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Understanding Libido

I thought I understood that libido was an uncontrollable force that we essentially get dragged around by. My sex counselor says that I can do things to change my libido, but is that true? How can I change something that acts ON me?

Libido is your personal, sexual psychic force. Because we are only semiconscious of this force, our conscious minds are not completely in control of the psychic force itself. However, although we are always in control of how we act in response to the drive, it is the less-than-conscious aspect that accounts for why it feels pushy, or external.Unknown to many people, it is true that what we do with our every moment and choices in our lives influences our unconscious psyche. People use the word “libido” and talk about libido quite a bit: “She has a super high libido.” “He doesn’t have any libido.”  “I lost my libido after we had a baby.”But do we understand what the word means, really? Libido is a word that we assume we understand, but the whole concept and it’s relationship to other features of sexual arousal is difficult to appreciate fully. Consider your answers to the following hypothetical cases:

  1. Is a person who’s physically and mentally exhausted from life really lacking libido, or are they just tired and need sleep?
  2. Does a person who does everything they can not to be sexual have high libido, or low libido? (Hint: what is an aversive drive? Something that prevents particular outcomes.)

The key to the answers is that Libido = psychic energy. In the first case, if someone doesn’t have energy because they are exhausted, they feel low energy in all sorts of ways, including having low sexual psychic energy. Sleep and nurturance is often the first priority, and understandably so.

In the second case, we’re talking about someone with a strong, overwhelming intent focused on sexuality, but with the ultimate goal of not being sexual. Technically, a strongly aversive sexual drive (not to be sexual) is an indication of a very strong libido, even though the outcome isn’t pro-sexual, it’s anti-sexual. In this case, the person is very, very interested in sex (and may spend a lot of time thinking about sexuality), with the goal of not behaving sexually.In common usage, libido equals interest or desire. 

Libido is the mind part of sex: the desire part of the process that may lead you into further sexual play.  Without psychic energy one doesn’t contemplate, and may not initiate. Libido doesn’t compel action, but it is part of the consciousness around sexual sensations. The decisions of our executive brain can always act, or not act, on suggested libidinous sexual actions.

Libido wells up from a number of different stimuli.  Sometimes, a rush of sensation in your genitals will be transmitted to your brain, and as awareness of the sensation trickles in, you start thinking, “hey, a little more of that would feel good.” Other types of sensation could be an arousing image, memory or smell. Your brain might process that sensation and lead you to say, “I’d like to pursue something sexual right now.”  Sometimes it’s a gesture or touch from a loved one that triggers a desire for more. Where did the word libido come from?

Libido is a word that Dr. Sigmund Freud developed in the early 1900’s that describes sexual urges and drives as sexual psychic energy.  Dr. Karl Jung further developed the concept, suggesting that personality transforms daily experiences into psychic energy, some of which is sexual. What is libido, technically?

Conceptually, libido is multi-faceted. Wrapped up in one word, libido, are:

  • thoughts, 
  • desires (sexual arousal), 
  • memories,
  • rewards,
  • survival instincts (protective arousal), 
  • intentions, and
  • actions.

How we express a sexual action is complicated mass of mixed rewards, stress reactions, physical capacity, hopes, dreams and memories, all balled up and wrapped around today.Understanding someone’s libido is more than just looking at the outcome of sexual events or actions. Libido is also the push and pull of conscious and unconscious psychic moments, reactions to physical capacities and limitations, interactions of external evaluation (whether self- or other- evaluations of appearance and body image), all influenced further by split-second decisions based on continuous safety assessments.We influence our libido more than it influences us.

It’s important to realize that libido isn’t a passive THING that acts upon us. Libido is constantly influenced by the choices we make, and our experiences. We are all unique, and our past experiences, interpretation of those experiences and unique psychological and physical selves determine what role and intensity libido will play in our lives.

This is an important concept, because the reality is that the way you live your life–what you take on, care for, or avoid–determines how much sexual psychic energy you have to bring to the next day. If you believe sexual psychic energy is something unmodified that acts on a helpless you, then libido will feel foreign, mysterious, and something you can’t do anything about. When we begin to understand the whole concept, we can notice and experience small and constant shifts in libido, and can choose life actions which help nudge libidinous energy higher or lower.

