If you're to believe your husband or that chatty co-worker, you need to improve your sex life.
According to them, you're not having as much sex as you should. Poll a few moms on the playground, though, and they'll have an entirely different take on the subject. So who's right and who's wrong? And if your drive has recently taken a nosedive, is there anything you can do about it? We asked readers what they'd like to know about libido, then posed the questions to a panel of experts. Their answers will make you rethink the meaning of "normal" and help you enjoy a healthier and hotter sex life.
Q. I've been happily married for 11 years and have three kids, but for the past six months I've had zero interest in sex. Is there something wrong with me?
A. "Absolutely not! Parenting is a full-time job, so it's not surprising that sex is taking a backseat to your responsibilities," says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Washington. "Before you know it, a few months have gone by."
If you want to improve your sex life, here’s the first step toward resuscitating that lackluster libido: Make time for yourself.
Book a sitter for a few afternoons a week or ask your husband or a close friend to pitch in and hit the gym. Exercise not only gives you energy, it can also boost your mood and self-esteem.
While you're at it, do things that make you feel more attractive. Touch up your roots, get a pedicure, or simply spritz on your favorite perfume (even if you're just picking up the kids from soccer practice). After a few weeks, you should start to feel like yourself again instead of "so-and-so's mom and your interest in sex will likely return, says Schwartz. (If that doesn't happen, talk to your doctor or a therapist; a larger issue, like depression, may be the cause.)
Another activity to work into your busy schedule: sex. "Sometimes you have to go for it even when you're not into it," says Terry Real, a therapist in Boston. Instead of waiting for a thunderbolt of desire, kiss and caress each other and let things progress. Nothing may come of this the first few times, or you may need to push yourself. But, like dragging yourself to the gym when you'd rather sit on the couch, you'll be happy you did it.
To prevent your drive from waning again, continue carving out "me" time and plan a few grown-up only weekends with your husband (ask a relative if she can stay overnight, then escape to a local hotel). If it's impossible to get away, book a sitter and go to dinner and a movie.
Q. My boyfriend always wants to do it in the morning, but I prefer it at night. How can we get our sex life in sync?
A. Before you can tackle synchronicity, you have to figure out why your timing is off. Guys often want sex simply because they're physically aroused (translation: they wake up with an erection), while many women need to feel relaxed to get in the mood something that's more likely to happen after dark. Body insecurities and stress can also put the brakes on morning romps. It's hard to fully let go if you're worried about how your abs look in the light of day or you're composing a to-do list in your head.
"Be honest with your guy about why you're not into morning sex and ask him if you can take turns doing it on each other's schedules," says Real. Keep the shades down and sheets up if it makes you feel more comfortable, but try to remember that your boyfriend loves you and finds you attractive and that your list making can wait till after breakfast. To get him on board with evening sessions, try eating dinner and turning off the TV early a few nights a week. Also give Saturday or Sunday afternoons a go; they can be a perfect middle ground.
Q. Sex hurts, so I've pretty much stopped having it. What's going on? Why am I suffering from such painful intercourse?
A. Hands down, the most common cause of painful intercourse is vaginal dryness. But – and here's where it can get kind of confusing – that may be due to a number of conditions.
"First, you want to rule out vaginal infections, sexually transmitted diseases, thyroid irregularities, conditions like vulvodynia or endometriosis, and hormonal problems, like perimenopause," says Margaret Wierman, M.D., a professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at the University of Colorado.
Bring a list of symptoms to your gynecologist, and expect her to perform a pelvic exam as well as a blood test that will measure your hormone levels.
Don't panic: Most vaginal conditions are treatable, and a good doctor will be able to suggest ways to make sex more comfortable in the meantime.
If all tests turn up negative, you probably aren't fully aroused and therefore aren't generating enough lubrication. That creates friction and even microscopic tears in the vaginal canal, which not surprisingly can be a real booty buzzkill.
To fix the problem, use a water-based lubricant, like K-Y Brand Jelly (avoid petroleum products, which can cause irritation and also damage latex condoms). Then take it slow: Spend more time on foreplay with your partner, kissing and touching each other. You might have trouble getting aroused because you're worried sex will be painful again, but after a few positive experiences, the anxiety should subside.
Q. I haven't had sex since a relationship breakup a year ago, and I no longer miss it. Is my drive gone for good?
A. Happily, no. You know how your body gets flabby if you don't exercise? Well, it turns out your libido goes a little soft after a relationship breakup because there's no one around to get you stirred up.
