How to rekindle sexual passion when the fire is dead
Feeling as passionate as a soggy piece of pasta? Running out of oysters and ginseng? Brace yourself — Wanda Hennig has the lowdown on reviving lost lust
It’s late at night and you’re in bed. The body to your left, pushing gentle zzzzs, radiates a comfortable warmth. The radio to your right plays softly. Your mental meanderings are suddenly jolted into focus by Rod Stewart’s voice. It’s golden oldie time and he’s warbling on about passion. “I need passion. You need passion. We need passion. Can’t live without passion.”
“Who needs passion?” you mutter and kill him with a click of the switch, then curl foetally round your pillow, facing away from the man in your bed. Before you drop off, you recall that once his mere vibrations caused a sexual charge and even his gentle snore turned you on. But that was then and now is now—and quite frankly, these days, the idea of prolonged celibacy has considerable appeal.
So What’s Happened to the Passion?
Fact: Droves of men and women worldwide are seeking therapeutic help to deal with an increasingly widespread problem of inhibited sexual desire. So rest assured, you are not alone!
Only a blow-up rubber sex doll or a plug-in vibrator is ready for sex 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day. It’s normal for sexual desire to wax and wane along with the demands of everyday life.
Problems arise when resistance to sex builds up and poses a threat do the continuation of a relationship or the peace of mind of one or both parties.
A New York therapist has summarized the situation thus: “Anxiety has caused the cool-off on sex. The tremendous emphasis on performance, on doing it right, made many people nervous. Who would dare admit that they are sexually insecure? After all, you’re supposed to know how to be a terrific lover, you’re supposed to have had multiple orgasms and to know how to give fantastic oral sex. We read about insatiable women with tidalwave orgasms and super-studs with nonstop erections. People think that what’s going on in everyone else’s bedroom is unbelievably exciting, so it’s not surprising that they become anxious about what’s going on behind their own closed door. Fear and anxiety are the biggest sexual turn-offs!”
“The general consensus is that loss of sexual desire typically results from a multiplicity of causes,” says Dr. J, a 37-year-old Durban sex therapist who specializes in group therapy for women with low sexual desire.
Which is not to say men are immune! “I can recall one specific case of a man coming for therapy,” says Dr. J. “His wife, who’d spent years looking after their four children, developed a career when they left home. After a while, she overtook him. He couldn’t accept it. He felt emasculated and lost his sexual drive. He had to learn to come to terms with her success before they could engage in good sex again.”
While women are the focus of this article, it should be noted that partnerships are inextricably interwoven. If things are wrong for one, the other can’t avoid the ripples. Therefore, variations on the same theme apply to both sexes—and rekindling sexual excitement is equally relevant to both partners.
While loss of desire can occasionally be linked to a specific cause—for example, an incident of abuse—this is rare. The connection is usually far more abstract.
But, say therapists, there are some recurring themes—a prime one being linked to childbirth and another to assertiveness—or more specifically, lack of it.
“Women are prepared very well for the birth of a child,” says Dr. J. “They’re encouraged to attend prenatal clinics, and postnatal classes, and are told what they will need for the wellbeing of the baby. But no preparation is given for the kind of sexual changes and difficulties that can arise.”
Libido Changes and Hormonal Changes
Sometimes there are libido changes along with hormonal changes. “Suddenly a woman has big breasts and a bulging belly. This can give rise to body image problems as maybe she no longer sees herself as the same sexual being. If a couple have not explored different sexual positions, sex can become very uncomfortable during pregnancy, adding to the problem.
And then there are things like tiredness and change of lifestyle – from an exciting job to being at the beck and call of an object that opens its mouth and screams. The accumulation of these things can play havoc with sexual desire.”
Dr. J warns that gynecologists often contribute to he problem by telling women they can expect to resume normal sexual relations six weeks after the birth. “But sometimes she is still sore. She is not given tips on how to cope, on suitable sexual positions and lubricants.”
And there are unknown factors. “We don’t, for example, know what effect breastfeeding has on a woman’s libido,” says Dr. J. “I will see a woman who is breastfeeding and I will explain that this could be having an effect on her libido. I will also see her partner. But I will not treat her unless she has weaned the child and still finds she has a problem. We just aren’t sure what we are dealing with at this time.”
Fatigue, post-baby blues, depression and loss of libido are all close partners, Dr. J adds.
Lack of assertiveness need not be in terms of the sexual relationship for it to influence sex. It can stem from resentment that grows because a woman can’t assert herself about general things in the relationship.
Says Dr. J: “The problem can be in terms of day-to-day interactions—or it can relate to some specific kind of sexual encounter. If the latter is the case, she has often taught herself to switch off and think of England. This becomes ingrained and she becomes an asexual being.
“Assertiveness is a great problem with many women. My groups spend many hours on the subject. Women are encouraged to role-play specific situations and then to work on carrying these over into daily life.”
Says Ruth Keech, senior social worker at Famsa (Family and Marriage Society of South Africa), “If sex is bad in a relationship, usually everything else is bad too. The most common complaint of the South Africa woman is that her man doesn’t treat her as a person. He’s not warm and loving. He doesn’t want to talk to her. And he doesn’t touch her unless the touching is going to lead to intercourse.
