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Why do women stop wanting sex Nearly HALF of all women will suffer from lost libido, with devastating consequences, but only now are the reasons are emerging
02:23 GMT, 27 December 2012
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 Wineham, West Sussex, is one of an increasing number of women who find themselves blighted by a total lack of libido.
Nearly half of all women will suffer from lost libido at some point in their lives, with devastating emotional consequences
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. My answer was to throw myself wholeheartedly into my business and everything else, so I wouldn't think about the problem.'
In an age when films and TV dramas would have us believe every woman is enslaved by an almost insatiable libido, there is growing evidence that this picture couldn't be further from the truth.
Nicky Allen – pictured with her partner of two years, Patrick Johnson – has been married thee times but has suffered from a decline in her sex drive for the past 29 years
Studies in Britain, Europe and America, involving thousands of women of all ages, indicate that anything between 30 and 50 per cent of women have been hit by prolonged periods of little or no sex drive.
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
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.
Increasing research is focusing on testosterone levels in women, for example.
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.
Nicky Allen and Patrick Johnson in July this year at a party in London
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.'
Indeed, Relate, the counselling service, says loss of sexual desire is a principal reason behind the relationship breakdowns that are bringing a growing stream of couples to its door.
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.
Nicci Talbot, a 38-year-old woman from Hastings, Sussex, always wondered why she had no interest in sex
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.'
So what do experts believe lies behind this decline in women's libidos And can it be treated effectively
Many experts 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
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.
Many experts believe that a general reduction in women's levels of testosterone may be to blame
Part of the problem is that tests to investigate testosterone levels remain largely limited to men, because results on women have proved unreliable.
proliferation of libido-boosters for men, such as Viagra, also seem to
be exacerbating the problem
Efforts to develop a testosterone patch, called Intrinsa – billed as the female answer to Viagra – in 2004, were abandoned because of fears the hormone treatment could cause blood clots or the development of bodily hair and other male characteristics.
Although other lower-dose, safer versions of the patches have come on to the market, they are not licensed to be prescribed by the NHS, so doctors wanting to prescribe it to women have to do so privately.
Professor John Studd, a Harley Street gynaecologist who specialises in treating women with libido problems, says he is now successfully using lower-dose testosterone patches on up to 50 patients a week, in an attempt to restore their sex drives.
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
On some women, he uses oestrogen patches instead, as inadequate levels of the so-called 'female' hormone can also drastically impact on a female's desire for sex. Professor Studd says there's no risk of blood-clotting disorders, like those associated with the contraceptive Pill, because patches mean the extra oestrogen is delivered via the skin.
However, access to treatment has been made more difficult by NHS cuts, which have had a heavy impact on services perceived to be 'non-essential', such as sexual health. Hospitals that used to supply libido-boosting hormone implants and patches to women are refusing to do so on the grounds of cost.
'There is no question this is a very big problem for very many women, and they are really suffering,' says Professor Studd.
Nicky Allen claims to have transformed her failing sex life with a device called the PelvicToner
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.'
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.
'We are living in difficult
times, with people struggling to hold on to their jobs and make ends
meet, and they are leading increasingly busy lives,' says Paula Hall, a
sex therapist and relationship counsellor at Relate.
busy at work, busy bringing up children, or, increasingly, looking
after elderly parents – all stresses that can put anyone off sex. More
and more people are now coming forward and asking for help.'
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
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.
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.
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
'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.
'I stopped taking the Pill 18 months ago and use other forms of contraception, so it can't be that,' Claire says. 'I don't think it's down to my boyfriend, but I have never had a problem like this before. It makes me feel I am not normal.'
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.
'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'
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 returned to the UK and embarked on a love affair that led to the birth of her daughter, who is now six.
Nicci says the herbs, used alongside counselling and acupuncture, solved her libido problems – and led to the birth of her daughter, now six
Though the relationship did not last and she is single again, she says she now feels sexual excitement when she meets someone she is attracted to.
Nicky Allen, meanwhile, claims to have transformed her failing sex life with a device called the PelvicToner, the only such gadget to be available via prescription on the NHS.
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. 'My patients are aged anything from 30 to 70. I think it is a tragedy that women are expected to do nothing when an important part of their lives just disappears.
'It is completely neglected by GPs and gynaecologists, and psychiatrists are particularly hopeless because they often don't see the link with depression and other mental health problems.
'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.'