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Sexual desire and pleasure

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http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14193-008
APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology: Vol. 1. Person-Based Approaches, D. L. Tolman and L. M. Diamond (Editors-in-Chief)
Copyright © 2014 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.
Chapter 8
Sexual DeSire anD PleaSure
Lori A. Brotto and Kelly B. Smith
Depending on whom one asks, sexual desire may
have many different meanings. It has been equated
to desire for sexual activity, desire for sexual inti-
macy, and the feeling of wanting associated with
thinking about an attractive partner. Colloquially,
some refer to desire as feeling horny. Some experts
favor a description that does not hinge on sexual
behavior such as the “subjective awareness of desire
for sexual satisfaction, irrespective of sexual activity.”
Desire has not always been situated within the
psychological literature. In the 4th century BC, the
Greek philosopher Apicurus described the “pleasure
principle” and desire as a natural human necessity.
For those in ancient times, sexual desire led to an
appreciation and admiration of physical beauty, and
the latter led to everything else. Throughout much
of the Middle Ages as well as in the 19th and early
20th centuries, there was much interest in the
brain–body connection as it relates to sexual desire.
French sexologist Marc-Andrè Raffalovich posited
that sexuality was not localized in adolescents ages 8
to 11 but that later on, a boy’s desires acquire a geni-
tal focus. Freud extended this view in the early
1900s and believed that children possessed “poly-
morphous perversity” wherein the entire body is
predisposed to sexuality, which then leads them to
experience sexual deviation. As adults, however,
they learn to repress this latent capacity to enjoy
pleasure all over the body. Through Freud’s psycho-
analysis, the notion that people are all driven toward
pleasure by unconscious forces gained widespread
acceptance. Over the years, with advancements in
science, the notion of pleasure centers in the brain
has received empirical support and attracted the
attention of brain–behavior scientists (e.g., psychol-
ogists, neuroscientists; see Chapter 7, this volume).
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (4th ed., text revision; DSM–IV–TR; Amer-
ican Psychiatric Association, 2000), the definition
of desire can be inferred from a description of when
desire is lacking. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder
(HSDD) is defined as “persistently or recurrently
deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for
sexual activity” when “the judgment of deficiency or
absence is made by the clinician, taking into account
factors that affect sexual functioning, such as age
and the context of the person’s life” (American Psy-
chiatric Association, 2000, p. 541). From this per-
spective, desire, therefore, is defined as sexual
fantasies and desire for sexual activity. Because of
criticisms of this presumed narrow view of desire,
which simplifies the feeling to spontaneous sexual
fantasies and cravings for sex, there has been a surge
of academic interest in how desire is experienced,
expressed, and defined. Although consensus is far
from attained, there is general agreement that “in
anyone’s hands, sexual desire can be a slippery
concept” (Levine, 2002, p. 39). Because we are
academic clinicians who specialize in the area of
women’s sexuality, this chapter may be especially
relevant to the clinician reader (see Volume 2,
Chapter 4, this handbook). In considering the defi-
nition of desire, concerns about the impact of differ-
ing definitions on the individual must be kept in
mind. For example, in the medical model, a
loss of desire that leads to distress would entitle an
Brotto and Smith
206
individual to certain treatment services that come
with assigning a medical diagnosis. However, the
cost to the individual comes in the form of patholo-
gization and potential stigmatization from having a
so-called mental illness. A more social construction-
ist perspective views people’s need to define “high”
and “low” desire as a by-product of the media, cul-
ture, and pharmaceutical interests and that labels
such as HSDD should be abandoned (see Volume 2,
Chapter 10, this handbook). Although this perspec-
tive is compelling, it has gained little traction in a
world that has consistently viewed sexual desire
within a more medical model (however, see Chap-
ters 1 and 6, this volume).
Before American psychiatrist Helen Singer
Kaplan (1979, 1995) shone a spotlight onto sexual
desire, Masters and Johnson’s (1966) human sexual
response cycle (HSRC) consisted of a linear fixed
sequence of stages of sexual response—namely,
excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Desire
was not considered in the HSRC because it was
based on observed physiological responses in the
context of sexual activity. Moreover, there was a sin-
gle category of sexual dysfunction: Men with sexual
difficulties were labeled as impotent; women, as
frigid. It followed that treatment was also nonspe-
cific; there was one treatment for all sexual com-
plaints. In 1956, urologist James Semans separated
“ejaculatory impotence” from the rest of the male
sexual dysfunctions, which greatly aided in the
development of treatment for what later came to be
known as premature ejaculation. Some years later
in the 1970s, orgasm was separated from the excite-
ment phase for women (Kaplan, 1974). Because the
separation of excitement from orgasm for men and
women enhanced treatment specificity, this led
Kaplan (and independently, Harold Lief, another
American psychiatrist) to persuasively introduce sex-
ual desire as the first phase of the HSRC model. The
triphasic model, as it came to be known, consisted of
a linear stepwise progression from desire to arousal to
orgasm. Desire, therefore, was seen as a crucial first
step in the progression of sexual excitement. Accord-
ing to Kaplan (1979), sexual desire was defined as
specific sensations which move the indi-
vidual to seek out, or become receptive
to, sexual experiences. These sensations
are produced by the physical activation
of a specific neural system in the brain.
When this system is active, a person is
“horny,” he may feel genital sensations,
or he may feel vaguely sexy, interested
in sex, open to sex, or even just restless.
These sensations cease after sexual grati-
fication, i.e., orgasm. When this system is
inactive or under the influence of inhibi-
tory forces, a person has no interest in
erotic matters; he “loses his appetite” for
sex and becomes “asexual.” (p. 10)
Kaplan (1979) likened sexual desire to other drive
states, including hunger and thirst. In this way,
she viewed sexual desire as biologically driven—
influenced by activation and inhibition of neural
substrates. She also believed that all sexual dysfunc-
tions were caused by a single factor, namely, anxiety
(Kaplan, 1979, p. 24). Treatment of low desire was
therefore designed to reduce sexual anxiety and
allow patients to confront their unconscious and
involuntary avoidance of sexual activity. In the same
year as Kaplan was formulating her views on the
definition of sexual desire, Harold Lief (1977) also
contributed important new information about
sexual desire and can be credited for introducing
“inhibited sexual desire” into the DSM–III.
Levine, another American psychiatrist, has writ-
ten extensively on the nature of sexual desire. In
response to listening to how professionals, the lay
public, patients, and society at large discuss desire,
Levine (1987) noted that three features characterize
sexual desire: (a) Desire precedes and accompanies
sexual arousal; (b) desire is the psychobiological
propensity to engage in sexual behavior; and
(c) desire is the energy brought to sexual behavior.
These features led Levine to define sexual desire
as “the psychobiologic energy that precedes and
accompanies arousal and tends to produce sexual
behavior” (p. 36). Levine went further to note that
desire is the mind’s capacity to integrate drive, wish,
and motive. Drive is the product of a neuroendo-
crine generator of sexual impulses and is testoster-
one dependent. It is indicated by increased sexual
excitability and “endogenous or spontaneous
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
207
manifestations of genital excitement” (p. 36),
including genital tingling, erection, or lubrication;
heightened perception of others’ physical character-
istics; erotic fantasies and dreams; and masturbation
or partner-seeking behavior. According to Levine,
however, drive is more subjective than it is behav-
ioral and is thus a challenge for the clinician to
assess. Levine noted that with older age, sexual wish
might be the dictating force behind sexual behavior.
Wishes might include “it makes them feel good
physically” and “it makes them feel connected to
another person and less alone”; there may also be
wishes not to have sexual activity, including “feel
emotionally unready” and “fear pregnancy.” As sex-
ual drive pushes in one direction (presumably,
toward sexual activity), sexual wishes may temper
this impulse as a result of moral, social, and danger
factors. As such, one may experience high levels of
sexual drive and excitability while having a wish not
to engage in sexual activity (and vice versa). Sexual
motive represents the most complex aspect of desire
and is the willingness to have sexual activity and
behave sexually. It integrates drive and wish, and
Levine noted that sexual motive is generally pre-
ceded by one or more of the following: drive, a deci-
sion to be sexual, interpersonal behavior, voyeuristic
experience (e.g., witnessing others’ sexual excite-
ment), and attraction. Sexual motives are most
observable through human behavior, as Levine
described sexual willingness as a behavior produced
by psychological motivational processes. In consid-
ering one’s motives for engaging in sex, even in the
presence of strong desire, one must consider that
there may be disincentives to sex at play (Meana,
2010). For example, if one assesses the sexual situa-
tion as risky, dangerous, or having the potential to have
a longer term negative outcome, such disincentives
may influence behavior without dampening desire.
In the realm of sexual fantasies, Levine (1987) fur-
ther posited that a person might find himself or herself
preoccupied with fantasies after an interaction with
another person that excites his or her drive. Options in
such a situation would be to wait for the drive to dissi-
pate, displace the drive onto something else, mastur-
bate, or engage in partnered sexual activity.
In subsequent considerations of desire, Levine
(2002) further explored the intricacies of sexual
desire on the basis of his in-depth clinical experi-
ences. He noted that sexual desire is highly respon-
sive to the social situation and can intensely increase
at times of turmoil (e.g., divorce) and decrease at
times of loss (e.g., death of a partner). He proposed
a spectrum that reflects the fluctuating nature of
sexual desire: aversion–indifference–interest–need–
passion (Levine, 2002, p. 43). Esther Perel, in her
2006 book Mating in Captivity, addressed the para-
dox in long-term partnerships that as emotional sta-
bility increases, passion fades in a corresponding
manner in both men and women, and these effects
cannot be attributed solely to aging. Drawing on
20 years of clinical experience, Perel described pas-
sion as deriving from the unknown, risk, surprise,
and playfulness. She stated that (sexual) excitement
is interwoven with uncertainty and with people’s
willingness to embrace the unfamiliar rather than
shield themselves from it. Contrast that now with
the defining features of a long-term relationship: sta-
bility, certainty, safety, and comfort—all features
that may be antithetical to the experience of erotic
lust. Indeed, women in longer term relationships
report fewer cues that effectively elicit their sexual
desire than do women in shorter term relationships
(Carvalheira, Brotto, & Maroco, 2011). In particu-
lar, those women in longer term relationships
reported fewer romantic cues and fewer explicit
cues that evoked their desire than women in shorter
term relationships. These same cues, earlier on in
the relationship, may have been very effective in
evoking desire; however, over time and repeated
exposure, they lose their erotic appeal. So what is
the mechanism behind the loss of incentive value
in these cues that previously elicited desire?
In the research previously discussed, no distinc-
tion has been made between the different ways in
which men and women experience sexual desire.
However, in more recent research, sex differences
that may be influenced by both biology and culture
have become of great interest to researchers. Sims
and Meana (2010) carried out in-depth qualitative
interviews with married women who had lost desire
for their husbands as an exploration of women’s
explanations for their waning desire. They identified
three major contributors. First was the institutional-
ization of the relationship, which was associated
Brotto and Smith
208
with the overavailability of sex that removed the
excitement and anticipation that used to accompany
planning for encounters. Moreover, sanctioning
married sex, or even mandating it among some
groups, removed the illicit aspects of unmarried sex.
The second major contributor Sims and Meana iden-
tified was overfamiliarity and the loss of romance
women identified as being a major contributor to
their waning desire. Presex and sexual acts became
overly familiar, almost routine, leading sex to be
mechanical and proscripted. The third major factor
identified was desexualized roles in light of compet-
ing priorities, multiple obligations and roles, and
therefore feeling less desirable. Although the
observed pattern of a diminution of desire over the
course of a lasting relationship is a rather normative
finding, even when a corresponding increase occurs
in one’s sense of relationship happiness, its loss
nonetheless creates great turmoil in individuals and
poses a challenging conundrum for the sexual and
relationship therapist to address. Moreover, respon-
dents in the study by Sims and Meana (2010) would
surely have met criteria for HSDD, although several
noted that a change in their partner or lifestyle
would have resurrected their desire, leaving the cli-
nician with the dilemma of whether to diagnose a
sexual disorder in a situation in which time seems
to be the culprit, not the individual.
Given that a large body of research has noted low
levels of agreement between women’s self-reported
and physiological arousal (Chivers, Seto, Lalumière,
Laan, & Grimbos, 2010; see also Chapter 5, this vol-
ume), thereby suggesting that women do not use
feedback from genital arousal to inform subjective
feelings of desire or arousal, it is unlikely that the
waning of sexual interest with relationship duration
affects women’s physiological sexual response; how-
ever, this is an open question that remains to be tested.
HOW DO INDIVIDUALS ARTICULATE
WHAT THEY WANT?
Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin (1948) can likely be
credited for carrying out the first large-scale scien-
tific study on sex. Although Kinsey’s structured
interview focused on sexual behaviors and practices,
it ultimately revealed much about sexual desire,
preferences, and attractions. Moreover, his struc-
tured interview and quantitative recording tech-
niques that preserved respondents’ anonymity
profoundly shaped how sex research was carried
out over the next several decades.
More recently, qualitative research has contrib-
uted significant new information to the understand-
ing of sexual desire. Some have argued persuasively
that with sexuality research in particular, qualitative
methods provide an opportunity to explore desire in
more depth and from multiple perspectives in a way
that is not captured in studies using simple self-
report questionnaires (see Chapter 6, this volume).
Indeed, the most commonly used self-report mea-
sure of sexual functioning in women, namely the
Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI; Rosen et al.,
2000), has only two items that make up the Sexual
Desire subscale: “Over the past 4 weeks, how often
did you feel sexual desire or interest?” and “Over
the past 4 weeks, how would you rate your level
(degree) of sexual desire or interest?” Women are
provided response options ranging from “almost
always or always” to “almost never or never” and
“very high” to “very low or none at all,” respectively.
A woman who experiences desire only during sexual
activity with her partner, which occurs approxi-
mately two to three times per month, but rarely or
never experiences desire in the rest of her day-to-
day interactions, might therefore endorse “very low”
and “almost never” given that desire happens only in
the context of her (relatively infrequent) sexual
interactions. Using the FSFI, therefore, this woman
might be portrayed as having a sexual dysfunction,
at least in the absence of a biopsychosocial inter-
view, which would provide the additional nuance to
allow the interviewer to understand that she experi-
ences a satisfying level of sexual desire with her
partner, despite the relative infrequency of their sex.
A similar question, coding structure, and interpreta-
tion of the two desire items is found on the male
counterpart to this questionnaire, the International
Index of Erectile Function (Rosen et al., 1997), and
a similar concern exists about labeling as dysfunc-
tional a man who only feels sexual desire about half
the time. Instead, a qualitative interview that allowed
the individual to provide a narrative of how she or
he experiences sexual desire might highlight its
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
209
complexity and show that the individual’s desire
during sexual activity is reliable, pronounced, and
experienced as satisfying. Although self-report ques-
tionnaires are often preferred, particularly in the
context of clinical trials in which comparisons
between large groups of individuals are necessary,
they usually provide only a limited, and perhaps
incomplete, picture of how sexual desire is experienced.
We use findings from three recent qualitative
studies in women (Brotto, Heiman, & Tolman,
2009; Goldhammer & McCabe, 2011; Graham,
Sanders, Milhausen, & McBride, 2004) and one
qualitative study in men (Janssen, McBride, Yarber,
Hill, & Butler, 2008) to illustrate some of the
nuances in capturing how individuals experience
sexual desire.
