It’s a story I’ve heard plenty: Couple gets married, and after a short or long while, sexual interest for one or both spouses wanes.
What happened? Isn’t sex supposed to be wonderful and worth getting excited about? How can the shine wear off so quickly or so well?
As I’ve been perusing research articles I hung on to, with every intention of reading well before now, I came across an interesting study reported in the British Medical Journal. Conducted by the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles team, 6,669 women and 4,839 men aged between 16 and 74 with at least one sexual partner in the past year reported their level of sexual interest and factors that affected their desire.
First off, a few caveats:
- They’re British. You live where you live. Culture can affect our perspectives.
- Some surveyed were married, some weren’t.
- Some had a single partner, some didn’t.
- The researchers spell behavior with a u, so what do they know? Just kidding!
Even so, the results align with a lot of what my readers and Facebook page participants have said, as well as other research in this area. Since it might hit you right where you’re struggling with sexual interest, let’s take a look at what the survey showed.
Most men and women are interested in sex.
Contrary to the oft-perpetuated line that husbands always want sex and wives don’t, this survey showed that a strong majority of both genders desire sex. Only 34% of women and 15% of men reported lacking interest in sex.
Now that does show that a higher percentage of women lack interest than men, but 15% of disinterested men is higher than many think and 66% of women (or 2/3) are on board with getting busy. It’s just not accurate to say that all men want sex all the time and women are the holdouts.It's just not accurate to say that all men want sex all the time and women are the holdouts. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
These 4 factors lower interest for both men and women.
Researchers asked survey participants: “In the last year, have you experienced any of the following for a period of ≥3 months?” after which appeared a list of difficulties including “Lacked interest in having sex.” Among those who reported lack of interest, four factors were linked to this difficulty:
- Poor mental and physical health
- Having an STI in the last year
- Ever experiencing sex against your will
- Not feeling emotionally close to partner during sex
One can easily imagine why these factors would dampen a spouse’s desire to engage sexually.
For instance, when someone reports lack of drive, the first thing I typically recommend is visiting the doctor to make sure your physical health is not an impediment to sexual activity and enjoyment. Likewise, if you’re experiencing depression or stress, those can absolutely affect your desire.
Sexually transmitted infections can interfere with physical intimacy, not only in the usual way of making a couple take a break while things clear up. But STIs also increase worry and stress about flare-ups and giving the infection to your spouse.
Sexual assault is a heartbreaking experience, and its survivors can struggle with the trauma for years afterward. If you were molested, assaulted, or raped, please acknowledge the gravity of that event and seek trauma counseling. It’s important that you see someone trained and experienced in treating sexual trauma, so that they can provide quality assistance. If the rape occurred within your marriage, get help now.
As for emotional closeness, no one wants to be used. If you don’t feel that you’re valued beyond your body parts—even if it’s just during sex itself—then why would you want to keep going? As I’ve pointed out before, quite frankly you can get pleasure and sexual release on your own. But God designed sex to intimately connect husband and wife. (See What Are the Real Purposes of Sex?)
These 3 factors lower interest only for women.
The study identified three factors linked to lack of interest in women only. And before you read on, I don’t like that the first one doesn’t impact sexual interest for men too. It honestly feeds into the “men are pigs” line that I’ve vehemently opposed for years! But results are results. And those three factors are:
- Three or more partners in the past year
- Children under 5 years old in the household
- Not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes as partner
So why does interest in sex lessen for women with multiple partners but not for men? The standard answer you might hear in the world is that men evolved to spread their seed to as many child-bearers as possible, while women evolved to attach themselves to a single man who would provide for her family. So multiple partners causes dissatisfaction for women but satisfaction for men. Or as I call that theory: blah blah blah.
Sorry, but I find that explanation uncompelling and inconsistent with God’s design for sex in marriage with a single man and a single woman. That’s what He created (see Genesis 1-2). But then what’s an alternative reason for this data?
