​Pleasure, Physical Touch, and Low Sexual Desire

Posted by: Chrysoula Iliopoulou

Low sexual desire is a common challenge that individuals and couples face and often prompts them to seek sex therapy. Think of the last time you felt desire, and ask yourself “why?”; you will probably find that the answer is not easy to find, and if you do have one, it is definitely not just one thing that you came up with. We do not always know why we do have sexual desire; thus, it is very common that we don’t know why we do not have it. Desire for sex is complex and depends on multiple factors. Biology and hormones, the dynamics of our romantic relationships, the physical and emotional connection in those relationships, mental health and anxieties outside of the relationship, even socio-economic issues and political fears, all these factors can affect how much or little we desire to have sex. Of course, every relationship is unique, so the reasons for low sexual desire as well as the ways in which it affects the quality of and satisfaction from the relationship are not universal. However, it can become an intense challenge and a major stressor.

Often, higher-desire partners become reluctant, anxious, and fearful of asking for sexual intimacy and frustrated with the negative answer they might get. They may feel guilty for asking, resentful, or even angry with their partners, as well as sad and scared for the relationship. Lower-desire partners can feel responsible for the decision-making around sex, guilty or ashamed for not providing it to their partners, or even scared and sad for the implications of the discrepancy for the relationship overall. They often experience guilt and shame about the lack of sexual interest and sometimes even about their bodies and the way they do or do not respond. The experiences of both partners can be distressing. In this tip, we introduce an alternative way of asking your partner for physical intimacy that could help bring up positive emotions and pleasurable touch and could potentially generate sexual desire.

Spontaneous and Responsive Sexual Desire

Before we do that, there is one distinction that is important to make here: sexual desire can be spontaneous or responsive. Spontaneous desire is very common in the beginning stages of relationships, when libido and arousal are triggered spontaneously by seeing, smelling, or hearing the voice of your loved one. Even thinking about your partner or spouse can bring up sexual thoughts. In other words, desire for sex is a response to anticipating pleasure. Responsive sexual desire, on the other hand, comes as a response to experiencing pleasure, not anticipating it. For some women, pleasurable non-sexual touch, like sensual massage, cuddling, or genital touch can bring up desire for sexual contact and intimacy. In other words, if your partner experiences physical pleasure when you touch her non-sexually, this experience may generate sexual desire. Responsive desire is common in long-term relationships as is low sexual desire.

Slowing down the pace of physical touch and ensuring that you let your partner know that you are focused not on sex, but on pleasure, both hers and yours, is a great first step towards generating responsive sexual desire. The activity below will give you a template for communicating your needs for physical touch in such a way. 

In later stages, sexual desire tends to be responsive. This practically means that desire for sex comes as a response to cuddling, non-sexual physical intimacy, contact, touch, emotional closeness, and the anticipated emotional or intellectual intimacy after sex. Put simply, women are more likely to feel sexual desire after having had some physical closeness with their partners. 

The Activity

         In couples with low sexual desire, the question “Do you want to have sex?” ends up bringing up negative emotions and a scary interaction. Many times, reframing the communication around physical and sexual intimacy can be proven a great first step towards satisfying the relationship’s needs for physical and sexual connection. Remeber that sex is more likely to happen if the anxiety of sex is out of the table. 

This is one of the ways in which you can reframe the requests for intimacy and take the anxiety of sex out of the table.

1.     List your Sexual Activities

Couples who struggle with low sexual desire tend to talk about sex more and feel negatively about it. With sex taking up so much space, partners tend to forget to talk about the non-sexual,  pleasurable physical touch they engage in, or minimize the importance of it. Every relationship is unique, and different partners have different language around their physical intimacy. For some folks, cuddling or kissing can be erotic and sensually pleasurable. Other folks find rubbing each other’s backs erotic, and others experience pleasure by kissing in various parts of their bodies. To start this activity, take some time with your partner and list the pleasurable physical touch you usually engage in. For now, take genital contact off the table. The goal is to reconnect with your partner physically and emotionally without experiencing shame, guilt, or fear and at the same time re-explore each other’s bodies and their sensations. Kissing, cuddling, rubbing each other’s bodies, and massaging can be some of them. Focus on what you have historically done together and be as specific as you can. For example, “Touch your cheek with my palm” or “Wrap my hand around your neck” or “Caress your arms.” Being so specific may feel mechanical, but breaking down your routine will make you focus on what brings you and your partner pleasure. If some of those activities sound silly, try to list them regardless; if they have been part of your touch repertoire, they deserve a spot in the list.

