Sexual desire is the main proponent of struggle that gets clients to my practice. They share that they feel broken and worry about their relationships and their future.
Article authors, radio show hosts, friends, and clients are always asking me what is "normal."
I first want to mention that the word "normal" causes me physical pain. This word has been used to stigmatize, and to control people to fit a standard that barely exists.
Robert Jensen discusses ho w "normal" is intrinsically linked with white supremacy. Who determined what is normal, how was that implemented into our world, what actions have our institutions (medical, educational, governmental, etc.) taken with this concept in mind?
When I first started feeling angry at the word "normal," the connection to White Supremacy did not click yet. I was hurting at how people harm their own bodies, and create damaging narratives about themselves and others based on the concept.
There is no normal! Bodies function the way they can with what they have. When it comes to sexual desire, there are so many obstacles - stress, intimacy, trauma, illness, etc.
Sexual desire is primarily contingent upon the following:
1) Physical and structural health. When clients attend therapy for sexual dysfunction, sexual pain, and low desire I first ask them if they've been to a doctor. It isn't because I value medical treatments above all, it is because medical concerns are the easiest to rule out. Hormonal changes, infections, general health can be tested. This isn't to say that if you have medical/structural issues that you will not experience desire - it means that we can work on how you can build desire through your circumstances. remember: if we are able-bodied, we are temporarily able-bodied.
2) Relationship to the body. We are told that only some bodies are desirable and many folks who don't fit those ideals will struggle with their bodies. They can be pre-occupied with making their bodies look a certain way, avoid certain spaces because they are uncomfortable, and consider themselves "unworthy." Body dysmorphia (BDYS) is one way that this harmful relationship with one's body can be expressed. People with BDYS will perceive their bodies as distorted, and will not match with reality. Another obstacle to comfort with one's body is Body/Gender Dysphoria (GD), seen among transpeople, which refers to one's anxiety/depression about their body not matching their gender. The Body is Not an Apology has an excellent discussion that helps remove judgement and stigma that relates to bodies.
3) Relationship to Sex. "Sex Negativity" is the standard by which the Western world approaches sex. "Sex Positivity" is a response to sex negativity, and it challenges the narratives about sex that we are surrounded by in our world. While the word "positive" can be confusing, it really means that there is no inherent value to sex. As long as there is a mutual interest among all participants in sexual exploration, there is no "right" or "wrong" to discuss. When exploring one's relationship to sex, it is important to consider what the current beliefs are, where they came from, what they were taught through school, parents, media, etc. There are many factors that contribute to our ideas about sex - by looking at them and learning how we can revisit and understand our own ideas (versus others' expectations), we can build a peaceful, and flexible relationship to sex.
4) Relationship with the people with whom we are engaging sexually. When a relationship is tense and difficult, it doesn't matter how much desire potentially could be, the desire for sex will diminish. If we feel unsafe, or hurt by the people that we want to have sex with, we will avoid the vulnerability and intimacy that encourages sexual desire. We may have sex anyway, but that doesn't mean that the sex is desired.
After all of this, I'm going to say something that seems almost antithetical: Desire is not NEEDED to have pleasurable sex. Desire is a motivator and can be responsive to another's initiation or to some kind of stimulation (Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski discusses "brakes and accelerator"), but it is just one factor in sexual pleasure.