You’ve probably wondered more than once if your relationship to sex is normal. Do you think about it enough or too much? Are you having more or less sex than everyone else? And, more importantly, should you care?
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 behavior,” 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.
This is known as arousal non-concordance. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just something that can happen sometimes when you have a body. It’s typically thought that people with vaginas who identify as women tend to have less coordination between their physiological sexual arousal and psychological desire than people with penises do, Mark says. But, like many other things when it comes to sex, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
3. Is it weird if I don’t feel turned on until things get going?
Not at all. That’s called responsive desire, and it’s the primary type of libido for many people, Mark says. Responsive desire doesn’t arise until someone begins engaging in sexual activity, Dr. Castellanos explains. Maybe you were theoretically open to having sex with your partner but didn’t really feel the urge until they started rubbing your back.
This is as opposed to spontaneous desire. In this case, you pretty much want sex out of nowhere, like if you look at your partner and realize their hair is falling in that swoopy way you love.
Both forms of desire are perfectly natural. It’s also normal to experience both forms at various points or in different contexts. In our society and in common examples in the media (think: romantic comedies, erotica, etc.), spontaneous desire is often portrayed as the ideal kind, or even the only kind, so you might feel weird if you’re more of a responsive type. Trust us, you’re not.
4. What counts as a “normal” libido?
Great news: “There is no normal,” Leah Millheiser, M.D., clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology 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.
Also, keep in mind that increasingly outdated assumptions about sex and gender play a huge part in our conception of “normal” libido, Mark says. Many of us have been fed the lie that men think about sex 24/7 and that women can basically take it or leave it (consider the old stereotype of a woman using a headache as an excuse to not have sex with her partner). This kind of reductive thinking is oppressive to people of all genders. Yes, it’s true that certain hormones typically thought of as “male,” like testosterone, are linked with increased libido and typically found in higher levels in people with penises. But to use that reasoning to claim that every person with a penis experiences high levels of libido at all times is ridiculous, not to mention scientifically unfounded. The important thing to remember is that there’s a ton of room for what counts as a “normal” libido, no matter your sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
5. 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.
There’s also a lot of medical interest around what has come to be known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). If you’ve been disturbed by a chronically low or absent libido for at least six months and you’re able to rule out other factors, then you could have HSDD. “These are people who typically feel fine in every other area of their life except their sex drive,” Dr. Castellanos says. “It just evaporates, and there’s no other cause we can find.” Researchers are investigating whether or not neurological differences could be seen in those experiencing HSDD, Dr. Millheiser explains.
Then there are issues that can cause a sex drive that feels too high for you, such as compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD), which only became a recognized condition in the mental health field in 2018. This is characterized by an inability to control strong, repetitive sexual impulses despite negative consequences, like an impact on your relationship or job.
Another example: For some people, manic episodes of bipolar disorder manifest as having more-than-normal amounts of sex or reckless sex. During a manic episode, a person typically experiences a heightened mood in addition to at least three symptoms suggesting a drastic, elevated shift in behavior, and that can include engaging in way more sex than usual.
6. How normal is it for my libido to yo-yo?
Extremely. “If you’re human, you’re going to have fluctuations in your sexual desire,” Dr. Castellanos says. Like energy and appetite, your libido can be in constant flux as it responds to the many variables in your brain, body, relationships, and environment, she explains. Dr. Castellanos thinks about libido as a scale that can be tipped in either direction—towards desiring sex or not—at any moment as various factors pile up.
7. How do my hormones influence my libido?
Various hormones can affect libido throughout a person’s monthly cycle (if they have a vagina) and lifespan, Dr. Castellanos says. Experts don’t fully understand how this works yet. Here’s how the three sex hormones produced by the ovaries are thought to influence libido, plus a few caveats afterwards.
Estrogen: Some experts believe that higher levels of circulating estrogen may play a role in increasing libido. This is put forth as one possible reason why sex drive can dip after menopause, when the ovaries no longer create as much of this hormone. This can also be part of why sex drive can go down right after childbirth, when higher levels of this hormone suddenly taper off. (In addition to that whole sustaining a new life thing.)
Progesterone: This hormone appears able to inhibit libido to an extent, though experts aren’t totally sure how or why. A 2013 Hormones and Behavior study on 43 women found that heightened progesterone levels (like those that occur right after ovulation) consistently predicted reduced sexual desire.
Testosterone: As mentioned above, testosterone is a pretty major player in this game. In fact, if you’re not on ovulation-suppressing birth control and your libido tends to peak mid-cycle, that could be your testosterone’s doing. As SELF previously reported, when your estrogen rises in preparation for ovulation, so does your testosterone, the goal being that you might want to have sex the most when you’re most fertile.
If you’re on birth control that suppresses ovulation (like the combination birth control pill), you may not experience that mid-cycle testosterone spike the way someone would off birth control, so it’s possible you’d notice a libido change on the pill.
8. What if my partner’s libido is higher or lower than mine?
This is called a sexual desire discrepancy, Mark explains, and it’s not inherently a problem. Think about how you and your partner likely need or desire different amounts of sleep, food, and exercise. But it can create relationship tension when one person gets blamed or pathologized for having what the other perceives as a too-low or too-high libido. (You never/always want to have sex, what’s wrong with you?) It can also become a problem when one person takes the imbalance personally. (He doesn’t want to have sex because he doesn’t find me attractive.)
It’s important for couples with sexual desire discrepancies to talk openly about it, try to meet in the middle, and find ways other than sex to satisfy each other’s intimate needs, Mark says.
9. 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.
“Because sexual desire is related to satisfaction in the relationship, it can be really helpful to improve the parts of the relationship where something’s missing,” Mark explains. “You might see that sexual desire will follow.”
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. What’s less healthy is feeling like you need to have sex to “get it over with,” avoid a fight, or fulfill a duty to someone else that doesn’t make you satisfied or happy. This produces a negative sexual experience that “can actually further decrease desire and satisfaction in relationships,” Mark explains.
10. Who should I talk to if I’m unhappy about my libido?
If your sex drive is causing you distress, seeking professional help is important given how complex libido is. “This usually isn’t really something you can just diagnose yourself,” Mark says.
The best provider depends on your underlying issue and the kind of care to which you have access. Not all doctors are well-informed about libido, but most are equipped to help you start ruling out basic causes or refer you to someone else. If you think something physical might be going on or don’t know where else to start, bring it up with your primary care physician or any kind of clinician who focuses on sexual health (like an ob/gyn), Dr. Millheiser says.
Although therapy can be cost-prohibitive and hard to find, seeing a sex therapist or couples counselor can be a fantastic option if it’s within your means, Mark says. They have the specialized knowledge to help you explore issues like a sexual desire discrepancy or lack of communication.
No matter the case, remember that it’s normal to want to have great, satisfying sex, and there are people out there who can try to help if you’re having trouble achieving it.