2.     List the Senses Activated During Those Activities

As we discussed earlier, responsive sexual desire is desire for sex as a response to experiencing pleasure. To understand how we experience pleasure and what physical pleasure means to our bodies, we need to bring our attention to the different sensations that are involved in our physical touch routine. Smell, touch and feel, sight, and hearing are all participating actively when we are physically close to our loved ones. For this step, look at the first list and focus on all the sensations you may have when engaging in the activities that you listed. Think about smells, textures, temperature, sight, sounds, or even language and words that your partner uses during them.

As you are making this list, consider the following questions:

-        What do I smell when I engage in this activity? What do I like about it?

-        What is the sound I am hearing? What do I like about it?

-        What do I see? What do I like about it?

-        How does this activity feel in my body? Where am I feeling it? 

3.     State your Need

When you are done with your lists, place them next to each other. On the top of the sexual activities’ list, write the prompt “I have the need to…”. For the sensations list, write the prompt “…because I want to sense…”. Your lists will look somewhat like this:

I have the need to…

…because I want to sense….

Touch your cheek with my palm

Wrap my hand around your neck

Caress your arms

Rub your back

etc

The smell of your hair

The warmth of your skin

The softness of your skin

The smell of your skin

The sound of your breath

The sound of your heartbeat

etc

 

 

After the second column, add the question “How would you feel about me doing that?” so that your columns look like this:

I have the need to…

…because I want to sense….

How would you feel about me doing that?

Touch your cheek with my palm

Wrap my hand around your neck

Caress your arms

Rub your back

etc

The smell of your hair

The warmth of your skin

The softness of your skin

The smell of your skin

The sound of your breath

The sound of your heartbeat

etc

 

 

 

Since you have your table ready, mix and match the two first columns and try to make a statement of your need. For example, “I have the need to caress your arm because I want to sense the softness of your skin. How would you feel about me doing that?” or “I have the need to feel your palm touching my neck because I want to sense the warmth of your skin. How would you feel about doing this for me?” Make sure to let your partner know what draws your need for touch and be as specific as you can with your description as the stress usually rises in unpredictability. 

You and your partner can take turns stating your needs by using this template. Partners with lower sexual desire may find it empowering to initiate pleasurable touch without the expectation or anticipation of sex and regain agency of their own body and pleasure. Partners with higher sexual desire may find it less frustrating and more satisfying to give pleasure to their partner. Make sure you and your partner create some time off of your daily routine, maybe before going to sleep or first thing in the morning, to practice touching and being touched with your focus on pleasure. Once you are done with the activity, you may want to reflect on the experience. Consider asking each other the following questions:

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how pleasurable was my touch?
  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how stressed/frustrated/aroused were you during our touch?
  • What was different this time from the last time we were physically close?

Low sexual desire can be a frustrating challenge to navigate and can affect the satisfaction you feel in your relationship. Partners may use the term low sexual desire to describe low spontaneous sexual desire; however, many times women experience responsive sexual desire, or desire for sex after already experiencing pleasure. Thinking about touch in terms of pleasure instead of sex and practicing on identifying where the pleasure comes from, how it feels, and what sensations cause it can be a great tool for you and your partner to reclaim your physical intimacy, and potentially bring some of your sexual energy back to life.

If you are experiencing difficulties with navigating low sexual desire in your relationship, consider scheduling an appointment with our therapists by calling (215) 922-5683.