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 group 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