Our culturally conditioned understanding of desire is often a projection of male fantasy—a penetrative rush towards climax. But where does this leave female desire? For starters, knowledge of the female body has long been lacking, and women’s sexuality has been understood through the lens of our masculine-dominant worldview. It’s only now that the mysteries of feminine desire are beginning to unfold.
Aoife Drury is a Psychosexual and Relationship Therapist who explains, “Female desire is multi-faceted and often challenged by unconscious obstacles. The first step is in deciphering the physiological blocks from the psychological.” These can range from the side effects of anti-depressants to inadequate sex education to low testosterone levels, which also lower libido.
The medical community has been quick to medicalize this lack of libido, identifying it as female sexual arousal disorder (FSAD). So is this really a thing? FSAD is understood to be the recurrent inability to achieve or maintain vaginal lubrication in response to sexual stimulation.
“We know all about erectile dysfunction, but we’re not well versed on female sexual dysfunction,” Aoife adds, “It could be FSAD, but it could also be something like residual trauma from a past experience. This can be caused by a major life event like childbirth, or something as fleeting as a catcall, or a mother vocalizing her fears about men. And sex can trigger trauma by tapping fears around loss of control or power.”
That’s why talking therapy can help. “I also ask women about their sex education and if any misinformation was given that could have encouraged fear of their own body. We can feel shame around periods, for example, which leads to shame around discharge or even disgust around sexual fluids. So my work helps to re-educate women, starting from their childhood right up to the present day.”
Sarah Rose Bright is a Sex, Pleasure and Intimacy Coach who takes a holistic approach to unpacking these arousal blockers. “We have a cultural expectation that desire should be spontaneous,” she says, “and if we don’t experience spontaneous arousal, we believe something is wrong with us.”
Up to 70% of men experience spontaneous desire compared to only 15% of women*
“Female desire is often responsive—we experience arousal in response to something—and knowing this puts a whole new spin on things, helping us to identify what we call sexual accelerators or sexual brakes.” Both can be internal or external. Accelerators might be compliments or soothing music to aid relaxation, but what about brakes? “Listening to our inner critic can block the ability to truly let go. Negative self-talk, or a negative comment from a partner, can be like a poison dart.”
It doesn’t help that sex in the movies is normally hard and fast, and always culminates in climax. “This is the performance model,” says Sarah. “It’s a stereotypical male trajectory. It’s also how we think sex should be done. Yet when sex is performance based, our bodies become tense and our breath becomes restricted, making it harder to become aroused.”
What we need is variety, believes Aoife, since there’s no single way to become aroused. “There are four overarching types: the sensual focuses on the body; the conscious plays with thoughts and imagery; the intimate favours trust and connection; and an attractor gets pleasure from arousing their lover. We all experience our desires differently; we’re all individuals, and that’s OK.”
So how can we truly know what pushes our buttons? Sarah says look beyond sex, since desire stems from understanding the experience of pleasure in all areas of life. “I help women discover what lights them up, what excites them, and not just sexually. It’s common for women to know what they don’t want without knowing what they do want. Women also tend to put other people first, leaving no space for their own pleasure, which often comes with guilt anyway.”
She encourages women to find out what gives them a zest for life. “If we look for the ways in which we abandon ourselves through lack of healthy boundaries, we find our sexual brakes. Yet if we focus on sensation and relaxation rather than arousal, we find our sexual accelerators. Take a candlelit bath. Massage your breasts. Use a jade egg. There’s no pleasure without self-love.”
That’s all well and good, but what if we can’t assimilate the billboard bodies we see everywhere with our own? If we compare ourselves, and suffer low libido as a consequence, we may truly believe we’re broken. Aoife adds, “When we talk about FSAD, we tend to think only of the vagina rather than the whole body. But women need to engage with their body, to talk about it in a positive way.”
She uses a mindfulness practice known as Sensate Focus. “It’s a way to start slowly before you get to physical touch. I recommend doing a body scan in the shower, feeling the water on your skin, then applying body lotion, and looking at yourself naked—notice when the self-talk happens.”
Sarah agrees, “If you can relax into your body, as it is before losing that 10 pounds, you can hang out in pleasure, enjoying sensation, without having to chase an orgasm. It’s about being, not doing, and allowing the orgasmic energy to rise. If you’re feeling relaxed and happy, you’re more likely to feel turned on.”
This is the feminization of desire.
The Taoist sexual tradition speaks of the active yang and receptive yin. Men are active like fire, quick to heat up and quick to burn out. Women, however, are receptive like water. They take time to warm up, but once they’re boiling, their heat lasts. Sarah explains, “Men need to learn to hang out in cooler zones and women need to learn how to warm up their water.”
“Our western society loves active energy. We push it hard and neglect our ability to be receptive. But Taoist teachings tell us the only true way to enhance yang is by nourishing yin. We need to soften, open, and relax more.” To know yourself, if you like, to turn inwards instead of always looking out, since this is the only way that you will discover (as Aoife says) “what truly turns you on rather than struggling with what you’re told should turn you on.”
* Figures are estimates based on a variety of research studies as quoted in Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski (page 225).