The real reasons women under 30 aren’t having sex

Usually we think of sexual issues as the stuff that plagues the over-40 set. No longer.

According to a group of new studies, young women between the ages of 18 and 30 are suffering from low libido at rates never seen before: 43% of women have sexual problems, they say. And 1 in 10 women doesn’t want to have sex at all, trumpeted an ABC News story.

The weird part isn’t the fact that women are reporting what experts like to call “sexual dysfunction,” but that women this young are: Usually we think of sexual issues as the stuff that plagues the over-40 set.

But sexperts are now blaming 20-somethings with low libido on everything from stress (we’re worried about our jobs/working longer hours) to birth control/antidepressants (both are potent chemical cocktails that can make lust dry up), and, well, Hollywood:

“Young women are feeling pressured to be sex pots,” pronounced one sexpert in the ABC story.

Of course, there isn’t a media outlet out there that doesn’t like to start a story: “In bedrooms across America…”, so, in our mind, the real question is: Which of these theories are true, which are mere media hype, and what can you do to keep your sex life hot? Dr. Debby Herbenick, a sexual health educator and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, gives it to you straight.

But, please, in the comments, pick an anonymous handle, and tell us all about your sex life — or lack thereof.

What do you think of these studies reporting low desire in women who are at the prime age to get it on?

Herbenick: It’s difficult for us to tell how much this has changed over time because we don’t have good data on it from years ago. But we do know that there are some young women who really do have a problem with sexual desire and that runs across the lifespan…

We also know that desire tends to decrease in long-term relationships, so you can be young and healthy and fit, but you could still experience a decrease in desire the longer you stay with someone, whether you’re a woman or a man. Also, recently, because we have such a focus on desire and so many discussions about low libido, we have a lot more women questioning if their desire is at the right level. We’re seeing a lot more distress than we used to.

Let’s talk about Hollywood for a minute. Do you really think the entertainment industry is partly to blame?

Absolutely. We see people that are always ready to have sex in movies and television, as if sex is always the number one priority in people’s lives. But we know that’s just not the case, and it shouldn’t be. Worrying about work and school take precedence. Those stresses of life take their toll on sleep and eating and stress — and also sex.

Is there a link between birth control and low sexual desire?

Some studies have found that a portion of women, not all, do experience lower sexual desire after they start the birth control pill. Unfortunately, a lot of researchers have tried to do more on this but have been unsuccessful in getting funding because, as you can imagine, there hasn’t been a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies to investigate this since they make those products.

What about women who take antidepressants?

We know that for some women on antidepressants, sexual problems are a common side effect, including difficulty with orgasm.

And how much do you think the inability to orgasm is related to low sexual desire?

It can be linked, but there are certainly many women who enjoy sex whether or not they have an orgasm, which is hard for a lot of men to grasp. If you’re a woman who is used to having orgasms or for whom orgasms are important, and you don’t have one, then desire might be affected next time you have sex. But, also, sex might not be pleasurable if you don’t feel connected to your partner. And on average, women have lower sex drives than men, and sometimes that leads to what they feel is ‘duty sex’ or obligation sex, and it starts this cycle of dread. Overall, there can be lots of reasons why you lose desire.

What advice do you give women who are suffering from low libido?

I often ask women if it is a problem for them or a problem because they think they are disappointing their partner. They should also look at what’s changed in their lives: Am I tired? Am I stressed? Did I just have a baby? Often lifestyle behaviors are very strongly related to sex, but we really undervalue that. If you think your partner wants it more than you, talk to your partner. Sometimes he doesn’t know, and it’s fine. You can do something else together.

As far as what you can do, there’s some more research that mindfulness techniques can help. Women are very prone to cognitive distractions — worrying about the laundry, worrying about the kids, worrying about school, instead of focusing on sex. Instead, you should focus on how the sheets feel on your skin, how your partner’s skin and hair smells and how it feels to kiss them and touch them. Really focusing on those things can help you find the desire in sex again.

There’s also research on storytelling techniques. Sometimes when our partner’s approach us we think, “Oh no, he wants sex again. All he ever wants is sex.” And that’s a negative story. But if you can replace that with a positive story like, “He thinks I’m so hot, he can’t resist himself,’ we find that those positive sexy stories can help women feel in the mood.

There’s still a lot of talk about the female Viagra. What about taking a drug that claims to increase desire?

For a portion of women, medication might be helpful if nothing else really works. But I think it’d be a mistake if drugs were the first line of treatment because we have decades of knowledge that sex therapy works well and more cognitive techniques can work. Mostly these things are about relationships: If you don’t feel loved or desired or special to your partner or they are condescending towards you, a pill is not going to work.