Factors impacting women's sexual desire: examining long-term relationships in emerging adulthood

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Date: Fall 2012
From: The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality(Vol. 21, Issue 2)
Publisher: SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
Document Type: Report
Length: 9,293 words
Lexile Measure: 1330L

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Abstract: The present study utilized Grounded Theory Methodology to analyze qualitative data concerning sexual desire among young women in emerging adulthood. Specifically, twenty women aged 18-29 in longer-term relationships (mean = 5 years) were interviewed about the factors that had an impact on their sexual desire. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to determine factors that inhibited or elicited sexual desire for these women. Thirty-two factors were created during the final analysis and from these factors four main themes were formed: Personal factors, Partner factors, Relationship factors, and External factors. Based on the 17 sub-themes and their 27 categories, the seven factors most commonly endorsed by participants as either eliciting or inhibiting their desire were: energy level, feeling sexy, physical attraction to one's partner, partner's attentiveness, intimate communication, life transitions, and the possibility of pregnancy. Factors that influenced participants' sexual desire during emerging adulthood generally seemed to mirror those impacting women's desire in other age groups although these influences appeared to be experienced in distinct ways.


Sexual relationships that are viewed as positive and satisfying have been linked to increased wellbeing and relationship satisfaction (e.g., Bridges & Horne, 2007; Byers, 2005; Byers, Demmons, & Lawrance, 1998; Davies, Katz, & Jackson, 1999; Sprecher, 2002). Sexual desire has a significant impact on sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction (e.g., Bridges & Horne; Davies et al.). Thus, a greater understanding of the factors that impact women's experience of sexual desire, positively and negatively, could facilitate positive sexual relations for women and have broader implications for social, emotional and physical well-being. While a number of studies have considered influences upon desire in women (e.g., Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001; Davies et al.; Dennerstein, Hayes, Sand, & Lehert, 2009; Mondaini et al., 2009; Samelson & Hannon, 1999; Sims & Meana, 2010), to date there has not been a study to fully explore the broad range of factors that both inhibit and elicit women's sexual desire in long-term relationships in emerging adulthood.

Historically, a biological perspective of sexual desire predominated in sexuality research (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). Supporters of the biological perspective considered desire to be a physical urge, primarily influenced by hormones (Andersen & Cyranowski, 1995; Kaplan, 1979). Recently, a more comprehensive view of sexuality has been proposed by a working group of researchers and clinicians entitled the New View Campaign of Women's Sexual Problems (Tiefer, 2001). The New View Campaign suggests that sexuality is influenced by medical factors (e.g., cancer, depression), psychological factors, (e.g., mental distractions, previous sexual abuse), socio-cultural factors (e.g., inability to meet cultural norms), and the context of one's romantic relationship (e.g., lack of communication, discrepant levels of desire within a couple) (Tiefer).

Empirical research points to a number of factors which have a strong influence on sexual desire. One of the most prominent of these is gender. Women, generally, are thought to have lower sexual desire than men because of a lower biological urge to engage in sexual activity (Baumeister et al., 2001; McCabe & Cummins, 1997), or as others suggest, because of a sexual double standard in which women are taught to repress their sexuality (e.g., Marks & Fraley, 2005; Milhausen & Herold, 1999). Younger women are believed to have higher levels of desire (Barr, Bryan, & Kenrick, 2002), but as they age and testosterone and estrogen production declines, so too does sexual desire (Birnbaum, Cohen, & Wertheimer, 2007; Levine, 2002). Other factors that have been shown to decrease desire, particularly among women, are biological (e.g., increasing age; Davison & Davis, 2010) and psychological (e.g., sexual trauma; Firestone, Firestone, & Catlett, 2006) in nature. Relationship dynamics such as increased length of time with a monogamous partner (Klusmann, 2002; Murray & Milhausen, 2012), monotony and boredom (Basson, 2001), incompatible levels of sexual desire (Davies et al., 1999; Mark & Murray, 2012; Zilberdeld & Ellison, 1980), and the addition of children into the family (Basson, 2000; Perel, 2007) have also been found to decrease feelings of sexual desire for some women.