SEXUAL DESIRE IS EXPERIENCED
AS PHYSIOLOGICAL, COGNITIVE,
EMOTIONAL, OR INTERPERSONAL
Although sexual desire has traditionally been con-
ceptualized as something felt within, with an obvi-
ous physiological counterpart, such as butterflies in
one’s stomach, heart palpitations, or other signs of
autonomic arousal, the evidence is clear that desire
may be experienced through a number of different
modalities, perhaps even simultaneously. In one
qualitative study of middle-aged women, half of
whom had sexual arousal difficulties and the other
half of whom did not, most women included refer-
ences to nongenital physical aspects of their desire,
cognitive referents, and emotional referents, in addi-
tion to genital signs of excitement (Brotto et al.,
2009). In a more recent study that aimed to explore
sexual desire among 40 women in committed het-
erosexual partnerships, the finding that sexual
desire was experienced in a variety of ways was also
apparent (Goldhammer & McCabe, 2011) and fur-
ther challenged previous conceptualizations of sex-
ual desire. In particular, Goldhammer and McCabe
(2011) found that desire was an idiosyncratic expe-
rience. Some women experienced it physiologically
(e.g., vaginal lubrication); for others, it was a cogni-
tive (i.e., thinking) event; for some it was defined in
regard to the interpersonal relationship; and for
still others, it was purely emotional. Cognitive and
emotional factors are of paramount importance to
consider in the sexual desires of men and women
(Carvalho & Nobre, 2010, 2011), and much more
recent research has focused on distraction, atten-
tion, and mindfulness as they interact with sexual
desire (discussed later).
IS SEXUAL DESIRE THE SAME AS
SEXUAL FANTASY?
Interestingly, although fantasies about sex seem to
be understood as a natural expression of one’s sex-
ual desire, most women in two recent qualitative
studies did not associate sexual desire with sexual
thoughts or fantasies (Brotto et al., 2009; Goldham-
mer & McCabe, 2011). Furthermore, sexual fantasy
frequency has been found not to correlate with sex-
ual satisfaction in women (Cain et al., 2003), which
stands in contrast to stereotypical notions that one
who has sexual desire also experiences lustful erotic
fantasies. The finding that women often deliberately
use fantasies as a way of boosting sexual arousal or
orgasm (Beck, Bozman, & Qualtrough, 1991; Hill &
Preston, 1996; Lunde, Larsen, Fog, & Garde, 1991;
Regan & Berscheid, 1996) is also at odds with the
DSM–IV–TR definition of HSDD, which requires
lack of sexual fantasies for one to meet diagnostic
criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
That sexual fantasies may be relatively rare despite
women reporting sexual desire suggests that
those women who do not experience fantasies, or
those who deliberately create sexual fantasies,
should not be pathologized. Sex differences may
exist in the experience of sexual fantasies, however.
Men experience sexual urges more often and tend to
have greater sexual imagery (Jones & Barlow, 1990).
SEX DIFFERENCES IN SEXUAL FANTASIES
AND DESIRE
Sex differences likely exist in the content of sexual
fantasies such that men are more likely to have fan-
tasies for sexual activities in which they do not cur-
rently engage, whereas women may fantasize more
about what their actual sexual behaviors entail (Hsu,
Kling, Kessler, & Knapke, 1994). Sexual fantasies
have been suggested as being more relevant to the
Brotto and Smith
210
sexual desire of men than of women (Brotto, 2010a).
As far as sex differences in sexual desire, many have
speculated for decades that these differences are the
result of sex differences in testosterone. A fairly
consistent finding is that of a relationship between
testosterone and both sexual desire and erectile
function in younger men (Bancroft, 2012). How-
ever, evidence as to the role of testosterone in wom-
en’s sexual desire and arousal is conflicting. In part,
this may be because women have only approxi-
mately 10% the level of plasma total testosterone
that men have, leaving room for a greater influence
of individual, interpersonal, and sociocultural fac-
tors. Testosterone levels rise during the follicular
phase of the menstrual cycle, providing a naturalis-
tic within-person observation as to the relationship
between circulating testosterone levels, which are
not found in men, and women’s sexual desire. Sex-
ual activities tend to be lowest during menstruation
and rise as ovulation approaches, and sexual desire
is highest during the follicular phase when women
reach peak fertility (Hedricks, 1994; Stanislaw &
Rice, 1988). Subjective sexual arousal to erotic films
has shown a similar pattern (Slob, Bax, Hop, Row-
land, & van der Werff ten Bosch, 1996), and fre-
quency of sexual fantasies as well as arousability of
those fantasies has been found to be highest at ovu-
lation (Dawson, Suschinsky, & Lalumière, 2012).
An event-related potential study confirmed that a
greater valence of sexual stimuli is found at the time
of peak fertility than during other phases of the
menstrual cycle (Krug, Plihal, Fehm, & Born, 2000).
This greater valence was a selective increase in sex-
ual stimuli rather than a more general increase in
emotional processing. However, other nonhormonal
factors significantly contribute and may obscure any
influence of ovulatory increases in testosterone on
women’s sexual desire. As well, gendered sexual
socialization and societal expectations for men and
women’s sexuality influence sex differences in
desire; we return to these ideas later in the chapter.
IS DESIRE DISTINCT FROM SEXUAL
AROUSAL?
Kaplan (1977, 1979) and Lief (1977) can be credited
for expanding on Masters and Johnson’s (1966)
linear HSRC model of excitement, plateau, orgasm,
and resolution by arguing that an initial sexual desire
phase was necessary to jump-start one toward expe-
riencing sexual excitement. Thus, on the basis of
Kaplan’s persuasion, sexual desire and sexual arousal
came to be defined, studied, and treated as separate
constructs. However, the validity of separating sex-
ual desire from arousal had never been verified (or
tested, for that matter); instead, several studies began
to document that at least for women, desire and
arousal might be conflated, interchangeable, and
even experienced as one and the same. In qualitative
studies of young partnered women (Goldhammer &
McCabe, 2011), middle-aged women with and with-
out sexual arousal concerns (Brotto et al., 2009), and
college students (Beck et al., 1991), women generally
found it difficult to differentiate desire and arousal.
Laboratory studies have also found significant over-
lap between desire and arousal evoked in response to
sexual stimuli (Goldey & van Anders, 2012). Even
among women seeking treatment for sexual con-
cerns, validated measures of sexual functioning have
shown a high degree of overlap between desire and
arousal (Rosen et al., 2000). In fact, across a large
number of studies, mean scores on validated mea-
sures of sexual desire correlated highly with scores
on the arousal domain (e.g., Dennerstein, Lehert, &
Burger, 2005, as reviewed by Brotto, Graham, Binik,
Segraves, & Zucker, 2011; Graham, 2010).
On the basis of the finding of overlap between
desire and arousal, a (controversial) proposal has
been made to merge disorders of desire (HSDD) and
arousal (female sexual arousal disorder) into one
condition (sexual interest/arousal disorder; Brotto,
2010b; Graham, 2010), which is discussed later
in the Diagnostic Dilemmas section.
For men, it is possible that sexual desire and
arousal are experienced mostly as discrete entities, in
particular when one considers that erectile function-
ing can often take place in the absence of sexual
desire or any form of erotic cues (e.g., nocturnal erec-
tions). Testosterone has also been found to be more
highly associated with men’s sexual desire than their
erectile functioning (Bancroft, 2012). In a study of
male outpatients seeking treatment for erectile dys-
function, the majority did not experience impair-
ments in their sexual desire, and no significant
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
211
correlations were found between measures of sexual
desire and measures of penile tumescence (Corona
et al., 2004). However, a qualitative study of men sug-
gested complexity in how men experienced desire and
arousal, with several of the men expressing confusion
over questions that attempted to separate desire from
arousal (Janssen et al., 2008). Once erectile function
was removed from consideration, it appeared that
many men could not distinguish sexual desire from
arousal. Also interesting was Janssen et al.’s (2008)
finding that masturbation was often a method used to
alleviate sexual tension and therefore often took place
in the absence of sexual desire, whereas sexual desire
and arousal for partnered sex were somewhat more
complex. In an earlier study of college students, men
also showed a significant correlation between sexual
desire and subjective sexual arousal (r = .44; Beck
et al., 1991). In a recent community sample of Portu-
guese men, attentional focus was a significant predic-
tor of the strength of men’s dyadic sexual desire,
leading the authors to conclude that sexual desire and
arousal overlap in men because both depend on atten-
tional processes (Carvalho & Nobre, 2011).
Notably, for women, genital response and subjec-
tive desire and arousal often show a low degree of
overlap; genital responding in women has been sug-
gested as being reflexively and automatically elicited in
response to sexual stimuli, even when those stimuli
are not perceived by the woman as desired or arousing.
In this way, the body becomes prepared for sexual
activity and serves a protective function to prevent gen-
ital injury (Chivers, 2005). For example, women may
experience genital response during highly distressing
experiences such as sexual assault or rape (Levin & van
Berlo, 2004; see also Chapter 12, this volume) or when
exposed to threatening sexual stimuli (e.g., hearing
depictions of nonconsensual sexual activity; Suschin-
sky & Lalumière, 2011). This preparation hypothesis
offers an explanation for why genital response may
occur in situations that are not at all associated with
desire and suggests that subjective desire and physio-
logical arousal may be experienced separately.
INCENTIVE MOTIVATION MODEL
What does the statement that desire and arousal
overlap for men and women mean? This statement,
which has appeared with increasing frequency in the
literature over the past decade, suggests that desire
and arousal may be aspects of the same sexual con-
struct or, in other words, two sides of the same
sexual coin. Although one can easily identify the
distinction between awareness of physical respond-
ing (whether genital or nongenital) and awareness
of cognitive and emotional sexual responding, this
distinction does not rule out the possibility that all
these experiences are part of a single sexual
response mechanism. An incentive motivation per-
spective instead views sexual arousal and desire as
an interplay between a sexual response system and
effective incentives that excite the system (Toates,
2009). Data from a large number of studies con-
ducted primarily in the Netherlands have supported
sexual response as an incentive motivation and
desire–arousal as an emotion (Everaerd, Both, &
Laan, 2006; Everaerd & Laan, 1995; Janssen, Ever-
aerd, Spiering, & Janssen, 2000; Laan & Everaerd,
1995). This model postulates that one’s initial
response to an effective sexual stimulus takes place
outside of consciousness and renders the sexual sys-
tem responsive to further effective sexual stimuli.
Once attentional resources become activated in the
processing of a given sexual stimulus, sexual arousal
is subjectively experienced, leading one to become
aware of one’s own motivation to continue to attend
to and process those stimuli, particularly as one
becomes aware of one’s own sexual needs. Implicit
in this model is the notion that sexual arousal pre-
cedes desire. Moreover, the model maintains that all
of desire is responsive to stimuli, even if an individ-
ual is unaware of the presence of those stimuli
(Janssen et al., 2000; Laan & Both, 2008). In the
incentive motivation model, desire and arousal
might be phenomenologically separated on the basis
that arousal represents the subjective experience of
genital response, whereas desire reflects the subjec-
tive experience of a willingness to engage sexually
(Laan & Both, 2008), but this distinction is mostly
artificial. When there are problems with sexual
desire and arousal, they may in part be due to a fail-
ure to activate the sexual system, because of, for
example, hormonal factors, cognitive interference,
or judgment. In addition, if the sexual incentives are
insufficient to trigger sexual response, or if they lack
Brotto and Smith
212
or have lost sexual meaning, then sexual desire and
arousal will not become triggered.
WHAT DOES ASEXUALITY TEACH US
ABOUT DESIRE?
If having sexual desire is one method of allowing an
individual to classify him- or herself as a sexual per-
son (Levine, 2002, p. 41), then the complete lack of
sexual desire and attraction raises new questions
about sexual development and classification.
Although a notable proportion of individuals report
chronic low sexual desire that is bothersome or oth-
erwise clinically significant (discussed in the section
Sexual Desire Disorders later in this chapter), a
smaller minority of individuals note a lifelong his-
tory of chronic lack of desire that they have no inter-
est in changing and have absolutely no personal
distress over. Kinsey et al. (1948) first quantified
this group, which they labeled Category X, as the
group of individuals who had no sociosexual con-
tacts or reactions, and it represented approximately
1% of their participants. However, Kinsey et al. did
little with those data at the time, and the term
asexual did not appear until decades later. In Bogaert’s
(2004) analysis of 18,000 British residents in a
national probability survey, 1.05% answered “yes”
to the sexual attraction item “I have never felt sexu-
ally attracted to anyone at all.” Bogaert’s sample was
more religious than the comparison group of sexual
individuals, although in a more recent mixed-meth-
ods study, asexual individuals were more likely to
report atheism (Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, &
Erskine, 2010). Because the asexual individuals had
relatively less education and were of a lower social
class, Bogaert speculated that one possible mecha-
nism underlying the development of asexuality
might relate to early environmental differences
between asexual and sexual individuals. Interest-
ingly, 44% were in a relationship—a figure some-
what higher than that found by Brotto, Knudson,
et al. (2010). During their qualitative interviews,
those asexual individuals in a relationship noted
that they continued to experience romantic attrac-
tion in terms of wanting closeness, security, and
connection in a relationship; however, they had no
sexual attraction for that close partner. Asexual
individuals also defined their relationships accord-
ing to their romantic attraction—for example, heter-
oromantic, homoromantic, panromantic, or asexual.
Heterogeneity exists, however, even in the experi-
ences of asexual individuals, in that some identified
as aromantic asexuals, desiring neither sexual nor
romantic attachments. In Diamond’s (2003) biobe-
havioral model of love and desire, she posited that
the processes underlying the development of sexual
desire are distinct from those underlying the devel-
opment of romantic attachment. Diamond’s model
also explains that one can fall in love regardless of
the gender of the partner and is consistent with the
narratives shared by this sample of asexual individu-
als (Brotto, Knudson, et al., 2010). Although sexual
desire is a strong motivator for pair bonding, it facil-
itates, but is not required for, romantic attachment.
In Tennov’s (1979) study of 1,000 individuals, 61%
of women and 35% of men reported experiencing
infatuation with a partner despite not feeling the
need to engage in sex. In her extensive review, Dia-
mond summarized both human and nonhuman lit-
erature also supporting this finding. However,
recent findings showing similar patterns of neural
activation during the experience of sexual desire and
love and that they may exist on the same spectrum
(Cacioppo, Bianchi-Demicheli, Frum, Pfaus, &
Lewis, 2012) have suggested that researchers have
much to learn about the disjunction between sexual
attraction and desire and romantic attraction by
studying those who identify as asexual.
Further research on asexuality has shown that
the lack of sexual desire is not distressing (Bogaert,
2004; Brotto, Knudson, et al., 2010; Brotto & Yule,
2011; Prause & Graham, 2007) and that asexual
individuals see no reason to pursue treatment for
their lack of sexual attraction. Critics of asexuality
have challenged the position that a complete
absence of sexual attraction is not aberrant and
pathologized asexuality by positing that asexuality is
an extreme form of HSDD. That asexual individuals
are not personally distressed by their lack of attrac-
tion is part of their pathology, critics have main-
tained, because it highlights the ego-syntonic nature
of their (lack of) attraction. However, this debate
over the usefulness of distress, per se, in distinguishing
individuals with HSDD from asexual individuals
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
213
raises many questions about the nature of distress.
According to the DSM–IV–TR (American Psychiatric
Association, 2000), distress in the sexual dysfunc-
tions nomenclature is considered a necessary crite-
rion across the various sexual dysfunctions and is
defined as “marked distress or interpersonal diffi-
culty” (p. 541). Because one’s asexuality might
evoke discord in a relationship in which one partner
is sexual and the other is asexual, it is no surprise
that interpersonal difficulties may arise, and the
asexual individual may inadvertently receive a diag-
nosis of HSDD as a result of her or his interpersonal
distress. Some experts have proposed that in future
editions of the DSM, a disclaimer be made in the text
excluding asexual individuals from receiving a diag-
nosis of HSDD, even if interpersonal distress is pres-
ent (Brotto, 2010a, 2010b).
One finding that critics of asexuality emphasize
is that asexual individuals masturbate with about
the same frequency as sexual individuals (Brotto,
Knudson, et al., 2010). If asexuality is defined as the
absence of sexual desire, what incentives are there
driving masturbation, particularly with the fre-
quency attained by those who do feel sexual desire?
