Lack of interest in sex is a common problem for couples, according to a new British study, especially when the couple has been together for a long time. The research pinpoints several factors that may play a role in low libido, and the study authors offer some suggestions for how men and women can reignite their desire.
In the new study, published in BMJ Open, researchers surveyed more than 11,000 British men and women between the ages of 16 and 74, all of whom had at least one sexual partner in the past year. Overall, 34% of the women and 15% of the men said that they’d lacked interest in sex for a period of at least three months within the year. Half of those who lost interest in sex also said they were distressed about it.
Some factors were associated with low sexual interest for both men and women, the researchers noted, including poor mental health, having experienced non-consensual sex at some point in their lives, and having an STD in the last year. People who did not feel emotionally close to their partners—or who did not always find it easy to talk about sex with their partners—were also more likely to report a lack of interest in steaming up the sheets.
Other factors were gender-specific. Women living with a partner were more than twice as likely to have no interest in sex compared to men living with a partner. Those who had been with their partner for more than a year were more likely to report a tanked sex drive than those in newer relationships.Women, but not men, were also more likely to have low sexual desire if they had had three or more partners in the last year, if they did not share the same bedroom likes and dislikes as their partner, or if they had children under 5 in the household.
That last association may be due to “fatigue associated with a primary caregiver roll, the fact that daily stress appears to affect sexual functioning in women more than men, or possibly a shift in focus of attention attendant on bringing up small children,” the authors wrote in their paper.
Interestingly, men who had recently masturbated were more likely to report a zero interest in sex, while the opposite was true for women. This finding may reflect a tendency among women to consider masturbation part of a “broader repertoire of sexual fulfillment,” the authors wrote, rather than a substitute for partnered sex.
The study’s findings make the case that the problem of low sexual interest should be addressed differently for men and women, said lead author Cynthia Graham, PhD, professor of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Southampton, in a press release.
The findings are also relevant to the current debate over whether pharmaceutical approaches—like the drug Addyi, sometimes called the female Viagra—can truly help women with low sexual desire. These women might benefit more from approaches that also take psychological and social factors into account, the authors write in their paper.
Finally, the authors say, the study results suggest that low libido can often be associated with a lack of emotional closeness or openness with a partner. Making sure that men and women get a broad sexual and relationship education—rather than limiting sex ed to instructions for preventing unplanned pregnancy and other negative consequences—could help couples form more intimate bonds and feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, they add.
“Our findings suggest that open communication about sex with partners is linked with a reduced likelihood of having low sexual interest,” Graham told Health via email. “So if someone is experiencing low sexual interest, this might be indeed be a good place to start.”