I remember once going to see a film called The Tin Drum with my male partner, a film we both agreed was erotic and arousing. In a post-coital chat afterwards, it turned out that we had each found completely different scenes in the film to be a turn on.
Our sex drive is a highly personal and quixotic thing, which ebbs and flows with life’s events. The fact that sex is unpredictable, as we open up ourselves to our partner in the act of making love, the stakes are high. Sex has the power to repair a relationship, to bring people together, and to renew love.
Conversely, when desire falters, we often find it hard to accept. Couples can be devastated and worry that the relationship is coming to an end. One person may feel rejected, the other feels a failure. The stress levels can ratchet up, making things even worse.
Where is the lust?
A loss of desire can have physical or psychological origins or a mixture of both. There are many physical causes for loss of desire, associated with changes in the body as a result of health conditions and ageing. Hormone levels for both men and women are important influences as are alcohol, drugs, some medications and contraception which can often result in quite rapid changes.
The difference between desire and arousal
If you are concerned about "going off" sex, it is important to understand the difference between desire and arousal. Often the body will still respond to touch and caress so it’s still perfectly possible to have an active sexual relationship, but the desire to do so may be reliant on one partner to always initiate.
Even with some conditions like diabetes, where a man is no longer able to get a natural erection, the desire remains. The issue is that the body does not become aroused.
It’s also important to consider that in men, loss of libido isn’t the same as erectile dysfunction. A drug such as Viagra will help a man to have an erection, but not give him the desire to have sex.
Too stressed for sex
Psychological causes of the kind we see regularly at Relate can be linked to a number of relationship issues as well as life events and the effects of stress. The body does tend to cope well with everyday pressures and tiredness – there will be days when you don’t feel the desire to be sexual. However, prolonged loss of desire is often associated with more extreme difficulties such as a bereavement and other significant life events that are likely to have an impact on all aspects of your life, not just your sexual libido. Just plain weariness after the birth of a baby is a common and normal passion killer.
It takes more than a bubble bath
The advice often given in magazines is that candle-lit baths and cuddles will solve many psychological problems with desire, but it has been pointed out that this advice is aimed at women and doesn’t resonate for most men or gay couples. In my experience, it does tend to be women who present at counselling more regularly, saying they have “gone off sex” but over recent years there has been a significant increase of the number of men expressing the same concern. This tends to be linked to the often remarked difference between women and men - that women need to feel loved in order to want sex and men need to have sex in order to feel loved. Of course this isn’t the same for everyone, but it’s a common theme that comes up.
If you are struggling with desire, see your doctor first to discuss possible physical causes. Once this is ruled out, you may want to get the help of a relationship counsellor or sex therapist in order to explore underlying issues.
For many people, reigniting your feelings for your partner through talking and sharing more deeply is enough to get desire back on track. As the well-known sexologist, Esther Perel says, “mating in captivity” gets boring and sexual desire thrives on newness and surprise as much as it does on love and caring.
Too much togetherness can dampen passion as quickly as years of doing the “same old same old”. Changing your routines can help you to see your partner in a different and fresh light, reminding you of the person you fell in love with. Getting a motorbike and heading off into a forest for some outdoor sex has re-lit the fire under more than one couple I’ve worked with.
In Relate’s 2015 report, The Way We Are Now, with Marriage Care and Relationships Scotland, two thirds of respondents said their sex life is important but fewer than half felt satisfied and a surprising 51 per cent said they hadn’t had sex in the last month. This could suggest a disjoint between the fantasy and reality and that couples find it difficult to ask for help with their sex life.
As our culture moves from a binary view of sexuality, towards more fluid ideas about sex and gender, I hope we stop seeing penetrative, heterosexual sex as the gold standard by which sexual performance “should” be measured. Instead of glorifying orgasm, we could start loving with our whole bodies in a more relaxed fashion, using touch, teasing and talk to bring pleasure, fun, variety and passion into our lives.