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Wellness > Sex + Relationships

Low Sex Drive in Women in Their 20s: What’s Going On

College is known for several things: toga parties, all-nighters in the library, and most importantly, hooking up. In a sexed-up culture of lingerie parties, walks of shame and f*ck lists, sex is nearly inescapable. If you’re not doing it, thinking about it, or trying to get it (if not some combination of the three), then there must be something wrong with you, right? Not so fast. Lackluster libido isn’t reserved for the menopausal – roughly 30 percent of women experience problems with low sex drive, and college women aren’t immune.

The truth is, there is a myriad of factors that affect your sex drive: stress, hormonal fluctuations, and losing that “spark” in a long-term relationship are just a few of the common culprits. Not to mention that sex drive varies, naturally, among people. The first important thing to remember is that libido always ebbs and flows, and there’s no “normal” standard to compare yourself to.
But that doesn’t mean that a lagging libido is something you just have to put up with. If you’ve noticed a sudden drop in your desire to get it on, or if it’s an ongoing problem that’s causing stress in your relationship or your life, you can do something about it. And the first step is understanding the cause(s) behind your lack of sex drive.

Why it Happens: Physical Causes
There are plenty of physical causes that can be blamed for low libido. Certain disorders that make sex painful can lead women to associate a roll in the hay with pain rather than pleasure, for example. But among college women, the most common are fatigue, alcohol, medications (antidepressants are a common libido killer), and stress. According to womentowomen.com, “The body interprets ongoing stress as life-threatening, so naturally, survival is prioritized ahead of pleasure. Stress over-burdens the adrenal glands, ‘stealing’ the substances normally used to make estrogens and testosterone, both vital to desire and sexual response.”
Hormonal changes could also be the problem. If you’ve ever noticed yourself craving sex more during certain parts of your cycle, that’s your hormones at work – so if you’re experiencing a chronic lack of desire, a hormonal imbalance could be to blame. Many women complain of decreased desire while on hormonal birth control (especially the Pill). A 2010 study found that women who used a hormonal method of birth control, particularly the Pill, had lower levels of sexual desire and arousal than women who chose non-hormonal methods (like condoms) or no contraceptives at all.

Sarah, a sophomore at Hofstra University, noticed a difference in her sex drive after beginning the Pill. “I started taking the Pill three years ago, and soon after I did, I noticed a severe decline in my sex drive,” she says. “Prior to this, I was always in the mood when my boyfriend was around. Whenever we had alone time, we always had sex. The summer that I got on the Pill, we would be seeing each other constantly, but compared to summers past, there was far less sex. Whenever we were around each other, I was happy and comfortable, but I didn’t feel horny.”
Sarah’s not alone, but she recognizes that her lack of sex drive has started to affect her relationship and her happiness. “This feeling has continued for a couple of years,” she says. “My boyfriend and I are still really happy, but we don’t have a lot of sex. I’ve considered getting off of the Pill many times, but it is the method that fits my lifestyle and wallet the best. I am considering getting an IUD, but I know that it can be painful to insert, and it is also expensive. But at this point, it would be great if I could get some of my sex drive back. I’m 21; I feel like I shouldn’t feel this way until I’m 40.”

Why it Happens: Psychological Causes
But don’t be fooled: while it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that sexual desire is a purely physical reaction, physical causes only scratch the surface of all the factors that affect a woman’s sex drive.

“Sexuality is a unique process because it is both emotional and psychological, as well as physical,” says Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist, author, and teacher. Particularly for women, psychological factors are sometimes more important to a healthy libido than physical ones.
Guilt, societal pressure, and low self-esteem are a few of the typical psychological hang-ups that could be holding you back from enjoying the sex life you want. “Perhaps the woman is dealing with low self-esteem, comparing herself with other women she knows or to media-generated impressions of sexually active women,” Sumber says. “Additionally, if a woman is interested in a partner whom she knows is not ‘right’ for her, it can be emotionally challenging to get her body on board.”
With so many complicated factors influencing sex drive, it can be especially difficult for a woman to figure out why exactly her sex drive is plummeting. “Some women are inhibited in their sexual desire as a result of strong cultural messages that ‘good girls’ don’t want sex (or shouldn’t want sex or shouldn’t show they want sex),” says Kathy Brock,licensed psychologist and the Assistant Director of Mental Health Services at Washington University in St. Louis.“These women actually experience desire but then disconnect from it out of guilt or shame.”
Rachel, a 21-year old senior at Dordt College, is more than familiar with low sexual desire. “Not having sex has rarely been a problem for me because I had little to no desire for it,” she says. Now that she’s been in a committed relationship for more than a year, confronting the idea of sex is a problem for her, which she blames partly on her conservative upbringing and abstinence-only sex education.

