Dr. Sandra Pertot
Excerpt from: Sandra Pertot: Perfectly Normal: A Woman’s Guide to Living with Low Libido, Rodale/PanMacmillan, 2005.
If there isn’t a physical urge to have sex, what other triggers can be utilized to enhance sexual interest? We know that sex drive is a complicated phenomenon, and is influenced by a variety of factors. Certainly, physical factors such as hormones play a part, as many women who do experience change in sex drive during the menstrual cycle will testify. But other factors are just as important: your attitudes to sex and how you talk to yourself about sex; receiving the right sensual stimulation; being in a receptive emotional state; and being in an environment that is conducive to sexual enjoyment. At any one time any or all of these factors can be utilized to trigger sexual interest without necessarily leading to spontaneous passion, and one of these influences may override others on occasion. The trick is to recognize and build on these triggers rather than waiting around for a physical buzz which may never happen.
We have already spent a lot of time discussing more appropriate forms of sensual stimulation which women are more likely to enjoy in contrast to the emphasis on breast and genital stimulation in erotic movies. It makes sense that a woman is more likely to respond to attempts at sexual initiation if she receives the sensory experiences (which include touch, sight, smell, sounds and maybe even taste) that please her, no matter how routine or unusual her individual preferences might be. But a woman’s willingness to have sex is partly determined by the mood she is in before sex is even thought of, so sensory triggers that might predispose you to thinking about sex include things that help you unwind from the daily stresses.
A lot of women tell me they have no idea what they do like so they can’t begin to talk to their partners about it. Earlier I asked you to think about what might make sex less annoying, less tedious, and an important part of this process was to listen to your body and to trust your instincts. Now I want to expand this exercise so that you consider any sensual experience that helps you feel relaxed, peaceful, and kindly disposed towards your partner. The most obvious ones are things like lying together in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night (when you have put the kids to bed and turned the television off), having a relaxing bath or shower, sitting together on the floor on comfortable pillows, lying on the bed together chatting quietly, going for a walk on the beach or in the park. Activities such as these need to happen on a regular basis, to produce a general feeling of relaxation and connection to your partner. Without these type of experiences, you might find it difficult to maintain a general feeling of intimacy with your partner that helps promote sexual drive.
Sensory triggers that might directly lead to sex some of the time could be having your back tickled while you are watching television, having your hair brushed, or your feet massaged, or just idly stroking each other while you lay together on the sofa or on the bed. A more intimate exercise when you are moving towards sex is to shower or bath together (if you like to share this activity, not everyone does), then dry each other gently, and after you have moved into the bedroom, try touching each other as if you are having sex with each other for the first time. Slowly run your fingertips over your partner’s entire body - you can both be standing when you start but you progress to laying down as you become more involved.
These are examples for you to think about. If none of them appeal to you, try to identify any thing at all that you find soothing that might make you find it easier to appreciate sex with your partner. Then give your partner some ideas.
Your partner’s role in this is to understand that you need sensory triggers such as these to help you even begin to be in the mood for sex, and without these you are likely to find sexual touch annoying and prefer to avoid it.
In recent years there has been a great deal of research on the relationship between the way in which people think, and a variety of problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger problems, and so on. This general approach to the assessment and treatment of emotional problems is called cognitive behavior therapy. The stream of thoughts that run through your mind in any situation is called your self-talk. Your individual belief system and your thinking style influences the way you cope with life, and cognitive behavior therapy helps you identify your irrational or pessimistic thinking, challenge it, and adopt more productive coping strategies.
A simple example of the power of self-talk is to think about how you usually cope in a traffic jam. Do you usually talk to yourself along the lines of: : "This is terrible, I’m going to be late, who is the idiot holding me up, what will I do if I get to my appointment late, I’ve had a rotten day, and now it’s getting worse . . ." You get the idea. How would you expect to feel when you wind yourself up in this way?
The simple alternative is a more rational form of self-talk: "It certainly is a nuisance that I’m being held up, but since there is nothing I can do about it, I may as well put the radio on and wait it out. If I’m late for my appointment, I’ll explain what has happened; if this isn’t accepted, they are the ones being unreasonable, not me, and I’ll deal with it somehow." With this type of self-talk your stress levels remain reasonable, and while things might not work out as you would wish, how big is the problem in reality? If you think of the worst possible thing that could happen to you, maybe one of your children becoming seriously ill, and call that 10 on a scale of zero to ten, how serious is a brief traffic hold-up? It’s not even a 1, so why are you reacting to it as if it is a 5 or 6 or more?
You can apply the same process to your low sex drive. When you know your partner is interested in sex, do you usually set off a train of self-talk along the lines of, "Oh no, not that again. I really can’t be bothered. Can’t he see I’m not interested? Why does he need sex anyway? What’s wrong with me that I don’t want it? There he goes again, touching my breasts, and I’ve told him so many times it is so annoying. I suppose it is easier just to get it over and done with . . ."
The alternative self-talk could be, "Hmmm, he wants it again, and I don’t really feel like it, but maybe it could be okay. The kids are asleep, it isn’t too late, and may be a quickie would be alright. I know he loves me so much and only wants to please me. His body feels nice, comforting. I need to slow him down, just hold me - yes, that’s better. It’s nice to be alone with him for a while."
Women who can respond sexually once things get going obviously can have even more optimistic self-talk. "He’s interested again, but I really would rather go to sleep. On the other hand, if we spend a bit of time unwinding, I know I can turn on, and an orgasm would be good, so why not?"
