There’s a lot of talk these days about how arousal and desire are part of any healthy sex life. While there is nothing wrong with not wanting to have sex, it can put a strain on your relationship if you and your partner have different levels of desire. Feeling like your libido is lower than it should be can also damage your self-esteem, making you reluctant to even try engaging in sex. Additionally, your low sex drive can affect your partner, who might start feeling like they’re undesirable or you’re not communicating something.
If low libido is having a negative impact on your life, it’s important to not shy away from treating it. You should always talk to your doctor if you suspect a medical problem, but in this article we’ll talk to Lise Martin of the Seattle Women’s and Moms’ Clinic about how to boost your libido through scent and touch.
What is Libido?
Your libido is your sex drive. Saying you have a high libido is another way of saying you want to have a lot of sex; saying you have a low libido means you don’t want to have a lot of sex. A whole host of things can affect your libido, from physical factors such as hormonal changes to psychological and relationship issues. Many women, of all ages and relationship statuses, struggle with low libido — but it’s important to remember that “low” just means lower than you want. If you are happy with your libido level, then there is nothing wrong with it.
What Causes Low Libido in Women?
Struggling with low libido, as one-third of women do at some point in their lives, can make you feel left out and down on yourself. While low libido is often associated with middle age and menopause, there are actually a variety of reasons that women can suffer from it, including normal hormonal changes, stress, anxiety, relationship issues, certain medicines and contraceptives, and a history of trauma.
Libido is a spectrum, and your level can change from day to day. According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine (ISSM), “It’s not unusual for a woman’s libido to drop from time to time. Hormonal changes, medication side effects, and stress can all dampen the sex drive. But these periods are usually temporary and libido returns.” However, one in 10 women suffers from an extreme form of libido loss. Dubbed Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), this chronic condition happens when a woman loses all interest in sex and is very distressed about it. Remember though, you’re the one who decides how low is low. If you’re not feeling distressed, you don’t have HSDD.
Whether you get diagnosed with HSDD or not, low libido can be exacerbated by certain medications, stress, and hormonal changes such as menopause and breastfeeding. If you think there might be a physical cause for your low libido, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor and talk about appropriate treatments.
Sexual trauma can also cause issues with libido and sexual desire. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a staggering one in three women will have experienced some form of sexual trauma at some point in their lives. Many OB-GYNs treat women who have experienced sexual trauma, and whose past experiences can trigger chronic pelvic pain, dyspareunia, vaginismus, non-specific vaginitis, and other issues in the present. If you have experienced trauma, tell your doctor; the better they understand your history, the better they can help you find the right treatment, including giving you referrals for mental health care if needed.
Advice on Boosting Female Libido with Lise Martin, ARNP
Lise Martin, a registered nurse practitioner, is the clinic director and care provider at the Seattle Women’s and Moms’ Clinic. Martin didn’t start out wanting to focus on women’s health, but realized in medical school that it was a calling, not just a career. And indeed it does seem like a calling when you listen to her speak about her work. Her voice lights up as she talks about working with women and their health — empowering, educating, and providing solutions to problems.
For her, practicing women’s health medicine is all about turning a medicalized conversation about sexual health towards one about learning how patients can love themselves, their bodies, and their sexuality.
GCL: Who do you treat and why? Can you tell us about how physical and psychological issues might affect libido?
LM: Currently most of my patients are young adults. The youngest are about 18 and they stop around 65-ish. A lot of my patients are referred to me for specialty things or they come to me for a wellness exam. They find our website and we’re in their insurance network, they like the way we practice, and they don’t even realize that I have a niche specialty market as well. They’ll say things like, “Oh you treat that! Let’s go over that, as well!”
