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What Having A "Normal" Sex Drive Really Means

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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
By Emily Shoemaker 

Too high, too low, or just right? If your sex drive isn’t alive and kickin', should you be concerned? Libido, a.k.a. sex drive, varies from person to person and between partners. While stereotypes definitely exist (think teenagers with raging hormones), sex drive is highly personal. In addition, depending on age, stress level, relationship status, etc., a person’s desire for sex can fluctuate. So, how do you know if your libido is normal or out-of-whack? And, if something is wrong, what can be done about it? 

All About That Baseline
Sex therapist and New York Times best-selling author Ian Kerner, PhD, says that “normal is such an elastic word…it depends on what your baseline libido is.” He notes that while it might be normal for one person to desire sex once a day, it’s also completely normal for an asexual individual to have zero libido ever.

A significant deviation from the baseline is what’s ultimately a cause for concern. According to Dr. Kerner, a change in libido is only a problem when it’s a problem for you. Sex and relationship expert Emily Morse notes that it’s not uncommon for couples to have mismatched libidos; there’s really no “normal” amount one should desire (or actually do) the deed. Your libido is unique, as is everyone else’s. But, if you feel it swinging up or down the scale, some factors could be at play.  

Related: What Causes Erectile Dysfunction In Young Men?
 

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Low Libido
If abnormally low libido is causing concern, it’s time to identify some potential causes. But, keep in mind that different factors may affect different people (you guessed it) differently. 

Underlying Conditions
Underlying medical and psychological issues can depress libido to the point of non-existence. Medical conditions such as cancer or other chronic illnesses, for example, can understandably sap a person’s desire for sex. Psychological problems can also contribute to a diminished sex drive. Depression is a common cause of sexual dysfunction, and the treatment of depression doesn’t help matters. Research shows that certain antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) tend to lower sexual arousal more than others. And, given that some drugs have more possible side effects than actual effects, it’s not surprising that certain other meds can do so as well. For example, some women may experience decreased libido while on hormonal birth control, but reports aren’t consistent. 

Other psychological troubles, such as stress, can put a damper on things, too. Ava Cadell, MD, author and founder of Loveology University, notes that common psychological issues of people who complain of low libido include depression, stress, post-baby blues, performance anxiety after not having sex for a long time, and poor self-image. 

Hormones
We blame hormones for everything from chocolate cravings to crazy mood swings. (And, we’re pretty sure we can blame them for this pizza’s existence, too.) In women, low androgen levels have been linked to low sex drive, but it’s not clear which one is the cause and which one is the effect. Some research suggests that certain hormones, such as testosterone, may also play a role in lowering or modifying sexual desire, but they are not the determining factor. Even if a woman’s hormones are all within normal ranges, she can still experience low libido. For men, it’s a bit more clear-cut: If a man has low testosterone, his libido will likely suffer.  

Relationship Issues
A whole range of relationship difficulties can contribute to low libido, according to Dr. Cadell. While pretty much anything that negatively affects a couple has the potential to limit lust, poor communication, anger, hurt feelings, or even boredom are common culprits. Dr. Kerner notes that poor libido is especially prevalent among couples recovering from infidelity — if the trust isn’t there, neither is the desire.  

Other Life Factors
Already plotting tomorrow’s nap? Being overworked, short on time, fatigued, or all of the above tends to bump sex down on your list of priorities. New parents (yes, we’re calling a baby a “life factor”) may be especially susceptible. Who wants to have sex when you're running on three hours of sleep and dirty diaper fumes?  

Related: How Much Sex Is Too Much Sex?
 

High Libido
When it comes to sex, do you feel like a little kid at a birthday-cake free-for-all? That’s okay. Having an unusually high libido isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, it can become an issue — known as hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior, or sexual addiction — if it leads to problems with a person’s sex life and life outside of sex. As with low libido, there are a number of things that can skyrocket your sex drive to an unhealthy place.  

