Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
For those who struggle with sexual desire and arousal—i.e., they just don't get turned on that easily, that often, or when they want to be—sex can be a pretty frustrating affair. Even if you're in a loving relationship and like the idea of physical intimacy, for some reason you just can't get yourself in the mood for it.
A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy offers some clues as to what's going on with your libido: Apparently women who have difficulties with sexual desire tend to have stronger sexual concordance, meaning their mental and genital arousal levels generally tend to align.
Researchers had 64 women individually come into a lab and watch a series of erotic videos while their vagina and clitoris were hooked up to a device that monitored physical markers of arousal: pulsing in the vaginal canal and increases in blood flow to the clitoris. The women also continuously indicated their subjective level of arousal (i.e., how aroused they felt in their heads) throughout the video by pushing a button to indicate when they were feeling more or less turned on. Later, each woman's sexual concordance was measured based on how much their physical arousal levels matched up with their subjective, self-reported arousal levels.
All of the women also completed a questionnaire to determine their sexual functioning, which refers to a person's ability to experience sexual desire, get aroused, lubricate, have an orgasm, and engage in pleasurable, pain-free sex. As far as sexual functioning, the researchers specifically honed in on women who struggled with desire versus those who didn't.
The mind-body connection may be stronger with some women.
Here's what the researchers found: Women with lower sexual functioning tended to have more alignment between their genital arousal and their mental arousal (i.e., sexual concordance). In other words, for women who had more trouble with sexual desire, their bodies and minds were actually more synced up than for other women.
What exactly does that mean? It means your body doesn't get turned on without your mind also in the game, and vice versa. The two work in tandem.
Of course, this is true for most people. ("Your brain is your most important sex organ," self-love guru and mbg Collective member Melissa Ambrosini tells mbg. "If it's not in the game, you're going to struggle to experience anything close to bedroom bliss.")
But these findings suggest this mind-body connection might be especially important for women who have trouble accessing sexual desire. One theory the researchers posited in the paper is that women with higher concordance might be more likely to be very aware of all the physical sensations in their body and thus be less able to specifically focus on sexual sensations around the clitoris and vagina. Likewise, the body might be hyper-sensitive to unrelated thoughts buzzing in the mind and thus not respond to sexual stimuli because of all the other mental information it might be engaging with.
Importantly, the study also found sexual functioning and concordance were particularly linked when mental arousal predicted changes in genital arousal. In other words, when the body got aroused as the mind got aroused.
"These results coincide with previous research suggesting that the subjective experience of arousal may be particularly important in influencing genital responses in women with sexual desire and arousal difficulties," the researchers write in the paper. "Therapeutic approaches that enhance women's emotional or subjective experiences of sexual arousal may therefore be beneficial for improving sexual functioning."
How to kick the desire system into gear.
If you struggle with desire, these results suggest it's likely your body and mind's sexual responses are more closely connected than in other people. And your mind may be particularly important for getting your body on board.
That suggests your road to tapping into your sexual desire isn't going to be about initiating physical acts and waiting for your body to feel a spark before you're able to feel mentally turned on. It's going to be about first getting mentally stimulated and then letting your body follow your mind's lead.
How do you get mentally stimulated? Consuming good erotica alone or with a partner can be a great way to whet the mind's appetite, as can sending each other racy messages by text or email. Relationships expert and mbg Collective member Esther Perel advocates for the power of fantasy and even suggests exploring a little role-play in her mbg course on erotic intelligence.
If you're looking for something simpler that you can tap into in the moment, master confidence coach and host of the UnF*ck Your Brain podcast Kara Loewentheil recommends reflecting on some of your most heated moments of the past and looking within for inspiration: "Think about a time you felt really sexy—what was going on? What were you thinking about yourself? There's always a thought even if you weren't aware of it at the time. Wearing something that makes you feel sexy or putting on a slow jams playlist can help, but fundamentally it's thinking about yourself as a sexy and sexual person that will really light the fire within."
Importantly, there can be other factors that affect sexual desire: There can be biochemical reasons for having a lower sex drive, which are something to explore with your doctor. It's also important to reflect on your relationship with your sexual partner; if there's relationship tension, it can sometimes translate into lower sexual desire. All of these possibilities, along with the psychological factors, are worth exploring.
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach based in Brooklyn, as well as the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and educator certifications from The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Gonsalves provides heartful, evidence-based information about sexual well-being and healthy relationships through counseling, coaching, workshops, and journalism. Her research and reporting have debunked myths about the “elusive” female orgasm (nope, women’s orgasms are not a mystery and not naturally more difficult to achieve than men’s orgasms), explored the complicated history of American period care, uncovered the surprising psychology of ex sex, and much, much more.