Understanding Female Desire & Arousal
Are you one of the many women now reporting a low level of desire for sex? And how is it impacting on your sex life and your sense of self? Is there a part of you that just wishes you could take a little blue pill and have all your sexual needs fulfilled? Female desire and arousal is a complex subject.
Recently Sprout Pharmaceuticals resubmitted its (twice already rejected) drug Flibanserin to U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. Flibanserin is a drug intended to treat the disease of low sexual desire in women. But is the problem of low sexual desire really a true disease classification or is it simply pathologizing a variation of normal, perhaps even just a lack of understanding what is possible? The ‘disease’ of low sexual desire was originally classified as ‘a lack of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity’ ie. thoughts of sex leading to arousal that motivates the person to pursue satisfaction. This very limited view largely based on the male experience has now been broadened to include female desire and arousal- the difference between sexual interest and physical arousal, where a woman may not feel hungry for or interested in sex but this does not mean she is incapable of becoming aroused given the right situation.
There so much more to a woman’s sexuality than just fantasy, desire and horniness it is no wonder we get confused at times. We have generations of social conditioning telling us to push down those thoughts or feelings as ‘wrong’ for good girls. Yet if we look at ‘hot’ romance novels or the success of the ubiquitous 50 Shades of Grey our interest is very much there. Such a big part of sexual desire is having a healthy relationship with our sexual selves and giving ourselves permission to go there, to understand what it means for us and to trust that we are ok in it. It can take a bit for her to ‘get there’ but when she fully does a woman can even be sexually voracious.
There is also the need for her to decide for herself in this hypersexualized culture what is sexually right for her. Is there a perception that she should be interested in sex more often than she actually wants/needs to be? It can be hard for a woman to find her innate sexual desires due to the impact of the many ‘shoulds’ in her culture, in her desire to seek approval from those around her as well as how to meet the desires of her lover.
Lastly there is her relationship to her vulnerability and her heart. If she is scared, carrying past hurts, anger fear or unexpressed sadness then her heart will be closed, not only to her lover but also to herself. This closedness in a woman’s heart cuts off her access to her energetic and sensitive feeling body and will have her saying no to even the idea of sex as a way of staying out of this vulnerable place.
Telling a woman that she is diseased, faulty and needing to be fixed is the last way to address the issue of sexual desire. Some women may ultimately benefit from such a drug as Flibanserin but there is much more to a woman’s level of desire for sex and her arousal state that just her ability to feel ‘horny’. Sometimes it is just a case of cultivating feelings of arousal first and then desire awakens- in other words choosing to be sexual without feeling it first then finding the desire comes.
Other important aspects of sex are simply how present a woman is in her body in the first place. These days a woman is often busy doing six things at once, pushing herself to achieve, focussing on the use of her intellect, repressing her socially unacceptable emotional and feeling self and relying on her adrenaline stimulating, hyper stressed sympathetic action oriented nervous system to do so. This way of being keeps a woman in her head and disconnects her from her more sensitive feeling body. In this place the release of tension, through more edgy, ‘horny’ adrenaline and dopamine based sex, what is currently seen as ‘normal’ sex, can be just what a woman wants.
But if she experiences desire post arousal she will turn to her parasympathetic nervous system instead which is all about relaxation, time to breathe, connect to her body and to herself. Give a woman time to relax, breathe and connect to herself and her state changes. Relaxation promotes feelings of safety. Remembering pleasurable sexual feelings/experiences helps activate the autonomic nervous system (of which the parasympathetic NS is a part) promoting arousal and lubrication. An accepting, loving partner (or her loving self) with consistent gentle touch, kisses, words of appreciation (not just niceties, these are part of the arousal system) continues to activate her full melting response ie. heavier breathing, raised heart rate, flushed skin, erect nipples, whole body sensitivity, engorged labia and vaginal walls, lubrication and dopamine release causing an anticipation/desire for sex. This full depth of activation results in the highest opoid (feel good) and oxytocin (bonding) chemical release allowing true satiation. The challenge with this system is that it operates largely beyond our conscious control- we can’t “will” it to happen in the mind (as any woman, or man, who has tried to ‘make’ an orgasm happen knows), we can only allow it to happen whilst following the above steps.
Pathologizing this difference between female desire and arousal rather than understanding it just puts a woman into shame believing she is wrong somehow, putting further distance between herself and her sexual power. When a woman experiencing responsive desire (desire post arousal) comes to understand how to make the most of her desire, she opens up the opportunity for greater satisfaction. Studies have shown that the closer a woman comes to orgasm her capacity for behaviour regulation becomes deactivated, judgement is suspended and her inner ‘wild woman’ is released with freedom from pain and altered states of consciousness. Well worth the effort of getting there!
At times relaxing, connecting with her body and some loving touch still does not allow a woman’s arousal to flow. In this place it helps for her to connect with her heart, feel into it and notice if she is holding it closed for any reason, taking some time to be with whatever is there. Perhaps it is a wall between her and her partner, or just a deeper level of separation from herself, the stress of which activates her stress or sympathetic NS, creating tension and blocking the parasympathetic relaxation/safety response. A little compassionate attention to this part of herself, breathing into or tapping her heart, allowing any accompanying emotions to release can allow her to feel safe and connected enough with herself for arousal and desire to arise. This can be the hardest thing for a woman to give herself permission for, this bit of time, overriding it with less satisfying harder sex. For her lover in this space just know there is nothing to fix here, just bring her your grounded presence and the space to connect with herself.
Even broader than this is the relationship a woman has with her sexuality as her life force energy, her vitality and essence for living, inspiration for her creative and intuitive self, her spiritual gateway. Where cultivation of her sexual energy is for more than just in the bedroom, is about more than desire, where it is about awakening herself.
Embracing our differences and working with our sexuality, our unique female desire and arousal, (actually it is much more complex for the male of the species than we generally believe as well) rather than against it can do more than negatively categorizing and focussing just on chemical fixes alone ever will.