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How to keep the sexual fires burning

I suffer from a low level of sexual desire toward my husband, and it is not because I don’t find him attractive. Please help me find a way to improve or increase my cognitive sense of desire.

One of the more destructive myths that floats around out there is that sexual desire should come automatically, and should persist at a consistent level throughout the life of a relationship. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When interviewed, long-term couples who state that they remain interested in each other sexually talk about how they have to work at maintaining their desire and feeding their libidos. So it takes conscious effort to feed what you call the “cognitive sense of desire”.

How can we do that? There are many different tools available to couples to them help focus back on your connection and feed the sexual side of your relationship. The basic philosophy used by sex therapists when faced with a couple whose sexual life has fallen away is to help them to focus more on all the ways they are connected, and to nurture their shared experiences of all five senses. So the first step is to increase the amount of contact you have with each other – not contact that is intended to lead to sex. Spend time looking into each other’s eyes and touching in ways that feel good but aren’t specifically sexual. The stronger intimate connection you feel, the more likely you are to want to be sexual.

Other tools that help to increase libido are erotic books and movies. You can read a book yourself, or read it aloud to your partner, or do both. This can introduce some new ideas into your sexual life, spark your libido, and help you express some fantasies you may have that you’d like to act out with your partner. Many books incorporate erotic stories, suggestions on how to spice up your sexual life, and encouragement for keeping the flames of passion alive between you. Erotic movies are also good tools for sparking the libido, as well as ways to allow you to articulate fantasies (“You know, I’ve always wanted to try that!”). There are tasteful erotic movies available, meant for women and couples, that show explicit scenes of lovemaking in ways that can inspire your libido without offending your sensibility.

Another fun tool is to get an erotic game that is designed to re-light the spark between you. Games can provide a structure for you to play with desire, flirtation, fantasy, and wish fulfillment, with the goal being to inspire lust and sexual connection between you and your partner. For some couples, that gets them out of their habitual pattern of “how we have sex” and into something a bit more playful. Changing the patterns of how you approach sex can be important when trying to make it more interesting.

Last, I want to encourage you to make time in your life for both sensual and sexual contact with your partner. It also is important to accept the natural ebb and flow that your sex life will take as the rest of your life has its ups and downs. If you’ve been experiencing a lot of stress, plan a vacation (even one at home – as long as there are no kids, no phone calls, and no interruptions for a couple of days) that will allow you to de-stress enough to be able to enjoy connecting again with your partner. It takes some work, but the outcome is so worth it!

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Libido and pre-menopausal women

I’d like to get some confirmation on my experience that my interest in sex goes in waves that roughly correlate with my menstrual cycle. Am I really changing estrogen quantities sufficiently to go from nymphomaniac to happy celibate?

Sexual desire, also know as “libido”, is probably one of the most under-discussed and most-wondered-about emotions. There is lots of available information about sex and reproduction, sex and illness, or sex and advertising, but not a whole lot about personal sexual desire.

A review of physiology: If you think about a woman’s menstrual cycle as beginning the first day she bleeds, that day would be day one, and you could continue counting each day until the next day she bleeds. The average number of days between bleeding (a “cycle”) for most women is about 28 days, although there is often variation.

The cycle can be further thought of as being divided into two halves: the first half being a hormonal preparation for ovulation (the “follicular phase”), and the second half (the “luteal phase”) a preparation for menstruation. Levels of the hormone estrogen begin to rise before the first day of bleeding, and continue at a high level until ovulation. Levels of the hormone progesterone rise after ovulation and continue until a few days before bleeding. There’s more to it, but those are the basics.

Back to the question. Research shows that women, on average, report more sexual desire (libido), more sexual activity, and more interest in erotica during the pre-bleeding, bleeding, and first phase (follicular phase) of their cycles. This would seem to support a “hormone = libido” theory. For more information on this topic, read the book The Alchemy of Love and Lust, by T. Crenshaw. This book is an absorbing treatise on how sex hormones might influence our relationships.

But …! Several studies have shown that sexual desire does not correlate with estrogen or progesterone levels. Some studies have shown a change in libido which was related to testosterone levels, however, which fluctuate in both women and men. Confusing the issue more, when women reporting low sexual desire were compared hormonally to women with “normal libido”, the blood hormone levels in the two groups were statistically the same.

