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.

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. Basically, low sexual desire (HSDD) and the inability to experience or maintain sexual arousal (sexual arousal disorder) 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

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 is often prescribed. While this is an approved drug therapy for this problem, there are some risks and side effects that come with this treatment. For this reason, a personal lubricant purchased from your local pharmacy may be your safest option.

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). Addyi is a pill that must be taken every day and it's advisable to stay away from alcohol while on it because fainting can occur.

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. You should not feel ashamed to seek out treatment or behavioral therapy for it, as they can be very beneficial. Talk to your doctor to find the solution that best serves you.

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