There are also a number of factors that can spark or increase sexual desire in women. Viewing, reading about, or listening to explicit sex (Levine, 2002), consuming a moderate amount of alcohol daily (Mondaini et al., 2009), staying emotionally and mentally present during a sexual encounter (Brotto, Basson, & Luria, 2008), and being in a positive state of mind (Peterson & Janssen, 2007) have all been found to be related to higher sexual desire in some women. There are also relational factors that can increase some women's sexual desire such as emotional closeness (Basson, 2000), open communication (Litzinger & Gordon, 2005; McNab & Henry, 2006), and positive partner interactions (Dennerstein, Hayes, Sand, & Lehert, 2009).

Emerging adulthood

Emerging adulthood is a recently proposed developmental stage that is said to occur between adolescence and adulthood: a stage that generally encompasses individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adulthood has arisen as a developmental stage largely because of a shift in industrial society over the past half century which has delayed engaging in adult behaviours such as marriage and child-rearing and increased pressure for today's youth to pursue advanced levels of education which, consequently, leads to delays in starting a career, a frequently used marker of adulthood (Arnett).

Premarital sex and cohabitation in emerging adulthood is widely accepted (Arnett, 2007). Consequently, there has been an increase in cohabitation with romantic partners outside of a marriage during this life stage (Carroll et al., 2007). Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood stress monogamy (Schmookler & Bursik, 2007), possibly in preparation for marriage (Carroll et al., 2007; Carroll et al., 2009). Therefore, focusing attention on the more intimate details of these relationships among emerging adults may not only enhance our understanding of factors that impede or enhance sexual and relationship satisfaction in this particular demographic, but it also it may add to what is known about sexual desire in older adults.

The current literature on women's sexual desire does not adequately describe the sexual aspects of long-term relationships in emerging adulthood. On the one hand, it is well documented that over the course of a monogamous romantic relationship, sexual desire decreases (Basson, 2001; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986; Murray & Milhausen, 2012; Sprecher & Regan, 1998). In some cases, this can occur as early as one year into a relationship for women (Klusmann, 2002). From these findings it could be assumed that women in relationships of longer durations, regardless of their age, would have lower levels of desire. On the other hand, some research suggests that women in emerging adulthood would be considered to be either at their sexual peak (Barr et al., 2002) or approaching it (Schmitt et al., 2002). Emerging adults are also generally thought to have higher levels desire because they are young and without children. Thus, it is unclear whether women in this age group would typically experience lower or higher levels of sexual desire, or whether or not factors that have been shown to impact desire in other groups of women, (e.g., older, post-menopausal women or younger, undergraduate, university samples) would also be meaningful for women at this life stage.

Women's sexual desire is influenced by a number of factors (Tiefer, 2001). However, research focusing on correlates of sexual desire, to date, has largely relied on quantitative studies (e.g., Davies et al., 1999; Ellison, 2001 ; Hurlbert, Apt, Hulbert, & Pierce, 2000; Klusmann, 2002; McCabe & Cummins, 1997; Meana & Nunnink, 2006), has focused on older and menopausal women (e.g., Birnbaum et al., 2007; Pitkin, 2009), and has tended to focus on correlates of low sexual desire (e.g., Carvalho & Nobre, 2010; Mitchell et al., 2009; Nobre, 2009; Rosen et al., 2009; Sims & Meana, 2010) as opposed to factors that might elicit and enhance desire.

The present study

This study used a qualitative approach to investigate the factors that impact the sexual desire of women in emerging adulthood who are in longer-term relationships. Relationship duration has been demonstrated to be a critical factor in women's experience of desire (Murray & Milhausen, 2012). For this reason, we aimed to understand factors that would influence the experience of desire in longer-term relationships. The study sought to identify factors that both inhibited and elicited desire rather than just correlates of low desire. In order to obtain a sample that covered the spectrum of desire experiences, two groups of women were recruited: those who self-identified as continuing to experience high levels of sexual desire in their relationship and those who self-identified as experiencing a decrease in sexual desire over the course of their relationship.