“I’ve really struggled to see sex in a positive light,” she says. “I have this whole swell of issues that just makes sex not sound very fun or worth it— you know, worth the talk and resulting argument with my parents, worth the cost of filling a prescription every month when I can barely afford to buy groceries, worth the possible risk of pregnancy and watching all my dreams come crashing down.”
Psychological problems can have a huge effect on sexual desire. Like many women, Rachel’s hang-ups about sex often leave her feeling sexually frustrated and confused about what to do. “In some ways, I’m too logical and don’t let my emotions take over in the bedroom, but then again, I almost think my concerns hinge on fear and paranoia,” she says. “Fear always wins, and my sex drive always loses. I don’t want to be a frigid wife someday, or a frigid girlfriend right now for that matter, but I’m not even sure what to do to make all of these concerns go away.”

So what can you do about it?

Whether you think you know what’s causing your lack of desire or not, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about it. Because a woman’s sex drive is such a complicated and elusive thing, there’s no easy fix or pill you can pop to increase your desire. But that doesn’t mean that you’re stuck in a sex-less slump: Your doctor can help you find the best solution to get your sex life where you want it. It might seem weird or awkward (even silly) to bring it up with her, but it’s a problem that she’s no doubt heard many times before, and she’s there to help you have the satisfying sex life that you deserve. In the meantime, here are five ways to help any college woman boost her libido:  

  • Eat right and exercise: A healthy sex life starts with being healthy in general. Not to mention that a solid workout (and resulting endorphins) will help you feel sexier than ever.
  • Stress less: If your life is cluttered with class, internships, clubs, job applications, etc., your packed schedule is probably hampering your sex drive. Try setting aside some alone time to de-stress with a bath or a just-for-fun book.
  • Seek counseling: If psychological problems have your desire plummeting, try checking out your school’s counseling program for a free, non-judgmental way to talk through whatever issues you’re facing.  
  • Get in touch with your sexuality: Whether you’re single or not, a good sex life starts with being comfortable with your sexuality. “Women are encouraged to spend some time alone to consider what is happening for them sexually, using meditation, journaling and exploring their experience as well as seeking the help of a professional,” Sumber says.
  • Mix up your sex life: If you’re in a steady relationship, falling into a comfortable routine can mean kissing your libido goodbye. ­­­­Try something new like role-play or dirty talk, and set aside time for sex – studies have shown that the more sex you have, the more sex you want. Sumber advises women to take off some pressure and find the fun in sex. “Focus on trust building and safety generating exercises and activities like naked massage, poetry reading, sleeping naked with your partner, and reading erotica together,” he says. “Focus on sensuality over sexuality for a while – no expectation of outcome or orgasm.”

Dr. Kathy Brock, Ph.D., Washington University in St. Louis
Jeffrey Sumber, licensed psychotherapist, author, and teacher
College women across the country

Laura is a senior (class of 2011) at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Journalism and French. She spent two years writing for her campus newspaper and interned at USA Weekend Magazine in D.C. this summer. She is also a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and recently spent a semester studying abroad in the south of France. Besides reading and writing, she loves being outdoors (particularly hiking and backpacking, ideally in the N.C. mountains), traveling, coffee, and attempting to play the guitar and/or ukulele. Her major life goals include learning to salsa dance and swimming with manatees. Though the thought of entering the real world still terrifies her a little bit, she plans to pursue a career in the magazine or publishing industries.