In a culture so obsessed with sex, hookups and Tinder, it can be easy to question your own libido. Is it too low? Too high? Just right? And is thinking about sex all the time normal?
Fear not: You’re probably fine. Sex drive is a spectrum, which means there is no universal “normal” when it comes to how often someone wants to have sex, says Bradley Anawalt, M.D., an endocrinologist who specializes in low testosterone and male fertility.
“Doctors struggle enough to define normal sexual activity, so it would be impossible to say someone has a normal or abnormal sex drive, except perhaps on extremes,” Anawalt says.
On one end of the extreme, he means the absence of any sexual desire—and not because someone identifies as asexual. On the other end is sex addiction, though some experts argue there is not enough evidence to classify compulsive or hyperactive sexual behavior as an addiction.
Some people might want sex multiple times a week. Others, once a month or less. Variation is normal, Anawalt says, because sex drive is influenced by a plethora of things—not just hormones.
Even if you don’t want to have sex all the time, you might still think about it all the time. Millennials supposedly invented hookup culture but are actually having less sex than older generations. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it—a lot. For most people, thinking about sex daily is still the norm, says Anawalt.
“As you get older, sex drive may decline, but it’s not something that disappears completely,” he says.
For Anawalt, your libido is only a problem if you’re unhappy with it. If you think you have a low libido (or a high libido) and are bothered by it, that’s when you should talk with a doctor. (Or if your partner is complaining about your lack of enthusiasm—something that has brought more than one patient to Anawalt’s office before.)
Let’s get one stereotype out of the way: Men don’t want sex at dramatically higher rates than women. In general, men and women tend to think about sex equally as often, though the thought processes of individual people obviously differ.
The true difference is in the way people define sex, Anawalt says. Men tend to define the act by a familiar formula: erection, orgasm and ejaculation. Women’s definitions are broader, in part because most women don’t have the same kinds of visual cues for sexual arousal.
Even then, there isn’t as strong a link between sexual desire and sexual arousal for women, research shows. Women can be sexually aroused without actually wanting to have sex—and vice versa.
Men are also more visual when it comes to sex, says Anawalt. Though research has found that visual sexual stimuli activate the same neural network in both men and women, men’s brains respond more strongly.
The sway of hormones…or not
Three hormones are related to interest in sex: Testosterone, estrogen and oxytocin. Contrary to popular belief, testosterone is not only important for men and estrogen only important for women.
Testosterone increases someone’s desire for sex; in men, it actually needs to be converted into estrogen by the body to have its full effect, Anawalt says. Estrogen is also important for women because it helps prevent vaginal dryness, which can make sex painful. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “cuddle hormone” because it makes you want to physically connect with someone after sex, instead of looking for the door.
Interestingly, however, hormones alone are not as powerful in determining libido as we typically think they are.
“Hormones tend to be a tiny component of sex drive,” Anawalt says.
What does play a big role in affecting libido? Pretty much anything else, actually.
Past experiences (good or bad), availability of a willing sexual partner, physical and mental health, what stage you’re at in your relationship—all of these things, and more, can affect someone’s libido, Anawalt says.
Medications can have a particularly powerful effect, says Anawalt. Antidepressants prevent the brain from reabsorbing serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that play a role in libido. Conversely, people who are on medication for Parkinson’s disease may be more interested in sex because the dopamine in their brain is being constantly replenished, Anawalt says.
And, though we don’t like to admit it, sex is also a habit we can slack off on—kind of like exercise. Part of what makes us want to exercise more is just going and, for lack of a better phrase, doing it, even when we aren’t completely enthusiastic about it.
“Sex is a physical activity, like taking a shower or going for a walk or stretching, except there are more barriers to it. When you exercise, that’s between you and yourself. With sex, another person is involved—a person who maybe insulted you yesterday, for instance. There are all these variables,” Anawalt says.
And, like any activity, if you aren’t feeling good about it after the fact for whatever reason, that can create a negative feedback loop that prevents you from wanting to participate again, Anawalt says.
Instead of worrying about whether you’re “normal” or not, recognize that sex drive can fluctuate, and that there is a broad spectrum of what’s considered normal to doctors.
After all, as Anawalt says: “Sex is complicated.”