A Psychologist Explains 7 Things That Get Confused For Low Libido

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Woman In Bed

When someone is dealing with "low libido," it can be easy to assume something must be physically or biologically wrong with them. Something must be off in their body or their brain that's causing them to have less desire for sex. 

But that's not always the case. In fact, sometimes we incorrectly label all sorts of issues in our sex lives as "low libido" when the problem isn't actually about not wanting sex. We think we don't want sex, when in reality, we just don't want sex the way we're currently having it.

That's according to Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a social psychologist, sex researcher, and author of Tell Me What You Want.

"In some of these cases where people are reporting this low desire and may be seeking help for it, we have a tendency to look at that as if that's a medical issue and, you know, we need to treat this pharmacologically," Lehmiller tells mbg in a recent interview. "But the real issue is that they're just not really comfortable with themselves and with their desires, and they're not communicating about them."

What exactly does that mean? 

Below are a few examples of the types of personal issues that can manifest as what appears to be "low libido." In reality, it's not an issue of having less desire for sex; it's personal blocks or contexts that are interrupting your ability to access your desire. The good news? That means your desire is still in there somewhere and is just waiting for an outlet to be released.

Issues that get confused for "low libido":

1. Not having sex that excites you

"A lot of people have sexual fantasies that they're not comfortable talking to their partner about," Lehmiller explains. "Maybe they feel ashamed of it, or they don't know how [to talk about it], or they have some concern about the outcome. The end result is that they're not really getting what they want when it comes to sex, and so that has the effect of reducing sexual desire. It dampens libido when the sex that we're having isn't the sex that we really want to be having."

For example, maybe you're really into heated, romantically charged, rough sex—but the only kind of sex you and your partner have is lazy missionary where you barely make eye contact and your partner only seems focused on getting himself off. Obviously you're going to start to find yourself less enthused about the idea of having sex. Who would blame you? 

The flip side is that as soon as you are presented with the opportunity to have the kind of sex that actually excites you, your desire would naturally come back, Lehmiller explains. So it's not low desire in general; it's low desire for one kind sex.

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2. Feeling embarrassed about what you want in bed

Lehmiller's book surveys thousands of people about the sexual fantasies they have, from BDSM to threesomes to public sex. Because many of these fantasies are still considered taboo in mainstream circles, he notes that there can sometimes be an additional layer of shame around wanting these kinds of sex instead of the type of sex we're often told couples are supposed to be having. 

"This is a pretty pervasive issue across people of different genders and orientations," he explains. "The desire for sex is low because they're just not getting what they want, in part because they don't feel good about themselves or don't know how to express their desires in a healthy way."

Even if you're not into kinky sex, if you generally feel bad or guilty asking for what you want in bed—more oral from your partner, for example, or more kissing and cuddling—those feelings of shame around what your true desires are can alienate you from your libido. Again, it's not that you don't have sexual desire. There are just all these blocks making it harder to access it. 

3. Anxiety

Likewise, if you're someone with a lot of anxiety around sex for whatever reason, that anxiety can affect your libido such that it's not as high as it ordinarily would be. That anxiety might be related to lack of experience, past trauma, lack of confidence in your body, or performance anxiety around a partner. 

"Most cases of sexual difficulties, whether we're talking about desire or issues with orgasm or arousal problems, most of the time there is a psychological issue underlying it, whether it's anxiety or shame or guilt," Lehmiller explains. "By treating those issues appropriately, we often find that can improve people's sexual lives."

Ridding yourself of sexual anxiety doesn't happen with the snap of your fingers, but if you invest in the work (perhaps with a trained professional), it can result in having more desire going forward.

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4. Social comparison

Do you actually have low libido, or are you just comparing your libido to everybody else's?

Lehmiller calls this the social comparison effect: "You're looking at the media or your friends and getting this sense that everybody's having sex all the time and always has this spontaneous desire. But you're not feeling it, and you're not experiencing it the same way other people are, and so you're assuming that there's a problem with you when, in actuality, maybe you're perfectly normal and healthy, and the issue is really just a perception problem."

A lot of people think they should be having more sex than they are, he explains. But if they try to compensate for that by forcing themselves to have more sex just for the sake of it, research suggests "that actually has the paradoxical effect of lowering desire and making them less happy."

5. Monogamy isn't working

"Human beings just inherently want novelty and newness when it comes to sex, and it's very hard to maintain excitement levels in a long-term monogamous relationship because people fall into routines and ruts, and sex just becomes the same every time, and so people kind of lose desire for it, for that reason," says Lehmiller. "It's not really necessarily about a problem with them. It's really just more of an issue of, again, they're not having the sex that they want to be having."

That doesn't mean you need to throw away monogamy; it just means that you should cut yourself some slack if you're losing interest in sex in your long-term relationship.

Interestingly, Lehmiller notes that some sex researchers argue that long-term monogamy is actually harder on women's libidos than it is on men's, which would explain why women tend to lose desire faster than men do in long-term relationships. 

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6. Spontaneous versus responsive desire

People experience desire in different ways. Lehmiller notes the distinction between spontaneous and responsive desire: Spontaneous desire is when you'll just feel like having sex out of the blue, whereas responsive desire is where you feel like having sex only once you've already started getting into a sexual situation. 

Particularly in relationships, if one person has spontaneous desire and the other has responsive desire, it may cause a similar perception problem as the social comparison effect mentioned earlier. The partner with the responsive desire may feel like they have lower desire because they don't want sex spontaneously like their partner does. In reality, responsive desire just means desire comes up for you in a different way—not necessarily that you have less of it. 

What actually counts as "low libido"?

Now, that isn't to say all cases of low libido are secretly one of the above issues, Lehmiller notes. Hormonal disruptions, neurochemical imbalances, and other physiological conditions can absolutely be root causes of low libido. "But I think all too often we just always make the assumption that low desire is a medical problem when, in actuality, it's often this psychological problem," he adds. 

In the DSM-5, low libido falls under two possible diagnoses: female sexual interest/arousal disorder and male hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Both are diagnosed when a person has been experiencing reduced or no interest in sex for at least six months and is "significantly distressed" by it. 

"It's based on the individual's perception and the degree to which they feel distressed about their level of sexual desire," Lehmiller explains. "So it's usually a bit more subjectively defined rather than, you know, putting a specific number on how many times per month or year they're having sex."

You can see where the comparison problem can come in. Lehmiller points to the parallel of the high numbers of men who think they have premature ejaculation, when in reality they're well within the normal range as far as how long it takes them to ejaculate, but they've watched a lot of porn and assume they're supposed to last for 20 or more minutes. "It's really more of a perception problem rather than an actual problem," he explains. This is also why there's a big difference between having a low libido and being asexual; asexual people experience little to no desire for sex as well, but they're not distressed about it.

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How do you know if you're dealing with a lower libido? 

Ask yourself these questions, Lehmiller suggests:

  • Am I having the type of sex I want to be having? 
  • Am I getting what I really want out of sex? 
  • Are there desires that I have never expressed to my partner or partners? 
  • How are things going overall in your relationship?
  • How much stress and anxiety are you experiencing right now, and what are the sources of that?
  • How are you coping and dealing with the stress and anxiety in your life?

If things are going well for you in all of the above areas, then you might be dealing with lower libido issues that you can talk to a doctor or sex therapist about. But if you've got tension or loose ends around any of these questions, these may be areas to focus on first. You might find that once you work through these personal, contextual, or relationship issues, your libido might be ready and raring to go again.

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