By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
When people come to me for advice about their sex lives, much of the time they believe that everyone else around them is having great sex and they're not.
One of the most common things that couples struggle with is the issue of mismatched libidos: when one person's sexual desires don't gel with his or her partner's. The complaints vary: She wants sex all the time; he doesn't. He wishes she'd be more sexually adventurous; she thinks he's a freak. She wants sex to last more than five minutes; he's happy being a quick shooter. Sexual incompatibility is a problem facing lots of people, yet there is surprisingly little dialogue about it in self-help books or other media. Popular magazines instruct women to "Thrill Every Inch of Him" and men to "Keep Her Coming Back for More," and Dr. Phil says, "Forget about the dishes, forget about the kids, and just do it." All this reinforces the idea that something called "perfect sex" exists and if we're not achieving that as often as possible then there's a problem and someone has to take the blame. Even sex therapists can feed into the myths, by making one partner the problem (she's frigid or he's oversexed). The lack of honest, helpful information has led to misunderstanding and judgment about our sex drives and our sex lives.
"There are sex books that mention the subject [of mismatched libidos], but 99 percent of the time the higher-libido person is assumed to be male, and in my experience, that's not even close to the truth," says writer and gender activist Helen Boyd (helenboydbooks.com). Boyd teaches a class at sex-and-relationship conferences that explores the topic called "Uneven Libidos." "I started [teaching the class] because my relationship was a case of uneven libidos and I was having a hard time finding any useful information on the subject." She says that creating a space where she and others could talk openly about it has been a remarkable experience and that one of the overwhelming reactions from participants is relief that they're not alone. "There's still so much embarrassment on both sides: the low-libido types for not being as sexual as they're 'supposed' to be, and the high-libido types for being, well, too sexual, more than they're 'supposed' to be. It's like we're all trying to keep in line with some mythical Joneses."
Boyd's point about keeping up with the Joneses is right on: Most people have a clear (if unrealistic) expectation of what a "normal" sex life is to them and how women and men should behave in the bedroom; when theirs does not live up to these expectations, they believe something is wrong. "We have so many ideas about sex that keep us from recognizing that how we are is OK . . . the hardest part is forgiving yourself and your sexual partner for not being what we're 'supposed to be.' It's a very vulnerable place to negotiate around, because we all fear rejection for not living up to unrealistic ideals."
Australian sex therapist Sandra Pertot agrees that we need to stop reinforcing the notion that there is one ideal kind of sexual relationship. After working for more than 30 years with couples, she believes that just as there are different personality types, there are different libido types, and she identifies 10 in her new book, When Your Sex Drives Don't Match: Discover Your Libido Types to Have a Mutually Satisfying Sex Life. According to Pertot, the trick is to figure out which libido type (or types) you are, which your partner is, how they match or don't match, and how you can compromise to create a sex life that works for both of you.
Pertot defines sex drive not as the physical urge for sex but as "any motivation that leads to the decision to have sex." One of the best parts of her book is how specifically she breaks down each libido type into its important elements, including: what sex means to you, why you want it, what you get out of it, what kinds of activities you enjoy, how important sex is to you within the relationship, the emotions you feel around sex, what physical and emotional cues trigger desire in you, and what you want and expect from your partner. The 10 types include erotic ("Sex is the most important part of the relationship"); dependent ("Regular sexual release is necessary to maintain a sense of calmness and well-being"); and stressed ("Your performance fears make sex a source of tension rather than pleasure").
She outlines exercises in the book that are practical and useful. They are a road map for couples to examine and articulate their feelings, expectations, wants, and needslike a 'how to communicate about sex' guide, which is one of the most critical issues facing all couples. She asserts that when each partner is a different libido type, much of the trouble arises not from incompatibility, but from misinterpretation. "I think it is difficult for people to talk to their partners because of the interpretations each makes of the other's sexuality," she told me in a recent interview. "If you genuinely believe that your partner should initiate sex at a certain frequency, but that just isn't on the other person's sexual radar, it is hard not to interpret that as meaning there is something wrong with the partner, the relationship, or you."
Pertot repeatedly drives home the point that no one libido type is better or worse than any other; they are all just different. However, I could not help but feel that the names she gave to each type conjure up certain judgments: some ("sensual," "erotic") feel more neutral and less pathological than others ("addictive," "compulsive"). "I knew it was not possible to make every libido type seem as attractive, desirable, or 'normal' as the others. In the end, it seemed to me to be best to bite the bullet, and name each libido type according to what seemed to drive them most," said the sex therapist.
My one complaint about When Your Sex Drives Don't Match is that although it includes case studies of gay and lesbian couples and mentions of 'bondage and discipline,' it comes across as pretty heterocentric, ignorant about BDSM and kink, and focused exclusively on monogamous couples (which is ironic since I saw lots of ways this book could be very useful for kinky, queer, and nonmonogamous people). Nonetheless, it's a very important resource that turns readers on to a refreshing perspective with substantial solutions.