If you haven’t been there, it can be hard to fully understand the difficult experience of losing your libido for an extended period of time. If you have been there, you probably know that it can be a distressing, isolating, utterly confusing development. To offer some solidarity and reassurance, we spoke to women who have experienced (or continue to experience) a low sex drive for a variety of reasons. Here’s a glimpse into what life is like for them, along with some hopeful takeaways if you’re going through the same thing.
1. “I could go for months without sex.”
Barb H., 44, remembers first becoming frustrated by her lack of libido around age 22, not long after she became a mom. At first, she thought it was the decline in libido many people temporarily experience after giving birth due to factors like hormonal changes, pain during sex (also called dyspareunia), and stress. But, though it’s waxed and waned over the years, Barb’s sex drive never returned to what it once was.
If she’d been single, Barb would have been fine going for months without any kind of sexual activity, she tells SELF. But Barb was married, and her lack of desire made both her and her husband feel increasingly bad about themselves, she says.
“I was frustrated and angry that I couldn’t show my husband how much he meant to me without it being painful and disappointing,” Barb explains. (In addition to a lack of physical arousal that made sex difficult, Barb later found out she had endometriomas, or ovarian cysts caused by endometriosis, which can lead to painful sex. She recently started seeing a new doctor, and together they’re figuring out a treatment plan.) “And my husband felt neglected and like he was not good enough,” she adds.
Barb found that honesty and emotional intimacy have helped heal the rift between her and her husband. “Because I communicate with him better, he knows my lack of desire is not something he has caused, at least 99 percent of the time,” she explains. “We manage to express our desire and love for each other in other ways.” And, although they don’t have sex as often as they used to, she says it is “very special and pretty amazing” when they do.
2. “I want my body to want sex as much as my mind and my heart.”
For Veronica F., 21, the noticeable decrease in her desire for sex came as a total shock. She had just turned 18 and was in a loving, previously sexually fulfilling relationship. “One day I’m staring at my gorgeous boyfriend and wanting to spend all day locked away in our own little room … [then suddenly I’m] completely indifferent to the thought of being with him,” she tells SELF.
Veronica noticed that her lack of libido coincided with her starting the combination birth control pill, which contains estrogen and progestin. While low libido is sometimes listed as a possible side effect of hormonal contraceptives, the link between the two isn’t well understood. One theory is that because birth control pills (and some other methods of birth control) suppress your ovaries from releasing hormones and instead supply the hormones themselves, you miss out on the natural spike of libido-boosting testosterone that happens around the middle of your menstrual cycle. But it’s also possible to experience a lowered libido due to other side effects of the medication or any other number of factors.
The most frustrating thing for Veronica is the total mismatch between her actual sex drive (zero) and her desire to have a sex drive (100). “I love sex. I want sex. I want my body to want sex as much as my mind and my heart,” she says. She’s tried watching porn and having sex with her boyfriend anyway, but she is hardly ever able to get in the mood or orgasm the way she used to.
Veronica also noticed that her libido dip has made her feel more insecure in her relationship. “I went from being 100 percent comfortable with my partner to [preferring] to change in private behind closed doors,” she says. “I’m constantly asking for reassurance.”
One thing that has helped? Taking a vacation together. “The excitement of being somewhere new gets me going,” she says. She also recently traded in her birth control pills for a hormonal IUD, and Veronica is hopeful that it may make a difference in her sex drive.
3. “The whole experience helped me understand my experiences were normal.”
Pam C., 42, tells SELF that the discrepancy between her and her husband’s levels of sexual desire “became a super-charged issue in our relationship for about 15 years. I had a sense that I was broken because I didn’t desire sex as much as my husband.”
Pam chalks up the bulk of her low libido to the reductionist, sexist, flat-out false attitudes about sex she absorbed growing up: Sex is only for procreation. Sexual satisfaction only comes from penetration. Women who like sex are sluts. Masturbation is a sin. Things like that.
These messages made it hard for her to connect with her sexual desire, she says, which in turn made it difficult for her to understand what she’d even find pleasing sexually. Pam also realized that a lack of communication between her and her husband stifled her libido even more. So, about five years ago, Pam and her husband started seeing a sex therapist.
“The whole experience helped me understand my experiences were normal, and that if I wanted to cultivate more sexual desire, there are some very useful tools that I can use to do that, like mindfulness and learning to talk about sex,” she says. Pam also learned that while her husband has high spontaneous desire (his libido can kick into gear before engaging in any sexual activity), she has high responsive desire (her libido ramps up slowly as she gets physically turned on). “[Learning that] helped me feel like I am not broken, which helped me feel more confident and happy [in] my life both inside and outside the bedroom,” she says.
