Sexual Motivation Research Sheds Light on Female Libido

couple holding hands

Is low libido a medical problem solved with drugs, or something that must be addressed with therapy? Scientists don’t agree, and some say it is both.

New research published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found a variance in motivations to have sex between women with female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD) and those who had not been diagnosed with the disorder.

FSIAD refers to women who have little interest in sex or are unable to become easily aroused, and are distressed by the situation. It does not apply to people who are asexual or simply uninterested in sex.

Different Motivations for Sex

Researchers surveyed nearly equal numbers of couples who dealt with FSIAD and ones who did not. Each person separately answered questions about why they engage in sex. The researchers specifically asked questions to determine three things:

  1. Sexual communal strength–how motivated one is to meet the sexual needs of their partner

Research has shown that people who rate higher on this measure usually have higher libidos and are more apt to have a sustained desire for sexual activity over time. Even among women with painful sex conditions, studies have shown having more sexual communal strength helped them get aroused more easily and have more sexual satisfaction.

  1. Approach sexual goals–when people have sex to pursue positive results, like experiencing more intimacy with their partner or enjoying physical pleasure. People with approach goals tend to have healthier sex lives.
  2. Avoidance sexual goals–when people have sex to avoid unpleasant outcomes, like disappointing your partner or to avoid them ending the relationship. People with avoidance goals tend to have less satisfactory relationships.

When the new study looked at how women with and without FSIAD described why they have sex, they found a pattern: Women struggling with FSIAD had substantially lower sexual communal strength and approach goals, and higher avoidance goals.

Females with sex drive and arousal concerns were less responsive to their partner’s sexual needs, and wanted to have sex mostly to prevent bad things from happening.

These findings point to there being a psychological aspect to low libido. The women in the study talked about avoidance goals obstructing sexual interest and arousal, and approach goals improving the same.

This makes sense. If you’re focused on not upsetting your partner, it can be difficult to appreciate the mental, physical and even spiritual positives of a healthy sex life.

The researchers theorize that women with FSIAD may have trouble recognizing and responding to their partners’ sexual needs due to their own low libidos. That might make them less able to read sexual cues.

What it All Means for your Relationship

These findings indicate the value of spending time reflecting on whether you are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of adverse outcomes. A sex therapist can help with this work.

This research also suggests that people in a relationship with someone with FSIAD should find ways to be more understanding of their partner’s reality. It may seem paradoxical, but you need to stop pressuring her to have sex so that she can start to view intimacy as something to be curious about independently instead of an obligation.

A therapist can help you both see sex as a relationship plus, not something to “get over with” or perform for your partner. In counseling, you will each get in touch with your sexual needs and learn how to communicate them more productively. As a couple (in private), you will practice nonsexual ways of building intimacy that can lead to the closeness required for satisfactory sex for both parties.