Interestingly, unlike the larger population of sexual
individuals, asexual individuals describe the urge to
masturbate as stemming from “a need to clean out
the plumbing,” in the same way that there is an
impulse to scratch an itch. Furthermore, they deny
that sexual fantasies are conjured up during mastur-
bation, and they maintain that the activity is not
experienced as sexual. Whether nonsexual motives
are sufficient for sustaining the level of masturbation
seen among asexual individuals despite a reported
lack of any sexual desire or attraction is interesting
and suggests that desire for masturbation might be
rather independent from desire for partnered sexual
interactions. It is possible, therefore, that asexuality
is more about lack of attraction for partnered sex
than it is about lack of attraction for all forms of sex,
although this needs further exploration. These find-
ings raise interesting questions about the extent to
which the desire for masturbation is truly a sexual
desire versus an urge, impulse, or nonsexual need.
In an attempt to address whether asexuality
might relate to an underlying psychological process,
Brotto and Yule (2011) compared physiological
sexual arousal in asexual, homosexual, bisexual, and
heterosexual women. Participants viewed erotic
stimuli in a controlled laboratory environment while
a vaginal photoplethysmograph measured vaginal
pulse amplitude. No significant differences were
found in genital response between any of the
groups, with asexual women showing as robust a
genital response as the other subgroups of sexual
women. These findings suggest that the reported
absence of sexual attraction and desire is not the
result of impaired physiological sexual responding.
That sexual desire can be discordant from physio-
logical sexual arousal is a common feature of wom-
en’s, but not necessarily men’s, sexual response
(Chivers et al., 2010). The sexual arousal patterns of
asexual men remain to be studied. Taken together,
the research on asexuality has suggested that sexual
desire, or its lack, may not be reliably inferred from
one’s romantic attraction, sexual activity (masturba-
tion frequency), and physiological sexual response.
A major limitation of the existing literature on
asexuality is that participants were recruited based
on self-identification as asexual (Hinderliter, 2009).
The lack of a validated measure of asexuality that
would capture the construct among those individu-
als who had not yet identified as asexual means that
only individuals who have embraced the asexual
identity have been studied, and this group may differ
in important ways from those who experience no
sexual attraction but who have not discovered an
asexual community. The research findings on asexu-
ality provide scientists with a lens through which
they can further their understanding of the intrica-
cies of sexual desire and behavior. Furthermore,
understanding how asexual individuals experience
lack of desire and attraction—from a psychological,
sociocultural, and biomedical perspective—has the
potential to contribute important new knowledge to
the study of desire (see Chapter 25, this volume).
A DEVELOPMENTAL PERSPECTIVE
Some people hold a belief that youth is associated
with high levels of sexual interest, when sexual
desires become realized and actualized as individu-
als experience sexual activity for the first time. This
notion that sexual desire is abundant, incessant, and
Brotto and Smith
214
resistant to life’s conflicting demands and challenges
pervades much of Western society. In Levine’s
(1987) discussion of the three components of sexual
desire, namely drive, wish, and motive, he described
drive as testosterone dependent, spontaneous, and
occurring most potently in adolescents. He further
noted that drive manifestations “force adolescents to
come to grips with their sexual selves” (p. 37). How
they experience this drive in their youth may affect
their later sexual desires as adults. Individuals who
cannot identify with the youthful desires portrayed
in the media may feel betrayed by their body and
mind and robbed of the opportunity to experience
what, apparently, every youth around them experi-
ences (see Volume 2, Chapter 12, this handbook).
Feeling sexual desire is considered a normative
part of human development (unless one is asexual;
see the preceding section); however, young girls do
not receive the message that such feelings are nor-
mal. In reality, evidence has suggested that power-
ful social and patriarchal forces shape how young
women experience their own sexual desire. At
puberty, the young woman quickly discovers that
her body has become an object for the pleasurable
viewing of others, and she, in turn, learns to see
herself in this objectified manner. Narratives of
personal sexual pleasure are often missing from
women’s stories of desire (Thomson, 1995; Tolman,
2002), particularly those of women who have expe-
rienced a history of abuse (Tolman & Szalacha,
1999). A disembodied narrative is also prevalent in
young women’s stories such that women’s privileg-
ing of their body (as an object for others’ desire) is
cut off from their own subjective feelings. Only
when specifically asked about their experience
of desire and pleasure will adolescent women dis-
cuss these concepts. Aware of the sexual double
standard—where boys are entitled to experience
and express sexual desire and girls are denied the
same—most girls studied by Tolman and Higgins
(1996) reported an inability to resist it.
How do these early experiences, in which young
women lack sexual agency and men’s sexual desires
are privileged, shape sexual desire later on? Young
women may not have expectations for their own
sexual desire as a result of their socialization to meet
the sexual needs of men or boys, which may have an
impact on their experiences of desire and their
future labeling of lack of desire as “disordered”
(Tolman, 2001).
Although sexual script theory suggests that pat-
terns of initiating sexual activity follow traditional
gender roles such that men are the initiators of sex-
ual activity and women are the restrictors of sexual
activity (Gagnon, 1990), more recent evidence has
illustrated a more nuanced view of this finding. In a
recent study that examined 31 men and 32 women
with a mean age of 20.4 years, all of whom moni-
tored their daily sexual activities over 3 weeks using
a structured diary, male initiation of sexual activity
was more common than female initiation (Vannier
& O’Sullivan, 2011). Most occasions of sexual
activity involved indirect verbal initiation strategies
(compared with direct verbal strategies; 57% vs.
45%, respectively), and nearly all sexual encounters
involved some nonverbal initiation strategy. A non-
verbal response to a partner’s sexual initiation was
the most common pattern, whether it was direct or
indirect, and men were more likely than women to
use an indirect nonverbal than a direct nonverbal
response. Verbal responses to a partner’s initiations
were slightly less common than nonverbal responses,
with no differences found between men and women.
These findings collectively illustrate that young
adults’ desire to engage in sexual activity is expressed
with fewer words than actions and may have impli-
cations for sexual communication more generally as
one ages. Vannier and O’Sullivan (2011) also found
no gender differences in receptivity to a partner’s
invitations, and responses tended to match the style
of the initiation such that a nonverbal direct invita-
tion was met with a nonverbal direct response.
Another feature of young adults’ sexual desire and
interactions is that sexual behavior can occur in the
absence of desire. O’Sullivan and Allgeier (1998)
defined such sexual compliance as instances in
which the sexual activity itself is not wanted or
desired, yet the individual freely consents to it. Sex-
ual compliance exists in a relationship to maintain
harmony and reflects the fact that occasionally one
partner may make sacrifices for the good of the rela-
tionship. Vannier and O’Sullivan (2010) examined
couples in a committed relationship and studied the
characteristics of sexual compliance and how this
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
215
might influence one’s decision to assert one’s needs
in other ways, such as in the use of contraceptives.
They also tested the relationship between compliance
and type of sexual activity, according to its rating of
intensity (e.g., intercourse vs. oral sex). Overall, par-
ticipants expressed a high level of desire to engage in
sexual activity, with no differences between men and
women. Of the participants, 46% reported at least
one occasion of sexual compliance, and those occa-
sions of compliant sexual activity were rated as less
enjoyable than those occasions that were desired sex-
ually. In qualitative interviews, several participants
noted that sexual compliance was part of an unspo-
ken contract between them and their partners about
maintaining sexual contact. The participants also
noted that their lack of desire for sex during
instances of sexual compliance was accounted for by
feeling tired (58%), stressed (42%), or angry (17%).
Most participants also noted that even though they
began a sexual interaction out of compliance and not
sexual desire, once the interaction continued and
they experienced some sexual arousal, sexual desire
for the activity itself significantly increased. This
finding is reminiscent of the circular model of human
sexual response articulated by Basson (2001a, 2002),
in which the absence of sexual desire at the start of a
sexual interaction may be quite normative, particu-
larly for individuals in long-term relationships.
Basson went on to note that once information pro-
cessing allows for the experience of sexual arousal,
further awareness of these sensations by the individ-
ual then opens the pathway toward feeling some sex-
ual desire. The findings of Vannier and O’Sullivan
(2010) and the model articulated by Basson (2001a,
2002) suggest that there is, perhaps, a developmental
trajectory leading from sexually compliant experi-
ences as a young person toward lack of spontaneous
sexual desire as an adult. Only when the latter is
associated with distress would it merit a sexual desire
disorder label. Understanding the progression of
sexual compliance over time and with relationship
duration may be a fruitful area of study in the future,
particularly because those experiences of sexual
compliance were rated as less enjoyable (see Chap-
ters 13, 14, and 16, this volume).
Although most research on the prevalence of sex-
ual desire difficulties has focused on adults, a few
studies have examined these complaints in younger
samples. For example, a British national sample of
men and women ages 16 to 44 found that 17% of
male and 41% of female respondents in the youngest
age group experienced low sexual desire (Mercer
et al., 2003). In a sample of 171 late adolescent men
and women with a mean age of 19.5 who completed
validated surveys of sexual functioning, O’Sullivan
and Majerovic (2008) found no gender differences
in desire for sexual activity, although the men had
a higher desire for masturbation than the women.
Fifty-eight percent of the men reported not being
interested in sex at some point in their lives, with
the majority of men (86%) reporting that such lack
of interest was only rarely or never a concern. Of
women, 81% reported no sexual interest at some
point, with 58.6% of women noting that such lack
of interest was rarely a concern and 21.9% reporting
that it was sometimes a concern. Only 1% of women
reported that their lack of interest in sex was always
a concern for them. An interesting finding was that
compared with a slightly older sample of young
adults with a mean age of 24.5 years, both younger
women and younger men had significantly lower
desire for masturbation, though the two age groups
did not differ on levels of sexual pleasure or
satisfaction.
At the other end of the developmental trajectory,
there is also a commonly held belief that sexual
desire fades with age and relationship duration (see
Chapter 17, this volume). Partnered older individu-
als (N = 1,009 couples) from Brazil, Germany,
Japan, Spain, and the United States completed a sur-
vey that assessed relationship happiness and sexual
satisfaction (Heiman et al., 2011). For men, being in
good health, viewing their partner’s orgasm as
important, kissing and cuddling often, and being
touched by a partner often significantly predicted
relationship happiness. None of these variables sig-
nificantly predicted relationship happiness for
women. Relationship duration significantly pre-
dicted relationship happiness for both men and
women but in slightly different ways. For men, rela-
tionship happiness increased as duration increased.
For women, relationship duration had a negative
effect on relationship happiness in the first 1 to 15
years of the relationship, then positively influenced
Brotto and Smith
216
relationship happiness after that. In looking at pre-
dictors of sexual satisfaction, sexual functioning and
frequency of sex significantly predicted sexual satis-
faction for men and women. Also, for both men and
women, relationship duration had a significant posi-
tive effect on sexual satisfaction, with a slightly
stronger effect for women than for men (Heiman et
al., 2011). Thus, despite data showing a decline in
sexual desire (Witting et al., 2008) and a decline in
sexual frequency (Klusmann, 2002) with age and
relationship duration, relationship duration appears
to be beneficial for long-term sexual satisfaction, both
in men and in women (see Chapter 8, this volume).
PSYCHOLOGICAL MECHANISMS
IN DESIRE
Psychological factors play a key role in the experi-
ence of desire and pleasure. A large number of psy-
chological variables have been found to influence
desire, including psychological disorders such as
anxiety and depression, childhood abuse, perceived
stress, and body image (see Brotto, Bitzer, Laan,
Leiblum, & Luria, 2010; Brotto & Klein, 2010; and
Meuleman & van Lankveld, 2005, for reviews). Psy-
chological factors may predispose, precipitate, or
maintain desire difficulties; for individuals who seek
help for desire problems, a comprehensive assess-
ment of such factors enables clinicians to select and
guide appropriate treatment. With regard to psycho-
logical mechanisms underlying desire, cognitive–
emotional factors and attentional processes have
been studied and are highly relevant to the experi-
ence of desire.
Cognitive and emotional variables often contrib-
ute to the onset and maintenance of desire prob-
lems. Nobre (2009) recently proposed a conceptual
model of female sexual desire difficulties on the
basis of cognitive theory. This model is interactional
and posits that specific cognitive–emotional vari-
ables interact with and influence sexual desire. Neg-
ative sexual beliefs are viewed as predisposing
factors that set the stage for the activation of nega-
tive schemas (i.e., core beliefs that guide the inter-
pretation of and meaning assigned to a situation); in
turn, these schemas generate negative cognitions
and emotional responses in a sexual situation that
decrease the focus on erotic stimuli and impair
sexual response and desire (see Nobre, 2009, for a
more detailed description of the model’s theoretical
components). In testing this model, Nobre exam-
ined sexually conservative beliefs (e.g., “masturba-
tion is not a proper activity for women”), thoughts
of abuse (e.g., “[my partner] is abusing me”),
thoughts of failure or disengagement (e.g., “I am not
satisfying my partner”), lack of erotic thoughts, and
guilt and anger as cognitive–emotional predictors of
women’s sexual desire. Having conservative beliefs,
failure or disengagement thoughts, and a lack of
erotic thoughts were significantly and directly
related to women’s experiencing lower levels of sex-
ual desire. Additionally, the cognitive and emotional
variables influenced desire indirectly; for example,
one way in which guilt affected sexual desire was
through the presence of failure or disengagement
thoughts and the absence of erotic thoughts. This
model underscores the important predisposing and
maintaining role of cognitions and emotions in
women’s sexual desire difficulties.
Strong support has also been found for the
importance of cognitive factors in men’s sexual
desire. A recent study conducted with Portuguese
men recruited from the community compared medi-
cal factors (e.g., presence of medical conditions),
psychological adjustment, relationship adjustment,
and cognitive–emotional factors as predictors of
male sexual desire (Carvalho & Nobre, 2011).
Cognitions, particularly a lack of erotic thoughts
during sexual activity, emerged as the best predictor
of men’s sexual desire. Again, these findings high-
light the critical link between sexual desire and
cognitive–emotional variables; such findings also
suggest a key role for psychological treatment
approaches that use cognitive strategies to help men
and women who experience desire difficulties (see
Volume 2, Chapter 4, this handbook).
Attention is another mechanism involved in desire
and has long been implicated in the development and
treatment of sexual difficulties. For example, sensate
focus, a long-standing technique used in the treatment
of low desire, is designed to focus one’s attention on
and promote enjoyment of nongenital and genital touch
sensations (Kaplan, 1979). Moreover, as noted earlier,
factors such as negative cognitions may decrease the
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
217
focus on erotic stimuli during sexual activity, leading
to dampened sexual response and desire. The role of
attention in desire has also been investigated empiri-
cally in laboratory-based settings. Using a dot detec-
tion task to evaluate attention, Prause, Janssen, and
Hetrick (2008) found that the amount of men’s and
women’s attention that was captured by sexual stimuli
predicted differences in participants’ level of sexual
desire. In this study, individuals with relatively higher
levels of sexual desire were slower to detect dots that
replaced sexual images; this finding suggested that par-
ticipants with higher sexual desire perhaps attended to
and were more engaged by the sexual stimuli and that
attention directly contributes to the experience of sex-
ual desire. Clinically, the findings also lend support to
the possibility that altering one’s attention may have an
impact on desire. To this end, mindfulness, or nonjudg-
mental present-moment awareness, has been applied to
helping women with desire difficulties (Brotto, Basson,
& Luria, 2008); by helping women learn to focus and
attend to their moment-by-moment experiences non-
judgementally, distractions may be reduced and desire
and pleasure may increase (see Chapter 25, this
volume).
SOCIAL CONTEXTS THAT INTERACT
WITH DESIRE
Sexual desire is often shaped by context, including
interpersonal and larger sociocultural contexts.
