Male desire is a familiar story. We scarcely bat an eyelash at its power or insistence. But women’s desires – the way they can morph, grow or even disappear – elicit fascination, doubt and panic.
In 2014, as experts weighed the moral and medical implications of the first female libido drug, I found myself unsatisfied with the myths of excess and deficit on offer, and set out to understand how women themselves perceive and experience their passions.
Over the course of five years, I talked with 120 women and dozens of sexual health professionals. My reporting took me from coast to coast, and spanned conversations from a 22-year-old convinced she was sexually damaged to a 72-year-old learning how to orgasm. I spoke with widows, newlyweds, committed monogamists, secret liaison seekers, submissives and proud polyamorists.
I also dropped in on psychotherapy sessions, consulted sexologists, went inside the battle to get “female Viagra” FDA approved and profiled practitioners blurring the lines between sex work and physical therapy. In Los Angeles, I sat with a group of determinedly nonplussed sex coaches as they took in a live flogging demonstration, while in New York I stood among a thousand women whipped into a fist-pumping frenzy by a guru who declared the time had come for them to reconnect to their sensuality.
Against the background claims that women are disordered patients who require a pharmaceutical fix, or that they are empowered consumers who should scour the market for their personal brand of bliss, I found that there was no such thing as desire too high or low. Rather, desire contains as many tones as there are people to express it.
Low desire isn’t a symptom
In five years of conversations, I heard frequent variations on a common story. Somewhere in the mix of parenting, partnering and navigating the demands of professional life, women’s desire had dimmed to the barest flicker. In place of lust, they acted out of obligation, generosity or simply to keep the peace.
“What’s wrong with me?” many asked of their medical providers, only to come away with confounding answers. “Your flatlined libido is perfectly normal,” they were told. “But it’s also a medical concern.”
Just what constitutes normal stirs intense debate, in part because female sexuality shoulders an immense weight. It’s where observers have long looked for clues about human nature and for proof of immutable differences between men and women. The chief distinction, we’re told, is that women are less desirous than men.
And yet, low desire is often cast as an affliction that women are encouraged to work at and overcome. Accordingly, some women I talked to consulted therapists to understand why intimacy was tinged with dread. Others tried all manner of chemical interventions, from antidepressants and testosterone supplements to supposedly libido-rousing pills. A number of women accumulated veritable libraries of spice-it-up manuals. No matter the path, I heard time and again how women compelled themselves to just do it, committed to reaching a not necessarily satisfying but quantifiable end.
Low desire is a healthy response to lackluster sex
However, as women further described their malaise, their dwindling desire seemed less the result of faulty biology than evidence of sound judgment. It was a consequence of clumsy partners, perfunctory routines, incomplete education, boredom and the chafe of overfamiliarity.
In short, it was the quality of the sex they were having that left them underwhelmed. As one woman put it: “If it’s not about your pleasure, it makes sense you wouldn’t want it.”
Straight women are struggling the most in their erotic lives
While all women, regardless of sexual orientation, experience dips in drive, the utter depletion of sexual interest might be more common to heterosexual women, because their desires are less clearly defined to begin with.
“I spent most of my life with no sense of what I want,” one straight woman in her late 40s told me. Another, also in her 40s, reflected that she and her husband “did sex the way [she] thought it was supposed to look”. However, she said: “I don’t know how much I was really able to understand and articulate what I wanted.”
For both women, along with dozens of others that I spoke to, dwindling desire was an affront to identity. It exposed the limits of what they had expected of themselves, namely that they should settle down with one man and be emotionally and physically content from there on out. Their experiences mirror what researchers have uncovered about the so-called orgasm gap, which holds that men are disproportionately gratified by sex.
The picture subtly shifts when you look at which women are enjoying themselves. A 2017 survey of more than 50,000 Americans found that lesbians orgasmed 86% of the time during sex, as opposed to 65% of straight women (and 95% of straight men). Investigators speculate that lesbians and queer women enjoy greater satisfaction because of anatomical familiarity, longer sexual duration and not revering penetration as the apex of erotic mingling.
