How We Get Turned On

The Female Sexual Response Cycle

As we’ve said (many times) before, our sexual responses are complicated and unpredictable. And this becomes especially true once we’ve embarked upon this menopausal transition. That doesn’t mean we can’t respond sexually anymore, just that we respond differently from men and differently even from the way we did before.

Way back in the 1960s, Masters and Johnson, the groundbreaking sexologists, developed a graph of the sexual response cycle. It was a simple, linear depiction that purported to track both men and women from arousal to afterglow in four stages—arousal, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Sort of like a visual depiction of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am version of sex that women used to think was normal.

It did not contain a lot of room for nuance.

Fortunately, concepts about how we respond sexually have evolved over the years. Lately, Rosemary Basson, professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, proposed another model of how women, specifically, experience sex. Guess what? It’s different from men. Her graph is circular. It includes elements that previously weren’t linked to sex, like relationship satisfaction and self-image, and our previous sexual experiences. It leaves room for skipped steps and a non-linear response to sex. This woman gets us.

Take feeling desire, for example. Basson’s model doesn’t get all hung up on desire. You may not feel spontaneous desire—the old “horny” thing—the way you used to. Or maybe you’ve never felt horny. According to a 1999 study from the University of Chicago, fully one-third of women never feel desire. “[Women] may move from sexual arousal to orgasm and satisfaction without experiencing sexual desire, or they can experience desire, arousal, and satisfaction but not orgasm,” according to this article.

You may not feel desire until you’ve begun to have sex; you might not feel desire even then. You might not feel desire even if you orgasm.

Likewise, for a lot of us, sexual satisfaction doesn’t even depend on having an orgasm, necessarily. We may have lovely, satisfying sex because it satisfies our partner and affirms the relationship and enhances our feeling of intimacy. Or, we may engage in sex for negative reasons, such as not wanting to lose a partner or avoiding the unpleasantness of turning him down.

Basically, Basson’s work tells us that however we experience sex that works for us and our partner is good sex. We may not “feel like” sex (experience desire), but once we get into it, desire might come tripping along like a puppy on a leash. Or, it might not, but the sex might be good anyway.

According to the literature, the sex that seems to work best for most couples is light-hearted, flirty, playful sex. It isn’t rushed. It has nothing to prove. It’s a mature, evolved celebration of the fact we’re still here, still loving each other. It’s the kind of sex worth working for.

Couple in kitchenSo, let’s give ourselves a break. If we’ve been honest with ourselves, our sexual response very often depends on stimuli that has little to do with sex—how safe and happy we are in our relationship; how long we’ve been in the relationship; how we feel about ourselves (confident, sexy, desirable; or fatigued, stressed, distracted); whether sex has been painful (it’s hard to look forward to an experience that’s associated with pain).

The most important thing that’s necessary for sexual satisfaction in your relationship is the willingness to pursue it in whatever way works for you.

Oh, and the more sex you have, the more you want it. There are lots of ways to make sex comfortable after menopause: That’s what this website is all about; lube up and laissez le bons temps rouler.

 

 

Q: While I feel desire, I just can’t get aroused. What’s up?

You describe having been on bioidentical hormones for a number of years, as well as having had a complete hysterectomy. There are a number of variables that contribute to this mystery.

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.A couple of thoughts: Are you using testosterone with your hormone therapy? The ability to arouse and orgasm, as well as drive, is influenced by testosterone for some women. Not all women get an improvement in sexual function with the use of testosterone. If you aren’t using testosterone, you may want to have a conversation with your provider about adding it. Virtually all women over 50 have low testosterone, and having ovaries removed is a big factor in low testosterone.

Second, are you using compounded hormone therapy (HT)? I see so much variation in the dosing and absorption of compounded HT that I almost always recommend a pharmaceutical bioidentical HT. I just see so much more consistency in symptom relief.

There is also a relatively new supplement, called Stronvivo, that I have had some great successes with women. They’ve used it--and it’s been tested--for improved sex drive, lubrication, and more. A neuropsychiatrist in my community is recommending Stronvivo for improved memory, too!)

