Many women have a low sex drive. Or not

A new study shows that 36.2 percent have flagging libidos. Never mind that it was funded by a company aiming to fix that.

Published July 25, 2008 4:20PM (EDT)

It's true, you guys: A lot of ladies don't like the sex! According to a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 36.2 percent of ladies don't. What ever can we do about this? Well, Procter and Gamble thinks a testosterone patch it's already selling in Europe might help American women get their grooves back, which is why it funded the study. Oh. You know, I applaud Judith Graham for pointing that out in her blog post about it at the Chicago Tribune's Web site -- so often, obvious conflicts of interest go unreported -- but once we know the study was carried out with an eye to selling libido boosters, why are we still taking it seriously?

Because rigorously conducted research is possible regardless of who funds it, you say? OK, let's take a look at what else we know about this shocking new information. First, the study looked at women ages 18 to 70. Now, I would never suggest that post-menopausal women aren't sexual (go see "Mamma Mia!" if you have any doubts about that), but I'm thinking they might not be as horny as 18-year-olds, generally speaking. Indeed, Graham says the study also showed that "of women who entered menopause naturally as a result of aging, 52.4 percent confirmed low levels of desire. By contrast, 26.7 percent of women still getting their periods and 39.7 percent of women in menopause because of surgical interventions (removal of the ovaries) found themselves without sexual urges." Even 26.7 percent is a pretty big number, but what are we actually talking about here? How do you define or measure "low levels of desire"? Graham doesn't tell us, but she does mention that the study consisted of a phone survey. Oh, hey, self-reported data coming from women who wouldn't blow off a stranger calling to ask about their sex lives! That sounds totally reliable!

If all that's not enough to make you doubt the study's findings, try this on for size: "Only one-quarter of the women who said they weren't inclined toward sex were disturbed by their lack of feeling." So wait, all these women have desperately low libidos, but only 25 percent of them care? Ooh, I bet there's some evolutionary psychology coming up next! "[Edward] Laumann of the University of Chicago has a theory why that may be so: It could be low sexual desire is hard-wired into women through evolution." Ding ding ding! What do I win? "If women were like men and wanted sex all the time, they'd be pregnant more often," says Laumann, which means our bodies would go through a lot more stress, which means no sex for you! Sure, that sounds sort of logical, except I missed the study demonstrating that men ages 18-70 "want sex all the time." And what about the 63.8 percent of women who don't have a low sex drive? How come only a little over a third of us are hard-wired to want to protect our bodies? And why do we become less interested in sex once the threat of pregnancy is gone?

So basically, what this study found is that -- hmm, 36 divided by 4 -- 9 percent of women surveyed had a problematically low sex drive. Well, crap, that's not going to sell testosterone patches. Good thing a bunch of self-reported answers to vague questions, in concert with stereotypes about the female libido, can make this sound like a much bigger problem that only modern medicine can fix! Whew!

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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