How To Improve Sexual Interest
What dampens sexual interest
Sexual interest in film. Quick—picture a scene of hot sex between a man and a woman in a movie. I’ll bet you flashed on something resembling a dam breaking: two people restraining themselves no more, swept away in a flood of overwhelming passion. They go at each other in a flurry of intimacies that likely includes ripping off their clothing, clearing a table with the sweep of a forearm or having sex against a wall, and the woman’s face in rapture. A minute later it’s over. That’s what I call “frenzied sex.” Think of the first sex scene in the 1981 movie Body Heat. Kathleen Turner locks William Hurt out of her house. He pounds on the door as she backs against the wall, sweating and breathing heavily. Her eyes follow him through the window as an increasingly frantic Hurt in heat races around the porch, searching for a way in. Finally he throws a deck chair at a window, shatters it, and climbs through. Hungrily they kiss big gaping kisses and claw at each other’s clothes. They do it right there against the wall. The dam breaks.
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The sex gets a lot less frantic and a whole lot hotter as the movie progresses. Yet subsequent filmmakers seem to have fi xated on that first scene, repeating it, ad nauseam, for more than thirty years. Another film from the same year, the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, may be the first table-sweeping sex. Starting with a one-minute violent struggle, it continues against a wall with the ripping of clothing and ends with two whole minutes of urgent passion, hers as much as his, on top of a butcher-block table covered with fl our. Many tabletops have followed. As one Internet movie blogger wrote in an essay titled “9 Things I Learned about Sex from the Movies,” number three was “The best sex takes place on kitchen counters.” Besides mentioning Postman, the blogger also listed Secretary, The Boss of It All, and Jackie Brown. The lesbian scenes in mainstream movies that I’m familiar with tend to portray slower and more deliberate sex, like the scenes between the characters in the 1996 movie Bound starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. Still, though more sensual, I have seen a number of female-on-female make-out scenes against a wall. For gay male characters think Brokeback Mountain—the requisite frenzy is still there. Recall the first sex scene between Heath Ledger’s Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack. It starts out violent and ends in rough hard sex that lasts less than a minute. And how about that de rigueur fifteen-second frantic reunion kiss in the alley against the wall as Ennis’s wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), catches it through a window? Could it be that one of the difficulties with married sex is the lack of imaginative use of wall space or tabletops?
Popular movies are not only a reflection of cultural beliefs and values, they also play a major role in shaping them—including our expectations about sex. In the 1994 University of Chicago study “Sex in America,” the researchers were stunned to discover the level of misinformation and myth among the nearly thirty-five hundred randomly selected participants. Almost everyone, the authors wrote, had questions about their sexuality. Most believed that everyone else was having a better time than they were. The researchers suggested that it was understandable that people would feel “a sense of lingering dissatisfaction when the erotic sexual world of novels and movies turned out to be so different from the world of conventional sex in marriage.” The consequences of these misconceptions, the authors observed, make it difficult for people to understand how their sex lives develop so they can realistically change the aspects they don’t like. I certainly don’t think that the world of conventional sex in marriage is anything to aspire to. Besides, when movies are the main source of sex education for a badly misinformed public, we’re in trouble. Two things we don’t want to rely on the movies for are an accurate account of history and an informed depiction of sexual desire. Twenty-first-century sexual attitudes haven’t changed much from the past few decades. Many of the individuals or couples I see with concerns about their sex lives were born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. Yet when they start to talk about their beliefs, expectations, sexual histories, family histories, and sexual habits in their relationships, I can see a generational continuity that goes back to the 1950s.
A Multitude of Risk Factors
There are lots of risk factors associated with losing desire for the person you love. Some are obvious, but others are genuine dilemmas and harder to deal with.
Obvious Risk Factors
Some of the conditions that increase the likelihood that an individual will lose interest in sex are well known and often addressed in individual or couples therapy.
Today’s financial climate and the pressures of work, money, and raising young children can strain a relationship and keep people on edge. One couple dealt with money tensions by getting angry, each partner blaming the other for the stress. The combination of pessimism, fear, arguing, power struggles, and resentment made the couple stop touching completely.
Depression and Anxiety
Despair and apprehension naturally wipe out enthusiasm for anything pleasurable, because depressed and anxious people have difficulty staying in the present moment—a big limitation when it comes to sex. Typically, depressed people are locked in the past while anxious people are busy worrying about the future. Sex has to be very here-and-now to be good.
The unresolved emotional effects of sexual abuse can trigger a person to dissociate—to mentally split off from the body—when anything sexual seems imminent. One man I worked with who was molested as a young boy could keep his erection during intercourse with his wife, but he wasn’t present emotionally with her. She could feel him drift away, and she interpreted his inattention as boredom and felt rejected. For sex to be truly satisfying and enriching, both partners have to be tuned in to their bodies and in contact emotionally, looking at and relating to each other.
Desire-Dampening Physical Conditions
Hormone deficiencies, the side effects of antidepressant medications, drug abuse, or illness can all limit spontaneous sexual interest. If there’s limited physical energy—and especially when there’s limited motivation for physical contact, hugs, or kisses with a partner—sex is not likely to be a high priority and thus not likely to happen.