A University of Vienna study found that levels of the feel good hormone oxytocin increase significantly after you have an orgasm, so you have a stronger desire for sex when you're having it more. If you can hardly recall your last roll in the hay, your brain may stop stimulating the drive. But trust us: When you meet the hot guy who just moved in next door, it will come back. You definitely don't need a partner to get the ball rolling, though; a little self-lovin' will keep your sex drive strong even when you're single. "The more often you get aroused, the easier it becomes for your brain and body to follow suit," says endocrinologist André T. Guay, M.D., the director of the Center for Sexual Function at the Lahey Clinic in Peabody, Massachusetts. If you find it difficult to climax when you touch yourself, try using a vibrator, or download an erotic chick flick, like Female Fantasies.
Q. I crave sex way more than my husband does. Could his low libido mean that he's just not attracted to me anymore?
A. We hear it constantly: Guys will get down and dirty anytime, anywhere. While that's true of many, particularly the younger set, it's definitely not the norm. Some men have a lower appetite for sex, just as some women do. But if your husband's normal sex drive has just recently gone south, there's probably a physical or emotional cause.
He may be having a tough time getting an erection, which can be so frustrating, he's just stopped trying to have sex. "High blood pressure and prostate problems can affect a guy's ability to get an erection or ejaculate," says Wierman. "Many common medications such as some cholesterol- and blood pressure lowering drugs, as well as certain antidepressants also affect erectile function." A visit to the doctor and some simple blood tests can identify a physical cause of a low libido.
An emotional reason is a bit tougher to pinpoint (we're talking about men, after all!). Does he seem more stressed lately? "Anxiety can result in a lower production of testosterone," says Guay. His disinterest may also stem from a problem in your relationship. "When a guy doesn't feel close to you, he probably won't tell you," says Real. "He'll just become less interested in being intimate."
Start a conversation about the subject when you're not in bed. Try telling your husband you'd like to have sex more often and ask if there's anything you can do to help him get excited about it. If the two of you can't fix the problem on your own, enlist the help of a therapist.
Q. I recently went on the pill so I could have sex without worrying about getting pregnant, but now I'm never in the mood. Could my low libido be part of my birth control side effects?
A. It's certainly possible. "There are no studies proving oral contraceptives decrease sex drive, but some of these medications do lower a woman's level of circulating testosterone," says Wierman. (This hormone increases blood flow to your vagina, enhancing how you respond to sexual stimulation.) Because many women feel the pill dulls their desire, the possibility that you’re suffering from birth control side effects is worth considering.
"Talk to your doctor about going off an oral contraceptive and using a condom or diaphragm for a few months," suggests Guay. "If you notice an improvement, then you've probably found your culprit." Switching to another type of pill may also helpa? ask your doctor about brands that contain a form of progestin that's less likely to affect your testosterone levels.
And don't discount the role of your relationship in this: If you've been together for a while, you may be in a rut. Mix things up (try getting it on somewhere besides your bedroom!) and you might start feeling sexual again.
Q. Guys have Viagra. Is there anything that can increase female libido?
A. No, but you can bet researchers are in hot pursuit of that cash cow. Drugs like Viagra increase blood flow to the penis, causing an erection. Research shows that some drugs have a similar effect on a woman's genitals, but because we need more than that to get turned on, they aren't enough to increase female libido.
Testosterone either in pill, patch, or topical form seems to give some women a libido lift. In one study, the patch increased the sex drive of women who had been put into surgical menopause (they had their ovaries removed) by about 50 percent. But it's not clear if the hormone helps other women at all. What's more, a recent study found there are some potential negative side effects to women using testosterone products, including acne and abnormal hair growth.
"We don't know what normal levels of testosterone are in women," says Wierman. "And while low testosterone can definitely dampen your drive, there's no solid evidence showing that elevating the hormone in the body is effective or safe."
Q. For years I had a mind-blowing sex life with guys I wasn't in love with. Now I'm with a man I love and want to marry, but I don't want to tear his clothes off. Is this relationship doomed?
A. Only if you keep comparing your boyfriend to those old flames. It's a sad fact, but unavailability may fan the fires of desire. "When a woman feels loved, then rejected, and then loved again -- a typical pattern in unhealthy relationships -- the sex will often be very passionate," says Schwartz. "What's fueling it is the uncertainty of when you'll get that attention again."
In the long run, says Schwartz, you'll be happier and more satisfied with a committed relationship and all that comes with it, such as trust, companionship, and a consistent stream of love and affection. And if you're attracted to one another and emotionally connected, the sex is only going to improve with practice. Try experimenting with new sexual positions, toys, and locations. "Make love on a beach or take a bath together," she says. "The idea is to create an entirely new kind of passion."
Q. I don't feel turned on until I'm having sex. Is that normal?
A. Completely. Some women get aroused simply by thinking about hooking up, while others need a little physical stimulation to get them started. No matter which type of woman you are, it's completely normal, says Wierman. Your testosterone levels might be a little on the low side, making you receptive to sex but not exactly lusting after it. And that's no big deal. The real question is, does the fact that your drive is in neutral bother you? If not and you do enjoy being intimate and having an orgasm, your libido is "normal" for you.