Nearly half of all women will suffer from lost libido, with devastating consequences, but only now are the reasons emerging.
With her stunning looks and voluptuous figure, Nicky Allen is used to turning men’s heads. And with three marriages behind her, it’s hardly surprising that people assume she must be sexually confident.
As 57-year-old Nicky herself puts it: “The girls at the golf club thought having three husbands was really racy.”
The truth, however, was altogether different. Because far from having a thrilling love life, Nicky, a fashion retailer from West Sussex in the UK, is one of an increasing number of women who find themselves blighted by a total lack of libido.
What the ladies in the clubhouse didn’t know is that the reason Nicky’s third marriage collapsed three years ago was that in the decade before, the number of physical encounters with her husband could be counted on the fingers of two hands.
So while she might have appeared to have it all — a comfortable home, a good marriage and a successful business — inside, Nicky, who has two grown-up children, just felt sad and miserable.
And she admits the decline in her sex drive that followed the birth of her second child 29 years ago was a factor in the breakdown of all three of her marriages.
“I just became less and less interested in sex,” she says. “Eventually, it wasn’t on the agenda at all. Not that I wasn’t interested in the idea — but it just didn’t do anything for me.”
Life changes may cause decline
Studies in Britain, Europe and America, involving thousands of women of all ages, indicate that anything between 30 and 50per cent of women have been hit by prolonged periods of little or no sex drive.
Other surveys have shown that more than a third of women do not experience orgasm with a partner, or find sex actively painful. The causes of this still relatively little-understood problem are complex, and range from the biological to the psychological and even social.
While women can be affected by loss of sex drive at any age, life changes such as childbirth and the menopause also play a part.
When a woman loses interest in sex, the impact on both her and her partner can be catastrophic.
“There is no question that this is causing depression and a whole host of headaches, pains and other apparently unconnected physical problems,” says Mike Perring, a GP and sexual psychotherapist at University College Hospital, London. “Good sex is part of general well-being for most people.”
Author Nicci Talbot, 38, from Hastings, East Sussex, knows the agony caused by a lack of sex drive only too well. She spent most of her late teens and early 20s wondering why she was so different to other women.
As a young woman, Nicci had almost no interest in sex — but she was too embarrassed to discuss the problem with anyone.
“My first relationship didn’t start until I was 20 and studying at university,” she says. “It wasn’t a huge success. I just didn’t feel much excitement or sexual responsiveness, and my boyfriend wasn’t really interested in understanding what the problem was.”
“I just felt I was different from everyone else — that there was something wrong with me. It meant I suffered hugely from a lack of physical and psychological confidence.”
Nicci has always wondered if her problem was hormone-related. She didn’t reach puberty till she was 17, and for the remainder of her teenage years she had irregular periods.
However, the contraceptive Pill prescribed to regulate her periods and, hopefully, to improve her hormone levels and libido, seemed to reduce her sex drive even further, and doctors were unable to offer any alternative.
“It just wasn’t the kind of thing I could talk about then with friends. I would have felt stupid, though now I have spoken to lots of women and learned it’s very common.”
Nicci, who writes health handbooks for a living, says: “It’s ironic that Sex And The City and erotic literature such as Fifty Shades Of Grey have meant that people talk about sex more than ever, but are probably doing it less than anyone realises.”
Testosterone levels in question
So what do experts believe lies behind this decline in women’s libidos? And can it be treated effectively?
Many believe that a general reduction in women’s levels of testosterone may be to blame.
Contrary to popular opinion, testosterone is not just a male hormone. Healthy young women have ten times more testosterone than oestrogen circulating in their bodies, and it regulates mood, energy and libido in women almost as much as it does in men.
Production of the hormone is stimulated by regular sex — meaning once a woman loses interest in intercourse, it can become a vicious circle. But levels of testosterone in women decline naturally by an average of 50 per cent between the ages of 20 and 45, and continue to decline — though rather less dramatically — as part of the general ageing process. However, inexplicably, some women experience a much greater fall in the level of the hormone — which may explain why an absence of sex drive might occur at any age.
Martin Godfrey, a GP in Central London who has treated many women suffering from a reduced sex drive, says the proliferation of libido-boosters for men, such as Viagra, also seem to be exacerbating the problem.
He says: “You might have an older husband who suddenly wants more sex, and a wife of the same age who feels under pressure to perform. It makes a lot of women feel insecure and inadequate.”
It’s the stress
But for many thousands of women, it’s the rising levels of routine daily stress, exacerbated by the current harsh economic climate, that is wrecking their libido, as stress is a key killer of testosterone production.
Sarah Brewer, a GP with an interest in sexual health, adds: “If you’re stressed, you produce the hormone cortisol, which in turn leads to production of another hormone called prolactin, the ‘celibacy hormone’.
“It is the same hormone produced by breastfeeding mothers, and is designed to reduce the risk of further pregnancies happening too soon by significantly lowering libido. It is a vicious circle.”
In addition, some 150 commonly prescribed medications are also now known to have a negative impact on desire, from the contraceptive Pill to anti-depressants, painkillers and blood pressure treatments.
And then there’s the menopause. In an ongoing international study of 8,000 post-menopausal women, two out of five British women said ‘the change’ had wrecked their sex lives because tissue dries up and sex becomes uncomfortable.
But a lack of desire can affect women at any age. Claire Turner, 26, a PR consultant who now lives in London, says the sexual spark has deserted her, even though her devotion to her boyfriend of seven years is as strong as ever.
“Things have just changed,” she says. “At first I put it down to the long-term effect of being on the Pill since I was 16, but my libido started to desert me when my boyfriend was struggling to find a job and I was supporting us both. The financial stress certainly didn’t help matters.”
Her boyfriend now has a job, but sex remains a chore and happens only once or twice a month.
Help in herbs, pelvic floor exercises
In recent years, a plethora of websites has sprung up offering gels, creams, dietary supplements and erotic accessories that promise to bring back desire.
Additionally, GP Sarah Brewer says increasing numbers of woman are turning to natural sex-drive boosters including gingko biloba, St John’s wort and black cohosh, but she admits they may not work.
Nicci Talbot, meanwhile, claims herbal treatments helped her. After finishing her English degree, she went travelling in Australia where she learned of black cohosh and angelica, two plant-based libido treatments.
Black cohosh is believed to mimic sex hormones and encourage blood flow to the pelvis, while angelica root is thought to be the female equivalent of the male aphrodisiac ginseng.
Nicci says the herbs, used alongside counselling and acupuncture, solved her libido problems. She says she now feels sexual excitement when she meets someone she is attracted to.
Tighter pelvic muscles
Nicky Allen, meanwhile, claims to have transformed her failing sex life with a device called a pelvic toner.
For the past two years, she has been with a new partner, and is at last enjoying sex. “Everyone tells you to do pelvic floor exercises after childbirth, and describes what to do, but you can’t tell if you’re doing it right,” she says.
“It was nearly 30 years ago that I began to lose my libido, but I didn’t realise the loss of sensation caused by the birth of my child could have been the reason for my loss of interest in sex.
“This gadget, which I found on the internet, is the only thing I have found where you can actually feel what’s happening and you can feel the effect. It didn’t take long, and it really worked.”
Professor Studd is angered by what he sees as the dismissive attitude of many doctors to the problem of low libido in women.
“It is a very, very common condition,” he says. “Lack of libido can be treated, but there is still a common perception that this is not a serious issue — and until more people start to take it seriously, women will continue to suffer.”