Is libido more linked to hormones, or to something else? Sexual desire is influenced by many different things. It’s probably the case that there are some hormonal influences on libido; however what you’re thinking (cognition) is more important to desire than hormones levels alone. There are several observations that support this:

  1. Learning more about your own arousal can allow you to achieve more arousal, even though your hormone levels stay as they always were. When women who report low libido, participate in “orgasm training” (educational effort and “hands on practice”), they report feeling more sexually aroused and more sexually assertive, even six months after the training. Their hormone levels, however, did not change one bit.
  2. Sexual desire does not change in approximately 50-70 percent of post-menopausal women. This means that when a woman has stopped cycling her estrogen and progesterone (the “pause” in the “meno”), her sexual desire is most often unaffected. This is supported by the observation that women’s testosterone levels decline, if at all, very slowly before, during and after menopause.
  3. Other social and medical factors, such as loss or unavailability of a partner, health status, or partner discord have been shown to be far more influential than postmenopausal hormone levels (including testosterone).

Testosterone has gotten lots of press, but when you look at research with willing humans, it is generally women who have other medical conditions (pituitary problems), or have had their ovaries removed who most benefit from testosterone replacement. Even then, it’s a tight-rope balance act, where too much gives you facial acne and irritability (“testy” comes from “test”osterone), and not enough leaves you without a sex drive. Other people with “normal” testosterone levels have not been shown to benefit from pills or injections of testosterone.

(An aside: testosterone creams have some effect on women’s arousal, but we wonder whether a sexual lubricant might not do the same thing. The women reported feeling “sexier” and “wetter”, which might have been from rubbing in the lotion that the testosterone was put into. Women also report that 10-20 minutes of massage with a Viagra cream helps too, but taking a Viagra pill is not effective. See a connection? No study has been done that we are aware of that uses sexual lubricant and vulvar massage for 10-20 minutes to see if that helps women’s sexual arousal. We could foresee the line of women waiting to get into that study, though.)

The answer? I suspect that the most important determinant of libido is cognition (what you’re thinking). These studies show that if you don’t have a cognitive sense of desire, that your hormonal level won’t matter much. Hormones are to libido what icing is to cake: hormones may enhance an underlying sexual desire, but aren’t responsible for developing the desire in the first place.

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Re-sparking the libido

I’ve entered perimenopause and I’ve noticed that my libido is not what it used to be. Are there things I can do to get it revved up again?

There are natural changes that happen with our libido when our hormonal balance changes at menopause. Libido, or the desire to be sexual, takes practice to happen easily, and it often goes away when you’re distracted by life’s challenges, or your physical health changes.

Fortunately, libido is an elastic state of being that can be invited back into your life. It’s also true that you can enjoy pleasurable sex without having a strong libido. Rosie King, MD writes: “Desire and arousal are two separate components, and are run by different parts of the brain … it is much easier to be turned on if you start with a high level of desire. But even if initially you feel sexually uninterested, if your partner helps to warm you up … you can enjoy a very pleasurable sexual experience … [including] high levels of arousal and orgasm.” (Rosie King, MD, “The Right Conditions for Lovemaking” from “Sex Tips and Tales from Women Who Dare” edited by Jo-Anne Baker)

Where do I start?

To begin nurturing your libido, start with your brain. Start thinking about the good sex you’ve enjoyed. Reflect on your favorite past encounters and fantasies. Allow your body to become aroused, paying attention to the feeling of blood flowing to your genitals. You may not produce lubrication the same way you used to, and that’s perfectly normal. Try to recognize different signs of arousal: swollen labia, a flush on your chest, tension in your nipples, and an increase in breathing. If you have a partner, your partner may notice that your eyes are dilating as well. If you experience dryness of your vulva and vagina, we recommend massaging a moisturizing lubricant into those tissues twice a day. This encourages blood flow to your labia so you become aroused more comfortably.

Don’t stop now.

Allow yourself to think positive sexual thoughts throughout the day, including fantasies, remembering past sexual experiences, and envisioning wonderful sex that you’d like to enjoy. Think about the variety of sexual activities that would be pleasurable, including genital massage, oral sex (on you by a partner) and comfortable penetration of your vagina, if you’re ready for that and enjoy it.