Sometimes people come in and they don’t know they have problems. Like they’ll come in for an IUD insertion because they’ve been referred and I’ll be doing the pelvic exam and say something like, “Oh have you been treated for, say, lichen sclerosus?” And they’re like, “Wait what?” I’ll grab the mirror and show them and say, “See, you have these skin changes. Have you ever noticed that?” Sometimes, and this hurts my heart when I think about it, they’ll say, “Oh well I was at my gynecologist four months ago and they did an STD screen and everything came back negative. They didn’t say anything about it.”
We have so many issues in women’s health that are under-served that women don’t even know about. I have a lot of patients who are also providers that just aren’t trained for all the issues that pop up. So then you have medical providers who aren’t trained in all the ins and outs of women’s health who are trying to work with a general public that doesn’t have any understanding of medicine. To top it all off, we’re in this capitalistic, consumerist environment that is so not focused on the outcome of the consumer, but on the idea of “sell, sell, sell.”
So I have those patients and then I have women who come in who are having a little bit of pain with intercourse and I’ll ask them, “Have you ever experienced any sexual trauma or sexual assault?” You would be surprised at how often people tell me stuff and then say, “I’ve not told anybody else.” So then I’ll say, “Oh OK, you mentioned you’re kinda worried about your sex drive,” which is one of my screening questions. They might not say that they’ve been sexually assaulted on the screener, but then when I see them I might ask in a different way. If they haven’t had time to work through all that, then that’s totally going to impact their libido.
And then in terms of the people that I treat, I’m a board-certified menopause specialist, so someone might say, “I need someone to focus on my menopause stuff because my gynecologist doesn’t really focus on it. They don’t get it.” Or they’re coming for pelvic pain after having been referred by a PT. Sometimes women come in for libido or mood stuff. They don’t want to see a psychiatrist because they just have mild anxiety or depression and they want to establish someone who can do other women’s health stuff.
Finally, as a certified lactation specialist I see a lot of lactation stuff, particularly more complex lactation issues, such as when people have PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), glandular insufficiency, or are having issues conceiving. I’ll usually get them on some medications and help prepare them for lactation.
A big part of my practice is to take a lot of the sexual things that have previously been looked at in a negative way and turn them into a positive thing. Western medicine doesn’t really celebrate the wonders of female sexuality or pregnancy. They tend to treat it as a negative thing. So having it be a positive thing that we can celebrate is really important.
GCL: How are you incorporating Love Oils as “sexual medicine?” Why is that effective? What has been the response from your patients?
LM: One of the things I do is I frame the treatment not so much as sexual medicine to begin with. Because I treat so many patients with dermatological issues, I use the Love Oils to bring back pleasure and to remove the medical component of them interacting with their vulva. These women have made an appointment because they’re having a problem. Not only are they having that problem, but they’re also sexually active while having that problem.
So not only do they have a condition that’s bothersome as a woman on an everyday basis, but then they go and try and have intercourse, something that’s supposed to be pleasurable, and they’re socialized via social media and the mainstream media to make them feel like they’re supposed to be a certain way. Unfortunately, they’re feeling a little more inhibited and their brain is telling their vulva, “Tighten. This is going to be painful.”
They’re already having pain and they’re not even being sexually active. At this point, we’re trying to deal with that stuff, and often that includes them applying some topical medicines, like topical lidocaine or a topical steroid if they have a skin condition; sometimes that includes applying a topical estrogen. So now they’ve done all these different things to their vulva, which has medicalized it. And even though they believe in the mission, they’re still not getting anything that’s celebratory of their vulva or that’s empowering.
So with the Love Oils, I use them as a way to take away the “medical” part of the vulva and sex. Some women might have a huge libido, but they’ll say, “I want to have sex all the time, but it hurts. Please help me.” Working with the libido, it’s about reframing what their vulva can do for them. And then I know, because not only have I personally used the Good Clean Love products for over 10 years, but then my patients have also used them and they tell me: “I did way better with that product than with XYZ.” And so then because the products are causing them way less irritation, they’re way more compliant in using them and I need them to be compliant for their health.
