sex survey: fill in the dots
A creative response to a sex survey score card / Photo: Peiling Tan (cc)

What’s the “Right Amount” of Sexual Desire? That Depends on You

By OBOS Sexuality & Relationships Contributors | October 15, 2011
Last Revised on Jun 10, 2015

Pick up any women’s magazine or take a sex survey, and you’re likely to read about much sexual desire you should have. Here’s what’s important to remember: There is no one right amount.

Chances are, your sex drive fluctuates: Sometimes you want a great deal of sexual activity and can’t get it out of your mind, and other times you aren’t nearly so interested. Maybe you were sexually quiet for a while, and now have strong sexual feelings that make you eager to masturbate, or find a partner, or have sex all the time.

This fluctuation is true for many women. Levels of desire — in terms of both wanting sex and getting aroused — can shift over the years, or from week to week or partner to partner. For some of us, a lack of sexual desire and an inability to get aroused or to orgasm are long-lasting problems that seem unchangeable and cause distress. Good medical research on the causes of and treatments for these problems is crucial.

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One woman notes the factors that affect her sexual desire:

How sexual I feel at any given time depends a surprising amount on how much sleep I’m getting, how my partner and I are getting along, whether I’m feeling depressed, what level of antidepressant I’m taking, and a bunch of other even less tangible factors. On those days or months when my desire seems to have dried up, all I seem to be able to tolerate are small, boundaried kisses, and I feel almost smothered if she meets me with a soft-lip, mushy, wet one.

The Search for a Female Viagra

A number of pharmaceutical companies (and medical researchers associated with those companies) have worked over the past two decades to discover medications that enhance women’s sexual desire. You may have heard this referred to as the “search for a female Viagra.”

This research is crucial for those of us for whom low sexual desire is a result of a physiological problem that might respond to a medical approach. However, keep in mind that once a product is found, drug companies, in an effort to increase profits, will try to expand the market for desire-enhancing medications by encouraging more women to question whether their level of desire is normal.

A particularly problematic aspect of this effort is the practice of defining all low sexual desire in women as Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD), a medical disorder deserving treatment. If your levels of desire don’t match some cultural norm (if you don’t have sex twice a week, for example), you may be encouraged to think that you have a medically significant sexual dysfunction.

Orgasm Inc. film promo

For a behind-the-scenes expose of the attempt to develop a Viagra-type solution, check out the documentary film “Orgasm Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure.

It’s essential to remember that there is no right amount of sexual desire, just what’s right for you. What matters is your satisfaction with how much desire you feel, not whether your desire is high or low by someone else’s standards.

Your level of desire is a problem only if it causes you distress. If you’re not unhappy with your level of desire, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s dysfunctional.

If you are unhappy with how you feel, the first step is attending to other factors that can play a role, such as relationship issues or depression. Anxiety, sleep deprivation, illness and stress can also contribute to or cause low sexual desire.

If addressing potential underlying causes doesn’t help, FSD as a diagnosis can be a welcome validation for those who have wondered what’s wrong. Accessible, well-researched, and effective treatments are critical. Online communities and blogs discussing FSD are becoming more common as women seek a balance between the development of necessary medications and an exaggerated medicalization of women’s sexuality.

Pharmaceutical companies are in the process of developing other types of medical products to address women’s problems with sexual desire and functioning. For a while, they tested some drugs originally created for men, but the results were disappointing. Examples of drugs now sold to men to address erectile dysfunction problems include Viagra (sildenafil), Levitra (vardenafil), and Cialis (tadalafil).

Several potential new drugs have also had disappointing results. In 2015, an FDA advisory panel recommended that the government approve flibanserin, a drug that purports to treat low sexual desire, despite concerns about safety and effectiveness. The FDA previously rejected flibanserin twice, stating that its modest effect did not outweigh its risks.

Products for women that have been tested in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies include nonprescription remedies such as Zestra (which contains herbal oils) and ArginMax (a dietary supplement), and vibrating apparatuses such as Eros. These are all designed to increase blood flow to the genital areas.

Some women have had good results with hormonal supplements such as testosterone, while others have experienced no improvement or even harmful side effects. Research continues to evolve in this area, and it’s worth investigating the latest data available.