Take some time to recognize your negative self-talk. If you identify issues such as, "This whole thing makes me sick," or, "Why should I give it to him?", it might be time to see a relationship counselor. On the other hand, if your self-talk is more along the lines of, "I can’t be bothered," or, "It’s so irritating," then working on communication with your partner, changing foreplay to be more appropriate to your needs, and developing more positive, realistic self-talk can make quite a lot of difference.
In the same way that focusing on what is right for you to choose to have sex, focusing on the emotional positives of a sexual encounter can make sex very meaningful and enjoyable. Because many couples with differences in sexual desire have a good emotional relationship, this can help them focus on this emotional bond as a good reason to have sex rather than worrying about behavioral goals such as arousal and orgasm or different techniques and positions. Trust your emotions, express how you feel with touch that communicates your love and caring to your partner, let yourself sink into the feelings of love, joy, security, acceptance. Run your hands along his body and enjoy the feel of his skin, smile at each other, tickle each other, whatever - this man is your life partner, and connecting with him emotionally in this way makes the daily hassles a lot easier to cope with.
So, combining your feelings with optimistic self-talk would go something like this: "I know he’s interested but I don’t know that I am that energetic. But then, when I look at him, he really is sweet, and he does so much for me, loves me very much, and I feel so safe with him, it would be nice to feel close to him, to feel good . . ."
Getting in touch with the emotional bond between you and your partner can be a strong cue to help you want to be intimate. Even so, there will be times when you are unable to get yourself interested in sex no matter what you do, and if you are stressed out from the day or you aren’t feeling that close, it is reasonable to give sex a miss.
The right environment can definitely make a difference sometimes, particularly for women. Men seem to be more able to switch off from an unsettled child, or the neighbors talking just outside the bedroom window. Generally speaking, women, particularly those with low desire, are more likely to want a comfortable private environment, with no chance of outside distraction.
The classic scene in the movies is the couple on the beach, making love as the waves wash gently over their bodies. However, whenever I see a scene like that, I can’t help thinking a) they must be cold, b) the sand must be getting in some strange places, c) they are probably being eaten alive by sandflies, and d) what are they going to dry themselves on afterwards?
It makes sense for the couple to take the setting of sex into consideration. He is probably setting himself up for rejection if he approaches her while the toddler is napping and could wake up at any minute, you are holidaying in a caravan with two teenage children, or you want her to have sex on the narrow, cold cabinet in the bathroom.
However, just to emphasize the point that sexuality is expressed differently amongst individuals, I once counseled a woman who enjoyed sex more in unusual places away from home because she felt she left the daily hassles behind. And there are others who have fond memories of their sexual experiences in cars. Make sure this item comes up for discussion so you are each aware of your preferences; it would be a shame to spend so much time on this issue only to overlook the obvious.
By maximizing each of these influences, the right sensory stimulation, optimistic self-talk, the emotional bond between you, and the right environment, it can be a lot easier to respond to your partner’s advances.
Alternatives to Intercourse
It stands to reason that where there are marked discrepancies in sexual desire between the couple, there are going to be occasions when one partner is extremely keen, and the other has no hope of raising even mild interest no matter what triggers are used.
The most obvious alternative to intercourse is self-stimulation, usually called masturbation. Despite endless articles in magazines extolling the benefits of masturbation, attitudes still vary widely. Some men didn’t feel comfortable with masturbation as teenagers and don’t feel any better about it now. Other men believe that they shouldn’t have to masturbate now they are married, and are quite affronted by the idea.
There are men who are quite happy to masturbate when their partner isn’t interested, but the woman is horrified at the thought of it. I have counseled couples where the woman has discovered the man masturbating, and this has set of a major argument. Sometimes the woman interprets his masturbation as indicating a form of sexual perversion. It may be that neither partner finds the suggestion of masturbation acceptable.
Often, however, masturbation represents a simple solution to a common problem, and I would encourage you to discuss this as an alternative to intercourse. The man can masturbate in privacy in the bathroom or bedroom, but it is infinitely more satisfying for him if the woman can give him support by resting her head on his shoulder, or caressing the chest, tickling the thighs, or whatever feels nice. In this way she is acknowledging that she is with him in spirit, although not in body.
A similar alternative is for the woman to bring him to orgasm by hand. Lots of couples have practiced this option for years. It is fine if the woman is not feeling too tired, otherwise, not only can it be a pain in the neck, so to speak, but a pain in the hand, arm, shoulder and back as well. Bringing someone to orgasm by hand, while pleasurable to the receiver, is often hard work for the doer. But if you are not too tired and have your sense of humor intact, it can be a lot of fun. Just make sure you are in a comfortable position before you begin.
Another alternative is mutual stimulation which is nice for those lazy occasions when you both feel an orgasm would be nice but one or both of you cannot be bothered doing too much work. The position I suggest is that you both lie on your backs, side by side, feet next to partner’s head. Both put your nearest arm underneath your partner’s nearest leg, which is raised slightly. This then gives you comfortable, easy access to your partner’s nether regions. This position is also convenient when the woman doesn’t feel like orgasm; she can lie there and daydream, quite comfortable while he enjoys the stimulation.
It is also worthwhile considering acquiring a vibrator. The best ones are not the penis shaped ones, but body massagers which have a flat rubber pad for massage of the face: they are available in the electrical departments of most major stores. These are a useful aid in helping women to achieve orgasm, but they can also be enjoyable for the male. He can either use it by himself or his partner can do it. Experiment with different techniques, but men tell me they like stimulation behind the penis (careful with the testicles), as well as on the shaft and head. If the vibration is uncomfortable or too strong, put a hand over the penis and play the vibrator through that; this will produce a more diffuse, softer stimulation.
If none of these alternatives are acceptable in your relationship, then it is either cold showers or developing the ability to ignore the frustration until it goes away.
© Sandra Pertot