I hope some combination of these suggestions solves your mystery!

 

 

November 03, 2016

0 comments

desire ›   intimacy ›   relationships ›  


Q: Can we regain intimacy after 60 years of marriage?

You describe a series of distressing events, including your stroke, a separation for your rehabilitation, and your wife’s loss of desire. You’ve sought help from mental health professionals, one of whom prescribed antidepressants for both of you.

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.I’m so sorry that after so many years of a great marriage and sexual relationship, you’re facing this difficult and complicated situation. It’s normal to grieve this loss of intimacy. Now you’re likely dealing with a combination of emotional and physical factors, and the antidepressants prescribed to help can also dampen desire.

I’d recommend that you seek a therapist specializing in sexual health. AASECT (the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists) certifies specialists trained to address sexual concerns and offers a “locate a professional” page. Choose your state, check the “Therapists” box, and click “search” to identify a resource in your area.

A skilled therapist can help the two of you navigate this complex issue. Congratulations on your long-term commitment to your relationship, and I hope you do restore its full richness.

September 29, 2016

0 comments

desire ›   libido ›   women's sexual health ›  


Q: Does exercise help libido?

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.Yes, exercise helps libido in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly. It improves general health and energy levels. It improves sleep and blood supply. And it improves self-image, too, which can make us feel more desirable and more in touch with our sexual selves.

I recommend that women add Kegel exercises to their exercise habits. Increased muscle tone in the pelvic floor increases orgasm response, as well as keeping our organs where they belong and preventing or minimizing incontinence. It’s a complete win!

So yes, get active or stay active. Your body will thank you.

Q: How can I boost my desire and arousal?

You asked. Dr. Barb answered.

You say you find your partner attractive, you have a good relationship, and your gynecologist gives you a clean bill of health. And yet, you’re having trouble getting aroused. 

One consideration may be Stronvivo, a nutritional supplement that has been shown to improve sexual function for women (and men), including improved libido/desire and ability to arouse and orgasm.

Some women with libido concerns benefit from supplementing testosterone. This requires an assessment and monitoring from your physician or nurse practitioner, since it’s prescription only. Use of testosterone in women is considered “off label”, or non-FDA approved, and not all practitioners are willing to prescribe it for their patients.

At the same time, you say you’re experiencing less moisture. This is critical to address, because painful intercourse is, of course, not an incentive to desire! There are varieties of lubricants that can add playfulness as well as immediate increased comfort; regular use of a vaginal moisturizer can help you through perimenopause.

 I do know this issue can test relationships, and wish you the very best in finding a way forward! Be assured it’s possible.

November 30, 2015

2 comments

addyi ›   desire ›   hsdd ›   women's sexual health ›  


A Watershed Moment for Women's Sexual Health

It may surprise you to hear a practicing doctor readily admit that there are vast fields of uncharted forest in human medicine.

I knew that when I began my studies, and now, many years later, I still find the constant learning that the discoveries my scientific sisters and brothers bring to my field my greatest hope and challenge. And sometimes it’s a source of frustration too, but today I’m focused on hope.

For quite a few weeks now I’ve been able to offer my patients something new. Addyi, the trade name for Flibanserin, the much talked-about prescription drug designed to treat Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), a disorder that I’m all too familiar with in my practice, a heartbreaking condition faced by so many of my patients and their loved ones.

But back to the question of advancements in medicine. When I think of this moment. I think of a parade of watershed moments in medicine. I know it may not seem like this to many people on the surface of it, but the approval of this drug, to doctors who serve women with sexual disorders, is HUGE. In my field it’s up there with, say, the dawn of anti-septic operating procedures. Think: we’ve only been washing our hands carefully before surgery since the 1860s. In the scheme of things, not that long ago! Or another watershed moment for women, the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1973, a book that changed everything, utterly. Or the Public Health Service Act of 1975, which made gender inequality in medical education illegal for the first time and propped open the doors for my own education… Finally.

