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The Reality of Sexual Desire

Unlearn the myth that desire is simply a combination of the right place and right time - something that is totally out of our hands and out of our control, something we're just subject to when the mood strikes.

The truth is sexual desire is not a flip switch, but it is something we have to nurture especially in long term relationships. Our sexualities and our desire do not exist in isolation or in silos. They operate fluidly and in connection to everything else in our lives because we're complex, multi-faceted human beings. There's a multitude of factors that go into understanding desire and under each of these dot points I've listed, there's a world of factors underneath those as well that I've only scratched the surface on.

  • Relationship dynamics: conflict, connection, intimacy

  • Physical health: chronic medical conditions, variations in ability, sleep quality

  • Mental health: stress, anxiety, depression, mental illness

  • Medications: SSRIs, medical treatments

  • Hormones: imbalances, changes

  • Previous experiences: trauma

  • Beliefs and self-image: learnt perceptions about self and sex

  • Sexual problems: painful penetration, erection difficulties, ejaculation or orgasm difficulties, performance anxiety

  • Body image: relationship to one's body, gender, sexualisation

  • Cultural/social expectations: religion, capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, fat phobia, diet culture, race, parenthood, age

  • Physical environment: feeling safe, relaxed and comfortable

  • Sex education or lack of

Each of these dot points tie into how you feel about sex, your perceptions of it and your relationship with yourself. Sex therapy is game-changing in this way because it provides a space that we don't often give ourselves to unpack all these dot points and to get to know ourselves on this deeper level. We play detective and have to put the pieces together around which factors are at play. These factors are core things to understand when we talk about desire because it adds colour and depth to the existing black-and-white narrative of wanting sex = successful and not wanting sex = failure.

When we experience low or no sexual desire, it's incredibly useful to take an inventory of all the potential factors that may be contributing. This is impactful because it gives us direction and potential steps we can take if it is something we'd like to change. It also allows us to get clear on what we have control over, for example if work or financial stress is having an impact, it may not be something we have direct control over or are willing to change yet, so it then becomes a question of "how can we manage it better moving forward?". Factors like not feeling connected to your partner or not feeling great about your body are things we have some degree of control over and can take action around, for example, planning quality time or practicing body neutrality and affirmations.

Amongst all of this, we all also need to normalise putting effort into nurturing desire and eroticism. A common complaint I come across in the therapy space is that it's frustrating that desire, particularly in long-term relationships requires effort. For most of our lives, we've been sold the story that 'real desire' comes naturally, it flows and burns like a wildfire. So the idea that we need to do body affirmations or manage our work stress in order to get it on leaves us feeling exhausted and annoyed, and to some degree, it's warranted. However, that's the price we pay to play the game. Desire and eroticism has to be an active choice - the everyday choice to slow down, to connect and to feel.

“At the same time, eroticism in the home requires active engagement and willful intent. It is an ongoing resistance to the message that marriage is serious, more work than play; and that passion is for teenagers and the immature. We must unpack our ambivalence about pleasure, and challenge our pervasive discomfort with sexuality. Complaining of sexual boredom is easy and conventional. Nurturing eroticism in the home is an act of open defiance.”

- Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity


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