Is Low Sexual Desire a Misnomer?

One of the major reasons that individuals in committed relationships seek the services of sex therapists is to address their self-diagnosed problem of low sexual desire. These low desire individuals typically arrive at my office with their high desire spouse or partner in agreement about one basic fact—that the low desire partner is the one with the problem. Many sex experts attempt to bypass this issue in which only one person is seen as “owning” the problem by reframing it as a “desire discrepancy” problem, one about which both partners can then claim ownership.

However, regardless of which label we attach to their problem, all couples seem to be in agreement that the problem is one of “desire” and that one or both partners have lost interest in sex. The other common denominator in virtually all of these couples is their perception of their initial joint sexual history. These low desire couples fall into one of two categories with a fairly consistent scenario for each.

First are the couples who describe a time, earlier in their relationship, when sex was satisfying, passionate, and frequent. Now, they inform me, they rarely if ever engage in sexually intimate contact. The second scenario is exemplified by those couples who describe their earliest sexual encounters with one another as having been filled with awkwardness and anxiety, but who early on in spite of some amount of avoidance were nevertheless able to muddle through—at least for a while. This second group also report that because of a lack of desire on one or both partners’ parts, they too, only rarely if ever, engage in sexually intimate contact.

By the time these two types of couples find their way to my office, virtually all sexual contact has either ceased or has become perfunctory and unsatisfying. They will often use the same phrase when describing their feelings about their spouse. “He or she feels more like a brother or sister to me than like a husband or wife.” But what is most relevant to the topic under discussion here is that both kinds of couples—those who once had a sex life they characterize as “passionate” as well as those who portray their sexual relationship, even at the beginning, as having been problematic—now describe themselves as having lost virtually all desire for sex.

It is important to notice that although both kinds of couples are being sexual only very infrequently, they describe their concern as one of sexual desire rather than a problem of sexual frequency. That is, these individuals do not see their infrequent sexual behavior as the primary problem requiring attention but instead see the their infrequent sex as but a symptom of another more serious problem, mainly one of low sexual desire.

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