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The Complex World of Women’s Sexual Health

  • 3 min read

Ask any doctor the difference between male and female sexual health and you’ll probably get the same response: women are just a lot more complicated. While male sexual health is often boiled down to physical performance, female sex drive is what doctors call multifactorial. In other words, it’s a lot more complex than just what’s happening below the belt.

Researchers now know that our libido and ability to orgasm depend on an interaction between our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. When just one of these factors is thrown out of balance, our sex drive takes a hit. This is just part of the reason why low libido and difficulty achieving orgasm are so common for women. 

Why is Female Sex Drive So Complicated? 

Scientists are still learning a lot about women’s sexual health, but one thing is becoming clear: female desire cannot be boiled down to a single experience. Anita Clayton, chair of theDepartment of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginianoted in an interview with the BBC that this complexity might be a result of evolutionary factors. “Biology, which helps to drive reproduction, is an element of sex,” she said. “It’s only in modern times that reproduction and sex are uncoupled.” 

When examined through this lens, it makes sense that a woman’s sexual desire waxes and wanes at different times in her life. Whereas men are biologically driven to have sex often with lots of partners to create as many offspring as possible, women are evolutionarilly wired to prioritize physical safety, plenty of resources, and capable partners because sex leads to children. The theory is that when the female body gets the signal that our environment is unsafe or we don’t have the emotional or physical resources to care for a child, it turns off our sex drive so that we don’t have a baby at the wrong time.  

The Mind-Body Connection 

If your libido feels like a mystery to you, you’re not alone. Neuroscientists and psychologists alike admit that they have no idea what desire is or how it’s activated in the brain. 

But what is clear is that depression, fatigue, and stress are the greatest psychological causes of decreased sex drive in women. And because one of the most well-established side effects of antidepressant drugs is actually low libido, it can be difficult for women to find both emotional balance and restored desire with conventional treatments. 

Nan Wise, aresearch scientist at Rutgers University-Newarktold the BBC,  “A loss of spontaneous sexual desire is not pathological – it just reflects many women feeling overloaded.” In other words, stress may be the ultimate culprit behind most libido issues. The good news: large studies have found that about half of women report periods of low desire throughout the year, but for many, it returns when they make lifestyle changes that address stress. 

The Physical Factors 

As women, we tend to blame our everyday ups and downs on hormones. For decades, scientists have hypothesized that low levels of testosterone may be an underlying cause of decreased sexual desire in women. It would explain the reason that hormonal birth control, which lowers testosterone, often also decreases libido. However, recent studieshave failed to find a clear link between testosterone levels and desire. 

Another factor may be the body’s production of nitric oxide,a chemical messenger that women need in order to feel pleasure during sex. This vasodilator is essential for both sufficient lubrication and enough sensation for orgasm. While our bodies can create nitric oxide on their own, this ability tends to deteriorate as we age. Birth control and other meds have also been shown to decrease nitric oxide production, which could be why many of us notice a decrease in sex drive when we start a new medication.  

Creating a Sex-Positive Lifestyle 

So what can you do to get your groove back? If you have discomfort or pain during sex, talk to your doctor, as these signs might signal an underlying health condition. In addition to a healthy diet, exercise, and mental health regime, consider an herbal supplement like Libby that helps regulate the body’s stress response and supports the production of nitric oxide. 

Restoring desire starts with taking good care of yourself--something many of us aren’t too good at prioritizing. Just a little self-care can help lower stress levels, balance blue moods, and help us get into an emotional state where physical intimacy feels possible. But remember to be patient with yourself. Focus on feeling better and the rest will follow.