Pretty often, disinterest in sex has little to do with actual sex. In this week’s Girl Boner Radio episode, I’m excited to share five ways to boost your desire, guiding with excerpts from past interviews and an excerpt from my Girl Boner book.
“5 Nonsexual Ways to Boost Your Libido”
a lightly edited Girl Boner Radio transcript
Imagine this. A long weekend is a few weeks away – and once it comes, you think you might, too. [sex drum] Finally, you think, you’ll have time for chilling out and what feels like overdue sexy play. But as the dates move closer, your work life and home responsibilities tug at you like a vacuum, suctioning your energy away. [office buzz + housecleaning clatter] If you can just get ahead of things by that long weekend, your sex life will feel renewed. [sexy drum]
But once that long weekend rolls around, sex has shifted from top of mind to the bottom of your I really wish I wanted to-do list. You are exhausted, and all you want to do is…nothing.
Sound at all familiar?
There is nothing wrong with not desiring sex, or not desiring it super often. But as sex and relationship therapist Cyndi Darnell pointed out here recently, plenty of folks want to want sex more frequently—or at all—and desire is just not coming easy.
I regularly hear from folks who are concerned about this. And more often than not, the “problem” goes deeper than their bedsheets. So today I’m going to share five ways to increase your libido that, on the surface, might seem completely unrelated to sex.
[acoustic, encouraging music]
#1 Get more sleep.
For years, I would have rolled my eyes at this advice—so if that’s you, I get it. And I know 7-8 hours of sleep each night isn’t feasible for everyone. But even small changes in your sleep habits can go so far. When we’re low on sleep, everything from fatigue and low energy to cranky moods can make sex unappealing. Sleep loss can also interfere with physical arousal and contribute to erectile dysfunction.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends these helpful steps:
- sleeping in a dark, cool room
- avoiding digital screens before bed
- and sticking to fairly routine sleeping and waking times
I can attest to those. I also use a face mask, aka my “face bra,” and a white noise machine. Seriously life-changing.
Active rest can be helpful, too, if you’re not a napper – things like listening to an audiobook or podcast with your eyes closed, for example. And if you have small kids, consider asking for help with childcare or resting when your little ones nap—yes, even if your house needs cleaning.
And if you could use more encouragement about the importance of rest as a birthright, check out @TheNapMinistry on Instagram and preorder the founder Trisha Hershey’s book: Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto.
#2 Tend to your mental health.
A whole range of mental health challenges can make sex less interesting or appealing. Stress, anxiety, depression – all of these common issues can push naked romping of any kind seem to the bottom of your want-to-do list.
In early 2020, I spoke with researcher and author, JoEllen Notte, about her own experience navigating depression and sex and what she’s learned by surveying people in a similar place. One thing she brought up was ways managing depression sometimes boosts libido or sex frequency – for a few reasons. For one, when you feel better or your brain chemistry is more stable, you function better. But it can go the opposite way, too.
August: So I know depression and medications
JoEllen: mm-hmm affect people differently. Yeah,
August: Certainly it sounds like the most common potential side effect may be a, a drop in desire for sex
August: What are some of the other effects?
JoEllen: So, the polar opposite, which I didn’t leave any space in my surveys for, I found out through the interviews, a whole bunch of people reported having more sex.
Some of it, it was a side effect of medication. Some people were looking for validation, looking for comfort, and some people. It was part of not feeling in control, right? Mm. So that’s not talked about a lot, but it’s a thing. The big ones we hear about a lot are what I call the arousal ones.
So difficulty with lubrication, difficulty with erection, the orgasm ones, which are anorgasmia inability to orgasm or delayed orgasm, where it takes a long time. Or my personal favorite, ‘strange orgasm.’ I never heard of
August: Clinical term. [laughs]
JoEllen: Right? There’s like, not anything acknowledging it, but it came up over and over again in the survey and the interviews. One of the guys described it as like, when you’re driving a standard transmission and it doesn’t quite go into gear right. And like, you know, you’re driving and you know, you’re in the gear, but it’s just not quite right. ‘Unsatisfying’ was the other term people used for orgasms.
August: Interesting. So there was like a disconnect in being able to fully be present in it.
JoEllen: Yeah. Somebody said she felt it in her head, but not her body.
The other thing that we talked about in the book that, I think doesn’t get enough kind, airplay is sexual impulses, but no desire to act on them. So it gets lumped in with low libido, but it’s really…depression can make everything feel way harder. Right. It’s like, I always say, when I’m depressed, brushing my teeth is harder than college.