Indeed, models of sexuality that emphasize context
have increasingly emerged in the literature over the
past 10 to 15 years. The “new view” of women’s sex-
uality is one example of such a model (Tiefer, Hall,
& Tavris, 2002; see Table 8.1). In the new view
model, which was organized around the major
causes of women’s sexual problems, women can
identify their own sexual problems, which Tiefer et
al. (2002) defined as “discontent or dissatisfaction
with any emotional, physical, or relational aspect of
sexual experience” (p. 229). This view identifies
sexual problems, such as desire difficulties, as stem-
ming from any of the following four main and inter-
related aspects of women’s sexual lives: (a)
sociocultural, political, and economic factors; (b)
relationship or partner factors; (c) psychological fac-
tors; and finally (d) medical factors. (Examples of
contributing factors within each of these categories
are presented in Table 8.1.) The model also posits
that there is no one “normal” sexual experience or
response and that sexual difficulties cannot be
addressed without regard to the relationship and
context in which sex unfolds. The notion of “sexual
plasticity,” or the idea that desire can be shaped and
changed by sociocultural context, has also received
considerable attention in the literature (e.g., Bau-
meister, 2000; Diamond, 2008). Female sexuality is
thought to be particularly “plastic” or “fluid” and
responsive to context; as such, women may experi-
ence sexual desire and engage in sexual activities
that “run counter to [their] overall [sexual] orienta-
tion” (Diamond, 2012, p. 3; see also Chapter 20, this
volume). In this section, we review desire and plea-
sure in consideration of sociocultural messages
regarding gender norms, socioeconomic variables,
and relationship factors.
Gender Norms
Messages regarding norms and traditional roles for
males and females are abundant in U.S. society—
people receive such messages from a variety of
sources, including families, social networks (e.g.,
school), and media representations. With regard to
sexuality, heterosexual scripts that govern what is
expected in a sexual situation are based on tradi-
tional and stereotyped gender roles. Not every indi-
vidual adheres to such scripts, and sexual scripts
have become more egalitarian over time (Katz &
Farrow, 2000). From the perspective of traditional
roles, however, males are expected to be dominant,
initiate sexual activity (typically vaginal inter-
course), and be ready and willing to engage in sex-
ual activity at any time (Drew, 2003). Dominant
discourse portrays male sexuality as predictable,
autonomous, and performance oriented (McCarthy
& McDonald, 2009). Females, in contrast, are
expected to be more submissive or to refuse sexual
advances. Moreover, heterosexual discourse posi-
tions intercourse as the most important sexual act
(Drew, 2003; Katz & Farrow, 2000). Rigid gender
roles may contribute to the experience of low desire.
For example, men who adhere to traditional sexual
scripts may experience low desire and avoidance of
sexual activity if they are unable to perform perfectly
Brotto and Smith
218
with intercourse (McCarthy & McDonald, 2009). As
well, women may not necessarily pursue sexual
pleasure for fear of negative repercussions (e.g., stig-
matization; Richgels, 1992), and a primary focus on
intercourse (instead of other sexual activities that
may be more pleasurable for females) may lead to
reduced desire in women. Notably, women who do
not desire sexual intercourse may also be labeled as
dysfunctional because of the centrality placed on
intercourse in U.S. society (Drew, 2003).
Empirical investigations have examined links
between gender norms and sexual desire and plea-
sure. When presented with a priming task, female
college students were found to implicitly associate
TABLE 8.1
A New View Classification of Women’s Sexual Problems
General factor Subfactor
Sexual problems due
to sociocultural,
political, or
economic factors
A. Ignorance and anxiety due to inadequate sex education, lack of access to health services, or other
social constraints:
1. Lack of vocabulary to describe subjective or physical experience.
2. Lack of information about human sexual biology and life-stage changes.
3. Lack of information about how gender roles influence men’s and women’s sexual expectations,
beliefs, and behaviors.
4. Inadequate access to information and services for contraception and abortion, STD prevention and
treatment, sexual trauma, and domestic violence.
B. Sexual avoidance or distress due to perceived inability to meet cultural norms regarding correct or ideal
sexuality, including:
1. Anxiety or shame about one’s body, sexual attractiveness, or sexual responses.
2. Confusion or shame about one’s sexual orientation or identity, or about sexual fantasies and desires.
C. Inhibitions due to conflict between the sexual norms of one’s subculture or culture of origin and those
of the dominant culture.
D. Lack of interest, fatigue, or lack of time due to family and work obligations.
Sexual problems
relating to partner
and relationship
A. Inhibition, avoidance, or distress arising from betrayal, dislike, or fear of partner, partner’s abuse or
couple’s unequal power, or arising from partner’s negative patterns of communication.
B. Discrepancies in desire for sexual activity or in preferences for various sexual activities.
C. Ignorance or inhibition about communicating preferences or initiating, pacing, or shaping sexual
activities.
D. Loss of sexual interest and reciprocity as a result of conflicts over commonplace issues such as
money, schedules, or relatives, or resulting from traumatic experiences, e.g., infertility or the death of
a child.
E. Inhibitions in arousal or spontaneity due to partner’s health status or sexual problems.
Sexual problems due to
psychological factors
A. Sexual aversion, mistrust, or inhibition of sexual pleasure due to:
1. Past experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
2. General personality problems with attachment, rejection, cooperation, or entitlement.
3. Depression or anxiety.
B. Sexual inhibition due to fear of sexual acts or of their possible consequences, e.g., pain during
intercourse, pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, loss of partner, loss of reputation.
Sexual problems due to
medical factors
Pain or lack of physical response during sexual activity despite a supportive and safe interpersonal
situation, adequate sexual knowledge, and positive sexual attitudes. Such problems can arise from:
A. Numerous local or systemic medical conditions affecting neurological, neurovascular, circulatory,
endocrine or other systems of the body.
B. Pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or other sex-related conditions.
C. Side effects of many drugs, medications, or medical treatments.
D. Iatrogenic conditions.
Note. STD = sexually transmitted disease. From “Beyond Dysfunction: A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems,” by
L. Tiefer, M. Hall, and C. Tavris, 2002, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28(Suppl. 1), pp. 225–232. Copyright 2002 by
Taylor & Francis. Adapted with permission.
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
219
sex with submission (Sanchez, Kiefer, & Ybarra,
2006). Furthermore, the students who engaged in
a higher number of submissive sexual behaviors
reported less sexual arousability, with the term
arousability referring to the ease with which sub-
jective excitement occurs (Hoon & Chambless,
1998) and can act as a trigger for sexual desire
(Basson, 2009). In addition, the amount of plea-
sure derived from sexual activity and intimacy has
been found to be affected by the degree to which
men and women believe it is important to conform
to gender norms (Sanchez, Crocker, & Boike,
2005); specifically, basing self-esteem on the
approval of others and feeling less autonomous
during partnered sexual activities accounted for
the relationship between gender norm conformity
and pleasure. Sanchez et al. (2005) argued that
individuals who conform to gender norms may feel
pressure to perform certain roles to gain approval
from others; this need for approval may then
restrict one’s feelings of freedom during sexual
activity. Some interesting data have suggested that
nontraditional gender roles can also be associated
with less sexual desire: In one study, heterosexual
men and women who identified with nontradi-
tional gender roles reported less sexual desire than
those with more traditional identity (Katz &
Farrow, 2000). From a theoretical perspective,
Katz and Farrow (2000) posited that people who
identify with nontraditional roles may experience
discomfort from sexual interactions that are gov-
erned by traditional sexual scripts.
Media (e.g., television, magazines) also play an
influential role in disseminating information about
gender roles and sexuality (Ward, 2003). Content
analysis of popular magazines has indicated that
sexual desire tends to be portrayed differently, and
often stereotypically, for males versus females. For
example, a recent analysis of magazine stories pub-
lished from 2006 to 2008 that were directed at ado-
lescent girls (e.g., stories in CosmoGirl!) found that
sexual wanting was portrayed more often for boys
than for girls in U.S. magazines, whereas a compara-
ble gender difference was not found in Dutch
magazines (Joshi, Peter, & Valkenburg, 2011).
Unexpectedly, sexual pleasure was portrayed with
similar frequency for boys and girls in these stories,
with the authors suggesting that perhaps magazine
coverage is shifting from the dominant sexual script
that emphasizes male pleasure (see Chapter 25, this
volume; Volume 2, Chapter 12, this handbook).
Socioeconomic Status
Some research has noted an association between
desire and socioeconomic variables such as educa-
tion. Using a national probability sample of more
than 3,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 59,
the National Health and Social Life Survey exam-
ined the prevalence of and risk factors related to
sexual difficulties among individuals of various
social groups (Laumann, Paik, & Rosen, 1999).
Both men and women with fewer years of educa-
tion reported experiencing less pleasure from sex.
As well, women with less education were more
likely to report low desire; in fact, female college
graduates were approximately half as likely to
experience low desire as women with less educa-
tion. Economic position was also related to sexual
difficulties in women, including problems with
desire. Specifically, women with less income were
at modest risk of experiencing sexual difficulties.
This association between economic position and
desire was not found for men. One interpretation
of the link between socioeconomic variables and
desire is that people of lower socioeconomic
status may experience more stress, which, in turn
increases the risk of having sexual difficulties.
Additionally, better health status is related to
desire, and having lower income can influence
access to health care services and resources that
may bolster emotional and physical health.
Research with adults ages 45 and older has also
found that attitudes toward sexuality help to explain
the relationship between education and desire
(DeLamater & Sill, 2005). In particular, positive
attitudes toward sex have been found to be associ-
ated with greater levels of sexual desire, and educa-
tion may help foster such attitudes. As noted by
DeLamater and Sill (2005) in reference to older
adults, “Greater education may undermine the nega-
tive stereotypes of sexual expression by older per-
sons” (p. 147). Finally, we should note that women
with higher social status have also been found to
experience lower frequency of desire; again, one
Brotto and Smith
220
hypothesis for this association links desire to stress,
particularly work-related stress that may come with
a higher socioeconomic position, putting strain on
one’s capacity for sexual desire (Eplov, Giraldi,
Davidsen, Garde, & Kamper-Jørgensen, 2007).
Relational Context
Both theoretical and empirical work has increasingly
highlighted the association between sexual desire
and relationship factors, particularly in women (see
Chapter 10, this volume). For example, Basson (e.g.,
2001a) has proposed a model of human sexual
response emphasizing the role that long-term inti-
macy between partners can play in motivating sex-
ual behavior and triggering desire. This model
recognizes that spontaneous desire may motivate
one to be sexual but that multiple reasons exist for
engaging in sexual activity. Reasons other than
spontaneous sexual desire are often important for
having sex with a partner and may include enrich-
ment of emotional closeness and a desire to increase
one’s attractiveness to a partner (Basson, 2001a,
2003). This model underscores the importance of
context in triggering responsive sexual desire, both
the context of the relationship in which sexual activ-
ity occurs (e.g., positive feelings toward the partner)
and the immediate sexual context (e.g., private and
erotic environment).
Although originally designed as a model applica-
ble to both men and women, Basson’s model has
been widely applied to understanding women’s sex-
ual response and highlights the important connec-
tion between relationship factors and sexual desire.
From this perspective, women with low desire are
not considered to have an innate dysfunction of sex-
ual response; instead, a dearth of reasons to engage
in sexual activity, a problematic context, or both are
contributing factors in the experience of low desire
(Basson & Brotto, 2009). Research with women and
men has indicated that multiple factors, often those
that are relationally based, may indeed lead to sexual
desire. McCall and Meston (2006, 2007) have docu-
mented that love–emotional bonding cues (e.g.,
talking about the future with one’s partner) and
romantic–implicit cues (e.g., laughing with a part-
ner) are some triggers of sexual desire in women,
and a series of studies by Meston and Buss (2007)
found that at least 237 distinct reasons why people
engage in sex could be identified, with many of
them being nonsexual.
Much research has also shown an association
between sexual desire and relationship satisfaction.
In one such study, higher marital satisfaction was
significantly associated with higher levels of sexual
desire for one’s partner among married couples who
were recruited from the community, as were higher
levels of shared and mutual decision making (i.e.,
egalitarianism) in the relationship (Brezsnyak &
Whisman, 2004). A large sample of women in
Europe found that those with low desire were more
likely to report both decreased sexual and relation-
ship satisfaction than women who did not experi-
ence low desire (Dennerstein, Koochaki, Barton, &
Graziottin, 2006). Although such studies have not
indicated directionality, satisfaction may be both a
causal factor and an outcome of desire in relation-
ships (Brezsnyak & Whisman, 2004).
Relational factors other than satisfaction also
seem to contribute to sexual desire. A recent qualita-
tive study with married women who met criteria for
HSDD found that overfamiliarity with their partner
and institution of the relationship (e.g., deeroticiz-
ing effect of readily available sex) were viewed by
women as dampening their desire (Sims & Meana,
2010). Longitudinal studies have also been con-
ducted to understand desire and its link to relation-
ship goals. For example, approach goals in a
relationship—that is, goals that concentrate on pur-
suing positive relational experiences such as fun and
growth—have been found to buffer against reduc-
tions in sexual desire over time; additionally,
approach goals seem to buffer against the harmful
effects of negative relationship events on desire
(Impett, Strachman, Finkel, & Gable, 2008).
As evidenced by the predominant discussion in
this section on women’s desire, women tend to
emphasize relationship factors in sexuality more so
than men, and more research has been carried out
on women’s desire and relational factors (Peplau,
2003). For instance, Regan and Berscheid (1996)
found that women were more likely than men to
view interpersonal goals such as love, intimacy, and
closeness as important for sexual desire, whereas
men were more likely to view sexual activity or
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
221
pleasure as goals. Of course, the consequent dangers
of assuming static and universal gender differences
must be kept in mind. A discrepancy in level of sex-
ual desire, wherein the women in a heterosexual
relationship may be more likely to experience less
desire than their male partners, is also a common
reason why couples seek treatment for problems
with low desire.
PHYSIOLOGICAL AND NEUROBIOLOGICAL
MECHANISMS INVOLVED IN DESIRE
Early research on sexual response was primarily
biological and physiological in nature. Frank Beach
(1956) challenged the purely vascular view of sex-
ual response that predated his work and noted that
sexual drive should be replaced by the term sexual
appetite in recognition that it is a by-product of
one’s experience with little or no relation to biologi-
cal or physiological needs. He proposed one of the
earliest models of sexual motivation (on the basis of
research with rodents), based on a two-factor the-
ory: First, copulation was initiated by a sexual
arousal mechanism that increased the male’s sexual
excitement in the presence of a sexual stimulus.
Copulation was then maintained by the second fac-
tor, an intromission and ejaculation mechanism,
which further modified the male’s internal state.
When Masters and Johnson carried out their
research in the 1960s and 1970s, they focused on
physiological responding as couples engaged in sex-
ual activity (Masters & Johnson, 1966), and the
groundwork for their HSRC model, composed of
excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution, was
entirely based on the physiological processes
unfolding during sexual activity. Kaplan (1979),
who introduced sexual desire to the HSRC model,
equated sexual desire with other drive states that
depend on a specific anatomical location in the
brain and found that the need to seek out sexual
stimuli (or be receptive to them) is produced by the
physical activation of neural systems. She described
inhibitory and activating centers involved in sexual
desire located within the limbic system with exten-
sive neural connections throughout the brain. In the
decades since the influential thinking of Beach
(1956), Masters and Johnson (1966), and
Kaplan (1979), science has advanced considerably
in terms of understanding the biological and physio-
logical underpinnings of sexual desire and how
these domains may interact with one another.
Some of the initial speculations about a dual control
mechanism have received some of the most exten-
sive study and empirical support to date.
Although much of what is known today about
the neurotransmitters involved in sexual desire is
derived from research on rodents, there are parallels
between the sexual behavior patterns in rodents and
humans that allow rodents to be useful homologues
to understanding human behavior (Pfaus, 2009; see
Chapter 7, this volume). Bancroft and Janssen (2000;
Bancroft, Graham, Janssen, & Sanders, 2009) pro-
posed the dual control model, which reflects a bal-
ance of excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms and
has three basic assumptions:
1. Neurobiological inhibition of sexual response is
an adaptive pattern that reduces the likelihood
of sexual response at inappropriate times;
2. Individuals vary in their propensity for sexual
excitation and inhibition; and
3. Sexual stimulus effects are mediated by the psy-
chological and neurophysiological characteristics
of the individuals involved.
