Differences Between Sexual Arousal and Desire

It's easy to conflate libido with arousal. After all, if you feel satisfied with your sex life, these aspects of your sexuality can be difficult to separate from one another. In actuality, libido refers to your baseline interest in sex, and may also be referred to as your sexual appetite or desire.

Couple In Bed, Gazing Into Each Other's Eyes
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Arousal, on the other hand, refers to your physiological response to sexual stimuli. Physical manifestations of sexual arousal include vaginal lubrication and increased blood flow to the labia, clitoris, and vagina.

Sexual desires in women tend to fluctuate throughout their lifetimes, and there are many different causative factors. Low sexual desire, called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), and the inability to experience or maintain sexual arousal (sexual arousal disorders) are quite common. Studies say that nearly half of all women experience at least one symptom of sexual dysfunction at some point.

Difficulties with Sexual Desire and Arousal

The current diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), classifies problems with arousal and desire together, under the term Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorders (FSAID).

Women with FSAID may experience a decrease in their desire for sex and may not initiate sex or be responsive to initiation attempts. They may also notice that they are not easily (or even ever) aroused and that excitement or pleasure during sex is reduced.

A woman must meet three out of the six criteria set out by the DSM to receive a FSAID diagnosis—all of which revolve around one's interest and response to sexual activity.

Diagnostic Criteria for FSAID

  • Absent or reduced interest in sexual activity
  • Absent or reduced sexual thoughts or fantasies
  • No or reduced initiation of sexual activity, and typically unreceptive to a partner’s attempts to initiate
  • Absent or reduced sexual excitement or pleasure in almost all or all sexual encounters
  • Absent or reduced sexual interest/arousal in response to any internal or external sexual cues
  • Absent or reduced genital or non-genital sensations during sexual activity in all or almost all sexual encounters
  • The problem causes clinically significant distress
  • The sexual dysfunction is not better explained by a non-sexual mental health disorder, relationship distress, or the effects of a substance/medication or another medical condition.

How to Increase Sexual Arousal Levels

One of the symptoms of decreased sexual arousal in women is a reduced amount of vaginal lubrication. Over-the-counter vaginal lubricants can augment lubrication.

If a decrease in vaginal lubrication has been caused by menopause, hormone replacement therapy may be prescribed. While this is an approved drug therapy for this problem, there are some risks and side effects that come with this treatment. However, topical estrogen cream can be a very safe and effective treatment for this condition.

Viagra (sildenafil) and a class of medications called alpha-adrenergic blockers, such as Regitine (phentolamine), have also been shown to increase vaginal lubrication in response to sexual stimulation. However, it should be mentioned that multiple studies on Viagra for various female sexual problems have not shown an increase in sexual pleasure in women, and it has still not been approved by the FDA for use with women.

Aside from pharmacological solutions, you can also choose behavioral therapy to help increase sexual arousal. This therapy is aimed at enhancing sexual fantasies and focusing one's attention on sexual stimuli. If you are in an ongoing relationship, your therapist would also take a look at the possibility that communication problems exist in your relationship, or that your partner does not spend as much time as is needed to sexually stimulate you.

How to Increase Sexual Desire Levels

Addyi (flibanserin) is FDA-approved for the treatment of low sexual desire (HSDD) as well as acquired HSDD.

In clinical trials, Addyi had small but meaningful positive effects on women with HSSD.

Addyi's labeling currently includes a boxed warning (the strongest warning the FDA requires) which states alcohol must be avoided in women treated with Addyi.

Vyleesi, an injectable drug, has also been approved for the treatment of low sexual desire in pre-menopausal women. This drug is for women who previously had more satisfying levels of sexual desire but now experience low sexual desire. It is not for those whose low sexual desire is caused by other factors like an underlying medical condition or medication.

There have also been studies indicating that testosterone can increase sexual desire in women whose low sex drive is a result of the surgical removal of their ovaries. Continual treatment with testosterone does, however, have side effects and health risks.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing problems with sexual desire and/or arousal is something many women go through at some point or the other.

It's important to keep in mind that low sexual desire/arousal is only a concern if it's causing significant distress. If someone isn't bothered by it, then it is not considered a disorder or a problem.

You should not feel ashamed to seek out treatment or behavioral therapy for HSSD. Talk to your healthcare provider to find the solution that is most suitable for you.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th edition. Washington DC: 2013.

  3. Lo Monte G, Graziano A, Piva I, Marci R. Women taking the "blue pill" (sildenafil citrate): such a big dealDrug Des Devel Ther. 2014;8:2251-2254. doi:10.2147/DDDT.S71227

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Drug trials snapshots: Addyi

  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA orders important safety labeling changes for Addyi.

  6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves new treatment for hypoactive sexual desire disorder in premenopausal women.

  7. AlAwlaqi A, Amor H, Hammadeh ME. Role of hormones in hypoactive sexual desire disorder and current treatmentJ Turk Ger Gynecol Assoc. 2017;18(4):210-218. doi:10.4274/jtgga.2017.0071

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.