So that feeling of like, oh, sex could be nice, but I don’t wanna take off my pants. And then I have to make the bed and then, and it just feels like another demand and too much. And so that’s a big piece of the puzzle too. And when we lump that in with low libido, it just goes along with like people saying, well, I have depression, so I don’t have sex.
JoEllen also lives with anxiety, which affects desire. And as she sorted all of these things out – for herself and in researching and speaking with other people – she landed on some important takeaways that I think can help us all, whether we’re dealing with a mental health condition or not.
JoEllen: My depression because I’m really fortunate and I really go big when I do things comes with raging anxiety too. And so I always feel like that that sexual break is like getting pressed by a million different issues all at once. And it’s all just stress. And, you know, I have to take a step back and look at that and see that that’s impacting my desire and talk to my partner about how that’s what’s going on.
August: So it sounds like when you started really speaking out about all these issues, you were very early in your own self discovery around it. What do you remember learning early on? What were some of the first helpful messages you started to embrace or ideas you challenged that ended up helping you experience more pleasure?
JoEllen: So, what I noticed early on was that when people talked about this topic and, it started getting more attention around 2014, right? When I was like, just doing the surveys because of all things, Robin Williams passed away and people started writing about depression. I started seeing more things, addressing sex and depression.
And so many of them told people, you know what, just do it. Just have sex because you you’ll find you wanna have sex. Get through that barrier, just do it. And that made me like livid and, and so that was kind of one of the earliest things I looked at and said, we can’t be telling people this.
And, that led me on a whole trail that eventually led to what is, I would say, one of the big, main points of my book, which is that depression doesn’t ruin our relationships and our sex lives. Resentment does. We don’t know how to cope with mental illness entering our relationships.
It’s not a thing we’re prepared for. And so we’re not good at it. And then we end up resenting each other and then of course we don’t wanna have sex anymore.
August: What an important point.
JoEllen: Resentment has I feel like my friends and family are just kind of done with me and my resentment talk, but it’s been at the core of my work for the last two years.
August: Yeah. And also I think could be such a freeing message for people to learn about, because if you are the person who has depression or any other mental illness or mental health issue and you think that that is what is causing all the problems.
August: All the onus feels like it’s on you. It shouldn’t be, but it feels like it’s on you. And to say it’s actually how we are maneuvering around this and with this. What do you say to somebody when they come to you and cause I’m sure you hear so many stories and real life experiences, and they say, my depression is breaking my relationship or ruining our sex life.
JoEllen: So something I talk about a lot and I tell people about a lot and gets a lot of enthusiastic nodding is. This relationship dynamic I call broken and lucky that like those of us with mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, end up feeling like we are broken. Something is wrong with us. And we are so lucky that someone would want to be with us in spite of that.
Not only is that a recipe for raging resentment, because when one of you is broken, then the other one is the defacto leader, they are right all the time. You’re just gonna build up all of that resentment. It also screws with your consent dynamic because can you ever really say yes or no if you feel like you owe them so much, because you’re so lucky they’re there or you feel like you don’t wanna press that luck because when the luck runs out…right? There are so many unhealthy ways that can go. And so many of us fall directly into that dynamic.
August: Wow. I imagine it can also impact your standards. The value you have for yourself will then just have you thinking, “oh, well, this person’s interested me. Oh, wow. I’m so lucky,” when that person might really not a good fit for you or, worse, harmful.
JoEllen: Mm-hmm. One of the things I, over the last couple years, started telling some friends when they talked about dating. And this is like for everybody in general, but it’s applicable here. Is that a lot of folks, especially women act like when we date, we are auditioning to see if someone else will accept us. And we don’t give enough credit to the fact that we’re trying to see if we have any interest in spending time with them, too.
August: I’m so feeling that right. like, I’m looking back at my life and going, oh wow. You just described so many pages of many people’s diaries.
JoEllen: Oh yeah. That was my twenties.
August: Seriously. Oh my gosh. Yes.
JoEllen: And so when we start to look at it like that, and depression doesn’t change that. Illness doesn’t change that. You’re still auditioning people to see if you want them to be part of your life.
So tending to your mental health and shifting your perspective if you’ve felt like you are a problem might also lead to more desire for sex by leading you to more suitable partners. I don’t know about you, but the idea of being with someone because I’m “lucky enough” that just anyone would want to be with me is not exactly a turn on.
