A sexuality educator walks us through the most common roadblocks.
Let’s talk about sex, baby.
Depending on how much of it you’re having, it may be a source of great joy or immense frustration. We’ve all had days when we’re just not in the mood, and that’s totally normal — but it can be puzzling when that reluctance for intimacy drags on for a while, or when you don’t understand why you can’t drum up more enthusiasm.
To better understand the reasons why you may not be feeling the spark lately, we checked in with sexuality researcher and educator Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D. In her work, she’s conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups to better understand intercourse through a biological, psychological, and social perspective, so she’s exactly the expert you’d want to talk to about this topic.
The first thing she wants you to know: “You don’t always have to desire sex. A lot of times, there’s a pressure on women to feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not desiring it right now — what’s wrong with me?’ instead of normalizing that it fluctuates, and that’s OK.”
But if you do want more sex in your life, you’ll need to take a personal inventory of your body and your mind to help figure out what you’re really looking for in the bedroom and how much you need it.
“Ask yourself: Is the desire for sex to build that romantic relationship connection? Is it a desire for intimacy? Is it a desire to relieve stress?” Dr. Thorpe says. “We have to focus on where our desire comes from, and that will help you address why it might be fluctuating.”
That reason could be emotional or physical, and understanding it is a deeply personal endeavor. To get you started, here’s an overview of some of the most common reasons you may not be in the mood — and tips about how to navigate your way back to a more satisfactory routine of getting your needs met.
Sex is painful
Perhaps it goes without saying, but if sex becomes more of a source of pain than pleasure, you’ll most likely find yourself not wanting to have very much of it. Sexual pain is a big focus in Dr. Thorpe’s research, so she’s thought a lot about how it manifests. One of the chief causes is how the body changes as we age.
“Women going through menopause have hormonal changes that could impact your desire, but it could also impact vaginal lubrication,” Dr. Thorpe says. “And if no one has talked to you about lube and you don’t know how to have conversations about it, that can be extremely uncomfortable.”
Thorpe has found in her research that when she talks to women who experience pain during sex, most of them aren’t using lube at all — nor are their doctors suggesting it. So the idea that they may need to introduce it into their sex life “makes them feel abnormal,” she explains. It can be even harder for younger women who would benefit from lube in their 20s or 30s. Yes, it’s completely normal to have painful sex pre-menopause, too. Painful sex can occur at any age because of issues like hormonal changes or pelvic pain or disorders.
For most people, lube isn’t something that’s covered in sex ed classes, and therefore they have a misconception that using it means they have a problem.
“I always encourage people to see lube as an accessory or a tool for pleasure, not something that signifies that there’s something wrong with you,” Dr. Thorpe says.
With so many different types of lubricants, including water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based, there are lots to pick from, so it’s important to understand the ingredients and learn what works for your body. We compiled a guide to everything you need to know about lube, including some suggestions for the best brands to try.
But, if you’re experiencing painful sex, don’t make the mistake of thinking sex issues can’t be medical issues. It could very well be caused by something a doctor can treat, so it’s important to address it with a medical professional.
You’re too stressed for sex
“Right now, I feel like everyone is stressed out,” Dr. Thorpe says. “There’s a lot of anxiety with Covid-19, and that definitely plays a role in people’s sex lives, whether they’re having sex less or they’re having sex more.”
While it might seem paradoxical that some people have polar opposite reactions in terms of how stress affects their level of desire, this is all about your personal response. Anxiety affects us all differently, and while sex can be a great way to release the tension of those negative feelings, for others it’s a turn-off.
“For some people, their safe space might be their partner, so when they’re having sex with their partner, they feel safe and they feel relieved,” Dr. Thorpe explains. “But sometimes it can feel like a chore if you’re already stressed out and sex becomes another task that you’re adding to your list versus it being something that you’re desiring to do because it makes you feel better and it’s good for your wellbeing.”
For more about the psychology of sex and how our core emotions influence the desire we feel, Dr. Thorpe recommends the book Why Good Sex Matters by neuroscientist Nan Wise.
You have a history of sexual trauma
A history of abuse or upsetting intimate experiences can turn the very idea of sex into a trigger. And like anxiety, this trauma provokes an individual response in everyone.
