For far too long, a woman’s sexual response has been
assumed to function identically to a man’s. Because research and medications have
focused primarily on men, women’s sexuality has remained somewhat of a mystery.
It’s probably no surprise that women’s sexual response is more complex than men’s.
Nor is it a surprise, given that complexity, that the pharmaceutical industry is
having a hard time creating a female version of Viagra.
Unlike men, women often don’t experience baseline lust in between having sex. By
using men as the norm, women are considered ‘abnormal’, resulting in the diagnosis
of “hypoactive sexual disorder” for one third of us. In my opinion, this label does
the opposite of turning women on. It makes us feel as though something is wrong
with our bodies.
Although some women have legitimate difficulties surrounding certain aspects of
sex (i.e. lubrication,
physical comfort, orgasm), more often than not there is nothing wrong with women’s
bodies when it comes to sex; we’re simply unique! Compared to a man, our sexual
response is typically less linear, more influenced by emotions and thoughts, and
more complex — and there is nothing wrong with that!
Anatomy of arousal — how women are unique
Here’s the linear model of arousal that applies well to men:
Women, of course, can experience these same stages, but they tend to overlap more,
or may even be skipped. For example, initial arousal may be absent despite a conscious
motivation to have sex with a partner; and genital engorgement can be present in
a woman without any subjective experience of arousal. This arousal typically
builds only after lovemaking is initiated.
Interestingly, women in long-term relationships — even satisfying ones — are often
the most challenged by lack of baseline desire. A woman with a new romantic partner
following a period of abstinence may surprise herself by “coming to life!” Although
thoughts and emotions can also influence a man’s sexual response (e.g., performance
anxiety can be a ‘downer’ for an erection), they’ve been found to play a much larger
role, in general, in women — whether it’s amping up arousal, or sending
it crashing with a thud.
Why am I not in the mood?
Feeling close to a partner fosters sexual excitement, whereas feeling disconnected
or lugging resentments into the bedroom can snuff out sparks of arousal within seconds.
Common interference can come from:
- Being afraid to tell our partners what we feel and what we need (including what
turns us on)
- Feeling caught between society’s mixed-messages
to be a sex siren in the bedroom while simultaneously not appearing “too easy”
- Body image and being uncomfortably conscious of the media’s pressure on women to
Conditions and medications that act as sex “downers”
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Neurological disorders
- Some antidepressants
- Alcohol (though it loosens inhibitions, it can make our physiology fizzle)
Body image (what woman doesn’t grapple with this one?) has a huge impact on a woman’s
sexual response. One study found that women, aged 35-55, generally considered themselves
more attractive when they were 10 years younger (no matter their current age). This
reminded me of when I’ve thought to myself, “If only I’d known I was attractive
10 years ago!”, not thinking, of course, about how I’d likely be saying
the same thing to myself in another 10 years! Not surprisingly, the study also found
that a woman’s perception of her attractiveness directly correlates with her ability
to feel sexual desire, excitement, and orgasm. Put simply: poor body image fosters
What happens to sex in menopause?
Menopause can pose its own unique
challenges to sexuality. Aging, in general, as well as potential changes
in body weight or shape, can make body image more of an issue at this time for many
women. A decline in the sex hormones testosterone and DHEA can have a direct impact
on arousal, excitement and orgasm. Diminishing estrogen reduces vaginal lubrication
and thins the genital tissues, either of which can make intercourse painful for
some women. Although these may be alleviated by natural hormone replacement therapy
(vaginal or systemic), such considerations should be discussed with your healthcare
provider. Meanwhile, using lubricants, engaging in more creative sex play (with
less focus on intercourse as the goal), and embracing an overall broader definition
of intimacy with one’s partner can help maximize sexual satisfaction for women.
There’s no reason it can’t get even better over time, even if it takes a different
Love cocktail — neurotransmitters, sex hormones, and more
Although a woman’s arousal often starts out neutral compared to that of a man, the
same physical mechanisms apply once engaged in lovemaking. Increasing sexual excitement
and orgasm depend on increased genital blood flow and smooth muscle relaxation.
These functions are controlled by our parasympathetic nervous system, and inhibited
by our sympathetic nervous system (our stress response!). Sexual arousal is also
modulated by hormones and mediated by both neurotransmitters (e.g., acetylcholine,
neuropeptide Y, and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide) and nitric oxide (which dilates
blood vessels and regulates smooth muscle contraction).
Assuming that the mind and emotions are on board and we’re ‘in the mood’, an increase
in sexual excitement during genital stimulation is expected, but is much more reliable
when these various chemicals are all in balance.
Oxytocin does not directly impact arousal, but it’s released during sexual activity
and orgasm and facilitates bonding with our partner. Dopamine is our ‘reward’ neurotransmitter,
enhancing sexual pleasure including arousal and orgasm, and encouraging us to ‘seek
out’ sexual satisfaction as one of life’s ‘rewards’. Serotonin, in contrast, can
inhibit arousal — possibly one reason why antidepressants targeting serotonin can
decrease our sexual response.
As you can see, sexual arousal is a complex, physiological event! But remember,
our bodies are wired to do it and the more we do, the easier it is to become aroused.
Ramp up your pleasure naturally
Several nutrients and herbs can enhance our normal physiological responses during
sex. This means your body can become more quickly aroused, experience heightened
pleasure and perhaps a more intense orgasm. Here’s what to look for:
What is it?
What it does
Naturally occurring amino acid
Increases nitric oxide and genital circulation
Helps counteract the negative effects of stress, while also noted to boost libido
Improves overall sexual function
If you’d like to try a diverse approach, all of these herbs can be found in our
herbal libido enhancer,
Arginelle. Women love this product for its ability to increase sensation,
improve responsiveness to stimulation and amp up pleasure.
Take small steps every day to better sex
It should be no surprise that chronic stress, sleep deprivation, and fatigue can
put a damper on sex drive. Managing our stress, getting a good night’s sleep, eating
a healthy diet, whole-body breathing and regular exercise should all be priorities,
so that everything works better.
It’s also been suggested that the most powerful aphrodisiac is our brain. Fantasy
can be a huge source of stimulation and taking the risk to voice our needs and exercising
open and honest communication with our partners fosters an intimacy that can also
inspire sexual connection. Beyond that, practicing romance with our partners
through small gestures throughout the day, and doing our own work to acknowledge
the womanly beauty in ourselves — no matter our age — can only enhance our sexual
response and satisfaction. For more information on increasing desire, see our interview,
Steamier sex without the guilt
and shame with Barbara Carrellas.
Just because women differ from men, doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with
you! Given the right tools, more pleasure lies just around the corner.
Enhance your sexual desire
your body’s sexual response with our exclusive
- Increases sensation and responsiveness to stimulation.
- Formulated specifically for women.
- Safe and natural.
Warnock JJ. Female hypoactive sexual desire disorder: epidemiology, diagnosis and
treatment. CNS Drugs. 2002;16(11):745-53.
Basson R. Women's sexual dysfunction: revised and expanded definitions. CMAJ. 2005
Bergner D. Unexcited? There may be a pill for that. May 22, 2013. New York Times
Web site. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/magazine/unexcited-there-may-be-a-pill-for-that.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
Koch PB, Mansfield PK, Thuran D, Carey M. "Feeling Frumpy": The Relationships Between
Body Image and Sexual Response Changes in Midlife Women. J of Sex Research. 2005;42(3):215-23.
Basson R. A model of women's sexual arousal. J Sex Marital Ther. 2002 Jan-Feb;28(1):1-10.
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