I also use them as sexual medicine for patients who have to do things like perineal stretching or using dilators or just pressure. I have a lot of women who aren’t necessarily having a lot of sex, but have a history of trauma or they just don’t do that much self-stimulation, but if they met the right guy they’d have sex again. It is kind of a use it or lose it, so for that tissue to stay elastic and be happy with penetration, I tell them, “Every few days in the shower put a little pressure at that vaginal opening just so it’s not startled.” Then if they can use the Love Oil, it can be more comfortable and smells good. It’s delicious. I use the Caribbean Rose, I love that one. It just smells so happy and the texture is great. The Love Oils stay for a while and they smell good and they get it all going. They’re triggering those neuro-receptors and getting the brain excited for sex. But also, physiologically, when you’re putting your hand on your vulva, the friction is so much more comfortable. And then when you put the lube there, you’re like “Oh yeah, this is for game time. I want to slide this baby in.”
I’ll tell my patients, “Look at the lube as the mouthwash and look at the Love Oil as the lip gloss.” It’s a good analogy because I’ll say, “When you use the lube, it’s a lot better for the inside and sliding that penis in but then if you think about your vulva and you put a finger in it, it might still be dry. Like it’s not quite ready to go yet, even if deep inside you’re getting more moist. At that point, when you put the lube in, it has more of a technical feel than a sexy one.” But if they use the Love Oils first and that gets them ready and excited for sex, then when it is time to grab the lubricant they’re ready for it and it doesn’t feel so technical.
There’s a huge benefit to the placebo effect. In sexual medicine, if these aren’t going to harm them, they’re not crazy expensive, and they’re supporting a company that creates products that support women’s health, then I see that as a win. A woman might say to her partner, “Hey, I’m doing something about this problem. I’m working on this pain I’ve had and working on the concern we’ve had about my sexual desire.” In addition, it gets them routed into the right circle of people who are female-centric. It gives them all these tools and puts them in the right community. A lot of times, people will say, “Oh I didn’t know that there was such a thing as an organic lube.” Or, “I didn’t know there was a sex store that was body- and female-positive.” It’s the gateway to giving them the tools and resources for growing and healing.
GCL: How and when did you discover Good Clean Love? What is it about our products that you find effective in treating your patients?
LM: I found out about them at the grocery store a long, long time ago, as a consumer. It was the Almost Naked lube. Then, when I got into women’s health, I said to myself, “Wow, I should consider letting my patients know about these products because a lot of them might not know about them.”
As a provider, I realized that I had some patients who have certain conditions that these products could help them with, like if they’re having recurring irritation from the products they’ve been using. So if I have a patient who has a vulvar dermatological skin condition, I might frame the conversation around the fact that the company has such good values and that adding a lube to their sexual practice will be helpful in preventing any further tears or infection in the vulvar tissue. While there are topical products, like topical lidocaine, which I can order from Big Pharma and give to my patients because that product will reduce pain, when we’re talking about a daily product that a patient can add to their routine, having it be a product that is empowering I think is important.
As a provider, why I like the products and the company is that I share their values. So the product isn’t tested on animals. Great. Women have historically been marginalized, so it’s nice supporting a company that doesn’t marginalize other beings — like animals. And then it’s a woman-owned company, which is nice because the owner has identified that her personal experience with lack of desire empowered her to make products. Knowing her values and her commitment to the products is meaningful because it feels like a value-based approach to products, as opposed to a company that is strictly concerned with revenue.
For any company, I always ask, How committed are they to the patient? The fact that Good Clean Love is not just stopping at lubricants makes it clear that they are continually working to find other integrative ideas to reduce discomfort for women. In addition, the company is a certified B-Corporation, and you can see that in the way the products are packaged and how dedicated they are to their customers. It shows a commitment to the consumer versus just the overall revenue.
