‘The Libido Crash’ By Katherine Rowland

For ADULTS only and not for the shy ones, but I am sure you are still going to read it)

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IN the drawer of her bedside table, Julie maintains an archive of lust. Here are the naked Polaroids she slipped in between her husband’s business papers, explicit notes once left on mirrors, Anaïs Nin, a riding crop. Come evening, Julie used to watch her husband’s movements from across the room, eager for the moment when dinner was done, the kids were asleep and all other intrusions to pleasure had been dismissed. When strangers asked if they were newlyweds, Julie loved responding that they had been married for years, and believed that they were inured to the frazzled disinterest that had settled over the bedrooms of her friends. ‘You always hear how attraction fades with time – the honeymoon period comes to an end. But I always thought that was other people’s misfortune,’ she says.

So when her longing began to dull, Julie struggled to discern what was going on. She blamed the stress of work, the second child, her busy and travel-heavy schedule, the effect of changing seasons, until she had run down the available excuses, and still found she would rather go for a jog on Sunday mornings than linger in bed.

These days, Julie says it feels ‘like suffocating’ to endure her husband’s affections. ‘I’m supposed to get home from working all day, play with the kids, cook dinner, talk about entertaining things, and then crawl into bed and rather than sleep perform some sexual highwire act. How is that possible? That sounds like hell, honestly.’

Julie still loves her husband. What’s more, her life – from the dog, to the kids, to the mortgaged house – is built around their partnership. She doesn’t want to end her marriage, but in the absence of desire she feels like a ‘miserable fraud’.

‘I never imagined I would ever be in the self-help section in the book store,’ she says, but now her bedside table heaves with such titles asSex Again (2012) by Jill Blakeway: ‘Despite what you see on movies and TV, Americans have less sex than people in any other country’;Rekindling Desire (2014) by Barry and Emily McCarthy: ‘Is sex more work than play in your marriage? Do you schedule it in like a dentist appointment?’; Wanting Sex Again (2012) by Laurie Watson: ‘If you feel like sex just isn’t worth the effort, you’re not alone’; and No More Headaches (2009) by Juli Slattery.

‘It’s just so depressing,’ she says. ‘There’s this expectation to be hot all the time – even for a 40-year-old woman – and then this reality where you’re bored and tired and don’t want to do it.’

Survey upon survey confirms Julie’s impressions, delivering up the conclusion that for many women sex tends toward numbed complacency rather than a hunger to be sated. The generalised loss of sexual interest, known in medical terms as hypoactive sexual desire, is the most common sexual complaint among women of all ages. To believe some of the numbers – 16 per cent of British women experience a lack of sexual desire; 43 per cent of American women are affected by female sexual dysfunction; 10 to 50 per cent of women globally report having too little desire – is to confront the idea that we are in the midst of a veritable crisis of libido.

Today a boisterous debate exists over whether this is merely a product of high – perhaps over-reaching – expectations. Never has the public sphere been so saturated in women’s sexual potential. Billboards, magazines, television all proclaim that healthy women are readily climactic, amorously creative and hungry for sex. What might strike us as liberating, a welcome change from earlier visions of apron-clad passivity, can also become an unnerving source of pressure. ‘Women are coming forward talking about wanting their desire back to the way it was, or better than it was,’ says Cynthia Graham, a psychologist at the University of Southampton and the editor of The Journal of Sex Research. ‘But they are often encouraged to aim for unrealistic expectations and to believe their desire should be unchanging regardless of age or life circumstances.’

Others contend that we are, indeed, in the midst of a creeping epidemic. Once assumed to be an organic feature of women, low desire is increasingly seen as a major impediment to quality of life, and one deserving of medical attention. Moreover, researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy in 2010 found ‘a higher percentage of women with low sexual desire feel frustrated, concerned, unhappy, disappointed, hopeless, troubled, ashamed, and bitter, compared with women with normal desire’.

To make matters worse, according to Anita Clayton, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, most women don’t delve into the causes of their waning desire, but settle instead for a sexless norm. She writes inSatisfaction (2007):

You erode your capacity for intimacy and eventually become estranged from both your sensual self and your partner. The erosion is so gradual, you don’t realise it’s happening until the damage is done and you’re shivering at the bottom of a chasm, alone and untouched, wondering how you got there.

Fearful of this end, Julie sought medical help, taking a long and dispiriting tour of conflicting advice (‘Your experiences place you in a near majority of women, but your disinterest in sex isn’t normal’), ineffectual treatments (men’s testosterone cream, antidepressants, marital counselling) and dashed hopes (‘Each time I tried out a new therapy, I told myself it was going to get better’).

Julie is hardly alone. Instead, she counts among a consumer population of millions that pharmaceutical firms are now trying to capture in their efforts to fix the problem of desire. But what exactly are they trying to treat? A physical ailment? A relationship problem? An inevitable decline? Could low desire be a correlate of age, a result of professional stress, a clear outlier on the sexual-health spectrum or a culturally induced state of mind?

For drug makers, these questions pose more than a philosophical quandary. It is only by proving that low desire and its favoured tool of measurement – libido – are diagnosable, medical problems that new drugs can be approved.

The task has been herculean, and fraught with confusion. ‘Some of the statistics that get circulated are based on very badly designed studies,’ says Katherine Angel, a researcher on the history and philosophy of science and former fellow at the Wellcome Trust in London. As a result, it’s possible to interpret ‘the presence of fluctuating levels of sexual desire as indications of a medical problem, rather than natural fluctuation over time’.

That hasn’t stopped big pharma from entering the fray. In the case of women’s libido, the industry has spent years in hot pursuit of the condition and its chemical cure, a female analog to the blockbuster drug Viagra. Yet the more scientists try to hone in on the nature of desire, and the more they try to bottle or amplify it, the more elusive it becomes.

The idea that women could suffer from low desire and benefit from medical intervention reflects a major social shift. Looking back 150 years, it would be hard to conceive that doctors would be concerned with too little desire. The Victorian era is notorious for its desexualised treatment of women. Upheld as moral counterweights to men, women were thought to be sexually passive, untroubled by lust.

Yet another Victorian idea, the notion that love must constitute the centre of marriage, has amplified anxiety over lost desire today. Breaking with a long tradition of unions brokered chiefly for economic and social advantage, the Victorians privileged romantic affection between husband and wife. In the 20th century, this idea expanded to encompass sensual intimacy, and reciprocal pleasure was seen as the key to strong marriages – and the greater good.

The turn toward sensual reciprocity made partnerships more democratic, and couples were meant to provide each other with sexual, spiritual, emotional and social fulfillment. But these gains introduced new stressors, says the family historian Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Washington State. ‘New expectations were piled on to marriage – many of which were good,’ she says, ‘but they occurred in tandem with new pressures, sex among them, as well as diminished expectations for social life outside of marriage.’

In an infamous cartoon in The New Yorker in 2001, one woman confides to a friend over drinks: ‘I was on hormone replacement for two years before I realised what I really needed was Steve replacement.’ Medicine has been reluctant to engage the question of just how much monogamy and long-term togetherness affect sexual function and desire, and the ‘Steve’ problem remains an issue that is tacitly acknowledged and yet under-discussed. To return to Julie’s growing pile of self-help titles, the books all promise to return, revive, restorewithout really getting down to the brass tacks of why desire extinguished in the first place. As Julie notes, the honeymoon grinds to an end, but the issues leading there are complex. In short supply is attention to the way mind and body react to social structures such as popular media, faith and marriage.

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