Eligibility criteria for the study were based on common characteristics of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Specifically, participants were required to be between the ages of 18 and 29 and an effort was made to attract participants who were pursuing graduate education or working full-time, as opposed to undergraduate students who have been the focus of much sexuality research. Participants were twenty, English speaking women in longer-term relationships of at least 30 months (M = 59.8, SD = 20.74; range 32-120) and in emerging adulthood (aged 18-29 years; M = 24.25, SD = 2.76; range 21-29).

Sample sizes for qualitative research, and specifically with Grounded Theory Methodology, are determined by reaching saturation (Guest, Bunce, & Johnson, 2006). During the interviewing process, through memo-ing, the first author began taking note of potential, emerging themes. When it appeared that no new information was being collected through interviews, recruitment was paused and a more thorough analysis was completed. When newer transcripts were coded against earlier transcripts, saturation, or the point at which no new information was added to the study themes, was determined to have been reached at twenty women.



The demographic section included questions regarding the participants' age, relationship length, partner living arrangements, racial/ethnic background, physical health, and level of education. Religiosity and spirituality were also assessed using the following questions: "To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person?", and "To what extent do you consider yourself a religious person?" Five responses were possible including: not at all, a little bit, somewhat, a lot, and very much.

Sexual desire

A sexual desire scale was included to describe the sample. Sexual desire was measured using the desire domain of the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI, Rosen et al., 2000). A score of 5 or lower on the desire domain suggests the presence of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD; Gerstenberger et al., 2010). The demographics for the study sample are presented in Table 1.


Interested persons responded to one of two flyers placed around the university community (e.g., in downtown shops) or circulated electronically (e.g., through graduate student listservs and business email lists) in order to attract women in emerging adulthood. The first flyer stated, "Have you been in a relationship for a while? Is the passion still alive?" and the second flyer stated, "Have you been in a relationship a while? Wondering where the passion has gone?" Potential participants were then screened by email to determine if they met eligibility criteria: aged 18 to 29, in a relationship of at least 30 months, heterosexual, having no children. Women were required to be in a romantic, long-term relationship for a minimum of 2.5 years (30 months) as research suggests that passionate love, associated with high levels of sexual desire, gives way to companionate love around this time (Hatfield & Walster, 1978). Eligible participants were scheduled to participate in an interview at the university campus. All participants completed a consent form approved by the university ethics board. Participants were then asked to complete the demographic questionnaire and the sexual function scale. The women were then interviewed using semi-structured interviews. Interviews were audio-recorded and lasted for a mean time of 51 minutes and ranged from 39 to 76 minutes. Following the interview, participants were debriefed and asked if they had any further questions or concerns. All identifying information (including participant's names) was altered in the preparation of this article. For their participation in the study, participants received a $10 gift card redeemable at various establishments in the region (e.g., Second Cup, Chapter's). The interviews were conducted between October, 2009 and February, 2010.

The semi-structured interviews were comprised of approximately six main study questions. However, the three main study questions, and their respective follow-up questions, pertinent to the present study included: "What does sexual desire mean to you?", "What aspects of your romantic relationship with your partner do you see as having an impact on your sexual desire?", "Are there things you do with your partner, or that he does, that reduce (or increase) your sexual desire?", "How often do you experience that in your relationship?", "What aspects of your personal life do you believe have an impact on your sexual desire?", and "Is there anything else you feel impacts your sexual desire that was not asked about during this interview?" Prompts consisting of factors that have been found to impact women's desire in past literature were used to elicit more detailed and varied responses from participants.

