UNPOPULAR OPINION: Women's Low Sex Drive Is Not (Necessarily) a Problem

Why does it feel so dangerous to say that out loud (aside from the certainty of trolls now hurling insults about my frigidity and general unattractiveness)?
Publish date:
September 2, 2015
relationships, unpopular opinion, feminism, marriage, long term relationships, sex drive, sex

Hallelujah! The “little pink pill” is finally here to save women from our lack of desire!

Wait – what?

In what universe is not wanting something worse than wanting? How I wish I had a lack of appetite for so many things that I crave – for sleep, for couch/screen/alone time, for chocolate and beer, for expensive consumer goods, for a different job. Just imagine how productive and creative, how thin and healthy I could be, were I free from the everyday appetites of mere losers! I would have countless books and articles to my name, a huge savings account, a dozen more children, and an ass to make J.Lo jealous. Most importantly, I would be content with all the good things that are already present in my life. Right?

The last time I checked, it’s not a lack of desire but desire itself that causes most problems. But then, perhaps I forgot – the measure of women’s health is not our own happiness. A lack of desire is a bad thing when it means your partner wants to divorce you.

Let me tell you something, friends. When I was a late adolescent, I felt guilty for wanting sex so much. I rarely made it through a whole day without masturbating. In my twenties I felt guilty for being sexually active (you know, “slutty”), and for the fact that my interest in boys overshadowed my interest in everything else. The stability and security of marriage helped me a lot in that regard. In my thirties, I felt guilty that my interest in sex centered mainly on parenthood; I also felt guilty that I couldn’t get pregnant and stay pregnant as easily as other women seemed to do.

Now that I’m in my forties, no longer feeling the need to snag a mate or procreate, I am apparently supposed to feel guilty for not wanting as much sex – and not wanting sex as much – as I did in my younger years.

Truth: Women can’t win, no matter what.

When people feel guilty, it’s not uncommon to look for someone else to blame. One might, for example, blame men for being bad lovers, as Jessica Valenti does here: “Alas, there’s no pill that will make more men interested in foreplay, abandon whatever bad habits they picked up from online porn… No little pink pill will magically make individual men better – or at least less lazy – at sex.” If a woman is bored with her long-term partner, it’s apparently his fault for being boring. (She doesn’t mention lesbians, but the trend toward low libido is apparently even more pronounced in female couples, as evidenced by the shockingly shame-inducing term, “lesbian bed death.”)

I’m not willing to put all the responsibility on men, but I take from her the point that others have also made – that “framing low sexual desire as a disease or disorder… will put pressure on women to perform sexually in a certain way,” namely a way that men have been culturally trained to expect. But maybe the problem isn’t just men; maybe “it’s economics,” namely the kind “that requires mothers and fathers to work just to barely get by… If anything, we’re all more tired than we used to be.” Equity in fatigue is – surprise! – unhelpful to sexual desire. One author has even argued that the nicer a man is about sharing housework, the less his woman desires him sexually. Apparently we like chauvinists and bad boys more than we care to admit.

But here’s what I think: apart from genuine sexual dysfunction, if a woman – or indeed even a man – isn’t interested in sex, it’s quite possibly not a problem at all. Why does it feel so dangerous to say that out loud (aside from the certainty of trolls now hurling insults about my frigidity and general unattractiveness)?

It is common in the U.S. in 2015 to see sexual pleasure as an end in itself, but this is a cultural value rather than a universal truth. Indeed, there are still some people in the world who think there is no such thing as healthy sexual desire – that it is “low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble and unbeneficial,” “a state beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever.” Other folks see sexual desire, more moderately, as a potential good as long as it does not promote human suffering. Still others view sex as a means to an end; a good, to be sure, but only in so far as it facilitates higher aspects of human flourishing like friendship or procreation.

The idea of desire for desire’s sake, it seems to me, is just one more instance of our cultural insistence on perennial adolescence, especially for women. A large chunk of our economy is built upon convincing women to maintain a slender, dewy-skinned, shiny-haired, youthful appearance, to resist growing old or even growing up, and instead to continue looking and feeling like “girls” – “one combination or another of vulnerability, deceptiveness, sexual allure, chutzpah, mystery, entrapment, and lack of gravitas.” Unbelievably, some women undergo unnecessary surgery on their vaginas, so as to look and feel more youthful for their partners even though it often means a loss of sensation.

Besides low libido and droopy vulvas, you know what else are common “problems” for women as we grow older? Wrinkles! Fat! Eyelash disorders! Varicose veins! A failure to put up with other people’s shit! Our biggest problem, it seems, is not being girls anymore.

I love it when feminism fights back against this sort of stupidity. When the patriarchy tells women we shouldn't be fat, we say: fuck the patriarchy, accept your fat! When the patriarchy tells women we should neither look too young nor too old, we cry bullshit and say: stop talking about my face!

But when the patriarchy tells middle-aged women that we should want as much sex as we wanted when we were 20, or partnered women that we should want as much sex with the guy we’ve known two decades (and probably seen on the toilet) as we wanted in our prior short-term relationships, we say: Yeah, you’re right, I should probably fix that. It’s just not OK, for anyone, not to want lots of sex. Apparently bonobos are the new standard of human normalcy.

I think a celebration of low- or even no-sex relationships could be a new frontier of feminist work. If reduced sex drive in women is so common as to be a medical assumption, then maybe it’s well within the realm of “normal.” Perhaps what we have are healthy women whom culture simply hasn’t yet figured out what to do with, any more than it knows what to do with women who don’t shave or who don’t wear make-up. If, as Valenti pointed out, “the way we’ve been taught to think about [sex] and the way we’ve been taught to desire is distinctly male-centered,” perhaps we should extend this critique to the very idea that loss of libido is problematic.

Why doesn’t our celebration of human diversity extend to a diversity of sexual appetites? Do we really have to come up with new terms like “demisexual” or “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” just so folks can garner a little respect? (Hypoactive compared to what?) There can be a great freedom, and a depth of friendship, that comes only from having spent long years together, being sick in front of each other, partnering together in housework or parenthood, getting fatter together, or surviving the death of a loved one together. Not everyone needs to feel turned on all the time, and even the most cunilingus-loving partner appreciates not feeling the pressure to perform like a movie star.

Couples who continue to value hot, experimental sex into their golden years should keep on doing so. More power to ‘em. If someone feels there is something missing in her relationship, she should definitely work with her partner to do something about it. And certainly, if someone feels her body isn’t working the way she wants it to, she should talk with a health care professional; a lack of desire for sex is not the same thing as a lack of pleasure in sex.

But for others, accepting a life of less sex can actually be wonderfully freeing. Despite having enjoyed frequent sex in the past, some of us are now happily and healthily pursuing other interests most of the time, like work, parenting, and sleep. (Some couples even sleep separately, or at least they would if it weren’t such a cultural taboo.) Being in mid-life in a long-term relationship is a lot like being “friends with benefits,” where sex is always an option, but never an obligation. For me, the nights of waking up with a desperate need for orgasm are now few and far between. When they do happen, though, my spouse is right there to help me out… provided we’re not sharing a hotel room with our kid.

Truth: Women can’t win, no matter what. So you might as well do (or don’t do) whatever the hell you want (or don’t want).