And when I think of my ability to write Addyi prescriptions for my patients, that’s mainly what I think. I think…Finally! As hard as it was to get this one single drug for female sexual dysfunction (compared with 26 for men?) approved, and with all of the weight of its warnings and the hoops of physician training and the cost of it — despite the weight of all of that, through all of that — the FDA heard us. THEY HEARD US. 

And that is the win. 

So. Addyi is my new septic procedure. The one that will start saving lives immediately, one way or another. I can’t tell you what it means to me to have at least one arrow in my quiver for the women, LOTS of women, suffering, in my practice, because they WANT to want to feel the fullness of their sexual selves come alive. A basic human right, says the World Health Organization. A basic human right. 

(By the way, did you know that Joseph Lister, the inventor of septic operating procedures was ridiculed widely and run out of this country, had to work extra hard and fought a difficult uphill battle to convince people that, really, anti-septic procedures in surgery would save lives? True story… If people had only believed him right away…. )

The outcome of the past few years is a watershed, a turning point because through the process of approval, the FDA has gotten the message: They now completely understand that this previously misunderstood disease — or the complex of Female Sexual Dysfunction, is very real. These women are suffering. So are their partners. They deserve focus, research, discovery, and treatment. And judging by the most recent news that the FDA has recognized Female Sexual Dysfunction as one of the 20 key unmet medical needs in the United States, they will be getting it. 

HUGE.

Meantime, Addyi will help some of these women. Maybe your sisters or daughters. Some with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder will improve with this treatment. At least they will know within a month or two of trying, and for those suffering, the option is available to them right now. 

These women will need to talk to their doctors about Addyi. Women who don't think they need it can help their sisters by asking their doctors about it, showing that it matters. Doctors will need to complete a short online training course to familiarize themselves with the new drug. It’s very short, and found right here. The sooner doctors get their training in, the sooner they can start prescribing the drug, the sooner women can at least try it, to see if it will work for them. I started prescribing in October, so expect to hear in December, after the recommended two months, whether it’s been beneficial.

If it works, happier lives. Fuller, happier lives. The medicine will keep getting better. Have hope!

August 19, 2015

0 comments

desire ›   FDA ›   flibanserin ›   HSDD ›  


Celebrating the First FDA-Approved Treatment for HSDD

The FDA’s announcement yesterday that they’ve approved flibanserin is huge for women. This is the first medication approved for treatment of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), also called female sexual dysfunction (FSD) and, more recently, female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD—a new abbreviation!).

The multiple names for the condition we’re treating tell a story all by themselves. It’s been a long road to get sexual arousal issues for women the same attention as has been paid to erectile dysfunction in men, perhaps because the symptoms are less visible. The media coverage of the process, I’m hopeful, has had some educational effect, endorsing FSIAD as a real medical condition with real potential for treatments. I have new reason to be optimistic that this decision will lead to further developments in the field—because it’s been proven that it is possible to get a medical treatment in this arena through the FDA approval process.

This approval is great news for women who suffer from this specific medical diagnosis, for whom I, as a menopause care specialist, have had nothing to offer. It’s great news for their partners, who, along with the women, have some hope and optimism that the desire and passion they once shared may be restored to their relationships. I’ve heard from women in my practice about the double-whammy of their loss of desire: Not only do they miss their sexual selves, they regret the unintentional messages they’ve sent their partners.

I’m hopeful that hearing about this development will encourage more women to be frank with their health care providers. At least half of women will have sexual difficulty at some point, but far fewer of them will bring it up to their doctors. If they know there’s a possible treatment, perhaps women will have more motivation to ask. I haven’t seen a study, but I’d be willing to bet that more men asked doctors about erectile dysfunction when they’d heard Viagra was available.

Together with my patients facing the FSIAD diagnosis, I can have a conversation about the potential benefits and side effects of this medication. We can make a plan of action. The women I serve aren’t expecting miracles; any possibility of even a modest improvement will be life-changing for them.

