Too Stressed for Sex?

Why stress hurts women's sex drives but has the opposite effect on men

by Ginny Graves

Men's libidos remain strong no matter how pressured they feel. Not so for women, whose sexual response is much more nuanced and complicated, it turns out. But skipping sex is not a healthy solution, warn social scientists, who have ideas about how to help.

Carolyn, 44, a married education professor at a university in Northern California, likes the idea of sex. She says it makes her feel attractive and she appreciates how it brings her closer to her husband, Jeffrey. But when it's 10:30 at night and he gives her those bedroom eyes, "I cringe inside," she says. "I feel bad, but having sex is often the last thing I want to do."

The problem, she says, is that the competing demands of her life -- a fast-paced career, an hour-long commute, two school-age kids with packed schedules of their own, hours of volunteer work in their classrooms -- take a steep toll on both her energy and her libido. Last year Carolyn started getting up at 4 a.m. to grade her students' papers, but she admits it's not a happy solution. "Now I'm tired and cranky as well as stressed -- especially at night. My brain must be going a million miles an hour, worrying about all the things I haven't gotten done, and I just can't shut it off," she says ruefully. "That's not exactly an aphrodisiac."

Jeffrey, 51, is sympathetic -- up to a point. He, too, has a stressful job (as a psychologist at a state mental hospital, where he often puts in 10-hour days), a long commute of his own, and never-ending projects on their fixer-upper house. None of that, however, puts a damper on his sex drive. "When I'm stressed, sex is what I want most, because it's completely relaxing," he says. "I could be outside in a snowstorm surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves and I'd still be in the mood. So it's hard for me to understand why she can't just let it go."

Carolyn and Jeffrey are a contemporary version of the Jack Sprats. They have incompatible appetites -- for sex. It's a problem that, by many accounts, has reached epidemic proportions across the country.

Low desire affects at least one partner in one of every three marriages, according to marriage therapist Michele Weiner Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple's Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido. "Research seems to suggest that about 20 percent of married couples have sex fewer than 10 times a year," she says. "There's no prescription for a healthy sex life, but I think it's safe to say that at that rate there's probably one unhappy spouse who wishes for more."

Women, Sex, and Marriage
Unfortunately, most studies show it's women who are likely to lose that loving feeling. In a national survey of more than 3,000 people between the ages of 18 and 59, researchers at the University of Chicago found that 22 percent of women have low sexual desire compared with just 5 percent of men. Since then, thanks in part to the success of Viagra and similar drugs among men, doctors and researchers have set about uncovering the physical causes of women's sexual lows.

But the problem has proved stubbornly resistant to quick fixes, leading a growing number of experts to believe that the cause may lie not in our bodies but in our overextended, overstimulated and overscheduled lives. When Carol Rinkleib Ellison, a clinical psychologist in Oakland, California, surveyed more than 2,600 women for a recent book,Women's Sexualities , she found that, of the 1,600-plus participants who said they had a major sexual concern, 34 percent named lack of desire as the No. 1 issue -- a problem that many blamed on fatigue and emotional overload. "Clearly, there's not a pill, cream, or spray that's going to cure that," Ellison says.

Men's sex drives seem to be less affected by outside pressures. Researchers at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, in Bloomington, Indiana, recently found that stress and anxiety lessened desire for 28 percent of the 919 men they surveyed, but they also found that nearly as many -- 21 percent -- said it actually increased their interest in sex.

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