Sex Question Friday: How Long Can You Go Without Wanting Sex?

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Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know:   

How long can a person go without wanting physical sex?  Will that need ever come back at a specific time in a person’s life?

Sexual desire is a complex issue that is determined by a mix of biological, psychological, and relationship factors. The combination of these factors leads to natural ups and downs in our sex drive over time, which means that it is perfectly normal to have very little desire for a while, followed by a period of very strong desire. Among the many factors that can temporarily dampen desire are medications and illnesses, relationship conflict (including disagreements over the frequency of desired sexual activity), depression, and past experiences with sexual abuse or trauma [1].

In some cases, low sexual desire will naturally resolve on its own. For instance, it is common for desire to decrease after experiencing a major life event (e.g., job loss, divorce, death of a loved one), but rebound to normal after a few weeks or months. If low desire persists for six months or longer and this causes personal distress, then we may be dealing with a case of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). The primary diagnostic criterion for HSDD is absent or markedly decreased interest in sex and sexual fantasies. We do not know exactly how common HSDD is, but research has found that low sexual desire is a frequent sexual complaint, especially among women. For instance, national surveys have reported that about 33% of women and 15% of men report having experienced a lack of desire for sex that lasted for a period of several months during the past year [2].

HSDD can be treated through sex therapy; however, the type of treatment recommended will differ depending upon the underlying cause. For instance, in the case of a post-menopausal woman who experiences a decrease in desire due to her body's natural drop-off in sex hormone production, testosterone supplementation may be the best option. Alternatively, if low desire stems from conflict with a romantic partner, therapy might focus on enhancing relationship intimacy and communication.

Please note that for HSDD to be diagnosed, the lack of desire must be troubling to the individual or generate relationship problems [1]. If desire is low and the individual does not mind, there is no problem. Thus, the subjective perception of having little or no sexual desire is what matters.

Related to this point, it is worth mentioning that some people are asexual and have no desire for partnered sexual activity for their entire lives. Asexual individuals can go on to lead perfectly normal and satisfying lives and do not find the absence of sex to be personally distressing. As a result, asexuality should not be thought of as a disorder that needs to be “fixed.” Researchers estimate that about 1% of the population identifies as asexual [3].

In short, to answer your question, some people can go days and weeks without wanting sex, while others go their entire lives. If your lack of desire for sex is a persistent issue that is causing you a distress, it may be possible to get your desire back and it would be well worth consulting a sex therapist.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Brotto, L. A. (2010a). The DSM diagnostic criteria for hypoactive sexual desire disorder in women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 221-239.

[2] Laumann, E. O., Paik, A., & Rosen, R. C. (1999). Sexual dysfunction in the United States. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 281, 537-544.

[3] Bogaert, A. F. (in press). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in NATSAL-II. In A. Baumle (Ed.), International handbook on the demography of sexuality. New York: Springer.

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