It’s not that women’s sexuality is somehow overly complicated – it’s simply misunderstood. We all experience challenges with our sexuality and sex. Understanding how common these issues are not only making you feel less alone with your challenges or feeling faulty for having them. Accepting the challenges you’re facing is the first step toward healing. Here are the most common challenges women experience with sex & how to start fixing them:
Low sexual desire
Sexual desire (aka libido/sex drive – a beloved child has many names) is your innate motivation for engaging in sexual activities impacted by psychological, biological and social factors. It is a natural part of humanity and in many ways an aspect of your inner power and vitality. Sexual desire is categorised as spontaneous sexual desire (i.e., feeling the urge to engage in sex at that moment without/before stimulation such as touch), responsive sexual desire (i.e., feeling the urge to have sex in response to sexual stimulation), and contextual desire (i.e., as the name implies your sexual desire fluctuates in accordance with your inner and outer environment and circumstances).
It is normal for your sexual desire to fluctuate during different stages of your life, but when it becomes distressing it’s time to do something about it. If you experience low sexual desire, you’re definitely not alone: low libido impacts approximately 45% of women globally and is most common in women going through menopause impacting up to 80% of women aged 55-75.
How to know if you have low sexual desire?
It can be challenging to feel the lack of something such as not sensing the desire to have sex. One key indicator is simply low motivation for having sex, not feeling that urge or surge of energy when thinking about sex. You might prioritize other activities such as household chores, work, spending time with friends, nurturing the kids, watching tv to being intimate with your partner.
How to boost sexual desire?
- Measure & balance your hormones
- Hormonal imbalances can often be one factor behind low libido. Measuring hormones helps you understand what is going on in your body and optimize your levels via lifestyle choices. Bringing back hormonal balance also brings back your sex drive.
- Optimize stress
- Chronic stress is one of the biggest sex drive killers! This is related to your hormones as your “stress hormone” cortisol becomes elevated when your stress levels are too high for too long. To balance stress, take a moment to yourself daily simply to be present in your body and mind. For some this means taking a nature walk, others prefer journaling and some women practise meditation. Self-pleasure is also an amazing method to lower stress and thus increase libido.
- Reflect on your relationships
- The way you feel about yourself and your body greatly impacts your sexual desire. Hence, it’s important to pause and reflect on your relationship with yourself: How do you see yourself? How do you feel in your body? How is your sexuality?
- Relationship satisfaction highly impacts your libido but also your overall health and wellbeing. It’s a given that if you’re not happy with your partner, you also don’t feel the desire to have sex with them. So reflecting on your relationship and the way you communicate and show affection to each other is key in figuring out what’s going on with your libido.
Low sexual arousal
Sexual arousal simply refers to the physiological response in your body and mind to internal (coming from within) and external (coming from your environment e.g., partner) sexual cues. Approximately 38% of women globally experience low sexual arousal and similar to sexual desire there are psychological, biological and social factors contributing to it.
Women’s sexual arousal is categorised based either physiologically (e.g., your partner touches your vagina which turns you on) or psychologically (e.g., you get turned on by sexual thoughts which produce a physiological response) Your level of arousal is directly linked to the state of your autonomous nervous system. There’s a so-called optimal window of arousal that varies among individuals. When your sympathetic nervous system is highly active by everyday stressors you feel irritated and agitated – sex is the last thing on your mind as you are over-aroused. In contrast, when you are in an under-aroused state, with the parasympathetic nervous system being activated, you’ll be occupied by lethargy and brain fog instead of feeling excited about sex. The key to optimizing sexual arousal is by learning to regulate your autonomic nervous system.
Here are the stages of the sexual response cycle:
- Excitement = is a state of arousal when you focus on sexual stimuli or are sexually stimulated (by yourself or your partner. In this stage, blood starts to flow to your erogenous areas (especially into the pelvic region). A full-body sexual flush can happen at this stage. Levels of hormones (e.g. testosterone) and neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, serotonin) in your bloodstream increase.
- Plateau = stage before reaching a climax when the sexual tension builds as a precursor to orgasm. In this state, your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate continue to increase i.e., sympathetic activation increases.
- Orgasm = a state of arousal in which built-up sexual energy gets released via rhythmic muscle contractions. Hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin get released during an orgasm, which is accompanied by feelings of warmth and contentment.
- Resolution = your body relaxes and blood flow “normalizes” as in excess blood flows away from your erogenous areas. Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate return to normal. In this stage, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes active again making you feel calm and content.
How to know if you have low sexual arousal?
