Female sexual desire is more complicated than we realise

It’s time we threw a very harmful myth out with the trash: Women like sex less than men do.

The idea that women like sex less than men is rooted in a lack of proper understanding of HOW female sexual desire works. It has nothing to do with a woman (or vulva-owner’s) ability to experience sexual pleasure and orgasm.

Women and vulva-owners like sex just as much as any other person, but, as Dr. Karen Gurney points out in her book Mind The Gap, people who experience lower desire aren’t less pleasurably inclined. Their low desire results from the TYPE of sex they’re having. When you don’t like the sex you’re having, you’re not going to want to have more of it.

“We’ve been tricked into thinking sex is natural. It’s anything but natural. It’s learnt. When we invest in learning how this works in our own unique context, we no longer need to rely on a prescription to give it to us,” explains sex and relationship therapist Cyndi Darnell.

Meaning, we can all learn how to have amazing sex. We are all capable of pleasure, asking for what we want, and learning exactly what our bodies and brains need to become fully aroused.

Let’s break down female sexual desire so we can fully grasp the bio-psycho-social factors in determining sexual response.

What the hell does bio-psycho-social mean?

Bio-psycho-social means that there is no one, simple way to be a human. There are no universal human experiences other than being born and dying. I know that’s not sexy, but bear with me. “There is no such thing as one true ‘human experience’, it is influenced by our biology (including health, age, race, sex [not gender], abilities, etc), psychology, which also encompasses our beliefs, values and emotions and social meaning—the cultural contexts we group up in, including our relationships, religion, access to wealth, education, power and privilege,” Darnell says.

When it comes to sex, these factors all come into play. The “bio” aspect refers to the body; what we’re experiencing physically. “There are physical reactions in our body that affect us,” says Pam Shaffer, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist. This usually manifests as a physical sexual response or lack thereof. The body may become aroused, the vulva gets wet, the clitoris and penis become erect.

The psychological aspect of the BPS trio refers to our psychological state. This may change and shift depending on a variety of factors including stress level, sleep, our mood, etc. During a potential sexual encounter, our psychological response is influenced by “thoughts we may be having and the memories and experiences we may have had, while ‘social’ refers to the rules of society around us and how we interact with them,” Shaffer explains. We need to be in a safe and clear headspace for the psychological component of our sexuality to align with our biological response.

Lastly, we have the social component. This refers to the context in which the sexual experience is taking place and who they are taking place with. If you feel unsafe with the person(s) you’re with, don’t feel comfortable expressing your sexual needs, or don’t feel comfortable in the environment, this can impact libido and shut down the desire for sex. While these three critical elements are all important, they aren’t entirely separate. They overlap, intertwine, and affect one another. That’s why human sexuality is such a beautiful and complicated thing to understand and why so many people have sexual concerns they can’t make sense of.

“Most people think to solve a sexual issue you just add more sex—not the best idea. There may be some serious concerns that have a person applying the brakes, even if unconsciously,” says Dr. Lanae St.John, a board-certified sexologist and author of Read Me: A Parental Primer for “The Talk”. “Let’s figure out how to remove the situations or thoughts that cause a person to apply the brakes. Any of those situations could be biological, psychological, or social.”

Responsive desire versus spontaneous desire.

There are two types of horniness and we only ever hear about one: Spontaneous desire. The other kind of horniness, Responsive (or Receptive) desire is much more common, especially in vulva-owners and women.

What’s really important to understand about female sexual desire (and male desire, too, actually) is that in most cases it isn’t spontaneous.

“Horniness” is triggered by an event, erotic imagery, a sexual fantasy, a smell that reminds us of that one time in Cabo, etc. There is an activating event in the brain that then triggers the brain to send signals to the genitals to become aroused. These messages are circular—the brain talks to the spine, which talks to the genitals, which talk to the spine, which talks to the brain and so on. Sexual desire is a bio-psycho-social event. For desire to occur, we need the right number of factors to be in play: Bio (our body) needs to be receptive to arousal; psycho (our mind) needs to be in a mindset that allows for desire (ie: feeling calm, relaxed, in our bodies, sexy etc); and the social aspects (the relationship with the person(s) involved in the sexual encounter) need to be in place—we need to be with people we find attractive, feel safe with, who know how to please us sexually and so on.

Horniness isn’t some “random” thing for the vast majority of female-bodied people. It develops out of a culmination of a bunch of different factors embedded in our environment, our bodies, and the people involved in sex. It requires a bunch of different dominos to line up to get the game going in the first place.

Female sexual desire is complex, but it can serve as a tool to understand ourselves better—and get the sex we want.

We can’t keep our hands off a new partner in the first few months of dating because our brains are awash in feel-good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine. That’s why we feel so sexually aroused and horny all the time in new relationships—we don’t need as much of all the other situational factors because we’re so high on New Relationship Energy.

Besides, spontaneous desire is seriously overrated. Think about it this way: When you go on a date and you’re planning to have sex, it’s not “spontaneous”.

You do your hair, you wear the sexy panties, you put on the perfume. You prepare for that event. It’s not like “Oops! Wow! Had no idea we’d be having sex and I just happen to look like a screen siren!” No, that female sexual desire is Responsive. You created an erotic charge in yourself—by both thinking about sex and by dressing in an outfit that made you feel sexy.

We’re all the captain of our own Orgasm Train, my friends. It takes the ability to delve deep into our sexual hang-ups, seek help from a qualified sex therapist or coach, and dig into the roots of our sexual concerns. Once we can better understand ourselves and what gets us erotically charged (and what doesn’t), we can all have much better sex. Everyone deserves that if they want it.

About the author

Gigi Engle

Gigi Engle, is a well renowned highly regarded feminist author, sex coach and sexologist.

Gigi works alongside the likes of  Womanizer and Lifestyle Condoms to help bring greater awareness to sex education, promoting self-pleasure and safer sex practices.

Her writing is often featured in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Elle, Teen Vogue, Glamour and Woman’s Heath. Her articles have been read with huge success, shared over 50 million times, with her more popular posts hitting over 150 million shares.

Gigi is one of the original members of The Women of Sex Tech and was awarded Journalist of The Year in 2019 for the Sexual Freedom Awards.

Gigi has also successfully published her latest book “All the F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love and Life” click on Amazon link in profile.

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