Can Sex Improve Automatically?
“If the marriage improves, sexual relations improve automatically. If they don’t we refer to a sex therapist,” says Keech. “Sometimes a medical examination is suggested to ensure sex problems are not physical in nature. Drugs such as Valium and certain tranquillizers and anti-depressants can inhibit sexual desire, and this would come to light during examination.”
But be warned! “Many women put absolute faith in their gynaes and GPs,” says Dr. J. “Unfortunately, except for the enlightened few, the two most typical responses from these medical experts are (a) ‘Let me give you a course of hormones,’ or (b) ‘This is something you’re going to have to live with.’
“This is nonsense, but few are open-minded enough to recognize that they don’t have the time, even if they have the skills, to deal with the problem, and to refer to appropriate services.
The Rekindling Process
If you and your partner are happy with the status quo, even If sex is as rare as a heat wave in winter, that’s fine. There’s no rule to say you should be rutting like rabbits—and there’s much truth in the cliché that it’s quality rather than quantity that counts. It’s all a case of what suits you.
But if infrequency is putting strains on the relationship, or if one of you is tolerating sex as a chore, or if one of you feels you’re not getting your fair share, then you need to do something about it. Ask 10 people, “How do you rekindle sexual passion when the fire is dead?”—and guaranteed, you’ll get 10 different answers—all with at least a smattering of truth.
Here’s a sample of off-the-cuff responses I got to the question. It’s obviously close to the heart because the average person doesn’t need more than a moment to toss off a personal solution.
–> “Take her to an exotic resort, ply her with champagne, pop in a couple of raunchy movies and she’ll be on like a scone.” Single male, 38.
(Good idea, so long as she is open-minded and the films are tasteful! Porn is very much a personal preference and appeals more to the male of the species. But this could work because of the time and effort put into the encounter, rather than because of the situational factors. The tensions and pressures of the average day are what thwart sexual desire. Therapists say that’s why sex improves on weekends away, because cares and hassles are left locked behind the kitchen door and there is time to think about sex.)
Buy Some Sexy Underwear
- –> “Lose 10 pounds. Buy some sexy underwear. It makes you feel good and turns him on.” Married woman, 37.
(Equally likely to work. A woman’s body image is intimately woven with her sexuality. If she feels unattractive, she will not feel sexual. By losing weight and feeling good, she will feel turned on, which is three quarters of the battle won.)
- –> “Fantasize. Close your eyes and pretend she’s your favorite movie star.” Married man, 34.
(No harm in this for men or women, say sex therapists. Although fantasies cannot be prescribed—because one woman’s erotic vision will turn the next woman’s G-spot to ice—fantasies are to be encouraged. If you can’t have Johnny Depp or Mel Gibson in your bed, what harm is there in pretending, so long as you and your partner both end up having a good time. And Jack Nicholson the next night. And Keanu Reeves the night after that.)
- –> “All it needs is a little romance from him. A slow body massage in front of a blazing fire. Something special to sip. Just a little TLC.” Unmarried woman, 27.
(True. A woman wants to feel cared for. One of the biggest complaints from women is that men see sex in isolation, as a cure-all for the day’s hassles, whereas women see sex as an extension and an affirmation of love. If no TLC is given, how can a woman feel turned on and ready for a stimulating sexual encounter?)
- –> “Once it’s gone, believe me it’s gone. You just have to live with it.” Married man, 45.
(There’s no truth in this rumor—unless one or both parties choose to perpetuate it. Also, research has now conclusively pooh-poohed the idea that sex is not satisfying as people get older. Many people in their 80’s are enjoying great sex—so there’s always something to look forward to.”
- –> “Grin and bear it—and hope he gets it over with quickly. It’s the price you pay for your security.” Married woman, 35.
(Poor woman! With this attitude she will never enjoy sex. It shows up one major misconception—that all a man has to do to ensure a woman’s satisfaction is to increase foreplay. If desire is nonexistent or if he’s doing it all wrong, all he’s doing is increasing pressure on her to feign orgasm, and on himself too: ‘Why can’t I get her going?’ A logical conclusion? If she’s not going to beat him or leave him, she man as well join in the fun—and this is what improved techniques are all about.)
“For sex to be good, it takes trust, awareness and understanding of the other person. You should know that his/her expectations, hang-ups and attitudes are different from yours. If you keep in mind that men can truly fear intimacy (although they might want it badly) and that women need loving relationships, it is easier to see why he or she may be acting a certain way that up to now hasn’t made a bit of sense to you,” says Alexandra Penney, author of Great Sex (Putman).
“The very people who do not talk about sex together are the ones who don’t know that though the instinct to want sex may be natural, the successful carrying out of sexual encounters has to be learned. The first step is for them to begin talking about it, to begin confiding their needs to each other,” says Dr. Ruth Westheimer, M-Net’s Dr. Sex and America’s famous psychosexual therapist.