Symptoms of low sexual arousal include difficulty in both getting aroused when sex is initiated but also staying aroused during sex (e.g., your mind wanders or touch no longer feels pleasurable). In other words, you have difficulty in both at the beginning of the sexual response cycle or you might fall off the wagon and lose arousal at some point during the cycle.
How to enhance sexual arousal?
- Open your senses
- Practise being present in your body: feel the warm water on your skin when taking a shower, really taste food when you eat, touch your body and increase physical touch with your partner, and ground your body by walking barefoot on the ground (natural element)
- Regulate your arousal by breathing
- Breathwork is one of the most effective ways to regulate your autonomic nervous system. A simple breathing exercise is called 4-7-8: inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat 4-5- times and notice how you feel in your body as a result!
- Practise mindful presence
- Stress and rushing through life takes you away from the present moment – and disconnects your mind from your body. Take time to be present with yourself and your partner on a daily basis. This in turn can make you feel more connected and increase arousal as well as desire.
- Eat aphrodisiacs
- Aphrodisiacs are foods that are shown to increase sexual arousal. So make sure to include them on a romantic date with your partner. Examples of aphrodisiacs include dark chocolate, maca root, pistachio nuts, and spicy foods such as chilli and ginseng.
The orgasm gap
Orgasm is a transient peak experience of intense pleasure accompanied by rhythmic (involuntary) muscle contractions. As a result, ‘feel good’ hormones and neurotransmitters (e.g., oxytocin and endorphins) are released in the body, which leads to relaxation.
The orgasm gap is real and we’re here to change that. Approximately 95% of heterosexual men report having an orgasm during sex while only 45-65% of heterosexual women can say the same. You might wonder, is there something wrong with women? Well, data from lesbian women suggests otherwise: 86% report having an orgasm during sex. In other words, it’s not that women’s sexuality is complicated – it’s simply misunderstood.
Only around 20% of women orgasm from penetrative sex alone. No wonder up to 70% of women have reported faking the big O!
How to reduce the orgasm gap i.e., have more orgasms?
- Performance -> pleasure
- Ironically you can enhance your orgasms by not focusing on them. By shifting your mindset to focusing on your senses and being present in the moment to simply feel pleasure instead of focusing on the end goal, you can actually get there easier – and enjoy it more!
- Change your perception of sex
- Sex ≠ penetration. Sex is so much more and expands beyond the bedroom walls. Sex is how you enact your sexuality (by yourself or with a partner). It includes how you communicate with each other, hold safe space for one another, show affection and surrender to desire. Expand your mindset around sex: What kind of touch do you enjoy? What turns you on/ off?
– Prioritize sex and make time for it
– If you want to improve something, you must make time for it. So make sex and exploring your sexuality a priority.
– Schedule sex with yourself and with your partner – make it a priority to explore each other and your pleasure.
- Practise mindful presence during sex
- Our current culture around sex is focused on performance and pleasing your partner. This leads to having insecurities with e.g., the way your body looks and your sexual skills. These insecurities take you into your head and away from the present moment. Practise meeting your insecurities with kindness and connecting with yourself and your partner mindfully during sex.
Pain during and/or after sex
Many women feel shame about the pain they experience during sex and often feel somehow broken or faulty. If you experience pain during sex, you are not alone: up to 75% of women experience pain during sex at some point in their lives. There are as many factors behind having pain during penetrative sex as there are women. It often takes individual mapping of symptoms (and screening for illnesses such as vulvodynia or endometriosis) to get to the root of the pain.
Pain during sex takes you far away from desire, arousal and pleasure. And talk about having an orgasm when having sex hurts! That’s why it is important to get to the root of the problem and then find ways to enhance your sexual wellbeing.
Common causes for pain during sex:
- Not having enough stimulation before penetration
- Low lubrication
- Endometriosis/ adenomyosis
- Sexual trauma
- Lack of connection with a partner
- Low sexual arousal
- Hormonal birth control
- Shame around sex
- Pelvic floor tension/dysfunction
How to relieve/prevent the pain?
- Get professional help
- Work with a medical doctor, physiotherapist and sexological therapist to map your individual symptoms and root causes
- Learn to relax your muscles & mind
- Practise relaxation before and during sex. This can be above mentioned mindful presence, breathwork, opening your senses and focusing on pleasure instead of performance/pleasing your partner.
- What does sex/pleasure mean for you?
- Reflect on your perception of sex. Do you feel shame or have insecurities? How do you feel about your body? How is your relationship with yourself? All of these factors impact your sexual pleasure and can be behind experiencing pain during sex as well.
- Communicate with your partner
- Talk about your pain and how it impacts your pleasure. This not only helps your partner to understand you but also can help you relax during sex and focus on your pleasure instead of fearing pain.