It’s also important to find quality support for navigating things like sexual side effects of medications.
August: Could you share the most common thing you hear from people who are struggling in this department?
JoEllen: I hear a lot of people saying like their doctors don’t believe them. Or, they’re told that that’s not a side effect of that drug. That can’t happen that way. Or they get told , “of course you don’t wanna have sex. You have depression.” And those aren’t helpful answers. And so they end up feeling alone and like there’s nothing they can do.
August: Is that something that you heard?
JoEllen: Yeah. That’s not a side effect of this medication was a big thing that I heard and what really kind of woke me up to that was when I marched into that doctor’s office and I said to him, ” I can’t have an orgasm and this is unacceptable.” And he said to me, “thank you. Nobody tells us these things.”
And so the big book I take out and I tell you, oh, this says that that’s now the side effect. He’s like, that comes about from doctors reporting what their patients experience and if their patients aren’t telling us, or if the doctor is not taking that on board as an important thing to report, it doesn’t make it into the big book that tells you what’s a side effect.
August: So it’s probably more prevalent than anyone realizes.
JoEllen: Yeah. There’s a John Hopkins survey that said that between 15 and 75% of people on antidepressant medications, depending on the medication, had sexual side effects.
In some cases, those side effects are temporary. But regardless, finding a good fit as far as medication or other treatments is so important, for your sexuality and your whole life.
If you have concerns about your libido while managing depression, talking about it all – and reading JoEllen’s first book – The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression, and the Conversations We Aren’t Having – may bring you some peace of mind. And open the door to more desire and pleasure.
Here’s another little hint related this:
If you notice that you usually feel sex-inclined when you have an actual vacation or time off from work, and it’s been a long time since you had those inclinations or a break, it could be a sign that chipping away at overwhelm is a smart next step. One book you might find helpful there is Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski.
#3 Delve into messages you’ve gleaned about sex and desire.
It’s really easy, especially for women and people assigned female at birth, for messages we’ve picked up about sex and pleasure to get in the way of our Boners.
When I interviewed sex and relationship coach Pamela Joy for my book, she told me about her own history of challenges in this department. She’d been married to her then husband for 20 years when she feared that their differences in libido – his higher, hers lower – would lead to the end of their relationship. Here’s an excerpt from her story:
[BOOK EXCERPT – transcript available upon request]
#4 Stop dieting or skimping on food.
Food is fuel for your body, your boners, and your brain – which is where everything desire and arousal starts.
It’s really difficult to feel turned on when we’re lacking energy or fighting food cravings and hunger pangs. If you’re stuck in this loop, I have so much compassion and empathy for you – as you probably know, I’ve been there. And the freedom on the other side is worth it for your whole life, your sex life included.
In 2019, registered dietitian and author of The Eating Disorder Trap, Robyn Goldberg, joined me to explore more about this:
August: I’ve talked to so many people about the ways that body shame and challenges in their sexuality and their ability to have pleasure in their lives seems to be so connected. What do you see as kind of the biggest, tie between how we eat, whether restrict or whatever kinds of quote, unquote, “food rules” we follow and sexual empowerment?
Robyn: Well, you said a very important term before August, and that is pleasure. Just the idea of deserving pleasure in one’s life, whether it’s deserving to enjoy meal, deserving to go on a vacation, being able to have pleasurable conversations. Oftentimes individuals I see in my private practice will say whatever body size they’re in, they will feel like that right has been revoked because they have felt outta control, that the food has been running them as opposed to their running the food and, and, and to.
To what you asked about just body shape or size. If an individual is restricting, if they’re malnourished, it does not matter how they look, then any kind of natural desire to seek pleasure has been abolished. So if a person is excluding a particular food group, that desire could lessen. They might feel like, oh, I have a lot going on in my life. So therefore I’m not interested or I’m really tired, but eventually it becomes their norm. Their libido has essentially flatlined.
The other part is, if they’re not consuming enough calories, just for what their body requires to expend. I’ll hear clients say, “well, I don’t move my body. I’m not active.” Well, if you’re reading or writing…your body’s always burning. It never stops.