I would further surmise that queer women are often more satisfied because, unlike a lot of straight women, they have fundamentally considered the nature and object of their desires.
There’s nothing funny about faking it
The subject of faking it tends to seed jokey reactions, which frame the issue of female pretending as a slight to the man’s self-esteem. When she fakes it, he is the wounded party: her absent climax becomes his loss.
According to one well-trafficked 2010 report, 80% of heterosexual women fake orgasm during vaginal intercourse about half of the time, and another 25% fake orgasm almost all of the time. (When CBS News reported on this study, the headline opened with “Ouch”; there was no editorializing on shabby male technique – all the focus was on the bruising consequences of women’s inauthentic “moaning and groaning”.)
Faking it was ubiquitous among the women I spoke with. Most viewed it as fairly benign, and I largely did too. That is, until the subject cropped up again and again, and I found myself preoccupied with an odd contradiction: as women act out ecstasy, they devalue their actual sensations.
On the one hand, this performance is an ode to the importance of female pleasure, the expectation held by men and women alike that it should be present. But on the other, it strips women of the physical and psychological experience of pleasure. Spectacle bullies sensation aside.
Women aren’t looking for a magic pill
One might think from the headlines that equal access to pharmacopeia ranks high among women’s sexual health concerns. After all, men have a stocked cabinet of virility-boosting compounds, while women have paltry options. But this was not my takeaway.
While some women opined that it would be nice to ignite desire with a pill, few saw the benefit of boosting appetite if the circumstances surrounding sex remained unchanged. While desire was frequently tinted by a sense of mystery, its retreat was rarely presented in a black box. Almost across the board, women spoke of their sexuality in contextual terms: it changed with time, with different partners and different states of self-knowledge.
In 2018 an article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior surmised “Research has not conclusively demonstrated that biology is among the primary mechanisms involved in inhibiting sexual desire in women.” Rather, the authors said, body image, relationship satisfaction and learned values intervene to shape women’s experiences of lust. Even though FDA-approved drugs like Addyi and Vyleesi are marketed to suggest that desire dips independently of life circumstances, those involved in drug development are certainly aware of these other influences. The strength of their impact on women’s minds and bodies may even be contributing to the challenge of developing effective pharmaceuticals.
In the case of Viagra and its competitors, it’s assumed men want to have sex, but physically cannot, and so a feat of hydraulics allows them to consummate the act. But for women, the problem is more, well, problematic: they might be physically capable, but emotionally disinclined. Insofar as that is the case, we need to attend the reasons behind their reluctance.
Desire comes from liberating the erotic imagination
In the course of my reporting I attended a training session known as SAR, for Sexual Attitude Reassessment. The two-day workshops designed for sexual health professionals are intended to inundate participants with sexual material in order to highlight where they hold biases or discomfort, and they showcase a lot of explicit content.
The session I attended featured media depicting a gay head-shaving fetish, a medical-latex threesome and a wincing scene involving male genitalia, a typewriter and a miniature cactus. It also included frank confessionals from people whose bodies and lifestyles don’t necessarily accord with the culture’s rigidly gendered and ableist stereotypes – such as what it’s like for a trans woman to experience pleasure, or how a little person (the preferred term for adults with dwarfism) self-stimulates when his or her fingers cannot reach the genitals.
The idea, beyond highlighting all the “inscrutable, mystical loveliness” of sex, in the words of one facilitator, is to get participants to seek out what turns them on or disgusts them, or both.
In my recollection, the word “dysfunction” never surfaced in the programming. Rather, sexuality was framed in terms of accessing delight and accepting nonconformity. The subject of low desire was not viewed as a matter of sexual disinterest, but rather a result of how, owing to the greater culture, women hold themselves back, condemn their fantasies, foreclose on what they really want and sell themselves short on the idea that sex and love must look a certain way.
Women push themselves toward physical encounters that they either do not want, or for which they have not allowed desire to adequately develop. I came away with the impression that sexual healing had little to do with tricks or techniques, and almost everything to do with the mind, with sensing an internal flicker of I want that – and feeling empowered to act accordingly.