Why we lose interest in sex

Why do we lose interest in sex? Professor Cynthia Graham of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton discusses how open communication and emotional closeness are linked to fewer low sexual interest problems.

‘Women living with a partner are more than twice as likely to lack interest in sex compared to men living with a partner, according to a study we have just published looked at 6,669 women and 4,839 men aged between 16 and 74 who reported at least one sexual partner in the past year. This study, published in the BMJ was lead by the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles team.

Although much research has been carried out on male erectile dysfunction there has been far less focus on men’s sexual desire, and it is also unusual to have data that enable direct comparisons of men and women.

Although much research has been carried out on male erectile dysfunction there has been far less focus on men’s sexual desire, and it is also unusual to have data that enable direct comparisons of men and women.

Fatigue, poor health and a lack of emotional closeness influence both men’s and women’s desire for sex. There is no evidence that the menopause affects the likelihood of reporting lack of sexual interest. Losing interest in sex isn’t necessarily dysfunctional. Problems should be treated by looking at the individual and the dynamics and communication of the relationship, and other contextual factors.

Women in relationships lasting more than a year were more likely to report lacking interest in sex than those in relationships lasting one year or less. 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. There were some interesting gender differences in the survey. For example, having young children in the household was linked to low interest among women only. Overall women were more likely to report lacking interest in sex and were more distressed about this than men.

Overall women were more likely to report lacking interest in sex and were more distressed about this than men.

Our findings show us the importance of the relational context in understanding low sexual interest in both men and women. For women in particular, the quality and length of relationship and communication with their partners are important in their experience of sexual interest. This highlights the need to assess and – if necessary – treat sexual interest problems in a holistic and relationship, as well as gender-specific way.

Having less sex or less interest in sex is not something we should necessarily see as dysfunction. Transient (and often adaptive) reductions in sexual desire are common.

The study also revealed other things linked to low interest in sex in men and women:

· Reporting an STI in the last year

· Ever experiencing sex against your will

· Poor mental and physical health

· Not feeling emotionally close to partner during sex

It also found things linked to low interest in sex among women only:

· Having three or more partners in the past year

· Having children under five years old in the household

· Not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes as partner

“Couples experiencing problems with lessening sexual desire should talk to each other as ignoring problems can leave them to fester and build resentment and distance in the relationship. Gentler forms of intimacy such as cuddling and holding hands rather than penetrative sex can help. Couples can see a relationship counsellor or sex therapist for advice if they can’t resolve their problems.”

“My colleague, and a co-author of the paper, Dr Kirstin Mitchell, at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, commented: “The findings on the strong association between open sexual communication and a reduced likelihood of sexual interest problems emphasise the importance of providing a broad sexual and relationships education rather than limiting attention only to adverse consequences of sex and how to prevent them.”

“The findings come from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) which is the largest scientific study of sexual health lifestyles in Britain. Natsal-3 was carried out by researchers at University College London, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research. The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of Health.”

“The nationally representative survey interviewed 6,669 women and 4,839 men aged between 16 and 74 who reported at least one sexual partner in the past year. Overall, 34 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men reported lacking interest in sex. Half of these people – 62 per cent of women and 53 per cent of men – said that they were distressed by their lack of interest in sex.”

Professor Cynthia Graham

Dr Cynthia Graham is Professor in Sexual and Reproductive Health at the University of Southampton.
Professor Cynthia Graham

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