Sex Drive, Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton, (Allen and Unwin) RRP $27.99

Lack of libido is the hot topic when it comes to female sexual problems.  Controversial research suggests an estimated  “43 per cent of American women are dissatisfied with sex” triggering a pharmaceutical race to find a “female Viagra” to treat the increasing number of women diagnosed as being sexually dysfunctional.

In Sex Drive, sexual anthropologist Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton explores the reasons behind our perceived plummeting libido. Far from needing a chemical fix she argues that women don’t want sex because they don’t feel sexy. And she questions the validity of pathologising women as “sexually dysfunctional” when low libido could actually be representing the natural order of things.

Provocative, authoritative and entertaining Sex Drive is packed with research, reviews, interviews and anecdotes aimed at determining who dictates what is normal and abnormal when it comes to the contentious issues of female libido and the role played by the forces of media, marketing and medicine.

Today’s culture, says Ellwood-Clayton, glamorizes sex and women are becoming increasingly pressured to want it. Discrepancies in desire, arousal, orgasm or sexual pleasure can all lead to a diagnosis of sexual dysfunction despite the fact that many women with low sexual function report that they experience no distress.

So does the loss of libido simply represent normal change, such as “ageing, long-term relationships, and the wear and tear of life: current circumstances such as stress, motherhood or overall ennui; or a biological problem?”

And, if something is just a sexual problem and not a dysfunction then, is there any need for drug companies to become involved?  Should we allow corporate sponsored classification of female sexual dysfunction despite the inherent lack of agreement about what constitutes low libido or desire and arousal disorders?

Equating sexual problems with sexual dysfunction is “dangerous maths that adds up in the drug companies’ favour” says Ellwood-Clayton.  She concedes that clinical research is vital but calls for additional cross-cultural studies to explore the complexities of female libido. “The problem with giving too much credence to women’s ‘dysfunctional’ levels of desire is that studies show that divorce or the start of a new relationship can revitalise an otherwise lethargic libido. So perhaps novelty is the priceless drug?’ rather than a specially packaged ‘female Viagra’.

In Sex Drive Ellwood-Clayton reviews a mass of cutting edge research, literature and theories about female sexuality and considers the “cost arising from our sexual indifference” including infidelity and divorce and more importantly “loss of our spirit and vitality”.

Women today, she says, are more concerned with looking desirable than feeling desire. “Rather than having sex women simply want to look like they are having sex”! And even if they do feel desire a staggering 80 per cent of Australian women feel “too fat to make love” resulting in a preoccupation with appearance that “makes it hard to relax, hard to focus on being aroused, and ultimately hard to experience sexual pleasure”.

Ellwood-Clayton discusses the physical inhibitors of libido including disease, anti-depressants (one in four women will experience clinical depression), medicines and alcohol, menopause, pregnancy and small children. Including first hand interviews with women of all ages she also looks at the psychological inhibitors including depression, sex-negative family attitudes, abuse and the toll of domestic duties though she notes that “over 30 per cent of women in a British survey claimed that cleaning gave them more satisfaction than sex”!

Add desire discrepancies with partners and social inhibitors including the research showing that “once in a secure relationship, a woman’s sex drive begins to plummet” and it is a wonder women ever have sex.

Sex Drive explores whether terms like “sexual peak” are fact or a convenient construct for example the recent emergence of  “cougars”  – older women seeking younger male partners. Traditionally the 40s is a time of lowering libido but today some women are reversing the trend. But, asks Ellwood-Clayton, is this phenomenon empowering or demeaning?

In addition to the effects of age (although the majority of women in their fifties and sixties claimed low levels of sexual function hardly any of them were worried about it) and menopause Ellwood-Clayton looks at pregnancy and the often cited accompanying drop in desire whilst also examining the advent of “vanity vagina” which is leading to an increase in elective C-sections. The arrival of children can wreak havoc on the sex drive of both men and women with parents in more than 90 studies reporting, “significantly lower marital satisfaction than non-parents”. Add to that the pressure of what Ellwood-Clayton calls The List – that all consuming list of things to do, buy and finish and women are even less likely to fall into bed for sex rather than sleep.

Is it any wonder women are being turned off sex? What can or should be done to halt this large-scale loss of libido? Sex Drive features a comprehensive review of drugs used to enhance sexuality and a useful reference table.  However, whilst many are useful Ellwood-Clayton believes we need to look at the causes of declining libido rather than just chemically treating the symptoms. She urges women to bring back sensuality into sexuality, to prioritize passion by setting aside times for intimacy and to stimulate chemical production through excitement, distance (fuels our desire) and novelty.

She says, rather than pathologising ‘low libido’ it may serve us to say, “screw it. Let’s embrace our fluctuating, precious and resilient libido, wherever, whenever, in whatever form it manifests…After all, sexual prime is a function of ‘sexiness’ – and that can peak at any age”.