Then, try something a little frisky …

Invite yourself on a sex date. If you did not masturbate before now, you are encouraged to begin. Make self-pleasure a part of your self-care routine. Learn how your body now responds to erotic thoughts, erotic stories and erotic pictures or videos. There is a lot of woman-friendly erotica available to help expand your fantasies and nurture your arousal during both self-pleasuring and partner sex.

Pleasuring yourself will help you know how it feels as your body becomes aroused, and what kinds of touch and sensation feel the best. If you enjoy vaginal penetration, include that in your self-pleasuring, exploring how deeply you like to be penetrated and what width is most comfortable. Begin with one finger, then gently introduce a second when you feel ready. If you can comfortably be penetrated by two fingers, consider using a dildo or vibrator to increase your pleasure. Then, when you choose to have sex with a partner, you can teach your partner what you’ve learned about what works best for you.

But what do I do with my partner until I’m ready for sex?

If you have a partner, make time to enjoy each other in sensual ways. Set aside time for you to give each other massages, enjoying touch and sensation without pressure to have sex. The goal is to get more emotionally connected to your partner. Encourage your partner to masturbate, adding an erotic toy if desired. When you’re ready, start with genital massage using a personal lubricant as your massage lotion (oil can be quite irritating, so avoid oil or Vaseline on the genitals). Eventually, plan to massage each other to orgasm, focusing on the sensations of arousal and orgasm. Then, if you’re interested in intercourse, have your partner massage you until you are quite aroused and ready for penetration.

Keep sex going

It helps to create space for your sex life, without interruptions. Make a date with yourself and/or your partner to enjoy one or two hours of pleasure without answering the phone, dealing with the kids, or thinking about work pressures. If orgasms are important to you, make sure you get the stimulation you need to have at least one orgasm during sex play with your partner.

Slowly building a set of pleasurable, comfortable sexual experiences will encourage your libido to grow. Take time to cuddle afterward, and enjoy the feelings that come from pleasurable sex. The warmth of a positive sexual connection is something you can think about and enjoy when you’re ready for more pleasure.

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Do oral contraceptives diminish libido?

Is it true that birth control pills take away sexual drive?

Oral contraceptive use is common.

Over 30 million women choose to prevent pregnancy in the US.

  • The leading choice (37%) for contraception is hormonal control of ovulation (“the pill”–oral contraceptives, injections, patches & implants).
  • Non-reversible surgical sterilization (female and male) are used by 36%.
  • On-demand barrier methods (male & female condoms) are used by 18%.

What is the relationship between hormonal contraceptives and libido?

Studies evaluating a relationship between hormonal contraceptives and possible effect on sexual desire have been mixed. This is because sexual desire (libido) is multi-factorial, with three main contributors:

  • Social (relationships, availability of partners, privacy)
  • Psychological (personal attitudes, personal experiences, reaction to cultural beliefs)
  • Physical (physical pain, ability to achieve arousal, hormonal status)

Dysfunction in any or all of these areas can cause depressed sexual desire. Yet studies of the relationship between libido and contraceptive use have never distinguished between these different contributors to libido. The consequence of this faulty understanding has been a blended hodge-podge of risk-factors in research studies, leading to the overwhelming conclusion that there is no effect.

No Effect? You say “high”, I say “low.”

Consider the following likely scenario: Imagine that a group of women contraceptive-users is asked about their libido.

  • Some women, who use hormonal contraception, prevent pregnancy in a behavior that is well removed from the behavior of sexual activity. They take a pill, slap on a patch, or get an injection well away from the moment that they are sexually involved. The consequence of this would be to “increase spontaneity”, but “allow for pregnancy prevention” unrelated to the desires of their partner. These women might report a boost in their perception of sexual desire.
  • Other women, who have a prolonged depression of their sex steroids due to hormonal manipulation, might suffer physically from the effects of low testosterone. Low available testosterone levels cause known side-effects of muscle aches, fatigue, depressed mood, etc. These women might report suppression in their perception of sexual desire.

Both groups experienced a change, but in opposite directions. Add the results of group one with group two, and you get “no change” because they’ll statistically cancel each other out.

