In a recent study, titled “The Heteronormativity Theory of Low Sexual Desire in Women Partnered with Men”, researchers Sari M. van Anders, et al. found that lower female libido can be a result of many societal norms, especially related to heterosexual couples. This article is extremely important since low sexual desire is a common, though not-often-talked-about, sexual struggle for women and a frequent treatment goal of sex therapy clients and couples in a therapy practice.
Sex is often seen and related only to reproduction (Anders, S. et al), placing women in a box of being a “mother” and a “caretaker”. Studies have found that men do not equally share parenting and housekeeping responsibilities, which creates resentment from their female partners and contributes to a decrease in desire for partnered sex. Although more recent studies show an increase in men’s domestic contributions in heterosexual marriages, women still do most of the chores and/or family organization leading to lower satisfaction with their marriage, as stated in the article “Perceived Housework Equity, Marital Happiness, and Divorce in Dual-Earner Households” by Michelle Frisco and Kristi Williams, which isn’t exactly an aphrodisiac in the desire department for women.
Anders, S. et al found four predictions of how heterosexual relationships lead to low sexual desire:
Prediction 1: Inequitable gendered divisions of labor leads to inequitable gendered divisions of desire: Women are often responsible for relationship maintenance and family management. Women also often do the recurring chores like cooking, washing dishes, cleaning and laundry. These are all considered “low-schedule control” tasks. Men often take care of “high-schedule control” chores like house and car maintenance and paying bills, which are performed less frequently and with more flexibility. These differences in chores and responsibility can cause stress on the women in the relationship, leading to low sexual desire. Women can often feel more like a mother than a partner, and society regularly desexualizes mothers and parenting. Men may have more time to spend on being a “partner”. Women are expected to achieve more in the house, women have to ask men to share responsibility or “nag” them to be equals in the house. Marginalized women often have a harder time asking and receiving help and women who rely on men financially often have a harder time standing up for themself or feeling like they have a right to ask for more help with the house and kids. These inequities between partners often have negative effects on the sexual aspects of a relationship. Tasks at home can add up to a lot of stress, with chores constantly being added to the to-do list, women feel like sex gets relegated to a lower priority. One woman stated that they “would rather make sure the bills are paid, clean the house, do things that need to get done than participate in sexual activity.”
Prediction 2: Having to be a partner’s mother dampens women’s sexual desire: Heterosexual couples have traditionally thrust women into a role of nurturer and caregiver. Once children enter the picture, relationships can go from partner-partner to mother-child, with one partner becoming caregiver dependent. Women will do the same tasks for their husband/partner that they do for their children including;
- reminding/planning/organizing of chores and social events
- buying clothes
- planning/shopping/preparingdinner every night.
Heterosexual male partners/husbands sometimes still expect their partner/wives to care for them like their mom did, as it is what was modeled for them in their parents’ marriages. This is not usually a role women are choosing to have between them and their partner, which can frequently lessen their sexual desire.
Prediction 3:Objectification of women downregulates women’s desire: Heteronormativity focuses on women’s sexual appearance over their pleasure. Women are taught early on that they should appear sexy rather than feel their sexuality for themselves. Women are for men to get enjoyment from, making women’s wants and needs a low priority. Men believe women’s bodies are offered to them as part of a marriage contract, they can have sex whenever they feel like it and the women are expected to consent . Women’s desire is often based on whether men find them desirable, causing women to feel like they need to spend a lot of time on their appearance for the other. The study found that women who have lower self-esteem tended to have lower sexual desire and lower sexual pleasure. In many cultures and families, children are taught that women’s genitals are “dirty” or nonsexual, this belief can distract women as adults during sex and lead to low self-esteem. Sex education focuses on vaginas as a reproductive organ , rather than focusing on the clitoris, vulva and labia, which are the pleasure centers of the female genitalia . The study observed that men view sex as a way to show off their technical skills, often viewing access to women’s sexuality as a trophy to be won, rather than focusing on women’s enjoyment during sex.
Prediction 4:Gender norms surrounding sexual initiation contribute to women’s low sexual desire: Sex is often started when men initiate it, some women feel uncomfortable making the first move. Women are taught to want to have sex when men are ready, they are shamed for having their own desire, having been called a “slut” if they initiate too directly. Yet when women turn down a sexual initiation they have traditionally been labeled a “prude”, “stuck up” or a “tease”. The study shows that women reported feeling like masturbating might be seen as cheating by their partners, so they avoid solo sex even if they want to. Heterosexual sex is painted as real sex, which has traditionally still been shown as offering a low rate of orgasming without direct clitoral stimulation. When sex does not lead to sexual pleasure it brings down one’s sex drive. Women continuously say that they view sex as a “job requirement”. The study states that “Women may be unable to refuse sex because of justified fears of violence or resource withdrawal…”, that is why “marital rape” needs to be discussed much more widely.
Stress, Future Research and Treatment:
Stress is a major contributing factor in low sexual desire. Women may feel stress from pregnancy, whether wanted or not, babies/children, physical pain from breastfeeding, carrying, rocking and lifting, as well as sexual abuse.
Unfortunately most research on women’s sexuality is still done with white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender and monogamous women, so any women outside of these categories should and do feel like they cannot get evidence-based answers or care for their low desire or other sexual questions and needs. As a sex therapist and general psychotherapist we witness the ways in which individual CBT and psychodynamic therapy and couples counseling can improve concerns related to low female desire, decreased sex in relationships and marriages as well as lower intimacy and attachment in relationships. As a systemically oriented couples and Certified Sex Therapist, I am also aware that sexual desire is an intersectional experience and has to be addressed by using thorough biopsychocultural-spiritual assessments and collaborative treatment goals.