It is nice because when I reference it, people will say, “Oh the organic thing … I’m not really into that.” And I’ll say, “No! You can get it at Freddy’s. It’s right next to the KY Jelly!” And they’ll be like, “Oh!” It normalizes it so it’s not just this hippy-dippy brand. It’s more mainstream, more traditional. Time and time again, I’ll have patients tell me, “I’m so glad I tried that product. It’s way less irritating than the other one.” Or, just recently, I had someone tell me, “I love the Almost Naked lube.” And I was like, “Oh yeah? What do you love about it?” And she said, “It smells like vanilla. Did you ever notice that?” I’m more inclined to think about how something makes people feel, but I was so happy that she said that.
I feel like when you connect with a company you stay loyal to them.
GCL: What kind of outcomes are you looking for when you treat your patients?
LM: I’m looking for the outcome that they want, because to me, I see treatment on a kind of pain scale or on a continuum. You can’t always want all pain to be gone. For most people it’s more like, “I just need my pain to be acceptable and to be able to live with it.” I try to meet them where they’re at.
For some women, they might come in and say, “I want to come in and be able to do a pelvic exam without pain.” Or they might say, “I have to be able to get my pap smears.” So after some time, maybe we’ve been able to reach that goal, but maybe it’s with medication to start. So the next goal is to be able to do it without medication. And then when we get to that, they might feel ready to try to have sex. I see my work as helping them to understand that their goals are part of an evolutionary process for them based on where they’re at with their body, their relationships, and other things that are going on with their lives. And then I also help by making goals more attainable.
Sometimes if you start by making the goals too big or if they’re too hard to achieve all at once, then it becomes impossible. You can’t do all those things at once with the body, but sadly people will get disheartened and overwhelmed. So by coming up with something smaller, they start to enjoy just lying naked with their partner and smelling them, and that’s a growth spurt. Social media may have made them think they have to have penile penetration, but maybe that’s not their goal for right now, and that’s okay.
GCL: Beyond the use of Love Oils — for touching and scent — what other recommendations do you commonly offer?
LM: I usually start with having the patient do a little bit of soul searching. I want them to ask themselves where they think their pain comes from and to do their homework. Like do they think their pain came from a yeast infection? Maybe they got one and it felt really irritating and now they don’t want to have sex. Or did it come from a belief about them not being deserving of pleasure? Maybe they cheated on another partner and they don’t feel like they deserve to have sex with someone else or to have an orgasm. So the whole self-blame/self-shame cycle. Maybe their partner isn’t good for their needs so they’re not connecting and it’s just not working for them. Even if their partner isn’t trying to be violent, they’re trying to be loving and kind, but their partner isn’t that good at it. My patient may not have the tools to communicate their needs.
- Is their pain due to a medication?
- Is it due to not having an effective contraception so every time they have sex they’re afraid they’re going to get pregnant?
- Is it also due to work-life balance? Like they work so much so they can’t find the time and end up falling asleep even if they are interested in having sex?
- Are they pregnant, postpartum, or menopausal?
Libido issues often have so many variables playing into them. But once we narrow it down, we can figure out if it’s a physical thing. They might need a pelvic-floor physical therapist, they might need a topical treatment, or they might need some kind of birth control. If it’s coming from inter-partner stuff, like there was infidelity or lack of communication, then we might bring a marriage counselor in. Or depending on the issue, maybe a sex therapist. Then there’s also education. Because some people haven’t been educated on their genitals, these people might be naive to their own body parts.
Depending on what it is, there’s a tool for it. I have a whole handout with a bunch of different things, but I don’t want to overwhelm them so I pick a few different components from it.
For some people there’s a tool through The Gottman Institute called The Science of Love (watch video here). They have an app called Gottman Card Decks and in it there are questions to ask your partner. My patients have such a wide array of conditions and I don’t want them to feel overwhelmed. So where do we start? The card decks are fun and also science-based. If you’re trying to empower a patient to do something, then if you show them the data with Gottman it’s like, “Whoa. This is so great. I do it and I win.”