And the other part of it too, is it becomes real when they eventually go to a physician for a physical and when their labs are drawn. So individuals I see that are not in menopause will say like, oh, you know, I’m not menstruating. I’m not sure why, and I don’t have a desire for anything, whether it’s sex, whether it’s to go out with friends to have cravings, cravings, oftentimes suppressed on so many fronts that people don’t realize like they want their estrogen level, whether you’re 20 years old or 40 years old, to be greater than a hundred.
So just the idea, you know, when I hear you speaking about the pleasure chest and all these types of things, it’s like just…
August: It doesn’t occur to you, right?
Robyn: It doesn’t occur. It’s like you saying, “I’m gonna give you an all paid trip to Paris.” And someone’s like, “So?” versus if “Yeah, bring it on! I’m so excited.” And so any kind of desire and interest is just gone. They’re like a dead fish.
And many foods that can play a helpful role in sexual health, like whole grains and fruits, are restricted in popular diet plans. The cells in your brain require twice as much energy as the cells in the rest of your body – and arousal starts in the brain.
I loved this advice that Robyn left us with:
Robyn: Allow your body to be your barometer. Our body is a brilliant machine and unfortunately for many people it’s confused based on all the messages that we hear. Really being able to pay attention to: what do I like and how does it make my body feel, are two questions to ask yourself each time that we’re consuming food.
#5 Prioritize pleasure in general.
If you aren’t desiring sex lately, and you want to want it, here’s another question to ask yourself: Do you make your pleasure a priority in other areas of your life?
One of my favorite people to talk to about pleasure is sex therapist Jamila M. Dawson. You may recall that we wrote a book together called With Pleasure. Last year, I shared a conversation with Jamila in celebration of its release, and we touched on this idea:
One of my favorite things to talk about when someone says that they are feeling like they’ve lost sexual desire or they are having trouble receiving sexual pleasure is the conversation around how does pleasure play into the rest of your life?
I think it’s so common—and I’d love to hear if this is your experience when you’re working with clients—for people to kind of hyper-focus on this “sex problem.” Do you find that to be something that comes up for folks?
Yes, all the time. When they’re struggling with sex it becomes work. And you know, this is America. If you’re going to do something, you have to be excellent at it, like “I have to do good work.”
She said it takes people into a place where there’s no pleasure or sense of restoration. It’s just “I’m failing,” “they’re failing,” or “we’re failing.” And nothing erotic or sexy can happen in that space. That can shape how we conceptualizie our sex lives.
When that all comes up during a therapy session, Jamila asks:
“How does pleasure and how does that kind of similar mindset show up in other places?” Because it almost always does. The pressure and the intensity and the kind of uncompromising focus on “this must work,” “good/bad,” it shows up in other parts of their life.
So it has been kind of counterintuitive for folks when they start asking about pleasure and other aspects of their life: “Well, I came to you to talk about sex. Like, fix the sex thing.” And I’m like, “I am! Just not in the way that you think…. You’re not broken. So we’re not going to be fixing anything. We’re going to be expanding things.”
And so I’ll start asking them, as in some of these pleasure practices you and I have talked about: “What are the scents that you like? What are the colors that bring you joy? What textures? How can you bump up your relationship to your body in other ways that we can then transfer over into your sex life? What are the expectations you have about your body, your partner’s body? What sex is?”
Again, so many of us have that old programming about, you know, sex is orgasm and sex is penetration. That’s not always helpful. It can be so much more than that. How do we slow down, go deep, and expand moments that then become rich and one of your favorite words, luscious?
[acoustic, encouraging music]
Prioritizing pleasure in your life can take many forms, and it does not have to take long.For you, maybe it’s a 10 minute walk or a few minutes stretched on the grass and looking up at the sky. Or listening to a favorite song or smelling your favorite candle.
If pleasure feels challenging for you, commit to one pleasurable thing – if even for a few minutes, most days. Even seemingly small steps can go far.
And if you’re really struggling with sex, pleasure or your mental health, please seek support. I promise you’re not nearly as alone as you might think, and you deserve all the care you want and need.
Speaking of pleasure and support, I recently attended a songwriting retreat led by folk legend, Dar Williams. It was a blast, and it inspired me to write some Girl Boner-themed songs. I’ve started sharing on Patreon, including my latest work in progress, “Here Comes the Luberati.” Sharing my music feels butterfly-sy, in fun ways, and if you’re interested or would like to support this show, I hope you’ll join us. Learn more and sign up at Patreon.com/girlboner.
You can also support the show with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or the iTunes Store and letting your friends know about it. Thanks so much for listening (or reading!).
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