I sense the issue is two-fold. First, women produce oxytocin during sex within the first sexual encounter with a man; however, men don’t get as big a wash of oxytocin unless/until they’re in a committed relationship. Look, even Sex and the City (a show I watched for like 10 minutes before I concluded it was preposterous) admits that while these women tried to “have sex like a man,” they couldn’t help but want more. Now, of course men want more too! But I’m just talking biology so far.
Second, men tend to compartmentalize better than women do. There’s a reason why Bill and Pam Farrell’s book title resonates with so many of us: Men are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti. Mark Gungor refers to these typical differences as men’s boxes and women’s ball of wire. But essentially men can have sex, drop that experience in a mental box, and move on in a way that women usually can’t.
Did God make it that way so men could have many sexual partners? Of course not. There are many benefits to having different yet complementary systems where one of you has a more pinpoint focus and the other takes in and processes more stimuli. Moreover, God clearly says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Men are expected to leave and cleave!
Regardless, “three or more partners in the past year” should not be a situation in anyone’s marriage. If that factor is present, your problem is not a lack of interest in sex but not living according to God’s plan for your life.
As for the next factor, all of you moms nodded when you read “children under 5 years old in the household,” because while young kids can be absolutely delightful, they are also distracting, demanding, and exhausting. Those issues don’t tend affect men as much for various reasons—including the physical demands of pregnancy, childbirth recovery, and nursing; the percentage of moms who stay home with kids; division of labor within households; and women’s multi-tasking minds that make it hard to shut off the mom-ear and focus on lovemaking.
The third factor—not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes as partner—is interesting. I have theories on that one, including:
- Women often don’t understand their own sexuality and what it takes to become aroused or satisfied.
- Women can be less forthright about their desires.
- Our perspective of what’s okay can be skewed by religious teaching.
- Our perspective of what’s enjoyable can be skewed by pop culture.
- Women are more likely to have body image issues, and thus take certain (reasonable) activities off the table.
- Men who’ve seen porn often have unrealistic expectations of women’s arousal and/or what she’ll like or do.
- Women are more likely to hear and believe that sex isn’t for them, but for him.
- Men can be more demanding about their sexual wishes and fantasies.
Of course, it could be a combination of two or more of those. But from the comments and messages I’ve received, wives often feel obligated or pressured to do sexual activities they don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s the wives who need to learn more about God’s list of a-okays, and sometimes it’s the husbands who need to ask about and respect their wives’ wishes.
You can increase your sexual interest.
With few exceptions, your interest in sexual intimacy can increase by addressing or managing the factors mentioned here. Interestingly enough, while wives reported less interest in sex overall, they also reported being distressed about it. Plenty of spouses who don’t desire sex as much they used to, or as much as their partner does, want to want sex.Plenty of spouses who don't desire sex as much they used to, or as much as their partner does, want to want sex. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
If you’re among those who has less interest in sex than you’d like, ask what your obstacles are. What needs your attention, and how can you take that first step?
If you’re married to someone whose interest has waned, or never been there, consider what your spouse’s obstacles are. How can you support them in addressing those issues?
And one last great finding I want to share: “Those who found it always easy to talk about sex with their partner were less likely to report lacking interest. This was true for men as well as women.” Yep, communication matters.
That’s why I wrote Pillow Talk, a book you should totally pick up and share with your spouse. It’s not just conversation starters, but so much more. It’s a discussion guide for you and your beloved to talk about the challenges to your sex life and the pursuit of deeper intimacy. (You can find a sample chapter here.)
Resources: BMJ – What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles; downloadble PDF of study; The Hippocratic Post – Why we lose interest in sex
17 thoughts on “Where Did Your Sexual Interest Go?”
This may be a bit off topic, but it does speak to your first point of “most men and women are interested in sex” This weekend I was pondering something that I used to always hear, and was taught in Christian circles about sex. It wouldn’t surprise me if it still is, but I just haven’t paid that much attention lately.
