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Dear Roe, I’m a 25-year-old woman, and I’ve been with my boyfriend for nearly a year and a half. Generally, we have a great relationship, apart from one aspect that’s causing me a lot of stress, and I assume he isn’t too pleased with either: I have no sex drive. I’ve never been overly sexual, but in the first stages of a relationship, I’m usually pretty game.

This is the longest relationship I’ve had, and I don’t know if it’s that or something else, but I’ve just completely lost interest in sex. It worries me, because my female friends are always talking about how much they enjoy sex and their high sex drives, so it makes me feel like a freak and a failure that I’m not interested.

Any conversations about our relationships now makes me anxious. At this stage, my boyfriend and I are having sex about every two weeks, and I’ve started coming up with excuses not to be over at his place late so I don’t have to let him down again. Can you give me some advice?

You know what jumps out to me the most about your question? That nowhere do you indicate that anyone apart from you is stressing or judging you for your sex drive. You say you “assume” your boyfriend isn’t too pleased, but given how anxious you are about the situation, I know that had he ever given you one iota of an indication that he was feeling neglected, you would have registered and overanalysed it to within an inch of your (sex) life.

So, first thing first.

Breathe. Now repeat after me: having a low libido is not a problem. Again, for the cheap seats in the back: having a low libido is not a problem. What is causing you grief is your idea that your libido is incompatible with not only your boyfriend, but society’s expectations of what your libido ;should be – and ironically, it’s your anxiety that’s sabotaging your relationships, not your low sex drive. You’re shutting dialogue down and creating distance between yourself and your friends and yourself and your boyfriend, which is not healthy.

I can’t blame you for being anxious though. Attitudes regarding women’s libidos and men’s expectations of sex are at a unique point culturally. We’re still recovering from the hangover of patriarchal assumptions that women have no interest in sex, and we’re also seeing the Sex -the-City-ification of sexual discourse, which is so determined to espouse the value of the female sex drive that now if you have a low libido, you’re seen as a prude.

The truth is that some people just have low sex drives – and, by the way, having sex once a fortnight isn’t freakishly little, particularly when you and your boyfriend aren’t living together. So let’s nick the notion that that in and of itself is an issue, and look at what to do if your sex drive seems to be incompatible with your partner’s.

The traditional model for sex has five phases: desire, excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. Sometimes this order comes differently to people – but you can still work with it.

Some people need to actually be aroused in order to start moving through the stages. They initially mightn’t feel desire, but have an openness and willingness, so foreplay is initiated – then desire begins to kick in. So a low libido may just be a delay in desire, rather than not wanting sex at all or not enjoying sex.

(TO ANY ASSHOLES OUT THERE: Note the “willingness and openness” clause. This column is not an excuse to pressure people into having sex with a sleazy, “It’ll feel good later.”)

It’s also important for your sexual well-being that you feel sexual and sexy, so take some time to focus on yourself. Exercising, working on body-positivity and self-esteem, and masturbating by yourself are all important. Masturbating takes the pressure off pleasing someone else and allows you to focus on your own body and desire, and can also kick-start your desire for sex with your partner.

While I’m reluctant to problematise anyone’s sex drive, I would be negligent if I did not mention that there are some external factors that could be influencing your sex drive. Depression and anxiety can cause your libido to plummet. Given the stress and internalised judgment indicated in your letter, I’d encourage you to examine whether there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to your stress and your low sex drive.

Thyroid disease, medications such as anti-depressants, diet and a multitude of other medical reasons can also affect your sex drive and have easy remedies, from altering medications to exercising more. While having a low sex drive isn’t a problem, it can be a side-effect of something else, so it’s worth chatting with your GP to see if there could be any underlying causes.

And, most importantly: don’t shut down with your partner or your friends. It’s important for your partner to know that you’re not rejecting him or emotionally pulling away from him. You may also get some much-needed reassurance from him that your sex drive isn’t a problem – and if he does put any guilt or pressure on you, well, that’s a handy little sign that maybe you should be looking for someone a bit more compassionate and understanding. Because let’s face it – that’s sexy as hell.

Dear Roe, I’m going on a package holiday for a fortnight with the girls. Body-positivity doesn’t come easily to me, and I’m dreading hanging around on sun chairs covered in a kaftan and being miserable when all I want to do is run around in the surf. I didn’t diet for a beach body. Any last-minute coping tips for dealing with the inevitable stress of being pale and chubby on the strip?

My darling Beachy Keen, I don’t know you. I don’t know what you look like, I don’t know whether your assessment of yourself as being “pale and chubby” is accurate, or merely a result of the enforced body hatred that our culture demands in women. But I know this: you don’t have to diet for a beach body. You have a beach body. Because you’re going to the beach. And you have a body.

(Unless this is one of those disembodied spirits plaguing me with questions again – dammit ghouls, get out of here!)

The best advice I can give anyone struggling to accept their body, or themselves is this: imagine you are your best friend in the world. Now, anytime you have a negative, doubting, body-hating thought in your mind, imagine someone else was saying these things about your best friend. You’d rush to defend her, right?

You’d look at this shining, glorious, spirited woman, with this wondrous body filled with strength and experience and potential – such incredible potential – and you’d rue the day society ever thought to value women for some arbitrary and ever-changing standard of beauty. You’d look at history and art, and look at the revered beauty of those pale, chubby women immortalised in Botticelli and Rubens pictures, and realise how bodies are celebrated and worshipped for different reasons over time.

You’d look at the past few years, when body features like big asses have been seen as “trendy” – ignoring the fact that women with these body types, particularly women of colour, have therefore previously been deemed “untrendy” and thus less worthy or valuable in the past, all down to these arbitrary trends. You’d realise that these “fashions” of body, these unattainable and inherently exclusive ideals are now – always have been – used to dehumanise and “other” women, to pitch women’s bodies, sexuality and their social “worth” against each other.

You’d realise that the constant judging of women’s bodies not only keeps misogyny alive and well among the patriarchy at large, making women feel so self-conscious and unworthy that they’re not even comfortable being out in the world, on the beach, in their bodies. You’d realise that this misogyny afflicts women too, making us judge each other, both to make ourselves feel better and worse in this system that doesn’t allow us  control or power.

You’d also take a moment and realise the futility of valuing bodies for how they look, rather than appreciating what they do. You’d realise that wherever you go – whether to some glorious sun-kissed beach or to somewhere else – your body is going to be the vessel that takes you there. You’d realise that that body of yours that you’re so quick to hide and criticise and feel ashamed of not only lets you move, lets you feel, lets you touch, lets you be touched, lets you reach towards people and experiences and sex and affection and beauty and experience and your goddamn life – but wants you to.

So treat yourself and your body like you would your best friend. Take care of it, make sure it’s healthy, be kind and generous to it, recognise its incredible qualities – and make a pact with it. Promise to work with it to have the best possible life you could have. And though you can allow yourself bad days, you won’t allow insecurity and shame to overcome you, and you won’t allow patriarchal standards to prevent you from living bravely and fiercely and beautifully.

Then, when you’ve made this pact with yourself, make it with other women. Promise not to shame or criticise other women’s bodies; not to look for perceived flaws but rather for the all-so-obvious perfections. Run with this pact; carry it like a flaming torch and pass it to other women, with a shared battle cry, a subconscious whisper, an embodied manifesto that will ripple and shake through women everywhere, just as our bodies ripple and shake. Let your body move you through your life, and, in so doing, start your own movement.

Start your own tiny, powerful movement, in your body, on a beach.

Send us a postcard.

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Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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