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Sexual desire is a complex combination of biological, mental, emotional, social and cultural factors. Sexual desire varies a lot between individuals. Age and life situation also play a role. Sexual desire may be either spontaneous, arising rapidly and easily, or it may be responsive in relation to the situation, mood and interaction.

Sexual arousal

Desire and arousal are often hard to distinguish. Arousal refers to the ability and sensitivity to perceive sexual triggers and notice when you’re aroused. It can be divided into

a) subjective arousal, i.e. the changes in the mind and the body that reflect sexual interest following sexual stimulation, and

b) genital arousal during which changes occur in the genital region without the person being aroused mentally.

Arousal may result in desire, especially when it’s both subjective and genital.

Factors affecting sexual desire

Biologically, sexual desire is a drive and a need. Hormonal, reproductive or neurotransmitter – related factors alone do not explain how much sex you have or would like to have either alone or with a partner or partners.

Emotionally and socially, sexual desire can be boosted by a partner that you find interesting and compatible, by good and safe sexual experiences in the past, as well as the feeling of being accepted and desired. These factors, together with your sexual development and growth environment, define how your sexual self-esteem is formed and how it enables or prevents the awakening of desire that results in sexual activity. It can be promoted by your own actions or those of others as well as words, gestures and external stimuli such as online material. Desire can also be a response to sexual thoughts and images, arousal-inducing excitement, and anticipation of pleasure and satisfaction. Sexual desire is promoted by sufficient mental and physical performance.

Lack of sexual desire and interest is often linked to depression, stress, exhaustion, anxiety or unprocessed trauma. Poor physical health can influence the perception of your sex skills, endurance, body image and self-esteem. These can result in avoidance of sex and anything that may increase sexual desire.

It’s hard to enhance sexual desire and arousal with your partner if there are communication problems, unresolved conflicts or diminishing intimacy and positive emotions in the relationship. Even in such cases, you may feel aroused as a bodily reaction but it may not necessarily result in sexual desire. In relationships, the differences in frequency and intensity of sexual desire can sometimes be misinterpreted as lack of sexual desire.

Sexual desire is learnt and strongly culture-related. Adopted or external values and norms on acceptable or forbidden sexual behaviour may govern how you identify and accept your sexual desire. Beliefs and assumptions on what constitutes “normal” sexual desire strongly influence how adequate and appropriate you regard and accept your own sexual desire.

FSHS Psychologist / 22 April 2022