Both excitation and inhibition activate the auto-
nomic nervous system, but the balance of excitation
versus inhibition may dictate whether one may be
prone to sexual difficulties (high inhibition, low
excitation) or to sexual risk taking (high excita-
tion, low inhibition). In the case of sexual desire,
increased levels might be attributed to a more domi-
nant excitatory system, whereas a decrease in sexual
desire might be the result of a more dominant inhib-
itory process. Of course, these systems may wax and
wane within and across individuals and over time.
Excitatory Mechanisms
Within the dual control model, dopamine, norepi-
nephrine, melanocortin, and oxytocin systems in the
hypothalamus and limbic system stimulate sexual
arousal, attention, and behaviors toward sexual
incentives. The ability to respond to sexual stimuli
also depends on steroid hormone actions in specific
brain regions as well as interactions of those hormones
Brotto and Smith
222
with receptor complexes. Whereas norepinephrine
and oxytocin activation are involved in mechanisms
of sexual arousal, dopamine and melanocortins are
thought to be involved in the activation of sexual
interest. Dopamine’s excitatory actions have been
borne out in studies that have found a facilitatory
effect of dopamine agonists (chemicals that bind to a
receptor and increase the actions or activities of that
cell) on male rat sexual behavior and a sometimes
indiscriminate increase in sexual desire seen among
people taking Parkinson’s drugs, which facilitate
dopamine activity (as reviewed by Pfaus, 2009).
Furthermore, dopamine antagonists (chemicals that
bind to a receptor and block or decrease the activi-
ties of that cell), often used in the treatment of
schizophrenia, can impair sexual response. Dopa-
mine and steroids appear to interact such that estra-
diol and testosterone exert effects that facilitate
dopamine’s activities.
Norepinephrine is involved in the regulation of
arousal and influences sympathetic tone. An agonist
(clonidine) that reduces norepinephrine release has
been found to significantly blunt both physiological
and subjective sexual arousal to erotic stimuli (Mes-
ton, Gorzalka, & Wright, 1997). Because of the link
between sexual arousal and motivation (Laan &
Both, 2008), it is likely that decreased levels of nor-
adrenergic activity may also play a role in reduced
sexual desire.
Melanocortin agonists, interestingly, have been of
great interest recently to pharmaceutical companies,
which have found that the melanocortin agonist
bremelanotide increases sexual desire and arousal in
women (Diamond et al., 2006). Owing to concerns
about safety and the (intranasal) mode of delivery,
the company that manufactured bremelanotide has
reformulated the mode of delivery for this agonist.
New trials with women with low desire have been
carried out, with the expectation by the company
that this new formulation may be available for
women who lack sexual interest in the years ahead.
Oxytocin cell bodies located in the hypothalamus
are involved in the lordosis response of female rats
and the ejaculation response of male rats. Anecdotal
evidence from a single case study has suggested that
intranasal administration of oxytocin significantly
increased sexual desire in a male receiving the drug
for treatment of anxiety (MacDonald & Feifel,
2012).
Inhibitory Mechanisms
According to Bancroft and Janssen’s (2000) dual
control model, inhibitory mechanisms are important
for sexual decision making that involves risk. An
underactive inhibitory system would predispose one
to engage in sexual risk, whereas an overactive
inhibitory system might make one vulnerable to
having a sexual dysfunction. In a detailed review of
the mechanisms involved in sexual inhibition in
men, Bancroft (1999) noted that the limbic system
plays a key role in the regulation of sexual behavior.
Inhibitory chemicals include endogenous opioids,
endocannabinoids, and serotonin, among others,
and function to inhibit central excitatory mecha-
nisms. The endogenous release of opioids that
accompanies orgasm is known to significantly
dampen sexual desire and arousal (Rodríguez-Manzo
& Fernández-Guasti, 1995) by calming hypotha-
lamic regions involved in sexual response. Opioid
release is thought to be involved in the reward state
that accompanies sexual pleasure, thereby reducing
sexual desire. Observations about the clinical and
therapeutic effects of cannabis have led researchers
to examine more closely the role of the endocannab-
inoid system in the control of sexual response. The
cannabinoid receptor Type 1 is distributed through-
out the motor and limbic systems as well as the
hypothalamus, and cannabinoid receptor Type 1
agonists have been found to impair sexually procep-
tive behaviors in female rats (Ferrari, Ottani, & Giu-
liani, 2000). There is also evidence in women that
increases in erotica-induced subjective and physio-
logical sexual arousal are significantly associated
with decreases in endogenous cannabinoid levels
(Klein, Hill, Chang, Hillard, & Gorzalka, 2012),
making the endocannabinoid system a target for
future drug development.
Considerable research has examined the role of
serotonin in sexual response (Pfaus, 2009). Sero-
tonin is involved in inhibiting the actions of dopa-
mine. Disruptions in orgasmic functioning of men
and women are common after treatment with
serotonin-enhancing drugs, including the selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors (Clayton, 2010).
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
223
However, treatment with serotonergic drugs com-
pared with placebo does not appear to affect sexual
desire in nondepressed women (Reed et al., 2012).
When the excitatory system is activated, it blunts
the inhibition system, yet in reality the excitatory
and inhibitory systems act in concert to control sex-
ual behavior. Pharmaceutical companies’ programs
of research align with the proposed theory of a
hypofunctioning excitatory system and hyperfunc-
tioning inhibitory system in their quest to find an
effective pharmacologic cure for low desire.
Although some empirical support has been found
for some of these tested agents (e.g., bremelanotide,
flibanserin), they have not been approved by the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration because of a
lack of long-term safety data (e.g., bremelanotide),
lack of efficacy for the end points that the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration required, and concern
regarding potential adverse events (e.g., flibanserin).
In his sexual tipping point model, psychologist
Perelman (2006) used the concepts of inhibition
and excitation and applied them to understanding
the etiology for and treatment of sexual difficulties.
This model suggests that an individual has a tipping
point (somewhat like a threshold), dynamic and
not static, that integrates biological, psychological,
and sociocultural influences to determine sexual
response. In the case of an individual with low
desire, organic and sociocultural factors may inter-
fere with the response to previously effective sexual
stimuli. The model provides an algorithm for care
providers suggesting how pharmaceutical and psy-
chological or psychosocial treatments might be
properly timed and administered (see Volume 2,
Chapter 5, this handbook). The administration of a
drug alone may alter this threshold for response, so
that psychological skills may be optimized.
What the dual control and sexual tipping point
models offer is an algorithm that allows hypotheses
about the mechanisms involved in sexual desire in
men and women to be tested and frameworks for
how sexual difficulties might be managed. Further-
more, these models stress the adaptive nature of sex-
ual response to the context; specifically, the adaptive
nature of sexual excitation would lead one to engage
in sex for procreation or sexual reward and pleasure,
whereas sexual inhibition would deter one from
engaging in sex that may have negative outcomes
(e.g., sexually transmitted infection, damaging effect
on the relationship).
Hormones and Sexual Desire
According to the incentive motivation model of
sexual response (Toates, 2009), the experience of
sexual desire and arousal hinges on a sexually
responsive system. The sex hormones estrogen and
testosterone have received the most attention,
although it is still not entirely clear exactly what role
they play in sexual desire. Considerable work has
focused on the role of estrogen in women’s sexual
response, particularly as women transition through
menopause, when there is a sharp decline in serum
estradiol. Estrogen-related menopausal changes
include hot flashes, sleep disturbance, mood
changes, vaginal atrophy, and vaginal dryness. Evi-
dence of reduced vaginal blood flow has also been
found when women are assessed with a vaginal
photoplethysmograph (Laan & van Lunsen, 1997);
however, when a woman is adequately sexually
aroused, these reduced estrogens are thought to
have little or no impact on vaginal blood flow. It is
possible that the dryness and vaginal atrophy may
negatively affect a woman’s desire for sex (Denner-
stein, Lehert, Burger, & Dudley, 1999).
One Australian prospective longitudinal study
followed women transitioning through menopause
and carried out annual hormonal assessments as
well as face-to-face interviews with participants.
Changes in androgens (total testosterone, free tes-
tosterone index, and dehydroepiandrosterone sul-
fate) were unrelated to any aspect of sexual
functioning (Dennerstein, Randolph, Taffe, Dudley,
& Burger, 2002). Using structural equation model-
ing to examine the relative effects of a variety of psy-
chosocial factors and hormones on libido, “feelings
for partner” was a much stronger predictor than
were any of the hormones, including estrogen and
testosterone (Dennerstein et al., 1999). Moreover, in
a recent study comparing hormonal versus nonhor-
monal predictors of whether women had HSDD
(verified by an in-depth clinical interview) versus a
more severe form of HSDD that also included lack of
responsive sexual desire, logistic regression analyses
determined that hormone levels did not significantly
Brotto and Smith
224
predict group status, whereas three psychosocial
factors—developmental history, psychiatric history,
and psychosexual history—significantly predicted
group membership (Brotto, Petkau, Labrie, & Bas-
son, 2011). Specifically, those women who lacked
both spontaneous and responsive sexual desire had
a greater contribution of these psychosocial vari-
ables than women with HSDD alone. Psychiatric
factors in particular emerged as the single greatest
predictor when all hormonal and nonhormonal vari-
ables, age, and relationship duration were consid-
ered collectively.
These findings challenge the long-standing debate
about the extent to which testosterone is the “hor-
mone of desire.” Evidence has been found that testos-
terone has a direct impact on sexual interest in men
(Regan, 1999) and that reports of low desire signifi-
cantly predict testosterone levels that fall below a cer-
tain threshold (Travison, Morley, Araujo, O’Donnell,
& McKinlay, 2006), although findings have also
shown that, among men with erectile dysfunction,
testosterone levels did not differ between the subset
of men with and without HSDD (Ansong & Pun-
waney, 1999; Corona et al., 2009). With menopause,
the reduction in testosterone is less marked (com-
pared with the sharp decline in estradiol). This
decline in serum testosterone is due to the reduced
peripheral conversion of androstenedione (secreted
from the ovaries) to testosterone. Some reduction in
testosterone also occurs as a result of less adrenal
output of the testosterone precursor dehydroepi-
androsterone. Complicating this picture is the fact
that most testosterone production takes place intra-
cellularly, where testosterone also exerts its effects.
Because available assays only measure testosterone
that has spilled into the serum, their accuracy in pro-
viding an estimate of androgens in any given woman
is seriously questionable (Labrie et al., 2006).
Research that has examined the association
between levels of testosterone and women’s sexual
desire has also been conflicting. Despite early stud-
ies suggesting that low desire was associated with
low levels of testosterone, a large number of more
recent studies have failed to find a significant differ-
ence in testosterone levels between women with and
without low desire (as reviewed in Brotto, Bitzer,
et al., 2010; Nappi et al., 2010). Thus, there are no
available cut-offs that denote the separation from
normal to problematically low sexual desire, nor is
there any blood test for HSDD. Somewhat paradoxi-
cally, however, treatment of low desire with testos-
terone in women results in a statistically significant
improvement in most women (Basson, 2010; Davis,
Moreau, et al., 2008; Davis, Paplia, et al., 2008), but
not all (Barton et al., 2007).
Perhaps some of the inconsistency in interpret-
ing effects of testosterone on sexual desire stems
from a failure to consider sociocultural and psycho-
logical interactions with testosterone. A recent study
(van Anders, 2012) that had 196 men and women
provide saliva samples of testosterone and measured
solitary and partnered sexual desire found a signifi-
cant correlation between testosterone and solitary
desire, but not partnered desire, in women. Interest-
ingly, testosterone was negatively correlated with
partnered sexual desire only among women who
had higher cortisol, suggesting, perhaps, stress-
activated increases in testosterone. In contrast,
testosterone was unrelated to either solitary or part-
nered sexual desire in men. Moreover, differences
between men and women in sexual desire were not
mediated by level of testosterone but by masturba-
tion frequency, suggesting a more pronounced effect
of behavioral and not hormonal variables in
accounting for sex differences in desire.
DESIRE AND PLEASURE
In their qualitative study of women, Goldhammer
and McCabe (2011) found that sexual desire might
be related to a variety of different behaviors,
depending on the context in which the desire was
experienced. Women noted that their initiation of
sexual behavior was not necessarily driven by sex-
ual desire; rather, it was often influenced by a num-
ber of (sexual and nonsexual) factors, such as
being aware that it had been too long since the last
time the couple had sex. Moreover, women in at
least one qualitative study reported the intrinsic
pleasure of simply experiencing sexual desire, and
it was not imperative to act on this desire (Brotto
et al., 2009). Couples therapist Esther Perel (2006)
viewed love and pleasure or eroticism as distinct,
although in conventional discussions both experts
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
225
and nonexperts may interchange the terms. She
stated that the very factors that are important to a
long-term, stable, and monogamous relationship
(e.g., stability, understanding, compassion) may be
the very same factors that douse the fire of sexual
desire, the latter of which relies on novelty, excite-
ment, and mystery (Perel, 2006). On the basis of
this approach, desire and pleasure become fueled
when space is introduced between partners, when
the forbidden becomes pleasurable.
How do sexual desire and pleasure influence one
another? Interestingly, neither is necessary for sex-
ual activity to take place (Meston & Buss, 2007).
Nonetheless, desire for sexual pleasure is an impor-
tant sexual motive to consider. The domain of sex-
ual fantasies, which represent a private mental
experience with the goal, presumably, of eliciting
pleasure, provides an opportunity to examine how
pleasure and desire influence one another. Vance
(1989) has written extensively about the dangers for
women in experiencing sexual desire and pleasure.
The expression of desire may lead to dangerous sex-
ual encounters, and because pleasure and safety are
at opposite ends of the dimension, the expression of
pleasure, too, can be problematic for women. In a
study of 85 men and 77 women, Zurbriggen and
Yost (2004) examined themes of sexual desire and
pleasure in participants’ private fantasies. Whereas
sexual pleasure and desire were correlated for men
(mean r = .43), this association was much weaker
for women (mean r = .24). Specifically, men were
likely to mention desire and pleasure for themselves
as well as their partners in their fantasies, whereas
women were more likely to only mention pleasure
and desire for themselves. The fact that orgasm is a
more likely outcome of sexual activity for men than
for women simply reinforces the nonoverlap
between sexual desire and pleasure for women.
Is Wanting the Same as Liking?
There is evidence that wanting sex is not necessarily
the same as liking sex. Most measures of sexual sat-
isfaction confound sexual frequency, sexual liking,
and sexual wanting. As noted by Toates (2009), the
wanting of sex may differ between men and women,
with women being more influenced by controlled
and deliberate processes and men being more influ-
enced by automatic processes. In a series of studies,
Krishnamurti and Loewenstein (2012) developed
and established the test–retest reliability and conver-
gent, discriminant, and predictive validity of a
15-item partner-specific sexual liking and sexual
wanting scale. They found that higher levels of
partner-specific sexual liking were associated with
more initiation on the part of the partner, but not
necessarily with one’s own initiation of sexual activ-
ity. They also found that higher levels of partner-
specific sexual wanting were associated with higher
levels of self-initiation. Their data suggest that sex-
ual satisfaction (i.e., liking) might be entirely inde-
pendent from feelings of sexual desire. The latter
finding has also been supported in large epidemio-
logical studies of women’s sexual health, which have
shown that sexual satisfaction might not hinge on a
woman’s level of sexual desire. Contemporary mod-
els of women’s sexual response position sexual satis-
faction as a critical outcome determining whether
women will initiate or be receptive to sexual activity
on a future occasion (Basson, 2001b, 2002, 2003).
