Libido as we know it is a multifaceted, complicated necessity for the development and evolution of every species. It is the driving force behind our sexual desires, sexual heath and a major biological factor that allows us to feel empowered as women (and men) and it is a constant reminder of our youthfulness.
It has been the topic of theories and discussions for centuries with the understanding of it, being no less complicated today, than what it was in the late 19th century. It is an area of our biology that is not only of interest to the medical profession, who view libido as an indicator of fertility and physical health, but also a common area of interest for psychologists, with many specialising in the complex field of psychosexuality.
The word ‘libido’ is latin for desire and lust and the term can be traced back to 1894 from Sigmund Freud’s early work on psychosexuality and psychopathology. Today, libido is defined as ‘an instinctual psychic energy that in psychoanalytic theory is derived from primitive biological urges (as for sexual pleasure or self-preservation) and that is expressed in conscious activity’. Simplistically, it is our sexual desire and drive.
When Sigmund Freud originally published his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in 1905, libido was the core piece of the puzzle for his theories of development and psychopathology. As decades passed, Freud continued to utilise libido as the core construct in his psychoanalytic theory and represented one side of his basis, instinctual dualism (the sense of eros- life instinct, and opposition to libido was thantos-death instinct).
There were many flaws in the theories proposed by Freud and he saw women as being sexually passive, engaging in intercourse merely to procreate. His views around female sexuality were phallic centred which limited his ability to delve into the complexities of female sexuality. His views were extremely male centred, which was quite the norm for that century, and mentioned that in ‘only men is sexual life accessible to investigation’ whereas in the female, it is ‘veiled in impenetrable darkness’. Freud’s theories are still used today to influence psychologist and sexologists alike.
A Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, and the founder of analytical psychology, broke away from Freud in 1913 and developed his Theory of Unconscious. He considered libido as a form of psychic energy instead of sexual energy. Other notable psychiatrists discussed libido as general drive energy. In 1976, Roy Schafer, an American psychologist and psychoanalysis, listed seven qualities of libido: direction, urgency, mobility, dischargeability, bindability, transformability and fusibility. His theory was that dreams, diseases, rituals, jokes, therapeutic effects and even relationships can be explained through various degrees of libido.
In the 19th Century, the absence of libido (as we often discuss once a woman transitions into menopause) was not a concern, it was the presence of libido and the presence of female sexual desire that was suppressed and viewed as being dangerous. Women were made to believe that ‘ladies’ had no sexual desire and they were merely receptacles for male lust and they were to put up with sex in order to procreate and keep their husbands desires at bay.
These viewpoints left many women sexually frustrated, presenting to their physicians with anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies and feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen. These collective symptoms became termed as hysteria, which comes from the Greek word for uterus. During this time, the medical solution was for doctors to massage the genitals of women to the point of ‘paroxysm’- orgasm. Within this century, female masturbation was frowned upon and out of bounds sexual desire was seen as pathological and could only be treated by a male physician. From here, machinery was invented to aid doctors with this rampant problem, and the first vibrator was developed.
Dr Isaac Baker-Brown felt that vibrators didn’t cure hysteria and only left women desiring more ‘treatment’ and resulted in the barbaric treatment of removing the clitoral glands. This form of removal continued until the mid-20th century.
Over the centuries, the suppression of female libido was extremely common and women expressing even the slightest amount of sexual desire was frowned upon and suppressed at all cost. Thankfully, today, this is no longer the case.
In society today, we view libido and female sexual desire in a much more positive and healthy light. If anything, it is spoken about quite freely throughout social settings and the dreaded menopause, is discussed as one of the main causative factors to declining libido, in women.
On the flip side to this, some women also complain of heightened libido, which can at times, be uncontrollable. In these circumstances, it is important to identify the cause. It could be hormonally related where androgens are elevated, such as testosterone and DHEA or it could be physiological, where a gynaecologist would need to assess whether or not there are structural abnormalities that could be contributing to the abnormal increases in sexual desire.
Throughout puberty, adolescence and during our fertile years, our libido is at its highest due to our hormones being at their peak. Our libido, although a necessity for sexual intimacy, is biologically present to allow and provide us with the desire to procreate. Once our hormones start to decline, for example during perimenopause and through the transition to menopause, our libido also declines with the hormones. This is where most women start to complain about their declining sexual desire. As we have come to know with research around our biology and psychology, libido is simply not just limited to hormones, it is multifactorial, with a multitude of factors affecting our sexual desires. Over the centuries the elixir of libido has always been sought after and today, it is no different.
During the biblical era, mandrake root was used as a common aphrodisiac and progressing into the 1st century, foods that provided the individual with wind, such as asparagus and peas were also believed to inflate the genitals and Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, and author, advocated some of the same foods for this exact purpose. During the 18th Century, oysters were used to woo over lovers and they have now been proven to contain D-Aspartic Acid, an amino acid that influences hormone production, particularly testosterone. During the 20th Century Hypoactive Sexual Desire was termed and the female type is divided into three subtype, a disorder of vaginal arousal, one of psychological arousal and one combined.
Various Treatments Available for Lack of Libido
As with all health concerns, it is always important to identify the possible cause of the issue, before treatment can be considered. When looking at libido as a whole, there are physical, emotional and psychological factors that could act as hindrances. These may include:
- Declining hormone levels
- Heightened stress levels
- Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
- Low self esteem
- Previous negative sexual experiences
- Pharmaceutical medication
- Relationship concerns
Although hormones play a crucial role with governing our libido, it is essential to also look at other factors that could be acting as hindrances. If there are concerns in this area, it is best to consult your health care professional.
Written by Annmarie Cannone
M.Hum Nut, Grad Dip Naturopathy, B.App Sci (Naturopathic Studies)