A man and woman under the bed sheets looking at each other, while pink light shines through the bed linen
Illustration by Marta Pucci

How does my libido work?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness

How your libido works

Having a low libido can feel really alienating. We’re taught to think about sex as one of those really fundamental, natural parts of human nature, and so when we don’t want it, or we’d rather just sit and watch bad TV instead of having this wonderfulmagicalamazing thing called sex, we feel like maybe we’re a bit broken, or that there’s something missing in us. And then we feel guilty that we’re denying our partner something that they need and want, and ashamed of not being ‘enough’, not being good enough, not living up to the expectations and stereotypes of a society that makes it feel like we should always be ‘ready to go’. 

If any of this strikes a chord, what I’m about to tell you might help. What we call our ‘sex drive’ is actually not a drive at all. 

So a drive is something that anyone, regardless of their situation, is guaranteed to pursue in order to survive: things like food, water, sleep, or shelter. But what we call our sex drive is not like hunger or thirst or sleep, because it doesn’t work in the same way.

So even though you might be used to thinking about sexual desire as a drive - and it might sometimes feel that way to you when you really want to have sex - it’s actually more useful to think about sex in a completely different way.

Some quick definitions before we go any further:

When we talk about arousal, we mean your body and your mind getting ready for a sexual experience. 

And when we talk about desire, we mean the emotional feeling of wanting sex. 

If it’s not a drive, why do we have sex? 

In reality, we have sex for a whole host of reasons, so whether it’s to express love and affection to someone, to feel good, to feel desired, to relieve stress, or even just to please your partner, the reasons that we have sex are different for everyone, and they’re also different for the same person on different days. There’s actually even a study from 2007 that identified 237 reasons why people might have sex, one of which was just to keep warm!
In other words, sex and desire are not biological drives, you won’t have a deep need for sex at all costs - sex is all about the context. What’s going on around you, what’s happening in your life right now, and the way you’re feeling in the moment, will all have a big influence on what you’re going to feel like doing; some of these factors will add to your ‘Yes, please’, and some of them will add to your ‘No, thank you’. 

The Dual Control Model

(or how to drive your sex car)

So - in order to experience sexual arousal (which, as we remember, is not the same as sexual desire) you need to sway the balance towards the things that make you feel good and relaxed - like having fresh sheets, or a glass of wine - and away from the things that get in the way of that - like the pile of laundry in the corner that’s starting to smell a bit like a wet dog. 

In more scientific terms, arousal comes about from an interaction between two different systems going on inside you: your sexual excitation system - things that turn you on - and your sexual inhibition system - things that turn you off. When there are more things turning you on than turning you off, you feel sexual arousal, and when there are more things turning you off than turning you on, you don’t. 

A really useful way to think about arousal is a bit like a car. You have an accelerator and you have brakes. The accelerator is your Sexual Excitation System - your turn ons - and there are actually two brakes that make up your Sexual Inhibition System - your turn-offs. 

One brake is like the foot pedal, a sudden alert for perceived danger, if it sees something it doesn’t like, it yells “STOP”. This is what can happen when you think your kids might be about to come into the room, when you remember you left the water running in the bath, or if you’re receiving a particular kind of touch that you don’t really like. Your brain will put a complete stop to your arousal. 

The other brake is like the handbrake of the car, a constant “background feeling” brake that’s saying “meh... no thanks, I’m good”. This is more like what can happen when you’re really tired, or stressed, or you have unfinished conflict with your partner. For most people, it’ll be really difficult to feel in the mood for sex with the handbrake on. And we very rarely realise this is happening for us. Learning how to recognise when the handbrake is on, and naming it, can be a really useful shorthand to use with each other when you’re just not in the mood, and hopefully help you start a conversation together about what might be going on. 

And finally, if you have no brakes on, that’s great, but - if you also have nothing accelerating you, you’re going nowhere. You need your turn ons to get going. And there are lots of things that might press on your accelerator, whether that’s spotting someone attractive on the street, a sexy scene in a movie, your partner, somebody else, lots of other people, a particular type of touch or sexual activity, or even just having more time to yourself to have a bath in peace - it’ll be personal to you. 

So how do I get moving?

It’s worth remembering at this point that there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ amount of desire for sex. It’s completely personal and changeable. But if you feel like your libido is lower than you’d like it to be, this concept of the sex car might be helpful in terms of thinking about whether part of the difficulty might be that there aren’t enough things turning you on, that there are too many things turning you off, or a combination of both.

And of course, different people have different levels of sensitivity to these systems. All of this is why the context in which you have sex is so important. Part of the work that happens in sex therapy is identifying the external and internal things that might be pressing on your brakes, and taking steps to alleviate them, as well as identifying the things that rev your accelerator, and making more space in your life for them so that arousal can happen on its own. 

So - now you know that thinking about it just as a ‘low sex drive’ is actually not quite right. You have sex for a reason, in a context, and if that context is not working for you, or your brakes are on and your accelerator’s off, hopefully now you can begin to recognise what’s happening, and start to shift the balance, so that you can get back on the road. 

If you feel ready to get back in touch with sex again, check out how with the Blueheart app here.

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