With a second “female Viagra” drug just approved by the Food and Drug Administration, a renewed conversation has sprung up over the nature of sexual desire: Is low libido a medical issue requiring pharmaceutical solutions, or is it a psychological blockage that needs to be dealt with through inner work and more therapeutic means? Sex scientists have intense, opposing points of view on this.

While the expert community battles it out, here’s one interesting piece of new research that lends some clues about what’s getting in the way of people’s sexual interest and arousal: A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found a clear difference in sexual motivations between women diagnosed with female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD) and those without it.

(FSIAD, for the record, refers to women who have little interest in sex or are unable to become easily aroused for sex, causing them distress. This is as opposed to people who are simply asexual or just uninterested in sex for a period of time.)

What motivates people to have sex? 

Researchers surveyed 97 couples in which one female partner dealt with FSIAD and 108 couples without any sexual dysfunction. (The couples were predominantly straight.) Each person in each couple separately answered questions about reasons they engage in sex. The researchers specifically asked questions to determine their sexual communal strength, approach sexual goals, and avoidance sexual goals

Sexual communal strength refers to how motivated a person is to meet their partner’s sexual needs. Past research has shown people with higher sexual communal strength tend to have more sexual desire in general and are more likely to have sustained sexual desire over time. Even among women who deal with ongoing conditions that make sex painful, studies have shown having more sexual communal strength helped those women get aroused more easily and have more sexual satisfaction in their relationships.

Approach sexual goals refer to when people have sex specifically to pursue positive outcomes, such as having more intimacy with their partner or just getting to enjoy physical pleasure for oneself. Avoidance sexual goals, on the other hand, refer to when people have sex to avoid negative outcomes—like having sex to avoid disappointing your partner or because you think they’ll dump you if you don’t do it. Unsurprisingly, studies show people who have approach goals tend to have more sexual and relationship satisfaction, whereas those with avoidance goals tend to have less of both.

When the researchers in the present study looked at how women with and without FSIAD described their reasons for having sex, an interesting pattern emerged: Women with FSIAD had much lower sexual communal strength, lower approach goals, and higher avoidance goals, compared with women without any libido problems.

In other words, women struggling with sex drive and arousal issues tended to be less responsive to their partner’s sexual needs and also tended to want sex mostly as a means of avoiding bad things from happening.

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Is a lack of sexual desire and arousal a psychological issue? 

These findings suggest there’s certainly a psychological component involved.

In past studies, women with libido problems commonly report “engaging in sex to ‘get it over with’ or to avoid feeling guilty for not engaging in sex,” the researchers explain in the paper. “Women talked about wanting to avoid negative feelings or experiences as inhibiting their sexual interest and arousal, whereas wanting to pursue positive experiences such as feeling desired or loved and accepted by a partner as enhancing their sexual interest and arousal.”

That certainly makes sense. If you’re totally focused on avoiding upsetting your partner or even just on your own sexual issues, it can be a lot harder to focus on all the positive things about sex—and if you’re not associating sex with anything positive, why on earth would you want to have it?

As far as being low in communal strength (i.e., not being very motivated to satisfy your partner’s sexual needs), the researchers theorize that women with FSIAD may “have difficulties recognizing and responding to their partners’ sexual needs due to having fewer sexual needs themselves.” That might make them “less attuned to sexual cues, including emotional bonding with their partner, flirting, erotic images or romantic moments.”

Being able to recognize sexual cues is a huge part of sexuality—especially for women; research shows feeling desired and physically appreciated by your partner is a major turn-on.

What people dealing with low libido can do. 

It’s worth spending some intensive time reflecting on what’s motivating you to have sex and whether those motivations are based on pursuing pleasure or avoiding bad things. You might find it helpful to work with a sex therapist or coach on this exploration. 

The researchers also suggested people who are dating someone dealing with low sexual desire work on being more understanding and receptive to their partner’s needs. How can you show your partner that you’re not pressuring them to have sex so that they can start to view sex as something they can be curious about independently instead of something they need to force themselves into for your benefit?

At the end of the day, sex should be about feeling good, not “getting it over with” or performing for another person.

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