Although the definition of sexual satisfaction differs
across studies, there is general agreement that
sexual satisfaction has both personal and relational
domains (Meston & Trapnell, 2005). Relational sex-
ual satisfaction might include domains such as feel-
ing safe, not lonely, and not distant from a partner,
and individual aspects of sexual satisfaction might
include feeling content, free of sexual tension, pleas-
antly indulged, relaxed, and happy (Philippsohn &
Hartmann, 2009). One’s level of sexual satisfaction
depends on one’s frame of reference, which includes
one’s own expectations and past experiences (Byers
& Macneil, 2006). Therefore, a woman who does
not expect to experience orgasm during a sexual
encounter with a partner may be more sexually
satisfied than a woman who occasionally does
not experience orgasm but expects one. Recent
population-based studies of sexual functioning in
women have shown that a significant proportion of
women are sexually satisfied even though they are
experiencing some sexual difficulties (e.g., reduced
sexual desire or arousal). In the Study of Women’s
Health Across the Nation, 70% of women reported
thinking about sex less than once a week (a thresh-
old that some might consider falling into the level of
Brotto and Smith
226
women with HSDD), but 86% of them remained
sexually satisfied (Cain et al., 2003). Among 164
women seeking general medical care, 48.8% met the
clinical threshold for sexual dysfunction on a vali-
dated measure of sexual functioning, although
80.5% reported feeling that they were sexually satis-
fied (Ferenidou et al., 2008). Not surprisingly, the
most common sexual complaint was low desire.
In using data from the National Health and Social
Life Survey to explore individual, relational, and
cultural sexual satisfaction in 1,035 mid-life women
in a sexual relationship, women’s health positively
influenced their emotional satisfaction (Carpenter,
Nathanson, & Kim, 2009; see also Chapter 21, this
volume). Interestingly, relationship duration was
not a predictor of sexual satisfaction in this study.
Sexual fantasies and sexual satisfaction are also not
correlated in women (Cain et al., 2003). Behavior
might also be discordant with sexual satisfaction.
Among 290 British women ages 18 to 75, 79% indi-
cated being very satisfied with their current sex life
despite the fact that 24% had not engaged in any
sexual activity in the past 3 months (Dunn, Croft, &
Hackett, 2000). The interesting counterpart to these
findings is that a number of studies have found that
a proportion of women without any overt sexual
symptoms will still report being sexually dissatisfied
(King, Holt, & Nazareth, 2007; Laumann et al.,
2005; Lutfey, Link, Rosen, Wiegel, & McKinlay,
2009; Öberg, Fugl-Meyer, & Fugl-Meyer, 2004).
More recent research has examined the associa-
tion between motives for engaging in sexual activity
and sexual satisfaction. A series of studies carried
out by Meston and Buss (2007) with 1,549 male and
female university students (mean = age 19, range =
16–42 years) found 237 distinct reasons why men
and women engaged in sexual activity. These rea-
sons could be categorized into four broad clusters:
physical, emotional, goal attainment, and insecurity,
with many subfactors contained in each domain.
The most common reasons provided for having sex
included attraction, pleasure, affection, love,
romance, emotional closeness, arousal, the desire to
please, adventure, excitement, experience, connec-
tion, celebration, curiosity, and opportunity. When
these theoretically derived motives for sex were
examined as potential predictors of sexual satisfac-
tion in men and women, what emerged was a com-
mon set of motives that significantly predicted
satisfaction for both men and women. These motives
included love and commitment, self-esteem, and
resource motives such that those who had sex for
love and commitment seemed to have more sexual
satisfaction. Those who had sex to raise their self-
esteem tended to have lower sexual satisfaction, as
did those whose motives for sex included resource
attainment. Additional motives for sex predicted
sexual satisfaction for women but not men, and they
included experience seeking, pleasure, and expres-
sion motives. This was the case even after control-
ling for sexual functioning, neuroticism, and sexual
attitudes. The findings from this study suggest that
sexual desire, or motivation for sex, may relate to a
variety of nonsexual reasons and that having a par-
ticular type of motive for sex may predict sexual sat-
isfaction. It is interesting to note that in this study
desire-related motives did not emerge as significant
predictors of sexual satisfaction.
It is also important to note that reasons for
engaging in sexual activity may vary across different
relational or situational contexts. For example, Mes-
ton and Buss (2007) noted that reasons for engaging
in sex may differ across shorter versus longer term
relationships. Although some relationship (e.g., “I
wanted to intensify my relationship”) and situa-
tional (e.g., “It was a romantic setting”) reasons
were endorsed, participants in the Meston and Buss
study were broadly asked to report their reasons for
engaging in sex.
CROSS-CULTURAL ISSUES IN
SEXUAL DESIRE
Just as the HSRC model of Masters and Johnson
(1966) has been criticized for espousing a gender-
neutral model of sexual functioning that ignores
potentially important differences between men and
women (Tiefer, 1991), it can also be criticized for
making the presumption of cross-cultural universal-
ity in sexual responding. There is a growing body of
literature comparing sexual attitudes, practices, and
difficulties between various cultural groups and, in
particular, a small but emerging interest in cross-
cultural differences in sexual desire.
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
227
In a sample of Latina women seeking outpatient
care, 41.3% had low levels of overall sexual func-
tioning that were significantly associated with treat-
ment for anxiety or depression (Hullfish et al.,
2009). Using the Changes in Sexual Functioning
Questionnaire, Hullfish et al. (2009) found that the
most prevalent issue was low desire, on which
94.3% of the Latina women fell below the clinical
cut-off. Among aboriginal groups, a pervasive dou-
ble standard exists whereby men are expected to
behave aggressively and to be interested in sex alone
and women are not expected to initiate sex or resist
sex and are viewed as “letting” sexual encounters
occur (Devries & Free, 2010). In exploring levels of
sexual desire in these ethnocultural groups, it is
imperative to consider that sexual desire, as a con-
struct, may be experienced very differently in differ-
ent groups (see Volume 2, Chapter 6, this
handbook). Thus, the conclusions that one draws
about group differences must be tempered with ade-
quate cultural sensitivity and competence.
In the Study of Women’s Health Across the
Nation, 16,065 mid-life women ages 40 to 55 were
studied cross-sectionally, and a smaller cohort were
observed longitudinally. The goal of the study was
to examine multiple aspects of sexual functioning
across diverse ethnic groups as women transitioned
through menopause. Among the 2,466 women who
had sex in the past 6 months, the Caucasian, African
American, and Hispanic women were more likely to
find sex quite or extremely important compared to
Chinese or Japanese women (Cain et al., 2003).
Regarding sexual desire, in the Global Study of
Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors, the first large, mul-
ticountry survey of sexuality in older adults, 13,883
women and 13,618 men ages 40 to 80 were asked,
“During the last 12 months have you ever experi-
enced a lack of interest in having sex for a period of
2 months or more?” (Laumann et al., 2005). Women
endorsing “yes” were then asked to rate its fre-
quency as occasionally, sometimes, or frequently.
Among the 9,000 women who had had sexual inter-
course in the past year, 25.6% to 32.9% of women
from Europe or North America noted lack of desire
was a problem, whereas 43.4% from the Middle East
and 34.8% to 43.3% from Asia endorsed this item.
Among the 11,205 sexually active male respondents,
12.5% to 17.6% of men from Europe or North
America and 21.6% from the Middle East endorsed
this item, and 19.6% to 28.0% of men from Asia
reported low desire. A recent study that compared
Black (n = 251) and White (n = 544) partnered
women on how women evaluated their sexual rela-
tionship and their own sexuality found that level of
sexual interest significantly predicted a woman’s
evaluation of her own sexuality and found no differ-
ences between Black and White women (Bancroft,
Long, & McCabe, 2011).
In samples of younger individuals studied, sexual
desire was similarly lower among the East Asian
male and female participants compared with Cauca-
sian participants (Brotto, Chik, Ryder, Gorzalka, &
Seal, 2005; Brotto, Woo, & Gorzalka, 2011; Brotto,
Woo, & Ryder, 2007; Woo, Brotto, & Gorzalka,
2011, 2012). Evidence is also emerging that sex
guilt specifically, or a “generalized expectancy for
self-mediated punishment for violating or for antici-
pating violating standards of proper sexual conduct”
(Mosher & Cross, 1971, p. 27), may mediate the
association between culture and sexual desire
(Brotto et al., 2011; Woo et al., 2011, 2012). This
finding suggests that culture-linked attitudes, such
as sex guilt, which become altered with the process
of acculturation, may mediate changes in individu-
als’ level of sexual desire. Of course, whether the
experience of sexual desire is the same across cul-
tures has never been examined closely and raises
concern about the use of Western-derived measures
of sexual desire with non-Western samples.
SEXUAL DESIRE DISORDERS
Those who experience difficulties with sexual desire
are said to have a sexual desire disorder if their
symptoms meet specific diagnostic criteria. Two
types of sexual desire disorders are outlined in the
sexual dysfunctions category of the DSM–IV–TR
(American Psychiatric Association, 2000): sexual
aversion disorder and HSDD. Defined as “persistent
or recurrent extreme aversion to, and avoidance of,
all (or almost all) genital sexual contact with a sex-
ual partner” (American Psychiatric Association,
2000, p. 542), sexual aversion disorder is likely bet-
ter conceptualized as an anxiety disorder than as a
Brotto and Smith
228
sexual dysfunction (see Brotto, 2010c, for a review).
HSDD is defined by the criterion of “persistently or
recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and
desire for sexual activity” (American Psychiatric
Association, 2000, p. 541). To be diagnosed with
sexual aversion disorder or HSDD using DSM–IV–TR
criteria, an individual must also experience marked
distress or interpersonal difficulty. Given that little
empirical information is available regarding sexual
aversion disorder, in this section we briefly review
the prevalence, known etiology, and treatment of
HSDD only.
Prevalence
Low desire is the most common sexual difficulty
among women. Several studies have attempted to
determine the prevalence rate of female low desire
and HSDD; across studies, different methodologies
have been used and variable rates have been docu-
mented (see Brotto, 2010b, for a review). Some
research, for example, has tried to document the
prevalence rate of low sexual desire only, whereas
other research has assessed both low desire and
related distress. One of the most cited studies that
assessed sexual difficulties (related distress was not
measured) in a U.S. sample is the National Health
and Social Life Survey (Laumann et al., 1999). In
this study, 27% to 32% of sexually active women
between the ages of 18 and 59 reported that they
had lacked desire for sex in the past year. A multi-
country study of sexual problems was the Global
Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors, which
included more than 13,000 women and men
between the ages of 40 and 80 in 29 different coun-
tries (Laumann et al., 2005). Lack of interest in sex
that lasted for 2 months or more in the past year was
reported by approximately 26% to 43% of women
across various geographic regions; the rate of fre-
quent lack of interest in sex ranged from 5.4% of
women in Northern Europe to 13.6% of women in
East Asia. Also, lack of interest in sex was the most
common sexual problem reported by women in the
Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors.
When findings from these and various other studies
(e.g., Bancroft, Loftus, & Long, 2003; Dennerstein
et al., 2006; Fugl-Meyer & Sjogren Fugl-Meyer,
1999; Leiblum, Koochaki, Rodenberg, Barton, &
Rosen, 2006; Mercer et al., 2003; Öberg et al., 2004;
Shifren, Monz, Russo, Segreti, & Johannes, 2008;
West et al., 2008; Witting et al., 2008) are consid-
ered together, low desire seems to affect approxi-
mately 20% to 30% of women across all ages (Brotto,
Bitzer, et al., 2010).
However, when female HSDD is assessed—that
is, when low desire is assessed in conjunction with
distress—prevalence rates are typically reduced by
half (Brotto, Bitzer, et al., 2010; Dennerstein et al.,
2006; Leiblum et al., 2006; Shifren et al., 2008; West
et al., 2008). For example, in a telephone interview
study of 755 premenopausal, 552 naturally meno-
pausal, and 637 surgically menopausal women
between the ages of 30 and 70 in the United States,
the estimated prevalence rate of low desire was
36.2% and the estimated prevalence rate of HSDD
was 8.3% (ranging from 6.6% for naturally meno-
pausal women to 12.5% for surgically menopausal
women; West et al., 2008).
To date, rates of HSDD have not been docu-
mented in men. With regard to rates of low desire
in men, the National Health and Social Life Survey
found that 13% to 17% of sexually active men
between the ages of 30 and 59 reported a lack of
desire for sex in the past year; 14% of men ages 18
to 29 reported the same (Laumann et al., 1999). In
the Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors,
approximately 13% to 28% of men reported a lack of
interest in sex for 2 months or more in the past year,
and the rate of frequent lack of interest in sex ranged
from 1.3% of men in southern Europe to 3.1% of
men in the Middle East (Laumann et al., 2005).
Other studies have also examined prevalence rates
of low desire in men but have not documented rates
of low desire and related distress (e.g., Araujo,
Mohr, & McKinlay, 2004; Eplov et al., 2007; Fugl-
Meyer & Sjogren Fugl-Meyer, 1999; Mercer et al.,
2003; Najman, Dunne, Boyle, Cook, & Purdie,
2003). Given that in women rates of low sexual
desire accompanied by distress (i.e., HSDD) are lower
than rates of low desire alone, Brotto (2010a) has
proposed that HSDD may affect 1% to 20% of men.
Known Etiology
Numerous factors (biological, psychological, and
social) have been implicated in the etiology of
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
229
HSDD, with the etiology often being multifactorial
(Basson, Wierman, van Lankveld, & Brotto, 2010).
For both men and women, biological factors related
to low desire include specific medication use or
chronic illness (we should note that to receive a
diagnosis of HSDD according to DSM–IV–TR criteria,
the reduced desire cannot be accounted for completely
by the effects of substances or medical conditions).
The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors used to
treat depression, for example, are commonly associ-
ated with reduced desire, as are antihypertensive
and antiandrogen medications (see Basson &
Brotto, 2009, and Maurice, 2007, for a review of
other medications associated with low desire).
Medical illnesses and related treatments (e.g., che-
motherapy), fatigue, pain, psychological difficulties,
incontinence, and immobility can also impair desire.
Also, men with chronic illnesses (e.g., diabetes, renal
disease) are at risk for hypogonadism (i.e., low levels
of androgens), a symptom of which is reduced sexual
desire (Wang et al., 2009). The relationship between
sex hormones and desire is less clear in women; even
though reduced estrogen and androgen levels, par-
ticularly testosterone, have been thought to play a
role in women’s low sexual desire, a recent study
examining the role of androgens and sexual desire
difficulties did not find testosterone deficits in
women with HSDD (Basson, Brotto, Petkau, & Lab-
rie, 2010). Menopause, in which estrogen produc-
tion is decreased, has been linked to low desire
(Dennerstein et al., 2006; Meston & Bradford, 2007).
Psychosocial factors play a large role in the onset
and maintenance of HSDD for both men and
women. For example, mental health difficulties,
including the presence of mood and anxiety disor-
ders, are strongly associated with low desire. A
recent study conducted with 400 premenopausal
women who were enrolled in the HSDD Registry for
Women found that psychosocial factors were most
likely to be perceived by women as contributing to
their ongoing difficulties with desire; specifically,
stress or fatigue was the most highly endorsed factor
(reported by 60% of women), followed by dissatis-
faction with physical appearance (reported by
almost 41%; Maserejian et al., 2010). Relationship
factors and social messages, such as those discussed
earlier in this chapter, may also serve to precipitate
and maintain desire difficulties (e.g., Basson, Wier-
man, et al., 2010; McCarthy & McDonald, 2009).
Treatment
Treatments for HSDD generally fall into the psycho-
logical or medical categories. Psychological treat-
ments include sex therapy, cognitive–behavioral
therapy (CBT), and mindfulness-based therapy,
whereas medical treatments include hormonal
agents and medications; these forms of treatment
(psychological and medical) are sometimes used in
conjunction in the management of low sexual desire
(see Volume 2, Chapters 4 and 5, this handbook).
Education is also an important component of treat-
ing desire difficulties. For example, education
regarding responsive versus spontaneous desire and
female sexual response is often helpful for women
with low desire, as is discussion regarding norma-
tive decreases in desire with age (Basson, Wierman,
et al., 2010). Before treatment, a comprehensive bio-
psychosocial assessment that gathers information
regarding medical (e.g., use of medications), psy-
chological (e.g., current mood and level of anxiety),
social (e.g., relationship duration), and sexual his-
tory (e.g., presence of other sexual problems) is rec-
ommended for desire difficulties (Basson, Wierman,
et al., 2010; McCarthy & McDonald, 2009). Nota-
bly, similar to research regarding prevalence and
etiology, the sexual desire treatment literature has
largely focused on women.