4. “It was like I was numb from my brain and all through my body.”
Brandi R., 40, had always been a physically affectionate person and enjoyed a great sex life with her partner, she says. They decided to be celibate for the year before getting married, and right after tying the knot, Brandi realized she was experiencing low libido. “On our honeymoon, I wasn’t as into sex as I thought I’d be,” she tells SELF. She had a cold and thought maybe that was the issue, but after a month of feeling better, nothing changed.
“Mentally and physically, I just didn’t have the desire,” Brandi explains. “I could be touched and not feel the sparks that you normally feel when you’re being affectionate or sexual with a partner that you love. It was like I was numb from my brain and all through my body.”
Brandi saw an ob/gyn who diagnosed her with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). HSDD is a condition characterized by a chronically low sex drive for over six months that causes distress and can’t be explained by any other factor or health condition, according to the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH). It’s thought to be caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters that help to regulate sexual arousal.
“Fortunately, my husband is very understanding, and we are very open about talking about [what’s] going on in our sex life,” Brandi says. “Honestly, there have been times when I’ve been intimate even when I wasn’t in the mood at first. Eventually, because my husband is so loving, my ‘switch’ turns on.”
5. “There has been a lot of tension in the household when it comes to sex.”
Pat B., 41, says her low sex drive has seriously strained her relationship with her generally high-libido husband of 20 years. “My lack of interest has meant there has been a lot of tension in the household when it comes to sex,” she tells SELF.
That lack of interest in sex makes Pat feel inadequate outside her marriage, too. “Having a low libido has really made me feel inept, frigid, lacking as a human,” Pat says. It’s contributed to depression and anxiety and made her feel isolated.
The main reason for Pat’s low sex drive is pain with intercourse due to endometriosis, which she was diagnosed with as a young teenager. She believes another underlying factor is psychosocial: the repressive, shame-inducing attitudes surrounding sex touted in the traditional household where she was raised. “Sex was something we didn’t speak of,” Pat says. “The environment [left] a mark on me.”
Sometimes, Pat gets frustrated with how she feels society sends the message that low libido is such a terrible flaw or something she should be ashamed of. She grapples with anger at the very idea that she is expected to be wanting to have sex and feels deficient if she doesn’t.
Pat went to a therapist for a while and got some helpful information about low sex drive from her ob/gyn. Today, Pat feels more apathetic about her lack of libido than ashamed about it. Right now, she says it’s just not a priority for her.
6. “It was hard to achieve an orgasm—exhausting, really.”
Kat W., 31, started noticing a dropoff in her libido about a month after she was prescribed alprazolam for anxiety, a drug that lists changes in sex drive as a possible side effect, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Kat was under a lot of stress at the time, being 21, newly married, raising a 1-year-old, and living 800 miles from her family and friends. Having little-to-no interest in sex with her husband didn’t help. “It was frustrating,” she tells SELF. And on the rare occasions that she did decide to give it a go, “It was hard to achieve an orgasm—exhausting, really.”
Kat’s sex drive and mental health were further dampened by an unhealthy relationship dynamic. “I found myself in situations with him where I felt I was being pressured into sex,” she says.
Kat’s marriage broke down over the course of the next year, and she believes her low libido was just one factor among several. Today, she’s in a much better place in many ways, including when it comes to her love life: Kat says she’s in a new relationship, and her libido is great.
7. “I just felt defective.”
For Nora N., 27, incredibly painful intercourse due to endometriosis caused her to lose all desire to have sex with her partner beginning around age 21. “The ecstasy and intimacy [weren’t] worth the pain and trauma,” Nora tells SELF.
Even though her partner was very supportive, Nora’s inability to have sex took a toll on her self-image. “I apologized a lot to [my partner] because I felt like I was letting him down, me down,” she says. “Inside, I just felt defective.”
Over time, Nora and her partner discovered that she could still become aroused by and enjoy oral sex. It became their primary means of intimacy for a while. “Low libido for me didn’t mean I couldn’t get turned on and want it,” she explains. “My partner mostly had to initiate it, though, because I didn’t have the urge. I’m glad he did.”
Fortunately, getting treatment for her endometriosis, including medication and pelvic floor therapy, helped Nora feel better in every area of her life. That includes sex, she says: “We can enjoy and have our sex life and intimacy back again.”