Underlying Conditions
No, that honeymoon phase of a new relationship (when you’re suspending work/life/laundry to get naked with your significant other) isn't a “psychological condition" — as much as your neglected friends may argue. But, there are serious mental disorders that can lead to a person making sex into priority number one. According to Dr. Kerner, sex can be a form of self-medication for some individuals suffering from anxiety. Low self-esteem, unresolved shame, and other entrenched feelings can increase sex drive as well.

An abnormally high desire for sex may also be considered a psychological condition in and of itself. Experts have come up with a set of diagnostic criteria for “hypersexual disorder,” although it’s not yet an official psychological diagnosis. A person with this disorder has excessive, intense thoughts and/or behaviors surrounding sex that lead to personal distress or intrusion on other areas of life. Fantasizing about your cute co-worker is pretty normal (and even healthy), but skipping out on work to watch someone shake that a** on the Internet may signal something’s not quite right.  

Drug Use
Certain drugs can send libido sky-high. Unsurprisingly, most of them are stimulants such as cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth, and caffeine. One class of drugs, known as substituted cathinones, stimulates the central nervous system and may give users a boost in energy, feelings of interpersonal connectedness, and sex drive. Wellbutrin, a substituted cathinone also known as bupropion, is prescribed by some doctors for weight loss — and increased libido is a side effect. 

How To Level Out Your Libido  

Ask Questions
First, ask yourself if your libido is noticeably different from your baseline, and try to identify possible causes of this. Is it negatively affecting your happiness, relationship, or life? Second, if you’re in a relationship, figure out how your partner feels about your sex drive. Are the two of you completely out of sync, or do things match up pretty well? If you and your partner feel A-okay about how much sex you want, chances are, your libido is just fine. Try to relax and not get overly stressed about it. 

DIY
Low libido got you down? Want to take matters into your own hands? Kerner suggests a number of things to help light your fire. First, give yourself (and your partner) a little extra loving. Masturbation and fantasizing are a great place to start, as is focusing on your partner’s pleasure during sex. But, libido isn’t only built in the bedroom. Exercise, in addition to relieving stress and improving self confidence, can encourage you to feel frisky. Another option is to go out with your partner and try something fun and spontaneous. Finally (although it may sound like the opposite of "fun and spontaneous"), scheduling sex with a partner can get you in the mood and take away performance anxiety.

High libido, notes Dr. Kerner, doesn’t usually prompt too many complaints — unless it causes a mismatch with a partner, or if it's part of a sexual compulsion or addiction. Talking with a romantic partner may be a good place to start if you're dealing with the former; seeing a professional is a must for the latter.   

Related: Why Is No One Ever Truly Satisfied With Their Sex Lives?
 

See A Pro
If there’s a psychological or medical condition, deep-seated relationship issues, or other factors that might be taking a toll on your libido, fixing the underlying problem is the way to go. While you might be able to resolve some relationship stuff and external issues on your own, talking to a professional can help enormously in addressing the thornier causes of low or high libido. Depending on the nature of the issue, try talking to a physician, psychiatrist, or sex therapist. If you feel that hormones may be contributing to a wonky sex drive, try talking to your general practitioner or OB/GYN.

Concerned about the side effects of medications? A GP or pharmacist might be a good person to touch base with. For sexual compulsivity or sexual addiction issues, enlist the help of a specialist. A psychiatrist will be able to offer guidance and help you to formulate a treatment plan. Group therapy or 12-step programs offer other means of support. For relationship woes, consult a therapist who specializes in couples and/or sex therapy. Bottom line: Don’t lose heart. There’s a fleet of specialists who can help. 

The Takeaway
Throw away all of your ideas of “normal” — sex drive is highly personal! Libido only becomes a problem when it’s causing you distress, affecting your day-to-day life, or hurting your relationship with a partner. If any of these apply, it’s worth figuring out why.
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