Psychological treatment. Psychological treat-
ments are widely used to treat HSDD and have been
evaluated in some studies; it is recognized, how-
ever, that randomized controlled trials are greatly
needed in this area (Basson, Wierman, et al., 2010).
Sex therapy techniques for HSDD include sensate
focus exercises. In these exercises, partners take
turns first touching and caressing nonsexual parts
of each other’s bodies and providing feedback about
these experiences (genital touching and intercourse
are disallowed during this stage); the exercises are
designed to eventually include sexual touch and to
promote enjoyment for both partners while decreas-
ing demands for performance (Kaplan, 1979). A
study using a modified sex therapy approach with
60 heterosexual couples in which the female partner
Brotto and Smith
230
experienced low sexual desire reported that approxi-
mately 57% of couples had a favorable outcome
(defined as problem resolved or largely resolved)
with regard to improved sexual functioning after
treatment, and approximately 47% maintained
these gains at 3-month follow-up (Hawton,
Catalan, & Fagg, 1991). A 7-week treatment pro-
gram for couples that emphasized sensate focus
exercises documented that 65% of women with
HSDD and 63% of men with HSDD had a success-
ful treatment outcome; in this study, success was
defined as resolution of the sexual problem with no
development of new problems and the couple hav-
ing engaged in weekly intercourse for the 3 final
weeks of the program. Completion of the sensate
focus exercises was significantly related to treatment
success (Sarwer & Durlak, 1997).
CBT for HSDD focuses on the interaction
between maladaptive thoughts (e.g., “I am a bad
sexual partner”), feelings (e.g., guilt), and behaviors
(e.g., avoiding physical affection with partner).
Techniques used in CBT include cognitive restruc-
turing (i.e., identification and challenge of maladap-
tive thoughts) and exercises such as communication
skills training, with the premise that shifts in nega-
tive thinking will also produce changes in related
feelings and behaviors. Although few controlled
studies have evaluated CBT for HSDD, this treat-
ment approach appears promising for treatment of
female low desire (ter Kuile, Both, & van Lankveld,
2010). For example, a 12-week group CBT and sex
therapy treatment for couples in which the female
partner had HSDD resulted in improvement for 74%
of women at the end of treatment and 64% of
women at 3- and 12-month follow-up (Trudel et al.,
2001). In addition, treated couples reported signifi-
cant improvements in sexual and marital quality
compared with wait-list control couples. CBT biblio-
therapy (i.e., manualized self-help) for couples with
sexual dysfunction, the majority of whom met
DSM–IV–TR diagnostic criteria for HSDD, has also
been empirically evaluated (van Lankveld, Everaerd,
& Grotjohann, 2001). Although couples who
received bibliotherapy reported significant improve-
ments compared with wait-list controls, group dif-
ferences for female participants were no longer
found in the follow-up period.
Recently, mindfulness-based therapy has been
tested for women with desire and arousal problems.
Mindfulness is a practice that is described as “paying
attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the
present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-
Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Mindfulness has its roots in East-
ern spiritual practices but has increasingly been
applied in Western health care for a variety of condi-
tions. Mindfulness emphasizes nonjudgmental
awareness of one’s experiences (e.g., thoughts, feel-
ings, physical sensations) and offers additional skills
that can be used to complement CBT. Through
mindfulness, for example, one can learn to be more
engaged and present in activities, including sexual
ones, which may ultimately serve to increase enjoy-
ment of and desire for sexual activity (see Brotto &
Woo, 2010, for a case example). On testing a three-
session group mindfulness-based therapy for female
desire or arousal difficulties, Brotto, Basson, and
Luria (2008) found improvements in sexual desire,
distress, and subjective arousal. Interestingly,
women reported mindfulness to be the most effec-
tive aspect of the treatment. Similar results were
found for women treated for cervical or endometrial
cancer who had secondary sexual arousal disorder
(Brotto, Heiman, et al., 2008); specifically, women
reported improvements in sexual function, includ-
ing desire, along with improvements in mood, men-
tal health, and sexual distress after receiving MBCT.
Given that both of these trials were uncontrolled,
future research is needed to test MBCT interven-
tions for low desire using randomized controlled
trial methodology.
Biomedical treatment. Medical approaches for
HSDD focus on hormonal and nonhormonal phar-
macological treatments. For men with hypogonad-
ism and corresponding low desire, testosterone
supplementation can be effective for restoring
sexual desire (Wang et al., 2009). Whether testos-
terone supplementation is beneficial for women
with HSDD is not currently known, and a recent
study did not find evidence of testosterone deficits
in women with HSDD (Basson, Brotto, et al., 2010).
However, testosterone has been thought to play a
role in female sexual desire, and testosterone sup-
plementation has a long history of being prescribed
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
231
for women with low desire (Basson & Brotto,
2009). Most of the trials investigating this type of
treatment for women’s low desire have examined
transdermal testosterone administered to surgically
menopausal women. Although some benefits have
been noted in such trials, the clinical significance
of the findings has been questioned and research
methodology critiqued (see Basson, 2009, and
Meston & Bradford, 2007, for reviews). Another
concern about testosterone supplementation in
women is the lack of data regarding long-term
safety. Current recommendations advise against the
generalized treatment of women with testosterone
(Wierman et al., 2006).
In addition to testosterone, a number of other
pharmacological therapies have been proposed to
treat low desire in women. These therapies include
medications such as buproprion and flibanserin that
were originally developed for treating depression.
Flibanserin is a serotonin receptor type 5-HT1A ago-
nist and a 5-HT2A antagonist (Moll & Brown, 2011;
Stahl, Sommer, & Allers, 2011), and it selectively
acts on monoamines in specific regions of the brain.
For example, flibanserin decreases serotonin levels
and increases dopamine and norephinephrine levels
in the prefrontal cortex; given the inhibitory role of
serotonin and excitatory roles of dopamine and nor-
ephinephrine in sexual desire, flibanserin may
enhance desire through its actions on these mono-
amines (Stahl et al., 2011). In general, however,
more randomized controlled trials are needed to
adequately evaluate the efficacy of such medications
for treating sexual difficulties (Moll & Brown,
2011), and currently, no treatments for HSDD in
women have received U.S. Food and Drug Adminis-
tration approval (Stahl et al., 2011). In fact, flibanse-
rin was recently denied such approval because of a
need for further data on the efficacy and safety of the
drug for HSDD (the development of flibanserin for
HSDD was subsequently discontinued by the phar-
maceutical company; Meyer-Kleinmann, 2010; Moll
& Brown, 2011). In sum, the effectiveness of medi-
cal treatments for female HSDD has not been widely
established. If medical treatments for HSDD are con-
sidered, it is recommended that they be combined
with psychological treatments for optimal results
(Maclaran & Panay, 2011), and the importance of
addressing psychological factors associated with
HSDD has been emphasized in the literature (e.g.,
Basson, 2009).
CUTTING-EDGE ISSUES IN DESIRE
RESEARCH
In the sections that follow we consider new, impor-
tant, or cutting-edge issues in the study of sexual
desire. We especially believe that functional mag-
netic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the use of
mixed-methods designs (e.g., qualitative and
quantitative methodologies integrated) offer prom-
ise for further decoding what is sexual desire.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
fMRI is a neuroimaging technique that measures
blood flow and oxygenation changes in the brain in
response to specific stimuli (e.g., images of a sexual
partner; Ortigue, Bianchi-Demicheli, Patel, Frum, &
Lewis, 2010). Recently, studies have started to apply
fMRI technology to better understand the neural acti-
vation patterns associated with sexual desire. In such
studies, individuals are typically shown both nonerotic
and erotic pictures or videos while their neural
responses to such stimuli are recorded using fMRI.
In one of the first fMRI studies to compare
women with and without HSDD, video clips show-
ing erotic, sport, and relaxation stimuli were pre-
sented on three different occasions to 16 young
heterosexual women with HSDD and 20 women
without sexual difficulties (Arnow et al., 2009).
Both physiological arousal using a vaginal photople-
thysmograph and mental arousal to the videos were
also assessed during the fMRI sessions. Differences
between women with and without HSDD were
found in response to the erotic video clips; specifi-
cally, the women without sexual difficulties reported
more mental arousal and demonstrated more activa-
tion in a brain region involved in the encoding and
retrieval of memories (i.e., the entorhinal cortex).
As suggested by Arnow et al. (2009), this increased
activation may signal that women with HSDD
encode and retrieve past erotic experiences differ-
ently than women without desire difficulties. On the
basis of increased activation in the medial frontal
gyrus and right inferior frontal gyrus of women with
Brotto and Smith
232
HSDD, they also suggested that women with this
condition assign more attention than women with-
out sexual difficulties to monitoring or evaluating
their responses to erotic stimuli, which likely inter-
feres with sexual response. More important, this
finding highlights the key role of attention in sexual
desire and suggests a role for interventions that help
women develop nonjudgmental awareness in the
presence of erotic cues (e.g., mindfulness).
Both decreased and increased neural activation
in women with HSDD were also demonstrated in a
recent study comparing 13 sexually active women
with HSDD with 15 controls (Bianchi-Demicheli
et al., 2011). On viewing erotic and nonerotic pic-
tures, women with HSDD showed less activation in
areas of the brain that have been suggested by previ-
ous research to be involved in processing erotic
stimuli. Additionally, women with HSDD showed
more activation in some brain areas involved in
higher order cognitive or social functions. The
results were consistent with the hypothesis that
women with HSDD allocate more attention to
monitoring or evaluating their responses to erotic
stimuli than women without sexual difficulties.
Bianchi-Demicheli et al. (2011) also suggested that
women with HSDD process visual stimuli in a man-
ner that differs from that of women without desire
difficulties—a manner that ultimately interferes
with stimuli being experienced as erotic. Such
research has provided initial information on neural
mechanisms involved in female HSDD and provides
exciting possibilities for future studies and clinical
interventions designed to reduce low desire.
In sexually healthy men, fMRI research has
found that a number of brain areas respond to visual
erotic stimuli, including areas involved in attention
(Mouras et al., 2003). Differential processing of sex-
ual stimuli has been noted in men with HSDD using
another imaging technique, positron emission
tomography (Stoléru et al., 2003). To date, we are
not aware of any fMRI research conducted with men
with HSDD.
Mixed-Methods Designs
Mixed-methods research design refers to the integra-
tion of quantitative and qualitative methods in the
same study. Using both types of methods can enrich
a study by, for example, simultaneously enabling
researchers to generalize the results and acquire
greater understanding of the topic (Hanson, Cre-
swell, Clark, Petska, & Creswell, 2005). Interest in
mixed-methods design has increased substantially in
recent years in the social and health sciences (Cre-
swell, 2009). Although sexual desire has typically
been studied using quantitative methods (e.g., use of
validated questionnaires to measure desire), the use
of qualitative methods has been advocated to gain
understanding about the experiential aspects of
desire (Tolman & Diamond, 2001; see Chapter 1,
this volume).
Some studies have used a mixed-methods
approach to understand how girls and women expe-
rience sexual desire. For example, Tolman and Sza-
lacha (1999) used both qualitative and quantitative
methods of analysis to examine interview data from
30 adolescent girls regarding their experiences with
sexual desire and pleasure. The study was organized
around three main research questions, each of
which emerged in sequential order on the basis of
findings from the previous question. Girls’ descrip-
tions of their sexual desire experiences were first
analyzed qualitatively. Approximately two thirds of
the girls reported experiencing sexual desire; how-
ever, differences were noted between girls from
urban versus suburban schools with regard to how
they responded to such desire. Urban girls spoke of
sacrificing sexual pleasure as a way of protecting
themselves from vulnerabilities and negative conse-
quences (e.g., pregnancy, AIDS), whereas suburban
girls described more sexual curiosity as well as inter-
nal conflict (e.g., conflict about feeling sexually curi-
ous in the face of cultural messages regarding
women’s sexuality).
Quantitative analyses subsequently examined the
differences regarding the themes of perceived vul-
nerability and pleasure that emerged in girls’
descriptions of their sexual desire. Overall, approxi-
mately 47% of the narratives contained vulnerability
as the predominant theme, approximately 29%
focused predominantly on pleasure, and the remain-
ing narratives contained both themes equally. The
narratives of suburban girls contained significantly
more themes of pleasure than those of urban girls.
However, further analyses indicated that suburban
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
233
girls who had been sexually violated spoke signifi-
cantly more about vulnerability than other suburban
girls and had narratives that more closely resembled
those of urban participants. Final qualitative analy-
ses indicated that suburban girls who had not been
sexually violated spoke about experiencing sexual
desire and pleasure in both their minds and their
bodies; in general, these descriptions differed from
those of the other girls in the sample. Also, the final
qualitative analyses identified a subset of urban girls
who had experienced sexual violation but associated
their sexual desire more with pleasure than with
vulnerability.
Overall, Tolman and Szalacha’s (1999) study
highlighted the “dilemma of desire” (Tolman, 2002)
experienced by many adolescent girls, in which girls’
desire is associated with feeling vulnerable to nega-
tive consequences and their sexuality is considered
a source of conflict and danger. The combined find-
ings ultimately provided insight into female adoles-
cent sexuality and highlighted the value of a
mixed-methods research approach. As Tolman and
Szalacha noted,
Grounded in a method of data collec-
tion that gave girls an opportunity to
interrupt the usual silence about their
sexuality and using qualitative and quan-
titative methods to analyze these data,
we learned far more about this aspect
of female adolescent development than
forcing a choice between qualitative
and quantitative methods would have
afforded. (p. 32)
Brotto et al. (2009) also used a narrative
approach to understand the experience and meaning
of sexual desire among women. Middle-aged women
with or without sexual arousal difficulties (n = 22)
completed individual qualitative interviews as well
as two validated self-report measures of sexual func-
tioning (i.e., the FSFI and the Brief Index of Sexual
Functioning for Women). Findings from the self-
report measures indicated that women with sexual
arousal difficulties experienced poorer functioning
in all aspects of sexual response (arousal, desire,
lubrication, orgasm) and more pain with vaginal
penetration in the preceding month; in addition,
sexual activity with a partner was initiated by only
two women in the control group during this time,
and women with arousal difficulties reported signifi-
cantly fewer sexual thoughts or fantasies than
controls.
Despite the differences noted in sexual function-
ing on the questionnaires, however, all women in
the narrative interviews described experiencing sex-
ual desire in some form. More important, the
descriptions of desire were quite similar between
women with and without sexual difficulties. Non-
genital physical sensations and cognitive–emotional
experiences (e.g., feeling relaxed with a partner)
were part of women’s experiences with sexual
desire, and both groups described several triggers
for desire (e.g., physical touch by a partner; feeling
desired by a partner). Interestingly, sexual fantasies
were not present in women’s narrative descriptions
of their desire. Additionally, women identified sev-
eral factors that inhibited desire. For example,
thinking about their sexual difficulty inhibited
desire for the women with arousal disorder, whereas
partner factors such as depressed mood were identi-
fied more by women without sexual difficulties.
Women in both groups also described emotional
connection with a partner as a focus of their desire,
and both groups were motivated to continue sexual
activity once it began. This motivation was present
even though women reported that they did not initi-
ate the activity themselves or experience spontane-
ous desire when approached by their partner.
Notably, some women in both groups had difficulty
articulating their understanding of sexual desire,
with careful reflection helping to clarify the meaning
of desire.
Important implications arise out of such findings
and highlight the value of using mixed-method
research designs. In Brotto et al.’s (2009) study, for
example, reliance on self-report data would have
portrayed sexual desire as occurring with less fre-
quency and intensity in women with arousal diffi-
culties. Instead, however, by allowing women to
reflect on and describe their unique experiences
with desire, the narrative interviews demonstrated
that desire is experienced by women with and with-
out sexual difficulties and is often present (or damp-
ened) in response to several factors. Such findings
Brotto and Smith
234
highlight the complexities of female desire and sup-
port a model that includes responsive (triggered)
desire and accounts for contextual factors (e.g.,
Basson’s, 2001a, 2001b, model of sexual response).