“Unfortunately few couples find it easy to talk about sex and related problems,” says Ruth Keech.
To help them break the ice, Famsa gives couples a sexual preference questionnaire to fill in as a home assignment.
Mutually satisfying sex
Each partner completes this independently and the results form the basis for discussion and a second questionnaire titled “Love Life Development,” designed to rekindle passion and set them on track to mutually satisfying sex.
The initial questionnaire asks partners to rate, on a 10-point scale ranking from grossly undesirable to highly desirable, their attitudes to a variety of things such as oral sex, having sex in the bath, sex with the lights on and sex in the morning, caressing of the specific parts of the body, and a range of sexual positions from man on top to woman astride and rear-entry sex.
It is stressed that no answer is right or wrong. What they are trying to gauge are their personal preferences and desires, so that with discussion, the pair can work out areas of compatibility. This they do together, by filling in the Love Life Development questionnaire. It is divided into five sections, namely, sensual focusing (for example giving affection in everyday life and not just as an approach to intercourse), love play and noncoital sex (for example, having orgasm using the stimulation of mouth, tongue or hands), intercourse (focusing on different positions and communication preferences), post-intercourse (for example, having a snack instead of rolling over and sleeping) and a topic referred to as “general,” which includes suggestions for reading material that could enhance lovemaking.
With such a questionnaire, emphasis is placed on sexual variety—because, as any article on waning desire will tell you, boredom is a number one foe.
“We try to get a couple to work things out together before we recommend any form of sex therapy,” says Keech.
“A hindrance for many women is that they don’t think about sex very often. They’ve got so many other things on their mind—their job, the kids, the laundry, the dinner and so on—that sex gets lost. To bring it back into focus, we recommend that a woman reads romantic love stories—the types you find on the best seller list—and goes to see romantic films.”
Sex manuals can also play an important part. But beware. They can kill sex if they are used as yardsticks for performance. They should be used for ideas. They should open you up to a world of possibility—not inhibit you with a list of rules you feel you should be following. So use them, but loosely and strictly for your own ends.
Some Specific Techniques
“I don’t believe one should suggest specific techniques,” says Dr. J. “Like eating habits, actual techniques are individual. I believe in exposing people to ideas and to literature, and then it’s up to them to decide what to try. They will find a direction that suits them best. Keeping this in mind, here are some categories that find favor with therapists.”
“You can use fantasy to turn on, rev up, spruce up and spice up a sagging sex life,” says Alexandra Penney.
“Our brain, not our breasts or our genitals, is out best sex organ,” says Dr. J. “And while I don’t push people into specific sexual fantasies, I approve of fantasy. I also make use of fantasy, not necessarily of a sexual nature, to teach relaxation and to encourage feelings of sexuality.”
Allied to fantasy is visualizing. “Imagine touching you partner, your partner touching you. Feel the touch. Feel the person you are touching. Continue slowly, imagining a complete sexual experience where you are giving and receiving the kids of stimulation that you most want, concentrating totally on the feelings and the pleasure of each of your physical movements and those of your partner. Visualizing is erotically exciting, meaning that it’s a turn-on.” (Alexandra Penney, Great Sex.)
If you don’t know what turns you on, how can you expect to convey this knowledge to another person, the sex therapists ask.
“For some women, body-exploring is difficult,” says Dr. J. “Sometimes one has to encourage a woman to break through myths and ideas that women who touch themselves are bad and wicked. But it’s to be recommended, as this way a woman learns about her body with no pressure exerted on her by anyone else.”
“Masturbation is a way to learn to have orgasms that can be continued for their own sake or as a variation of sexual experience,” says Dr. Ruth. “The woman who knows how to pleasure herself can teach the art to a lover for a variant, for foreplay or afterplay, or for an accompaniment to intercourse.”
This comes from the pioneers of sex therapy, Masters and Johnson. It is an exercise for couples to do together. It involves two people spending time together, petting, stroking and nuzzling each other from head to toe but skipping the genitals, usually for at least the first couple of weeks, after which there is a gradual progression to the genitals, and eventually sex.
It is recommended in a great variety of sex books and by sex therapists from America’s Dr. Ruth (“This is a common fantasy of men, but generally the strong urge to have sex keeps them from carrying it out,”) to local practitioners: “I suggest sensate massage as an exercise. I use Sheila Kitzinger’s book, Women’s Experience of Sex, and suggest couples work from there,” says Dr. J.
“The important thing about sensate massage is that it allows partners to experience what feels good to them without any pressure to perform. It’s vital that the woman tells the man what feels good. She can’t expect him to be a mind-reader.”
Says Dr. J, “In helping couples to put the spark back in their relationships, we encourage them to be creative. If you have a dinner party, you create an atmosphere with candles, flowers and a suitable group of people. Having the same meal every night would be very boring. And the same goes for sex. To keep the fires burning, it’s important to keep your sex life varied and exciting.” Who knows—with a couple of sex manuals for inspiration, maybe you’ll find Mr. Goodsex is right inside your bed.
[Some names have been changed in the interest of privacy.]
© Wanda Hennig, 2012