Evidence of Prolonged Testosterone Suppression

Some researchers believe that the persistent elevation in “Sex Hormone Binding Globulin” or SHBG after discontinuation of oral contraceptives leaves the woman in a persistent state of “low hormones”, specifically referring to the removal of available testosterone from her blood stream. Several aspects of this are very concerning:

  • The suppression has been shown to continue for up to 11 months after the hormonal manipulation is stopped.
  • Women are trying to prevent pregnancy, not change hormonal blood levels of non-reproductive hormones.
  • Women are not informed of this possible risk, nor the potential for the duration of effect.

Preserving Libido & Making Informed Choices

However, because libido has multiple contributors, it is not the case that every woman should stop using hormonal pregnancy prevention. Each woman should evaluate her specific risks and benefits.

  • Women who use hormonal manipulation who also notice a depression of sexual desire or energy need to consider whether stopping will bring a higher quality of life.
  • Women need to understand that it may take months after stopping before they notice an improvement in their mood, energy and libido.
  • Women who may be prone to decreased libido need to consider their options before using hormonal manipulation. The state of current research is such that it is not known how prolonged the effect is.
  • Women who use hormonal manipulation to prevent pregnancy are already at higher risk of short-term (curable sexually transmitted infections) and long-term problems (cancer, blood clots, heart attacks, stroke, and incurable sexually transmitted infections). Is this potential change in libido the additional factor which would lead her to make different choices?

Barriers Are Good Sexy Choices

For women who want to avoid unnecessary complications yet still protect themselves reversibly from pregnancy, sexual barriers are their best option.

Sexual barriers:

  • Are on-demand. You don’t need to use them when you aren’t being sexual.
  • Have no long-term, irreversible effects.
  • Prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections.
  • Have male and female options. Women can be in control of their barrier protection.
  • Reduce the potential interactions between medications and hormone systems in your body.
  • Have no associated increased risk of cancer.
  • Reduce cervical cancer risks.

Internet resources:

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Low Libido after Delivery

Since delivery, I have had very little interest in sex.

It is not at all uncommon for new parents to experience a drop in libido. If you experienced a difficult delivery, especially a Cesarean birth, you may still be physically recuperating. Any delivery can cause bleeding, and recovery can be slow as you your body rebounds. Additionally, the hormonal shifts taking place in your body, lack of sleep, and changing roles and expectations in your life can quickly put sex on the back burner. Also, the closeness you share with your baby may leave you feeling “touched out.” (“…Well, no wonder!…”)

Be compassionate and patient with yourself. Healing puts extra demands on your body, so getting adequate sleep, and spiffing up your diet to include high-quality protein sources and fruits and vegetables with plenty of antioxidants can be very rejeuvinating. Keep up on your fluids. Consider taking, or continue to take a multi-vitamin supplement. Easy does it.

Depression can also inhibit libido. The “baby blues,” a common condition including sadness, crying, and mood swings, should abate a few weeks postpartum. If you find that you are experiencing these or other distressing symptoms for a longer period of time, you may be experiencing postpartum depression. Contact your healthcare provider, who will be able to assess your condition and help you get the proper treatment.

But I’m worried my partner is getting sexually frustrated.

It is extremely important to communicate with your partner around issues of sexuality. Do not take for granted that your expectations and needs match. Your partner may feel a bit left out of the new bond that you and your child have formed, and a lack of sexual intimacy can add to that feeling. If you do not wish to be sexual, make sure that your partner understands why and feels reassured and loved. Try to be understanding if your partner seeks sexual outlet in masturbation or the use of erotic literature, movies, or magazines. You may even wish to use some of these things together. You never know–your support could turn into arousal.

It’s also important that your needs get met. Communicate your desires and concerns to your partner and ask for the support and reassurance that you need. Understanding each others’ expectations can also help to take some of the pressure off. For instance, you may be avoiding intimacy because you are not interested in having penetrative sex, while your partner may be quite willing to experience other kinds of closeness, like kissing and touching.

Now more than ever, your sex life will take effort to maintain. It may be necessary to plan sexual intimacy. Baby’s naptime is a good time to get close. And don’t pass up those offers of help from friends and family–they might love to spend an afternoon with baby, and it may just give you the perfect chance to reconnect. Remember, just because you’ve planned to have sex doesn’t mean sex itself can’t be spontaneous! You may wish to involve games or toys to bring a sense of playfulness to sex. Sometimes non-genital forms of intimacy can be ideal. Exchanging massages, cuddling, and making out can be low-pressure ways to feel close.