I heard it said an awful lot that “Women have sex to get love, and men give love to get sex” In the past, I never really took that statement apart to see what it was actually saying. When you do that, it is an awful statement and even worse marriage advice. It is in essence teaching people that women have no interest in sex and men have no interest in love. Dig a little deeper and it is really just saying that men and women manipulate each other to get what they want out of marriage.
Think of the brain conditioning that has gone on for a long time because of this teaching. Teens were taught this with the hope of keeping girls from “falling” for guys that tell them anything to get sex (totally ignoring that the girl probably has natural desires for sex as well). Engaged and newlywed couples were taught this trying to help them understand the desires of each sex. But All it does is sell each other short. It teaches women that wanting sex isn’t natural for them and they don’t need it, while at the same time teaching men that wanting to love and be loved isn’t natural for them. But, if we manipulate each other into getting what we want, then everything will be fine. Totally leaving out the fact that women can need and enjoy sex just as much as men and men can need and desire love just as much as women.
After living a long time in a marriage where I wasn’t loved by my wife, I can finally see how much I need and desire love. Frankly, I can look back on having sex without being loved and it all just feels empty. Sex and love are both important components in marriage no matter which gender you are.
I’ve never loved that saying either, but I hadn’t broken down exactly why. I do understand what people are trying to get at; that is, that wives tend to engage in sex only after they feel loved, whereas husbands report that sex is one thing that really makes them feel loved. Still, I think it’s too simple a statement and, as you say, sells short that women also can feel loved during sex and men desire love outside sex, and so on.
I am a good example of several of these in action. First, my wifes desire is always on the low side while mine tends TV to be stronger. Lately though, my desire has waned. This is partially due to issues I am going through emotionally, trying to make sense of my issues of childhood abuse and neglect. Secondly, my wife has different body image, and attitudes toward sex because of her mother and hyper-religious/toxic upbringing.
Fortunately this is the 2nd marriage for both of us and we learned invaluable lessons from those long term, but extremely dysfunctional long term marriages. We are both very honest about our struggles and feelings, and make sure that we communicate regularly about what’s going on inside. We have been married for 2 years now and it’s been the best 2 years for both of us by far. God has given us a new start and we are making the best of it.
So sex for us is no longer a dividing issue but a uniting experience that brings us together. As we both work through issues we make sure that the others needs are being met, this dynamic alone has been a game changer for both of us.
Thanks for what you do, keep hammering away at this often thorny, touchy subject,
I really like your comment, because it shows it’s not about having a perfect sex life but an intimate one with your spouse where you’re mutually taking steps to make it more satisfying. Blessings!
Performance Anxiety is a common factor for men losing sexual interest. If a wife does not provide positive feedback during sexual encounters, or makes negative comments or innuendoes, a man may ultimately lose interest.
Thanks so much for this post – it’s really great… but unfortunately, it doesn’t help me at all. I have a ‘mental’ interest in sex with my husband, but menopause has totally destroyed my libido. The things that used to stimulate me physically now just feel like a nice pat on the back of my hand – nothing, zilch, nada! I talked to my Gyno/OB, and he is wary of the increased cancer risks with hormone therapy, but I don’t want to just give up and settle for things the way they are. Should I see a neurologist, or an endocrinologist? What are my options, or are there any options for me?
As a matter of fact, I popped back over to the website to start a new post about menopause. Which I’m currently going through, and oh, the effects on one’s sexuality! Just quickly, I will say that an estrogen cream should be an option, as it doesn’t go through your system in the same way as hormone replacement therapy. Also, if you’re experiencing dryness, vaginal atrophy, and insensitivity, you might look into a product like Replens. Others have reported to me good experiences with natural supplements—for example, Estroven—but I haven’t done my research on that one. Stay tuned for my menopause post! I hope to cover a lot of that.
Meanwhile, an endocrinologist may be a good idea. Or a women’s health specialist.
J, I don’t share your faith, so I have these 2 questions about your dislike that men don’t lose interest in sex if they’ve had multiple recent partners. First, when you write “blah blah blah”, are you being dismissive because you don’t like what evolutionary theory says?