As a doctor, I'll now have something to say after "no, it's not all in your head" and "I'm sorry." I can't wait.

August 13, 2015

2 comments

desire ›   FDA ›   flibanserin ›   HSDD ›  


Watching for Herstory to Be Made

Even though I’m a medical doctor, I’m not accustomed to watching the Food and Drug Administration’s actions as closely as I have the past few months. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that last October, I traveled to Washington DC for a public hearing and then a workshop of women’s health experts. The FDA sponsored the events to hear about women’s sexual health and to examine how they might respond.

And then in June, an advisory committee to the FDA recommended the approval of flibanserin, a medical treatment to address hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). The FDA is poised to announce its decision next week.

It’s been a long road. I first wrote about flibanserin back in 2010, when the company that had developed fibanserin shelved it, saying that it didn’t have sufficient “potential to make it to market.” There’s been controversy about the HSDD diagnosis, although it was first medically characterized in 1977 in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy and is listed in the International Classification of Diseases.

More important to me than those scientific listings are specific women I’ve seen in my practice. They’ve had satisfying sex lives. They love their partners. They want to want intimacy. They don’t have psychological problems, relationship issues, social hang-ups, or a medical problem—beyond HSDD. Brain scans show different activity and structure in women with HSDD, proving the biological component.

As their doctor, I want to offer them options to reclaim the life they want, which includes intimacy. It’s up to each woman to decide which of the options she’d like to try, and then to determine whether each option is working for her.

Beyond the approval of this one pharmaceutical product, the FDA’s action is, I hope, a signal for a bright future. When I was there in October, I heard that the agency “recognizes that this [female sexual dysfunction, or FSD] is a condition that can greatly impact the quality of life,” and that “the FDA is committed to supporting the development of drug therapies for FSD.”

As a physician, I’m committed to the least invasive, simplest solution for each woman. But when that simplest solution doesn’t work, I’m deeply grateful for well-tested, thoroughly researched pharmaceutical options that help women restore the fullness of their lives.

July 13, 2015

0 comments

body image ›   desire ›   orgasm ›  


The Hidden Benefit of "Exercise"

In an ideal world, we’d all love our bodies exactly as they are. We’d love our little muffin tops for the reminder of all the ice cream sundaes we’ve shared with a best friend, our marshmallow tummies for the children we carried, and our pancake boobs for making bras (practically) pointless.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and the way we perceive our bodies affects how we feel about having sex. We probably all have personal experience with this, and research backs it up.

Fortunately, there’s a way around poor body image and it’s called exercise. Before you groan and stop reading, just let me say that this post is about more than exercise’s effect on that muffin top. It’s about exercise’s effect on a whole lot of things.

Research shows that exercise improves body image, desire, and (our male readers will be happy to know) erectile functioning. It also leads to an increase in overall sexual satisfaction, according to research, the findings of which were published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality.

And here’s the best part of that research: the exercise doesn’t even have to be strenuous. “Overall sexual satisfaction was significantly associated with all modes of exercise/physical activity (i.e., sport, aerobics, recreation, and strength training).”

Improving your satisfaction with your sex life might be as simple as taking a walk or a leisurely bike ride or going canoeing—the more frequently, the better. So the benefit of exercising isn’t just that it tones our bodies. It’s that we feel better about ourselves and our sex lives, maybe long before the effect shows up on our middle-aged middles.

Perhaps you already do those walks or bike rides. If so, good for you! Want better orgasms? Consider adding weights or aerobic exercise to your routine; the research also showed that strength training had “the strongest relationship to overall satisfaction with quality of orgasm.” And many studies show a correlation between aerobic exercise and quality of orgasm.

See? No need to be deterred by the word “exercise.” Just think of it as adding a little more activity that will lead to getting a little more action.

The Lowdown on Libido

Once upon a time, you may have felt sexual desire hit with the force of a tsunami—no mistaking the intensity of that jump-your-bones drive. These days, it passes like a gentle drizzle. If it comes at all.