There’s so much hope in it because there’s so much science in it. It’s not just the new hot app of the month. Gottman Love Laboratory has come up with so many cool tools for everyone. But for my patients, I tell them we’re going to go for the sex stuff. An example might be: “Many men say that they have told their partner what they find exciting and erotic, but their partner seems not to remember. Is that true of us? If so, can you give me a refresher course?” So then it’s giving them a question to ask, which is especially helpful for people who don’t know how to ask a question to their partner. Then their partner will be able to say what they find exciting and erotic, so then she can remember.
Another tool is the clinic library. We have a clinic library where people can check out books and return them. Even if you’re not going to come back then you can just stick them in Media Mail for $3. In this library, I have a ton of books regarding sex and intimacy, female anatomy, and arousal. I even have an aphrodisiac cookbook and a book on aphrodisiac cocktails. Do aphrodisiac cocktails really work? I don’t know, but the whole point is that patients are acknowledging that they want to be sexual and they’re trying to do something together.
Specifically, one book I have is DK’s The Kama Sutra Workout with 300 sexercises. The Kama Sutra Workout is tasteful and cute. It has a ton of drawings, so it talks about which muscles are engaged in order to avoid injury, what muscles are used for him, which ones are used for her. They’ll tell you to avoid a particular position if you have this injury, or it’ll tell you what kind of flexibility you need. It sounds kind of cheesy, but I tell people about it because they’ll say, “Well, we can’t do this position because of my hip or my husband’s shoulder.” The book gives them a lot of different ideas. Sometimes I’ll give them homework from this book. I’ll tell them to go home and try it and then come back to tell me what they liked about it or didn’t like about it.
I’ll also tell certain couples about Cornell’s sensate focus theory, which is about touching and being touched. You maximize the experience by beginning without preconceived notions of what you will experience. Some people who are coming in for these concerns, there is so much more going into their sexuality and sensuality and so they’re having to work through all of that too. The sensate focus helps them learn how to experience touch and being touched without evaluating the experience.
Then there’s the little things. If I talk about sex toys, I always reference Babeland. If they don’t have a vibrator or they don’t have the ability to bring themselves to orgasm with their hand, I tell them to get a toy. Or if they want to spice things up with their partner, we talk about adding a toy to their sexual practice. We also use the vulvar coloring book as a tool, which is especially good for people who aren’t very familiar with their bodies.
In terms of the medical side of things, I really like to work with pelvic-floor physical therapists (PT). I get such good patient outcomes when we bring a PT in. Also sex therapists. I love the group Flow Rehab. And not all patients need all those things, but that’s why I have such a wide, varied toolbox, so that every one of my patients’ needs can be met. Again it’s bringing it back to: “It’s okay to love your body, know your body, and work through problems with your body, and that gets you to a whole new place.”
Conclusion: Love Oils and Libido
Many women struggle with libido issues throughout their lives. There are a wide variety of reasons that women can experience libido issues or issues with low sex drive, ranging all the way from natural hormonal changes due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause, to issues with medication, work-life balance, past trauma, and relationship stress. The causes of libido issues are often complex, but with a good provider, you can figure out how to tackle the underlying problems to get your sex drive back.
It’s a little-known fact, but Love Oils were one of the first product lines created by Good Clean Love. Since the beginning, we’ve been harnessing the power of scent and utilizing the ancient art and science of aromatherapy to create aphrodisiac Love Oils, perfumes, and colognes that awaken the limbic brain, which is responsible for memory, emotion, and sexuality.
Lise Martin uses our Love Oils as sexual medicine in her practice because she recognizes the power of scent and how it can awaken the brain’s neuroreceptors. If you are interested in Love Oil or have bought a Love Oil and are not sure how to use it, check out our primer for more information, research, and creative ways to play.
If you’re struggling with your own issues with libido, talk to your doctor or care provider, and be sure to check out more of Lise Martin’s work.