In some cases, Dr. Thorpe explains, it can result in hyper-sexualization. For example, teenage victims of abuse may engage in “riskier” sexual behavior as they get older as a way to process what happened when they were young. But for others, abuse can cause them to shut down sexually, leading to encounters that are deeply uncomfortable even if they aren’t crossing an inappropriate line.
“When I’ve done interviews with women around sexual pain, we talk about pain and pleasure and trauma, and one thing that can pop up is, ‘You know, I just did it to satisfy him, but I wasn’t getting anything from it,’” Dr. Thorpe says. “Or, ‘Sometimes I would get so anxious because I was thinking about my previous trauma, so I was just laying there for him.’ These are things that they consented to, but obviously, it was unwanted sex, where they didn’t necessarily want to have it, but they consented to it.”
In those instances, it’s important to investigate those emotions in order to get to a place of feeling worthy of pleasure, which can be much easier to navigate with professional help. Tamekis Williams, a Georgia-based therapist and the founder of Real Life Solutions, works extensively with the most common problems couples face, including blocks in their sex lives.
With clients who struggle to be intimate because of their traumatic pasts, Williams uses a tool called sensate focus, which teaches partners to reacclimate themselves to shared physicality. It’s a three-step process that starts with totally PG-rated forms of touch, like holding hands or stroking hair, and slowly works up to contact that’s focused on an orgasm. This allows partners to learn each other’s boundaries and link intimacy with feelings of safety, security, and pleasure.
“You start slow,” Williams says. “You start with touch and learning how to be intimate outside of the bedroom, and you get used to your partner’s hand on you again.”
Your relationship dynamic has changed with age
“What someone liked at 25, they might not like at 65, and they may want to try something different,” Dr. Thorpe explains. And while it can be a thrilling experience to mix things up, it can’t happen without communication between partners — and openness to where the journey might take you.
“People in long-term relationships can sometimes stop exploring each other. You might stop fantasizing about certain things, or you don’t ask your partner, ‘What are some new things you want to try?’” she says. “It’s important to never stop learning and being curious about each other.”
Later stages of life are the perfect time to tap into that curiosity because it’s often a time when the energy of your home and the arrangement of your day-to-day life looks a lot different than it did before.
“A lot of times, some couples may not have had time to build a healthy, satisfying sexual relationship because they were so focused on kids and work,” Dr. Thorpe says. “So when you get older, and kids are out of the house and you might not be working anymore, you’re just there with each other. So then you’re relearning each other’s bodies and you’re relearning each other overall because you’ve changed throughout the years. It requires curiosity and empathy.”
One of Dr. Thorpe’s favorite reads about the importance of sharing your desires with your partner is Magnificent Sex, in which couples who have sex lives they love open up about why their relationships are so satisfying.
“One of the main things they talk about is this idea of empathetic communication,” Thorpe says. “Never stop communicating about what you want to try, what may turn you on, and what may turn you off.”
So how can you spice up your sex life?
First of all, if you’re experiencing any of the issues we’ve discussed (or something else entirely), it’s important to know that only you have the power to decide what sex looks like in your life.
“I think people need to redefine what sex means to them,” Dr. Thorpe says. “So often, people are stuck in the idea of sex being penetrative, because that’s what society tells us. But sex can also mean just sexual intimacy. It could be something as simple as touching and sensual massages. It could be oral sex. Step one is always redefining what it means for you, your current body, your current age, and your current relationship status.”
And when you’re ready to engage with your partner about what kind of sex is best for you as a couple, Dr. Thorpe has some helpful recommendations for how to get the conversation going, like this collection of worksheets from Afrosexology. She loves an activity called the yes/no/maybe checklist, in which partners jointly answer questions about their tastes. (For example: Do you like being blindfolded? Are you interested in incorporating food during sex? Which positions would you like to try?) The responses can reveal a whole lot you didn’t know about what your mate wants.
Another tool is the “Use Your Mouth” conversation card set from Sexologist Shamyra, which prompts similar conversations and can make for a less awkward way to start sexual conversations that you may feel shy about bringing up on your own.
“It’s very much an invitation,” Dr. Thorpe says. “You’re not using ‘I’ statements. It’s like, ‘Would we like to do this?’ It’s a ‘we’ thing.”
The information provided on this site isn’t intended as medical advice, and shouldn’t replace professional medical treatment. Consult your doctor with any serious health concerns.