In addition, these findings demonstrate that “what
may be deemed a ‘dysfunction’ on a questionnaire
item may not be a dysfunction in reality” (Brotto et
al., 2009, p. 396). The FSFI (Rosen et al., 2000), for
example, assesses desire using two items that quan-
tify the frequency and overall level of a woman’s
desire; in this way, it is likely to generate a negative
response from women with sexual difficulties and
does not capture the varying definitions of desire
that women themselves describe. In contrast, quali-
tative methods provide women with the opportunity
to thoroughly depict their personal desire experi-
ences and, in doing so, highlighted similarities
between women with and without sexual
difficulties.
Both of the studies described in this section cap-
tured rich data with the use of mixed methods. Such
data would not have been obtained if they had relied
only on self-report questionnaires or qualitative
interviews. Mixed-methods designs have offered
important insight into the lived experiences of wom-
en’s desire, and the use of combined methods assist
in the challenge to adequately define and conceptu-
alize sexual desire.
DIAGNOSTIC DILEMMAS
Although the conceptualization of sexual desire in
the DSM–IV–TR rests heavily on the HSRC model of
Masters and Johnson (1966), Kaplan (1977, 1979),
and Lief (1977), the definition’s focus on desire for
sexual activity and availability of fantasies as a sin
qua non has been harshly criticized. For one, critics
of Masters and Johnson’s model have noted that this
definition perpetuates the notion that sexual
response occurs in linear stages, that desire always
leads unidirectionally to arousal, and that the expe-
riences of sexual response in men and women are
equivalent (e.g., Basson, 2001a, 2001b; Tiefer,
1991). Moreover, this placement of sexual desire
within an internal combustion framework that
assumes that, like hunger and thirst, desire is an
internally generated need that must be quenched is
completely inaccurate (Laan & Both, 2008; Toates,
2009). The notion that sexual desire is spontaneous,
that it floats freely within individuals and propels
them toward sexual activity, is not supported by the
evidence; instead, much more support exists for
desire conceptualized within an incentive motiva-
tion model, which posits that all sexual desire is
responsive to internally generated and external sex-
ual cues and stimuli. For example, when Meston
and Buss (2007) asked university students about the
reasons for engaging in sex, “I was attracted to the
person” was the top reason for both women and
men. “I was horny,” capturing, perhaps, Kaplan’s
notion of spontaneous desire, was in seventh place
for both women and men (Meston & Buss, 2007).
Indeed, when women themselves were presented
with descriptions of prevailing models of sexual
desire (i.e., Masters and Johnson’s and Kaplan’s lin-
ear model of desire leading to arousal and Basson’s
circular model of responsive desire), significant dif-
ferences were found in how much women adopt the
different models (Sand & Fisher, 2007). In fact, only
those women with sexual difficulties, according to
the FSFI (Rosen et al., 2000), were more likely to
endorse Basson’s circular model of responsive desire
(Sand & Fisher, 2007); more recently, however,
others have found no differences in models of desire
adopted between women with and without sexual
difficulties (Giles & McCabe, 2009).
An expanded conceptualization of sexual desire
that captures the rich heterogeneity across individu-
als (Meana, 2010) has also been supported by stud-
ies that have probed individuals’ narrative stories of
sexual desire (see Chapter 6, this volume). For
example, qualitative research, both in women
(Brotto et al., 2009) and in men (Janssen et al.,
2008), has suggested that desire and arousal,
whether subjective arousal and excitement or physi-
ological, are often experienced along with sexual
desire. Interestingly, for at least some women, desire
and arousal are interchangeable concepts, and indi-
viduals express conflation between definitions of
desire and arousal (Brotto et al., 2009). As summa-
rized by Graham (2010), responses on self-report
questionnaires also show a significant positive
correlation between desire and arousal domains
(Graham, 2010), ranging from .52 to .85 when using
Sexual Desire and Pleasure
235
the FSFI (Brotto, Graham, et al., 2011). Because of
significant concerns about using an outdated model
of sexual response that privileges spontaneous desire
and assumes that desire for sexual activity captures
sexual desire for all individuals throughout their
lifetimes, a proposal has been made to undertake a
significant overhaul of the definition of desire adopted
in the DSM–IV–TR (Brotto, 2010b; Graham, 2010).
Whereas the DSM–IV–TR definition of HSDD
focuses on persistent or recurrent deficiency in sex-
ual fantasies and desire for sexual activity associated
with distress, it has been criticized as inadequately
capturing the experiences of women (Brotto,
2010b). Indeed, evidence has shown that women
adopt different models of sexual response, with
some noting that they enjoy the apparently sponta-
neous feelings of horniness that drive them to seek
out a sexual partner, and others instead endorsing
a model that emphasizes their receptivity to sexual
activity on the basis of a variety of nonsexual moti-
vations (Giles & McCabe, 2009; Sand & Fisher,
2007). Meana (2010) has also articulated that any
future diagnostic system that is to adequately, accu-
rately, and sensitively detect a desire disorder in
women must account for the large interindividual
variability in how desire is experienced and not lead
to overpathologizing because of low threshold crite-
ria. In an effort to approximate these goals, the Sex-
ual Dysfunctions subworkgroup for the fifth edition
of the DSM (DSM–5) proposed a number of changes,
the most notable of which were (a) that a polythetic
approach to desire disorder be adopted, (b) that
desire and arousal be captured together within a
larger sexual interest–arousal disorder spectrum,
(c) that objective indicators for frequency and dura-
tion be adopted, and (d) that important information
on contextual, personal, and interpersonal factors
that may determine the desire expression be assessed
and coded on a dimensional scale. The proposed cri-
teria for sexual interest/arousal disorder have been
published (Brotto, 2010b; Graham, 2010) and subse-
quently revised on the basis of feedback from the
larger scientific and clinical communities. However,
there has been no shortage of debate on the proposal
for sexual interest/arousal disorder, and final criteria
will not be available to the public until publication
of the DSM–5.
One criticism relates to the lack of sufficient evi-
dence that desire and arousal are necessarily over-
lapping or, according to the incentive motivation
model, two sides of the same sexual coin. This argu-
ment notes that evidence of high degrees of correla-
tion between two concepts is not grounds for
merging them (see Chapter 4, this volume). This
view also sees significant costs in “lumping” versus
“splitting” in that diagnostic precision may be sacri-
ficed. However, proponents of the effort to merge
desire and arousal disorders have suggested that just
as symptoms of desire and arousal have in the past
been separately assessed in research and clinical set-
tings, this will continue to be the case. Another con-
cern relates to the potential negative impact on
large-scale pharmaceutical trials that are nearing
completion. Given past failures of testosterone and
flibanserin to receive regulatory approval and ongo-
ing expensive efforts to develop and validate drugs
for the treatment of women’s low desire, a signifi-
cant concern exists that changing definitions of sex-
ual dysfunction would have a direct and deleterious
impact on drug development, which rests on which
definition of dysfunction is adopted.
An entirely different criticism of the current
diagnostic system has come from the feminist and
social constructionist perspective, which has noted
that the very context in which sexual dysfunction
diagnoses are made is inherently problematic. By
not recognizing the important impact of politics,
inadequate sex education, lack of access to preven-
tive health care services, culture, and unhealthy
sexual messages, to name but a few, clinicians are
likely to adopt a simplistic medical model view that
assumes that sexual dysfunction is rooted in biolog-
ical factors. Inadequate attention is given to the
relational nature of sexuality; thus, to diagnose a
sexual dysfunction in an individual is missing half
the story. By equating sex with dancing and not
with digestion, the inherent flaws in adopting a
medical model of desire disorder are obvious. More-
over, this critical feminist perspective, such as is
represented in the New View model, rejects the
notion of multiple sexual dysfunctions divided up
according to which aspect of function is impaired,
and it instead argues that sexual problems should
be categorized according to the factors that caused
Brotto and Smith
236
them (see Table 8.1). The advantages of the New
View model are that it avoids defining any one par-
ticular pattern of experience; focuses on causation,
which would guide treatment; and is sensitive to the
important influence of sociocultural, political, and
economic factors that influence sexual function. In
terms of adoption for the DSM–5, however, which
requires substantial empirical evidence to support
any major changes in diagnostic nomenclature, the
New View model has received only minimal empiri-
cal attention.
In a recent study that explored the extent to
which the New View framework corresponded with
women’s accounts of their sexual difficulties, an
open-ended questionnaire was administered to 49
women who were asked to describe their sexual dif-
ficulties in their own words (Nicholls, 2008). Quali-
tative analyses revealed that 67% of the difficulties
could be captured using the New View framework at
a subcategorical level. At a higher thematic level,
31% of categorized difficulties could not be catego-
rized at a lower, subcategory level. Overall, 98% of
the sexual issues could be classified under the New
View scheme. In support of the critical position that
the current DSM–IV–TR does not capture the rela-
tional nature of sexual experiences, Nicholls (2008)
found that 65% of problems were classified as prob-
lems relating to partner or relationship and only 7%
were problems resulting from medical factors. This
is, to date, the only empirical test of the New View
framework, and it must be borne in mind that
women may adopt different theoretical models to
account for their experiences of sexual desire (Sand
& Fisher, 2007).
FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR THE FIELD
Much remains unknown about the brain and sexual
desire. Imaging studies are few and sometimes pres-
ent conflicting findings that perhaps illustrate the
pivotal roles for sociocultural and contextual factors
in understanding desire. Within the study of central
mechanisms, preliminary support has been found
for the influence of the endocannabinoid system,
which is a worthwhile area to explore. Many men
and women suffer from personal and relational dis-
tress related to their lack of sexual desire. However,
it is clear that a strictly pharmacological approach,
at least in the case of women, may not capture the
intricacies of desire. Good evidence has been found
for the role of psychological treatments, including
CBT and mindfulness-based therapy. However, the
placebo response is also evident in this domain of
study, and the extent to which benefits arise from
the treatment itself, or from nonspecific factors such
as having an empathic clinician, thinking about
one’s sexuality more, or the improved communica-
tion between a couple that may accompany partici-
pation in treatment, is unknown and is an important
domain of future study. How desire is expressed
among different ethnocultural groups has been
almost completely ignored and is a major gap that
future researchers should study. Further insight into
the relative contributions of brain and body versus
culture and psychology to desire, and more evidence
for treatments to enhance sexual desire among those
who mourn its loss, will ultimately shed light on one
of the most puzzling unanswered questions, namely,
what sexual desire is.
CONCLUSION
Desire has been and continues to be one of the most
enigmatic of human sexual experiences. Although
science has advanced markedly and allowed the field
to better understand the biochemical, neurological,
behavioral, psychological, and sociocultural aspects
of sexual desire, much remains to be known. There
has been abundant media attention focused on sex-
ual desire and an intense pharmaceutical presence in
the quest to find an elixir for low desire, and we
expect even greater advances in the decade ahead
of us. One certainty exists in understanding sexual
desire: In anyone’s hands, sexual desire is indeed
a slippery concept.
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... To better understand these negative outcomes, researchers have begun to evaluate how passion expression (Rosenberg & Kraus, 2014) and desire (Carvalho, Štulhofer, Vieiera, & Jurin, 2015) in the sexual domain are associated with both frequency of pornography use and perception of compulsion. However, theoretical advancements highlighting multiple aspects of sexual desire (Brotto & Smith, 2014;Levine, 1987) and sexual passion expression (Busby et al. 2019a, b) are yet to be tested in how they may uniquely predict both frequency of use and perceived compulsivity to pornography. The manner in which someone expresses their sexuality likely influences the manner in which pornography is used. ...
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... Although gender is not a major focus of the study, it is important to consider as studies have suggested some differences between how women and men perceive pornography Willoughby & Busby, 2016). Additionally, gender differences exist in evaluation of sexual desire (Brotto & Smith, 2014), sexual passion expression (Busby et al., 2019a), and pornography consumption (Carroll et al., 2008). We therefore asked the broad question (RQ1) "are these results consistent between men and women?" ...
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... Sexual desire is also important to consider as a relationship factor. Sexual desire has had many conceptualizations, some focusing specifically on the sexual desire felt toward a specific partner, while others have focused more on a general, biologically driven sexual desire (Brotto & Smith, 2014;Levine, 1987). Although these two factors overlap, when evaluated simultaneously they likely produce different outcomes (Brotto & Smith, 2014, Levine, 1987, especially when the outcome of interest is sexual passion directed toward a committed partner. ...
... Sexual desire has had many conceptualizations, some focusing specifically on the sexual desire felt toward a specific partner, while others have focused more on a general, biologically driven sexual desire (Brotto & Smith, 2014;Levine, 1987). Although these two factors overlap, when evaluated simultaneously they likely produce different outcomes (Brotto & Smith, 2014, Levine, 1987, especially when the outcome of interest is sexual passion directed toward a committed partner. In fact, when sexual desire and sexual drive are evaluated simultaneously in a model, the leftover variance for sexual drive might even tap into sexual interest outside of the committed sexual relationship. ...
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This study examined women’s perceptions of the impact of FM on a broad range of aspects of their sexual well-being as well as on their romantic and sexual relationship. Participants were 16 women diagnosed with FM currently in a romantic relationship living in North America who participated in a semi-structured interview. Inductive thematic analysis identified four themes: (1) Do I want to have sex? That’s a complicated question; (2) The impact of FM on women’s sexual well-being is not uniform; (3) It’s about more than sex and more than just me; (4) Elements that ameliorate or exacerbate the effect of FM’s on SWB. Together, these results point to the variability and complexity of the effects of FM on women’s sexual well-being. The results are discussed in terms of the importance of assessing and addressing a wide range of aspects of the SWB of women with FM.
... Communal dyadic interactions, representing caregiving-related aspects of being a subject in this domain, also seem to have positive effects on dyadic sexual desire. For example, beneficial effects on sexual desire have been reported for engaging in opportunities for couple growth (Brotto & Smith, 2014), deliberately investing in the couple relationship, "breaking the routine, doing something different and exposing the couple to new, positive experiences" (Ferreira et al., 2015, p. 313), and accepting that one's partner is a different person with different needs. Further, in the study with married couples discussed earlier (Brezsnyak & Whisman, 2004), husbands' and wives' dyadic sexual desire also benefited from high levels of egalitarianism, which reflects an even distribution of power among partners. ...
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In most theoretical models, sexual desire for one’s partner is predominantly conceptualized from an individual perspective. There is, however, a growing body of empirical evidence on the dyadic aspects of sexual desire. That evidence is as yet not well-integrated into theoretical conceptualizations of sexual desire. Aiming to fill this gap, we present the Dyadic Interactions Affecting DyadIC Sexual desire model (DIADICS), a new conceptual model inspired by systems theory that describes how dyadic interactions between partners influence dyadic sexual desire in romantic relationships. After defining dyadic sexual desire, we discuss (1) the structure of dyadic interactions, (2) their content, and (3) the process through which they affect dyadic sexual desire in a romantic relationship. Thereafter, we review theoretical, clinical, and empirical insights underscoring the relation between dyadic interactions and (dyadic) sexual desire, use DIADICS as a framework for understanding fluctuations in dyadic sexual desire in long-term relationships, and conclude by discussing implications of DIADICS for research and clinical practice.
... An additional complication, more frequently discussed by psychologists than by medical and health professionals, is the difficulty of defining and measuring as complex a phenomenon as sexual pleasure, along with similarly complex phenomena, such as sexual desire and sexual satisfaction (Brotto & Smith, 2014). Orgasm is one of the most frequently assessed indices of sexual pleasure, but it is not the only one, and few studies have attempted to determine whether different forms of sexual pleasure, experienced under different circumstances, have unique health consequences. ...
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... While many scholars have linked pornography use to changing expectations and scripts related to sexuality, 3,11 no studies have explored links between pornography and non-intercourse sexual behavior such as oral sex or the use of sex toys (behaviors common in mainstream pornography), among romantic couples. Furthermore, despite sexual desire being an important correlate of healthy sexual functioning, 12 few studies have explored associations between pornography use and sexual desire among romantic couples. The present study sought to address these limitations by exploring associations between pornography use, sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, and a range of sexual behaviors among a dyadic sample of heterosexual couples. ...
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