How do you feel about your own sex drive? Do you think it’s too high, too low, or just about right?
I recently posed this question to my Instagram followers, and they were split on the answer. Just over half (56%) said they think it’s about right, while 20% said they think it’s too high and 24% said they think it’s too low.
Admittedly, this wasn’t a scientific survey, but the findings track with data from other sources. For instance, in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Sex Research involving more than 35,000 participants, 28% of men reported experiencing difficulty with hyperactive (i.e., high) libido, whereas 19% of women reported experiencing difficulty with hypoactive (i.e., low) libido.
For comparison purposes, this study found that 4% of men reported difficulties with low sexual desire, while 10% of women reported difficulties with high sexual desire.
All of this suggests that it’s common for people to think their sex drive is out of whack, although men are more likely to think theirs is unusually high and women are more likely to think theirs is unusually low.
This raises the important question of what it really means to have a “high” or “low” sex drive in the first place. After all, what seems high to one person might seem low to another and vice versa. Also, it’s perfectly normal for one’s sex drive to ebb and flow across time and age, which adds further complexity to the question of what it means to have high or low libido.
So, what do you need to know here? Let’s look at what the research says.
What Does It Mean to be “Hypersexual?”
Sex therapists have had a difficult time coming up with a clinical definition of “hypersexuality.” This is the term most often used to describe a high sex drive that causes problems or distress for an individual. Hypersexuality is not an actual diagnosis in the DSM-5 (the psychiatry bible) and it is a controversial term among therapists. No one can really seem to agree on what it means.
For example, I have seen some studies defining it in terms of the number of orgasms one has in an average week. One source pegs it as having 7 or more weekly orgasms (i.e., one climax a day on average). However, this is a completely arbitrary criterion that’s going to lump many folks into the “problem” category who may not have any actual problems in their sex lives.
Using number of orgasms as a diagnostic tool is also problematic for assessing high sex drive, given that not everyone consistently has orgasms.
Because of these issues, hypersexuality is more commonly defined in terms of subjective psychological impact. Specifically, do you think your sex drive is too high, and does this bother you? Is your sex drive causing problems in your everyday life? This approach has its own issues, though, because a lot of people with totally normal sex drives feel distressed about them anyway.
For example, people with higher sex drives are sometimes shamed for wanting “too much” sex by their partners. Thus, high sex drive itself often isn’t the problem, it’s the way that person has been led to feel about their libido.
To illustrate this point, consider that when you have a higher-libido person partnered with a lower-libido person, the partner with less desire for sex might shame the other for wanting sex “too much.” However, the real issue here may simply be a sexual desire discrepancy (i.e., a relationship mismatch) in which both partners are in the normal range for desire, but just aren’t on the same page about how much sex they’d like to have.
What Does It Mean to be “Hyposexual?”
While hypersexuality is not an official DSM diagnosis, hyposexuality is. Technically, it goes by different names based on the gender of the patient (i.e., male hypoactive sexual desire disorder vs. female sexual interest/arousal disorder), but the criteria are similar and generally revolve around being distressed about having persistent, low levels of desire for sex and having few sexual thoughts.
Again, however, there is some subjectivity here because there is no specific frequency of sexual activity or desire attached to it—and clinicians consider things like a person’s age and cultural context in making the diagnosis.
It is also the case that some people who show up for therapy or help with low sex drive have been made to feel like their sex drive is “too low” by a partner when it is actually in the normal range. Sex shaming can go both ways.
Is High/Low Sex Drive the Symptom or the Cause of Problems?
Both hypersexuality and hyposexuality are often labeled as problems but these libido issues are often the symptom of other problems in people’s lives, and not necessarily the root cause of sexual dissatisfaction and distress.
For example, some mood disorders can prompt a sudden increase in sexual interest and behavior, such as when sex becomes a coping mechanism for depression Likewise, someone in a manic state may experience a sudden burst in sexual activity and desire.
At the same time, mood disorders can also precipitate a decrease in sexual desire and behavior, such as when a depressed person copes by social withdrawing and turning inward. The link between sex and depression is complex, and it can impact different people in different ways.
Either way, however, if a mood disorder (or drug treatment for a mood disorder) is the actual cause of high or low sex drive, attempts to change libido without addressing the underlying health condition are likely to be futile.
Thus, desiring sex often is not inherently a problem, just as desiring sex infrequently is not inherently a problem, either. When someone feels distressed about high or low levels of sexual desire, it is vital to thoroughly explore where that distress is coming from because sometimes the real problem is masked.
Libido problems sometimes stem from bigger psychological issues and health conditions, stress, sexual shame or other problems in one’s sex life (e.g., dissatisfying sex can lead to a drop-off in desire), as well as a number of other things. This isn’t to say that libido itself is never the problem, it’s just that the source of libido issues is complex.
What to do When You Feel Distressed About Your Libido
Chances are that your sex drive is normal. Some people want a lot of sex, while others only want it a little—and some people don’t want any sex at all. These can all be normal and healthy things!
An important thing to consider when thinking about your own sex drive is what your baseline libido is. Make the comparison to your own norm, as opposed to comparing it to that of others because that’s where the perception problems tend to start. Have you noticed a significant and persistent change in what your libido previously was? I’m not suggesting that you compare your mid-life libido to your teenage libido, of course. Rather, the question to ask yourself is whether it is different now than it was, say, 6 months or a year ago.
If you feel as though your sex drive has swung too high or has gotten “out of control,” if you experience a steep or near-complete loss in desire, or if you are otherwise distressed about your level of sexual desire, your best bet is to talk to a licensed, certified therapist to identify whether a problem exists and, if so, what the cause is.
A therapist can help you to better understand your own sexuality and determine the most appropriate treatment plan in a shame-free environment. And in cases where partners are experiencing a sexual desire discrepancy due to mismatched libidos, couple’s therapy might be the key to opening up productive conversations and seeking mutually agreeable solutions.
How do you find a certified professional? Visit this page for a roundup of links to several therapist locator tools.
Hendrickx, L., Gijs, L., & Enzlin, P. (2014). Prevalence rates of sexual difficulties and associated distress in heterosexual men and women: Results from an Internet survey in Flanders. Journal of sex research, 51(1), 1-12.
Lehmiller, J. J. (2017). The psychology of human sexuality. John Wiley & Sons.
Ley, D. J. (2012). The myth of sex addiction. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Peters, J. R., Pullman, L. E., Kingston, D. A., & Lalumière, M. L. (2022). Orgasm Frequency (Total Sexual Outlet) in a National American Sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 51(3), 1447-1460.