Few aspects of sexuality elicit more questions and curiosity than the topic of libido. What it is, where it comes from, and what causes its peaks and valleys are all topics of great debate. By understanding libido, both our own and our partner’s, we can move away from the mythology that surrounds this facet of intimacy and come into a greater understanding of how desire and drive impact sexuality.
How Does Libido Even Work?
What Is Libido?
Let’s start with understanding what exactly libido is. The term libido first came into popularity through Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis which described the term as "psychic drive or energy, usually associated with sexual instinct."
The Latin origin comes from libido, or lubido meaning desire, eagerness, longing sensual passion, lust. In modern Western culture, libido is most often discussed in terms of eagerness, willingness, and desire for sexual activity. High libido meaning that a person is looking to engage sexually and low libido meaning that they share little to no interest in sex. Many people find they like to satisfy their desires by introducing sex toys into their partnered or solo sex life.
We also often hear the term libido come up when discussing differing levels of desire in a long term partnership. The amount of sex being had, or lack thereof continues to be one of the most common reasons couples experience conflict and report going to see a therapist. Sometimes the issue is long-standing: one partner always has initiated more than the other. At other times a change takes place with the quantity or quality of sexual relations shifting over time.
Either way, the result is often the same, one partner feels pressured to engage more and the other feels rejected or that their needs cannot be met in the relationship. Because sex is often a crucial part of partnered relationships this can lead to both parties questioning if they should be together at all and increased conflict in seemingly unrelated areas of their lives.
The fact is to understand libido we must understand it holistically and not as simple interest or disinterest in our partner or sex in general. Sex, arousal, and response intersect with the rest of our lives at any given moment. When we feel an imbalance in one area of our existence, sex and sensuality can go to the wayside. Exploring your desires and what feels good to you with a selection of sex toys can be a good place to start, especially if you don't want to include a partner just yet.
What Affects Your Libido?
Things that can cause a lack of libido in the short term include:
- Feeling disconnected from our partner.
- Feeling a lack of emotional connection to those around us.
- Fear and stress around work, family or finances.
- Minor health issues.
We may also feel a lack of desire from trauma, both recent and historical. From the global pandemic to grieving over national news that breaks our collective hearts, intimacy can be the last place we feel joy in exerting our already low energy.
Other long-term reasons we may not desire much or any sexual contact can include surviving interpersonal trauma, medical conditions and chronic pain, fatigue. All of these reasons are valid, real, and not necessarily something that needs to be “fixed” or changed unless we personally feel that we want to. Additionally, people may never have desired sex and identify as asexual.
For people experiencing a higher libido they feel guilt or frustration about, know this is perfectly normal as well. We may feel heightened sexual awareness and need for touch/release when we desire to connect more deeply with a partner, when we are feeling at home in our bodies, or just because that is our natural state.
How Sex Toys Can Help
If your libido is higher than your partner's or if you are unpartnered and looking for solo-sex options consider making time to prioritize new ways to connect with your sexual self. Using new sex toys or trying new ways to masturbate can all add a fresh dimension to your sex life that doesn't put pressure on you to find a partner or make your partner's libido match yours. Sex toys can also help you discover new ways of experiencing pleasure that you can use for when you have partnered sex.
Remember that there is no set limit on how much sex or masturbation is too much and thus it should not be something anyone feels shame around. Unless your libido is causing you to take dangerous risks or ignore other aspects of your life then it is simply part of the natural range of sexual diversity that humans experience.
If you have a lower libido, sex toys may be able to help you discover the sensations that really get you in the mood. Using sex toys on your own can also help take the pressure off; you don't have a partner you need to consider or worry about. You can simply take the time to focus on yourself and figuring out what you really like.
Can Your Change Your Libido?
If you do feel like a low or high libido is a concern in your life one of the next best steps would be to connect with a certified sex educator, counselor, or therapist and seek further advice and support. By talking with a professional you can work to uncover any underlying issues that may be leading to your feelings that something isn’t where you want it to be.
By addressing your concerns and giving tips and tools for increasing your awareness of underlying issues that need to be addressed, couples and individuals can find a happy balance between where their natural libido is and where they would like it to be.
Separate from education and counseling you can better understand your libido by doing reflective work on your own. Start by observing and recording times and situations that make you feel present in your body and connected to your sexuality. It may be a certain song, piece of clothing, good news, or erotica that ignites your sensual fires. Again, you may want to experiment with sex toys to determine what sensations feel best to you.
Note times of day, the weather, and other small details that may seem insignificant but might show a pattern you hadn’t been aware of before. By having this data you can see what works for you and what does not and share your finds with your partner and/or therapist.
Libido is rooted in the soil of our lives. When we feel nurtured, safe, and seen it will flourish, though what that looks like for each person will as unique as we all are. There is no right or wrong to experience libido, so focus on finding what works for you where you are and in this season of your life.
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.