however, mean that each person wants sex at the same rate as their partner.
While pop culture is quick to make fun of straight couples struggling with a gap in libido ("Not now, honey," the wife will say), the sex therapist Chris Donaghue, author of Rebel Love, tells Yahoo Life that mismatched desire can be an issue for “couples of all sexual orientations” — and that it’s not unusual at all to want more or less sex than your partner.
“In every relationship, there will always be a higher-desire partner and a lower-desire partner for sex, just like there will be for any topic, like how often you travel and how clean you want your home,” he explains. Differences in libido, he says, "should always be expected.”
The same can be said for expressing a desire for sex, say experts — especially when it comes to men vs. women.
While historically, men were thought to have a higher libido than women — and “tend to have a higher libido based on the amount of testosterone per deciliter of blood,” according to one sex and relationship therapist, Deb Laino — the “socialization” of men plays a big role in how much they express a desire for sex. Since it’s more socially acceptable for men to seek out sex, they are more likely to do so.
In general, Donaghue says that “the amount of sexual desire that a person is comfortable expressing can be impacted by gender and sexual orientation,” noting, “Everyone is socialized away from their authentic sexuality by their gender, with all its rules and expectations — such as what is socially acceptable sexually for a woman, a mother or a wife. Fold in homophobia and how that polices what behaviors someone will feel comfortable requesting or engaging in, and one can easily see how all of this negatively impacts libido within a relationship.”
Laurie Mintz, a sexual psychologist and author of the book Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — and How to Get It, tells Yahoo Life that while research does consistently show that women have lower libido than men, it also shows that the culture around sex plays a bigger role than biology. Women, she argues, may “have worse sex than men,” as well as more “chronic stress” than men, partially due to “doing more housework and child-rearing labor” than men. Maybe, she says, if women were having “better sex” overall, they would be more inclined to want more of it.
What else impacts libido?
First, it’s important to know that when it comes to craving sex, there’s no right or wrong.
"People are different, and it is hard to quantify how much people should be having sex, as sexuality is still being uncovered in science," Laino says. "What we know is there is really no such thing as 'normal.'"
A high libido “is not unhealthy, either,” adds Mintz. “It is only when sexuality becomes compulsive — [for example, if an individual is] taking risks, missing work or school, interfering with friendships — that it is a problem. In such cases, the issue isn’t always sex but underlying issues, and a sex therapist who works with compulsive sexual behavior should be consulted.”
It’s also important to differentiate between people who have low sex drives and people who identify as asexual, who are thought to constitute about 1% of the population. "An asexual person does not experience sexual attraction — they are not drawn to people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way," explains the website for the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. "Unlike celibacy, which is a choice to abstain from sexual activity, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are, just like other sexual orientations."
There are times, though, when a low sex drive may be a sign that something else going on, especially if there’s a noticeable change in how much you are craving sex.
"If you notice that your sex drive seems to have decreased, I recommend seeing a doctor to ask about testing your hormone levels," Dr. Laura Purdy, a family physician and the Chief Medical Officer at Wisp, tells Yahoo Life, noting that testosterone, along with other natural hormones, such as estrogen, govern sexual desire and libido.
Mintz explains that medical and psychological issues that can impact libido include "stress, exhaustion, anxiety and depression," as well as medications for depression, particularly SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), or medical issues like thyroid disease or chronic pain.
Can you close the libido gap?
Couples will rarely see eye to eye on exactly how often they want sex, but communication is key to managing differences.
Mintz says therapists often recommend that couples discuss what they consider to be their ideal frequency of sex, as well as setting up "scheduled sexual encounters," — which can alleviate the "constant tension" around sex. This way, the partner with higher libido knows that they will be having sex, and the partner with lower libido can prepare for it — which may include saving their energy, getting aroused on their own terms first and carving out the time.
"I often ask couples to recall going out on dates — getting dressed, flirting and the night ending in sex — explaining this isn’t spontaneous but well-orchestrated," she explains. "Many individuals, especially women in long-term relationships, stop feeling spontaneously horny (called spontaneous desire) and thus stop having sexual encounters. However, there is a different type of desire — responsive desire — which is equally legitimate and is when someone is not feeling horny but is open to the idea of sex for other reasons, [such as] knowing it will be good once it gets going or [that] they will feel closer to their partner.
"With this type of desire, one doesn’t wait to be horny to have sex, but has sex to get horny," she says, which means that "the desire follows the arousal, versus the reverse.”
For single people who are looking for a satisfying sexual relationship, it’s also OK to seek out people whose sex drives are in line with their own. Just as for people in relationships, communication is key. Olga Petrunina, CEO of the dating app Pure, says that the app is specifically designed to “facilitate communication” around sex, which will hopefully allow women, who “historically weren’t even supposed to have a libido,” to embrace their personal turn-ons in a safe, consensual way.
“We have a list of sexual and nonsexual turn-ons users can add to their profile — and skip that stage of embarrassment when talking about things that are still sadly considered taboo,” she explains. “Being open and honest about what brings them pleasure is key.”