Meanwhile, back at the doctor’s office, one of the most frequent questions this gynecologist hears (and I would agree) is: What happened to my sex drive?

Loss of libido is common. The numbers are all over the map, and I’m not sure that they’re particularly helpful anyway, but many women—and men, too—experience a loss of sexual desire. And this state of affairs can stir up a lot of consternation and unhappiness in the bedroom and beyond.

Lack of sexual desire has a couple of dry, scientific names: hyposexual desire disorder (HSDD) or hypoactive sexual interest and arousal disorder (this one, HSIAD, is relatively new, coined in the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM]; can you imagine the discussion at the recent FDA forum?). Despite studies exploring its frequency, causes, and symptoms, no pharmaceutical silver bullet has been found to fix it—yet. And, believe me, having tasted the commercial success of erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra, pharmaceutical companies are extremely keen on finding a similar blockbuster drug for women.

Loss of libido all by itself isn’t the problem—exactly. If you are content to let your sexual self recede with your youth, and this isn’t disturbing to you or anyone else, then by definition you don’t have HSDD/HSIAD.

If, however, loss of libido is distressing to you or to your partner; if you want to continue enjoying sex with your partner and you mourn the loss of your old sexy self, then you have a problem. According to medical diagnostic manuals, in order to meet the criteria for HSDD/HSIAD, you not only have to lack desire for any form of sexual activity, but this also must cause you or your partner “personal distress and/or interpersonal difficulties.”

Loss of sexual desire is a tough nut to crack. There’s no “on” switch for libido; there’s no one-size-fits-all therapy; there’s no FDA-approved drug. So rather than searching for a quick fix for a waning libido, you may have to take a patient, holistic, experimental, long-distance view of the situation. You (and your partner) may have to adjust your expectations: sex can still be close and satisfying, but it may be different.

Additionally, you may have to take a clear-eyed assessment of your overall health and lifestyle because, like so many things, sexual response doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s intimately connected with other parts of your physical and psychological health.

With this in mind, loss of libido can be affected by:

  • Loss of hormones—the loss of both estrogen associated with menopause and testosterone associated with aging. Low libido is a frequent complaint of post-menopausal women and those with surgically induced menopause due to removal of ovaries.
  • Some medications, for cancer and depression, for example, are known to depress libido, as are some recreational drugs.
  • Some illnesses, such as diabetes and kidney disease, can disrupt hormone levels and damage nerves in the genital area.
  • Relationship problems. If you have a rocky relationship with your sexual partner, disinterest in sex is a likely side-effect. Stir in some menopausal changes and you have a discouraging environment for sex.
  • Stress and anxiety. Financial worries, career challenges, family problems. It’s hard to feel open to sex with major life issues on the brain.
  • Abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, especially if the abuse is still ongoing.
  • Obesity, which for the women I meet in my practice has most effect on self-image.

We’ve mentioned before that good sex is good for your health. So, how does losing your libido impact health and well-being? A 2009 study conducted by a team of researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to answer those questions.

In a survey of almost 2000 women, the researchers found that women with HSDD/HSIAD were more likely to be depressed and dissatisfied with their home lives and their partners, and that they were more likely to have other health issues, like heart disease and thyroid problems. In fact, the effect of HSDD/HSIAD on quality of life measures was comparable to that of other chronic health conditions, such as back pain or arthritis.

Ouch.

So what’s to be done with a case of lost libido? How do you begin to tackle this very real and very frustrating condition?

Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do, from lifestyle changes, like exercising and losing weight, to pharmaceutical regimens, which, while limited, might include estrogen replacement or using testosterone off-label. And while you may have to experiment, in the end, you can be every bit as intimate, sexy, and feminine as ever.

I’ll dig into those details in a future post. In the meantime, your recommended reading is my new book, Yes You Can: Dr. Barb’s Recipe for Lifelong Intimacy. Because that’s what we’re all about here—believing that we can.