These are factors that can contribute to losing sexual interest for a committed partner that are more difficult to resolve.
Could it be that monogamy itself—and the expectation that sexual desire will last for a lifetime—has limitations? Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher reports on cross-cultural research that shows that divorce everywhere tends to peak around the fourth year of marriage, a time that also corresponds to when the excitement of infatuation typically fades. Although most of society would define monogamy as one partner for life, Fisher tells us that anthropologists don’t necessarily equate monogamy with fidelity. Based on a multitude of studies around the world, from Western societies to island tribes, Fisher concluded that “adultery goes hand in hand with monogamy.” Secret affairs and occasional cheating seem to be an indelible part of what we think of as monogamous relationships.
It’s difficult to get a completely accurate picture of the prevalence of infidelity, because many of the same factors that cause straying men and women to lie to their partners also cause them to lie to survey takers. Studies vary, but most suggest that 50 to 60 percent of married men and 45 to 55 percent of married women have engaged in extramarital sex at some time, whereas only 25 to 35 percent of men and women whose spouses had cheated ever suspected any extramarital activity. We’ve certainly witnessed a rash of high-profile figures caught up in scandals from being discovered in extramarital affairs. In many instances the shame was compounded by the fact that the errant spouse had been such a hypocrite by condemning other men caught cheating. How compelling is the urge for sex and romance outside marriage that powerful men would risk everything for sexual trysts with sexy young women? Part of it has to do with the well-known fact that men with power have high levels of available testosterone. Another part of it has to do with a seemingly unlimited access to pretty young women who are hot powerful men. Women cheat, too. I have heard many women with supposedly low libido confide that they haven’t lost sexual desire, just the desire for “bad sex” with their partners.
How To Improve Sexually Interest
Increasingly, women confess to having outside sexual encounters that are passionate and playful beyond anything they ever had with their mates. One woman summed it up for me by describing her lover as more attentive, more romantic, more appreciative of what she does for him, and more focused on giving her pleasure than her husband is. Men who cheat say the same. They say that their lovers are more interested in them physically, easier to be with, easier to please, and that the fathers who spent the most time actively caring for their kids, feeding, bathing, and putting them to sleep, had the lowest levels of testosterone. It’s good news for keeping the man around to protect the family, but not so great for mommy and daddy’s sex life—especially since mommies are getting an overabundance of oxytocin from bringing up baby. The Lure of Otherness The late psychiatrist and sex therapist Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan fi rst drew attention in 1979 to low sex drive as a growing issue for couples, and she bestowed upon it the clinical label hypoactive sexual desire, or HSD. She described the most common variant of it, situational HSD, as “an inhibited desire for one’s spouse while, at the same time, a strong sexual interest in uncommitted partners, unconventional sex, or strangers.” No surprise there.
Research in the last eighty years has consistently shown that daily proximity itself can dampen sexual interest. One set of studies was run on people raised collectively on Israeli kibbutzim during the late 1940s and the 1950s. It showed that among the thousands of marriages between these individuals as adults, it was rare to fi nd any marriages between those who had been raised in the same group. No marriages had occurred between people who were raised together before the age of six. The researchers suggest that the greater the sense of familiarity, the less the sexual interest between people who are like family to each other.sexually more available than their wives are.
The Biochemistry of Romance versus Commitment
Romance is all about falling in love, head over heels, as we say. It’s a time of great excitement, joy, and obsession. Studies show that the biochemistry of these experiences involves brain chemicals associated with reward: dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine and norepinephrine are stimulants, generating feelings of euphoria. Both chemicals are also triggers for testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire for both men and women. In contrast, once a commitment is made, the predominant biochemistry of the feelings of comfort and security is oxytocin and vasopressin.
Oxytocin is a brain chemical associated with bonding, and vasopressin is a hormone linked to monogamy in males. Both can be sedating, and inhibit testosterone. Bad news for young parents: babies are also testosterone inhibitors. Some studies have shown that just putting an infant on a man’s chest for a minute will immediately lower the available testosterone in the man’s blood. In one set of studies at Northwestern University that was reported in 2010, it was found that the fathers who spent the most time actively caring for their kids, feeding, bathing, and putting them to sleep, had the lowest levels of testosterone. It’s good news for keeping the man around to protect the family, but not so great for mommy and daddy’s sex life—especially since mommies are getting an overabundance of oxytocin from bringing up baby.
The Lure of Otherness
The late psychiatrist and sex therapist Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan first drew attention in 1979 to low sex drive as a growing issue for couples, and she bestowed upon it the clinical label hypoactive sexual desire, or HSD. She described the most common variant of it, situational HSD, as “an inhibited desire for one’s spouse while, at the same time, a strong sexual interest in uncommitted partners, unconventional sex, or strangers.” No surprise there.
Research in the last eighty years has consistently shown that daily proximity itself can dampen sexual interest. One set of studies was run on people raised collectively on Israeli kibbutzim during the late 1940s and the 1950s. It showed that among the thousands of marriages between these individuals as adults, it was rare to find any marriages between those who had been raised in the same group. No marriages had occurred between people who were raised together before the age of six. The researchers suggest that the greater the sense of familiarity, the less the sexual interest between people who are like family to each other.
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