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Athletes and libido

My lover is a 27-year-old man who has a very low sex drive. He tells me that this has not always been the case. He is an athlete, training for marathons and eating an extremely low-fat diet. I realize that one does not always have the libido of an 18-year-old, but I’m wondering if his exercise and diet regime may be playing a part. If so, other than becoming a couch potato, is there anything we can do?

Before answering your question directly, it’s important to make a distinction between the states of “desire”, “arousal”, and “erectile function.” In other words, does he want to be intimate (desire)? Does his body physiologically respond when he wants to be intimate (signs of arousal such as pupil dilation, flushing, etc.)? If he desires to be intimate by penetrating with his penis, does his arousal lead to an enlarged and stiffened penis (penile engorgement and erection)? It’s important to know whether, for instance, that his penis can become erect when he wants to masturbate, or when he wakes up in the morning–that the body parts “work”, so to speak.

If this is not the case, then your question would have much more to do with erectile function than libido. Some men with erectile dysfunction also have problems with libido, because if they experience erectile dysfunction, they fear that it will happen again, which can lead to a cycle of avoidance.

So, if lack of desire (aka libido) for sexual intimacy is really what you two are facing, do both of you perceive his low libido as a problem, or does only one of you? What was his libido like as an 18-year-old? What does he think about his libido? If he also perceives his libido as being low, does he want it to be different?

It is possible that this level of marathon training and reduced caloric (specifically fat) intake could lead to a decreased libido in some people. His body may be reacting to his regimen saying something like “Why are you starving me?” It turns out that people who exercise a lot (or are anorexic, or are really stressed, or malnourished) can have a hormone (in this case, growth hormone) come in and do what’s called “counter-regulation” of their blood sugar levels. In other words, when your lover is burning his calories and not replacing them, his body is trying to maintain his blood sugar levels any way it can–such as releasing more growth hormone, which helps to restore blood sugar levels. Unfortunately for your sex life, increased levels of growth hormone may be decreasing his libido, among other things.

Other possible medical causes of decreased libido are androgen (testosterone) deficiency, medication side effects, and psychological disturbances. It’s probably worth it to have a medical evaluation at some point, whether with a general physician or an exercise physiologist. From what you said, if his exercise regimen is extreme enough to be triggering this response, he may be better off consulting someone about whether this regimen is safe for him over time.

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Libido and birth control pills

I heard that birth control pills decrease sex drive. Is this true? Is there any way to increase the sex drive without going off the pill? I am on quite a low dose already.

Birth control pills work because they replicate the hormonal signals of pregnancy. In other words, new pregnancies can’t occur because the body thinks it’s already pregnant, so ovulation (the ripening and release of an egg from the ovaries) doesn’t occur.

You’ve hormonally tricked your body into thinking that you’re pregnant. So the next question is, what happens to your libido when you are pregnant? Anything, absolutely anything. It may go up, it may go down, it may go up then down, down then up, or it may not change at all. To answer your question, yes – the pill can decrease libido (sex drive) in some people, while others find an increase or no change. Many things can cause fluctuations in libido, and for most people, the thoughts that you have are more important influences on libido than hormonal influences.

Recently, more evidence of this birth control-low libido correlation has come to light. It seems that birth control pills can alter the amount of available testosterone in a woman’s body, which can in turn decrease her libido. Moreover, some people have found that it can take months for their libidos to go back to previous levels once they stop taking birth control pills. This information is still being verified by various studies, so I encourage you to search the Internet for the latest information, if you choose.

It’s important for every individual to find out more about their own arousal and pleasures. Pleasure is less often something that someone “gives to you”; rather, it is more often something you participate in, or orchestrate all together. It’s important to be able to communicate to someone else what you like, as well as how and when you like it, and what you like to be doing at the same time. But if you don’t know what you like, how can you plan that for yourself or communicate it to others?

Once you understand how pleasure and arousal work for you, you can “tweak” your arousal process using erotic fantasies, erotic movies, and erotic stories. You can purposefully choose to turn yourself on, and share with your partner what he or she can do to help you get turned on more successfully.

Libido is really something you can play with, if you choose to do so. So if you find that your body isn’t giving you the physical signals for sex, get your brain in gear and give your body a nudge in the right direction.