With a host of books, podcasts and movements celebrating a healthy sexuality arising this summer, journalist Rebecca Newman explores how to have a more sustainable relationship with your libido.
A heady rush of desire is surely one of life’s great treats. Yet, for many of us it gets lost, buried under everyday detritus. Happily this summer, springing on from #MeToo, there’s a new awakening: a flowering of books and podcasts, of thoughts and movements celebrating a woke and radiant sexuality. For those of us whose libido has gone into hibernation, take heart. This is a glorious time to reclaim it, and build a lasting, empowered relationship with pleasure.
If you feel dislocated from your sex drive, you’re not alone. In a world where sexual imagery oozes from Instagram and Netflix, and sells everything from couture to coffee pods, there’s a curious lack of actual conjugation. The most recent Natsal data reported in the BMJ found the amount of sex we have has gone down again (fewer than half of Britons make love once a week). In a brilliant article in the Atlantic, journalist Kate Julian described how reasons as diverse as porn culture and political uncertainty have combined to create a ‘sex recession’. Amidst all this, no wonder the joy of jouissance can be hard to grasp.
What to do?
Says psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle: “It’s important to move away from how much sex you imagine you “should” be having, or how much you “should” be orgasming, and work out what a happy sex life means in the context of your own life.” That’s to say, the story begins with you. Whatever gender, whatever orientation. We have debunked the idea that men want sex more, or that monogamy is essential – the emphasis today is figuring out what you really want, and then finding it. It may be once a year with one person, it may be every day of the week with several people; as long as you act in a way that is consensual, sane and safe, the world is your oyster (should you move away from traditional relationship structures, do look at Meg John Barker Rewriting The Rules).
And – if you simply can’t imagine wanting to make love ever again? Says Sally, a 29 year-old-lawyer based in West London, “I used to race out of the office to meet my girlfriend: every cell in my being craved her body. Now I barely want to take her clothes off. It is as though a flame has gone out.”
Cast your mind back to a more carefree point of your existence; to a time where perhaps there were no children, no worries about money, nothing dragging down the corners of your energy. For those readers who never much cared for sex, salute. There is a growing community of people celebrating an asexual lifestyle. But for those of us who used to spin gladly into the stars of sensuality, take a moment to consider whether there may be parts of you that do want to want it – if only someone else could iron the PE kit / finish the Q2 profit projections…
This first step is foraging in the attic to relocate one’s own desire, rather than seeing sex as yet another demand on your resources. Within something like a marriage, explains relationship therapist Esther Perel, sex can end up “no longer something we want, but rather something we are supposed to do.” We must upend this. “Reconnect to that other part of you, the playful, non-responsible, mischievous, flirtatious, sensual self.”
Then, eliminate specific libido drains. It has become a cliche how bad modern lifestyles are for hormonal health – and so our sex drive – be it how screens disrupt our circadian / hormonal rhythms; other passion killers include stress, unhappy digestion, depression and SSRIs (key orgasm killers), even the contraceptive pill etc. It is worth taking time to whittle out any obvious culprits, and yes, try to be in dimmer light as you approach bedtime; meditate to manage stress; consider a really good probiotic for your gut, like Symprove, and work out if you are properly nourishing yourself.
I speak from experience. I’ve been a sex columnist for most of my life, yet after the birth of our second child I was sexual roadkill. The idea of being touched was nauseating; I couldn’t recognise myself. Happily, I ended up meeting a clinical nutritionist who pointed out that low levels of B vitamins and omega (key nutrients your baby demands in your breast milk, but also the building blocks of happiness hormone serotonin) may relate to lowered mood and in my case depression. A month taking a cart of supplements proved to be transformative, on every front.
As well as the physical drains there are also psychological ones, especially for women. Research done at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands analysed key insights to the brain at orgasm. In men, the areas relating to the genitalia go wild. In women, the biggest change in the brain is a quieting in the area where you worry. So figure out how to escape those feelings. Another common drain is feeling unsupported, or that your efforts at home (or in life) go unseen. If you are always left with the dishes, it may be a daily downer: perhaps your partner loading the dishwasher might be a key element of foreplay.
Equally it may be that for you, desire is responsive: some people need to be touched for their libido to kick in. Says Perel: “Men in committed relationships generally talk about how much they enjoy pleasing their partner. [Generally] what turns her on is to *be* the turn on.” For Sally, some simple props helped her step into her sexual self. “It can be as simple as a blow dry, or a pair of stockings.”
Sally also found huge value in practicing ‘mindful sex’. This recent movement champions a wisdom as old as Tantra: the importance of being present in sex, of being fully there in the moment. “Mindfulness exercises are great,” continues Moyle. “Learn to tune into the senses: when people describe the best sex they’ve had they describe what they were doing and feeling; that is exactly the headspace you want to be in.”
There are also games from the world of BDSM which heighten this immediacy. One of you might have to count, or to hold an unbroken grape in your mouth: the peril is that your partner will stop if you lose count, or break the grape. These games illustrate the allure of the early levels of BDSM: rather than being about pain per se, it is about power play and surrender, about moving entirely into the scene. Few things concentrate the mind better than being lashed to the bedstead, blindfolded, and gently kissed – or bitten – along the soft sides of your waist…
Clearly an absence of lust will impact the relationship you have with others. It is also worth considering the impact it may have on your relationship with yourself. In The State of Affairs, Perel delineates how we have affairs ‘not because of an attraction to the person we are being unfaithful with – but because of an attraction to the person we become in their company’. That vivacious, magnetic, spontaneous person that we can be at our very best. You don’t need an affair to discover it – but tuning into your sexual energy may help.
And now is the perfect moment. Check out the recent launch GASP, a beautiful blue suede bound book, set around 20 first person memoirs of white hot love making, threaded through with notions of consent, photography, line drawings and tantra teachings. Desire is also out of the literary closet, as Lisa Taddeo dissects the tornado strength of female physicality in Three Women – and Elizabeth Gilbert also highlights the subject with her novel City of Girls, starring a woman who unashamedly follows her own sexual needs. Sex Drive documents Stephanie Theobald’s drive across America recovering her libido (including a wonderful iteration of mindful sex with a chapter on Energy Orgasm).
Elsewhere, Cult Beauty has launched a Vulvulation sex ed programme, and Lynne Enright’s book Vagina, A Re-Education emphasises the importance of knowing ourselves as the first stage of pleasure. The second season of OMG Yes, the brilliant app which teaches you how to pleasure an interactive onscreen vulva, shifts its research-based gaze to the most pleasurable love making positions (I know. But even Emma Watson recommends it).
The sine qua non for creating a sustainable relationship with our libido is, of course, having a happy relationship with ourselves. And it’s a virtuous circle. In tending to the libidinous and sensual parts of our make-up, we elevate and bring joy to the whole of our being. So, take the time. Buy some stockings, hire a cleaner, or spend some time in the sun losing yourself to an erotic book. “Sex is our master key,” wrote Foucault – all we need do is turn the lock.
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