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Low libido

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

The shame & struggle of being disinterested in sex under patriarchy

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Hi friend!


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being sexy, and being sexual– especially in a culture that sexualizes and objectifies women.


I often work with clients who want to improve their relationship to sex, which means I have a lot of experience with folks struggling with a low sex drive, and all of the self-judgment and shame that comes with that. When these clients are women (especially women who sleep and partner with men) there is often an interesting dichotomy present, in which they don’t particularly want to have sex, but they do want to be seen as sexual.


There is a specific “cool girl” ideal around sexuality that rarely gets talked about, because beauty and body ideals so often take center stage in these kinds of conversations, but they all come from the same dehumanizing place under patriarchy.


Image of someone covering their chest with their hands

Essentially, a lot of women and femmes (particularly those of us who identify with the Self-Objectifier body image avatar!) learned that our worth and power comes from our ability to be attractive or desirable to men– and while a big part of the cultural standard for desirability is obviously based on how we look, there are also standards for how we are, especially around sexuality.


As a teenager, I discovered that seeming to be down for anything and everything sexually gave me a sort of “dream girl” status in the minds of boys and men.


I understood that most girls my age were extremely reserved sexually, so being sexually enthusiastic and available made me “special.” And while I wasn’t exactly pretending (which is to say, I was sexually enthusiastic, although the down-for-anything persona I cultivated at times was purely performative), it was very clear to me that my sexuality was my ticket to getting the approval, inclusion, and kindness of boys I craved.


Looking back on this as a non-binary person I can see that presenting as always-horny was a way of trying to feel seen and accepted as “one of the boys,” and it makes me sad to remember how desperately I just wanted to feel like I belonged. I learned that presenting as “eminently fuckable” was the only way boys would ever be nice to me, and to be honest, it gave me a feeling of power, control, safety, belonging, and pride that I simply didn’t have another way to get at the time.


Of course, by unconsciously outsourcing the acquisition of those emotional needs to my body/appearance/sexuality, I also developed severe body image issues, which is how it often goes. But I also took a ton of pleasure, validation, and self-worth from the way boys and men saw me as special! In fact, that was pretty much my only source of pleasure during sex, since I was basically completely numb “down there,” and didn’t get any pleasure (let alone orgasm!) from the actual sex part.


That brings me to the issue facing many of my clients: a low desire for actual sex, mixed with a high desire to be seen as sexual, in order to earn a higher status in the minds of men.


It reminds me of something Paris Hilton said recently, while reflecting on the way she was viewed in the early 2000s:


“I was known as a sex symbol, but anything sexual terrified me … I called myself the ‘kissing bandit’ because I only liked to make out.”


Paris is a perfect example of this phenomenon, demonstrated again in this quote:


"I'm sexual in pictures and the way I dress and my whole image. But at home I'm really not like that... All of my ex-boyfriends…would be like, 'What's the matter with you? You're so not sexual.'"


Despite privately thinking she might be asexual (a word for folks with a lack of sexual attraction to others, or low interest in sexual activity), Paris cashed in on the privilege, status, and social capital that came from cultivating a hyper-sexual persona in the public eye. She understood that it was the perception of her sexuality, rather than her sexuality itself, which held the most power.


This perception— and the beauty/body ideals set by celebrities of the era like Paris—amped up the pressure on girls and women of my generation to be hyper-thin, hyper-laidback, and hyper-sexual, which ultimately caused us irreconcilable harm. Where previously women had been allowed to be sexually reserved (and even expected, which comes with its own set of harmful problems, to be fair) , a new “pornified” ideal had been set: in order to be desirable, a woman must at least seem to love sex.


Image of two females in a sexual encounter

So where does that leave someone who just… doesn’t?


As many of my clients could tell you, it creates a huge amount of shame, guilt, and insecurity. Whether they’re upfront about their sexual disinterest, or they deal with it secretly while going through the motions with their partner(s), the idealization of Women Who Love Sex leaves a lot of folks struggling with the feeling that there is something wrong with them; something broken or inferior; something that threatens their relationship with a high-libido partner who wants or “needs” sex regularly.


For what it’s worth, the pressure on men to be hyper-sexual is also a huge issue in our culture too, leading to similar issues of insecurity and shame around sexual disinterest and low libido.


I sometimes work with those men, and I fully acknowledge how harmful this pressure is on them. But because of conventional gender norms (and the mechanics of penis-and-vagina sex), I rarely hear stories of men being told by doctors, parents, or therapists that they just need to suck it up and have sex to keep their partner satisfied or loyal, the way women so often are.


Due to this gendered messaging around sex, many of my women clients who experience a low desire for sex end up with a lifetime of experience of having sex they don’t want or enjoy from a place of fear or obligation, which is traumatic in its own right. (And as you can probably imagine, these kinds of experiences only reinforce the feeling that sex is unpleasant, leading to even less of a desire for it!)


Now, it’s extremely important to point out here that there are many valid, normal, and healthy reasons why a person might have a low sex drive, and I do not subscribe to the idea that being disinterested in sex or masturbation is (automatically) a problem to be solved!


Low sex drive—especially when it represents a notable change from the person’s status quo— can be an indication of a medical issue like hormone imbalances or disease. And far more often, it accompanies mental health and lifestyle issues, like:

  • Relationship issues, or communication issues

  • Stress

  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy, postpartum, or menopause

  • Lack of sleep

  • The side effect of a medication

  • Dieting, over-exercising, or body image issues

  • Depression/anxiety/OCD

  • Porn, drug, or alcohol use

  • Believing the only option for sex is to follow the heteronormative kind of sex that’s not pleasurable for most folks with a vagina (i.e.: fast or no “warmup,” jump to penetration, and sex is over when he cums)

It’s important to address issues like these when possible, while recognizing that it’s normal for our interest in sex to wax and wane throughout different phases in our life—not because having a lower sex drive is inherently inferior or bad, but because we all deserve to thrive.


Plus, let us please not forget that most vagina-owners need a longer slower warmup to get turned on, and sustained clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm!


Satisfying sex requires most of us to divest completely from the heteronormative script, learn how to center and prioritize our own pleasure, and advocate for the kind of stimulation we need to enjoy ourselves (think: clitoral vibrators and clit sucking toy).


Also, an aversion to sex (much like painful sex) is frequently linked to sexual trauma. Given Paris Hilton’s use of the word “terrified” in her quote about sex for example, it shouldn’t surprise you that she experienced ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of male staff members at her boarding school as a teenager. And we absolutely all deserve to address and heal from the traumas that have stolen parts of ourselves away.


That said, being disinterested in sex can also be a totally normal and healthy way of showing up in the world!


Like body size, height, and an appreciation for cilantro, sexuality exists across a broad spectrum of natural genetic diversity— including sexual orientation, innate preferences and kinks, and libido.


There is a natural genetic spectrum of sexual attraction and desire, and like any spectrum, there are some people who exist at both ends (i.e.: those who identify as asexual, and those who identify as high-sex-drive), but most people live somewhere in the middle.


I am passionate about bringing awareness and recognition to this fact (and to the existence and validity of the asexual community!) because doing so directly disrupts the patriarchy, invites self-compassion, and eradicates shame.


So if you’ve ever struggled with shame or insecurity about your low libido or disinterest in sex, please know that there is nothing wrong with you.


Your authentic sexuality is valid and healthy and beautiful no matter how it looks, and despite what our patriarchal society says it is possible to find self-acceptance, belonging, community, and even pride in it!


(To learn more about this spectrum by the way, I highly recommend the book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex.)


That’s it for today– sending you all the biggest hug!

Jessi


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