You’ve probably wondered more than once if your relationship to sex is normal. Do you think about it enough or too much?
When broaching the subject of libido, it’s hard not to immediately question how “normal” your thoughts, habits, and preferences are. But, like most concepts having to do with our bodies, libido is a lot more complicated than many of us think. So, we asked sexual health experts to walk us through Libido 101, delving into the common questions and the fascinating nuance that surrounds this subject. Hopefully, you’ll come away from this with a better understanding of what’s “normal” and what to do if you still have questions.
1. What is libido, exactly?
You might have heard this term used as a catch-all to describe a few different sexual phenomena. “It’s one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, and [people can have] a different idea of what it means,” Madeleine M. Castellanos, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in sex therapy and author of Wanting to Want, tells SELF.
Experts, however, typically use the term “libido” to refer to the psychological aspect of sexual desire.
“It’s that feeling of drive or motivation to engage in sexual behaviour,” sex and relationships researcher Kristen Mark, Ph.D., M.P.H, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab and an associate professor of health promotion at the University of Kentucky, tells SELF.
2. Is it the same as sexual arousal?
Not really, but they can be related. As Dr. Castellanos explains, libido is about what’s going on in your mind (like when you’re lost in a hot fantasy) while sexual arousal is about what’s happening in your body (like getting wet if you have a vagina or getting an erection if you have a penis).
The confusion comes in because libido and sexual arousal often rise and dip together, says Mark, who is also an affiliate faculty member at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University. This is why difficulty getting physiologically aroused can inhibit psychological desire and vice versa.
But arousal and libido aren’t always connected. You may experience high levels of libido without the physical signs of arousal (like when you feel really turned on but aren’t getting wet). Or you may experience physical signs of arousal (like increased lubrication or erection) even if you’re not really mentally in the mood.
3. What counts as a “normal” libido?
Great news: “There is no normal,” Leah Millheiser, M.D., clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology and ob/gyn at the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford Medicine, tells SELF.
Each individual has their own baseline of what feels good, natural, and satisfying libido-wise, Dr. Millheiser explains. You might have no noticeable libido to speak of and feel perfectly fine with that. You might feel some level of sexual attraction every day and be fine with that. Both are fine. Libido can fluctuate due to various factors we’ll get into later, but our point still stands.
4. Is there such thing as too low or too high libido?
This goes back to that whole no-normal thing. Your libido can be too high or low for you if it’s persistently deviating from your norm or bothering you in some way.
A person whose sex drive has plummeted may be experiencing low libido due to a health issue like depression, which can sap a lot of the pleasure from normally enjoyable activities. Also, even if you do mentally want to have sex when you have depression, you might have trouble getting physically aroused or having an orgasm. An imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain can make it difficult for brain cells to coordinate blood flow to the sex organs, the Cleveland Clinic explains.
Another common issue that can lead to a lower libido is dyspareunia, the medical term for pain during sex. Many conditions can cause it, like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, vaginismus (when the vaginal muscles reflexively tighten, making penetration hurt), and vulvodynia (chronic pain surrounding the vaginal opening). In addition to the physical discomfort, dyspareunia can contribute to feelings of distress around the mere thought of sex, further reducing libido, Dr. Millheiser says.
5. Can I increase my libido?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Any herbs or supplements claiming to increase libido do not legally have to prove they do what they promise before they hit the market. And, spoiler alert, none of these “natural aphrodisiacs” have solid scientific evidence to back them up.
Beyond that, increasing your libido really depends on why it was low in the first place. If you have a medical issue impacting your desire, such as depression or painful sex, talking to a doctor may put you on a path to treatment that changes your libido. Or if you feel like you and your partner have fallen into a rut, you can definitely work to amplify your closeness.
If your spontaneous desire has been low, you can try to feed your responsive desire, like with physical intimacy that doesn’t involve sex but might lead to it. It can be healthy for some people to consciously choose to engage in sex with the aim of increasing intimacy in the relationship or meeting each other’s needs, Mark says.