Secondly, when you write “Did God make it that way so men could have many sexual partners? Of course not. There are many benefits to having different yet complementary systems where one of you has a more pinpoint focus and the other takes in and processes more stimuli.”, my question is, what’s the purpose of God making it so men can have multiple recent sexual partners and not be less interested in sex, as women are?
Tim, good questions.
First, “blah blah blah” is mostly because I’ve heard that line used so many times by men excusing selfish pursuit of personal pleasure with little regard to its effects. The idea that men evolved to spread their seed while women want a single man has even been cited as an explanation/excuse for adultery, as if monogamy cannot really be expected of him since he’s not built that way. I think that’s bunk. To my mind, the more reasonable explanation for more polygamy than polyandry in the world was the high rate of mortality during childbirth and the desire for many children. That’s “spreading seed,” of course, but not like it’s typically characterized. And if I’m wrong biologically, I still don’t believe biology should rule the day. We don’t have to give in to every urge we feel, particularly when we know that monogamous relationships are superior for both men and women.
Second, I don’t believe the premise that God made is so men can have multiple recent sexual partners and not be less interested in sex. I believe God made men with certain characteristics — such as compartmentalization — that have excellent uses in daily life, and a byproduct is this ability to detach sexually. To me, it’s kind of like how women’s hormones have the wonderful outcome of reproduction; however, they can also make us cranky at times. That doesn’t mean God made me cranky. It means that biological traits have benefits and drawbacks, and God calls us to use self-control and His guidance to manage those according to His design. So maybe men do have this issue, but it wouldn’t matter if a man decides to live out his sexuality as God intended — with one woman in the covenant of marriage.
Hope that makes sense!
I have never seen the issue of control discussed or written about as a potential reason for the spouse being controlled losing interest. As newlyweds my wife was controlling due to a fear of abandonment. She frequently treated me like a child and, though she craved regular sexual intimacy, she also controlled the activities. Due to negative teachings she ‘caught’ growing up the menu was pretty thin. My interest dropped and stayed that way for years. She couldn’t understand how unappealing it was emotionally to be intimate with someone who regularly treated me like a child. We have now worked through those issues and are in a much, much better place, but it took well over a decade to get there. I thought I’d mention it since I often see articles discussing why spouses lose interest or have a very different drive but haven’t seen what I experienced dealt with before. I have even seen another female Christian sex blogger say the first question she asks when a man loses interest is whether or not he is viewing porn. That honestly made me angry to read because it places the blame squarely on the husband when that wasn’t the case at all for me.
Thanks for adding that insight.
I’ve always been the high drive spouse. It just rarely happens if I don’t initiate and I when I do initiate , I get turned down. Then after a while the lack of sex would actually leave me angry and frustrated. Well recently (just a few months ago) due to a health issue I had to start birth control to stop me from menstruating until I can make time for a hysterectomy (I only just turned 30!) The birth control has completely taken away my drive. I mentally want it, I think about it constantly. But the little things that would get me going just don’t now. I find myself being very passive about the entire subject, I’m super dry (down there) and when we do actually have sex it’s so hard for me to finish. These all are brand new experiences for me.
Just a different take on your reasons why this may happen in a marriage.
Oddly, I’m looking forward to that hysterectomy!
Even though your drive has dipped, you should still be able to engage when you want. And that “super dry” problem is common with estrogen deficiency. I encourage you to talk to your doctor about that issue, because it can be addressed. Otherwise, intercourse can be very uncomfortable, when it should be pleasurable.
Excellent article J! Thanks for the clear and thorough discussion of all the things that get in the way of desire. It’s so true that just because a “lack of interest” exists, doesn’t mean the person is not distressed by it. I wonder why this isn’t talked about more often.
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I liked the caveat ‘they’re British…’ You are right, we are dipped in our own culture, I realise this every time I read these American marriage blogs (I’m British). Viva la difference.
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