Three Facets of Libido

I recently attended a women’s health conference, and the presenter showed men’s libidos as a straight line (actually the Tower of Piza), and women’s libido as a knotted ball of spaghetti. Is this true? I sure know a lot of women whose libido is pretty straight forward, and men who are tied up in little performance knots. Just wondering what the right take on this is.

The original concept of libido was originally developed by Dr. Freud in the early 1900’s, and although it was refined by Dr. Jung in the 1920’s or so, as a concept it’s stayed pretty static since. Dr. Basson (2003) reconceptualized women’s libido as being influenced by a multitude of conscious and unconscious rewards and desire inputs, and that women’s emotional intimacy influenced sexual neutrality. From this, many conference presenters have decided that men’s libido is very straight forward (as in Dr. Freud’s concept), while women’s libido was tied up in a circular blob (as pictured in Dr. Basson’s model).

As for my opinion of the concepts and literature on libidinous psychic energy, I think the gender-based duality is misleading and too simplistic, because:

  1. Until we stop cultural classical and non-classical conditioning of sexuality thoughts by gender, we won’t know how much innate gender difference there is. In other words, until cultures adopt a gender-blind training philosophy and stop treating children and adults differently by gender around the topic of sexuality (which seems unlikely), we will never be able to tell what role gender itself plays.
  2. Although I understand that women are more likely diagnosed with a sexual desire disorder than men, rates of diagnosis often differ from actual prevalence. It’s a troubling assumption that gender plays a large role, particularly when large studies conclude with the need for more epidemiologic (population) research on male and female sexual dysfunction rates after showing that the rates aren’t all that different between genders.
  3. All sorts of people are burdened with thoughts that they need to be confident, all-knowing sexual technicians, and their subsequent performance fears and worries leave some tied up in a proverbial spaghetti knot.
  4. Since the concept of libido includes conscious and unconscious influences, why should that differ by gender, rather than on an individual basis?

AWT’s Three Facets of Libido

I agree with Dr. Basson that libido is a tad complicated. On the other hand, I think there’s a better way help people understand where their libido is personally, and perhaps what some strategies are for a) either being ok with their position, or b) looking for ways to change their own dynamic libidinous process.I think it’s possible to put all that is libido together into one dynamic view. Here’s my model of how I’ve come to understand libido. Consider the diagram:

Notice three sides of a box, and consider how they interact.

  1. Interest/desire: how much appetite you have for sex? This describes the level of focus someone has, which can range from not very much, to intense attention to the topic.
  2. Initiative/drive: How much work are you willing to do to make sex happen, or not happen? This describes the sense of urgency either to make, or to suppress, sexual behavior. 
  3. Integration/Dissociation: How much do you consciously feel sensations during sexual activities. Can you can be mentally and physically present while sexual activities are happening, or do you “check out” (dissociate) during sex? 

Now imagine yourself as a small ball inside of the box. Where would you be today? Where were you a week ago? Were you different with another partner? Each person can reflect on how their position changes: frequently, some, not much, never? Never is not a likely answer, because most people experience different shifts, depending what their life experiences have been, and how their perspective on sexuality changed as a result of those experiences.

Sensory What?

Sensory integration is something left out of many models of libido, although sensory awareness of sexual stimulation is a major factor in how our minds process sensory data coming from the body. I found that when this is included, you can explain some otherwise confusing situations that people find themselves in.

For example, Person A (red circle) who has been sexually traumatized might dissociate (have a lower sensory integration of the arousal process (aka “check out”), yet have frequent sexual encounters with high interest. (So, yes they have libido, but… is it healthy?) On the other hand, Person B (purple pentagram) might have full sensory integration (fully present and not “checked out”), and simultaneously have only the willingness to participate, and little spontaneous, barely interested sexual desire. (So, they have a… lower level of libido, but is something lower healthier?)

Confusing to explain if you only think about libido as having a HIGH or LOW measure.

When talking about sexually healthy libido, more complete sensory integration is healthier than less, mostly because sensory integration allows the person to form opinions and therefore make decisions about what is happening intimately with their body. On the other hand, levels of interest and initiative are simply dependent on the person at that time in those circumstances. Higher or lower isn’t important, but what matters is whatever it IS at that moment in time.

Notice that the gender of the person is irrelevant. Some people get worries about certain situations, and not others, but gender per se doesn’t determine that.

Turning the Cube

Looked at in this way, it’s intriguing to consider where a person is now, was at one time, was with this partner but now not with that one. This is conceptual data that individuals and professionals alike can DO something with. Some issues to consider:

  • Each of these facets is on a situation-specific spectrum, and any individual at a specific time might find themselves at different intensities of each of the three facets.
  • There isn’t a good or bad libido. Every person is a unique individual, so you have your libido at that moment in time. 
  • Libido is dynamic and flexible. Because libido describes the brain processing and deciding whether to act on sexual thoughts, sensations or memory, libido is actively being influenced and shapped by all sorts of forces, and able to bend this way and that. No one’s libido is the same from day to day, relationship to relationship, in sickness or in health. 
  • Libido is the component of sexual process that we can most directly change or rehabilitate. Because our brain is a flexible, plastic, ever-changing thing, our conscious and unconscious mind, as well as our mind-body interface is ready for change. While we can rehabilitate body parts from surgery, improve our blood flow through reduced inflammation, and take better overall care of our bodies, it’s our mind and its power to transform that is ultimately the easiest thing to change.
  • No one can force us to change our libido, but we can choose to learn, experiment, grow and develop our libido from the inside through positively reinforced experiences.

Conscious experimentation is important, because, for better or worse, unconscious shaping of our sexual psychic drive occurs. When a positive event occurs in conjunction with sexual arousal, our brains subconsciously pair those two events together (called classical conditioning). This can also happen when a negative event happens (like pain) with sexual arousal. Because of the unique amplification of genital sensation by the pelvic plexus, the sensation of pain can develop into centrally-amplified pain (neuropathic pain) out of proportion to the sensation (gentle touch).

Learning about your libido.

In the end, it isn’t important how “high” a libido is. It’s more important for you to consider where an individual is on each spectrum. Don’t get confused by pasta. Once someone knows who they are, they can decide whether they want to change anywhere along the three spectrums. They’ll understand themselves better, and can choose to communicate to a partner if someone wants someone else to understand them better.  

(This topic was conceptualized and written by Myrtle Wilhite MD MS. Copyright 2006. All rights reserved by author.)