Data analysis

Data collected from the interviews were analyzed using Grounded Theory Methodology from a social constructionist perspective (Charmaz, 2003). The aim of this study was not to develop a substantive theory, but rather to utilize the rigorous qualitative techniques prescribed by the grounded theory method (i.e., line-by-line coding, memo-ing, and constant comparison). In the initial stage of the analysis, the first author transcribed the twenty interviews from the audio recordings and performed the original line-by-line coding (Charmaz; Daly, 2007). Frequent references to certain indicators began to create concepts and then categories (LaRossa, 2005). The first level of coding yielded 72 initial categories. After the initial categories were created, they were reviewed with the second author to ensure a common understanding. Any disagreements over categories led to further analysis (for example, reading text surrounding a quote to clarify participant meaning, reading all quotes in a category to ensure all reflected a shared meaning). It was determined at this stage that the first and second author achieved a .89 inter-rater reliability coefficient. The first and second author then conducted axial coding, or intense analysis done around one category at a time to arrive at larger, second-order categories (LaRossa). At this stage, a few categories were absorbed by larger, more encompassing categories (e.g., "engaging in activities together" was absorbed by "spending time together") or were considered insubstantial and removed from the analysis (e.g., "liking a change of scenery"). Finally, while periodically referring to participant's transcripts and engaging in an on-going discussion, the first and second author determined the final 32 larger study factors.


The twenty women who participated in this current study had an average age of approximately 24 years and had an average relationship length of about five years. The demographics for the study sample are presented in Table 1.

After examining all coded facilitators of and barriers to sexual desire, it was determined that four overarching themes could be best used to describe the data in terms of factors that influenced women's desire. These primary themes were: (a) Personal factors, (b) Partner-related factors, (c) Relationship factors, and (d) External factors. Within these four themes, there were 17 sub-themes, and 27 categories. Some subthemes stood alone as a factor impacting women's sexual desire (e.g., life transitions) while other subthemes contained categories that were the impacting factors (e.g., under the sub-theme "Physical state" the categories "stress level" and "energy level" were influencing factors). Based on this analysis, it was determined that 32 distinct factors were described by participants as influences on their sexual desire (i.e., the five sub-themes that had no categories and the 27 categories) (see Table 2).

Most commonly cited factors that enhanced or inhibited sexual desire

Our sample was chosen to include equal numbers of women who reported declining desire and continuing or increased desire. The findings presented below document the seven factors most often cited as facilitators or inhibitors of sexual desire. These factors, drawn from all four themes were: energy level and feeling sexy (Personal Factors); physical attraction to partner and partner's attentiveness (Partner Factors); intimate communication (Relationship Factors); and Life transitions and the possibility of pregnancy (External Factors). It is noteworthy that some factors were described only by women who identified as experiencing decreased levels of sexual desire and other factors were described only by women who identified as continuing to experience high levels of desire. An analysis of the factors that distinguish these two groups is pending.

Energy level

Most women in this study described feeling tired as having a negative impact on their sexual desire. One woman explained that she found it difficult to feel sexual desire when she came home from a busy day and felt too tired to have sex with her partner.

We're so tired by the time we get back home that we basically just lay there and do nothing. Watch T.V. and stuff. But both our schedules are really similar so we leave around the same time and come home around the same time. So it's not so much our schedules conflicting with each other. In terms of actual sexual desire, well yeah, I guess it's conflicting because I'd prefer to come home earlier and not be so exhausted. (Natalie, 25)

Another woman said that neither she nor her partner had the energy to initiate sexual activity because they have been too tired during the week to want sex.

We had recently had the discussion and it basically comes down to that we're, either we're tired, like especially during the week, not the weekends. But we're just tired. And as much that we both are passionate about each other, I think we have a good understanding that we just can't, um, initiate. Not initiate, not really initiate, but just we're so tired that we could just sleep now and not be so tired the next day. (Morgan, 26)

Some women described having moments of energy, rather than fatigue, that often increased their sexual desire. One woman indicated that having energy regularly meant that she often carne home at the end of the day still able to engage in sexual activity.

We're both very healthy which probably helps. We're both very active so we both have a high energy level. Which also helps because then every night you're not like going to bed burnt out already. (Jill, 23)

Feeling sexy

Many women described the importance of "feeling sexy" in order to feel sexual desire. Feeling sexy was described as an internal experience that had both a physical component (i.e., wanting to perceive one's image as sexually desirable) and an emotional component (i.e., wanting to feel confident about one's sexuality and prowess). One woman indicated that when she felt sexy she felt more desire, bur if she did not feel sexy, her sexual desire suffered. She stated: "If you're feeling sexy one day or you're not feeling sexy, I think that can definitely swing your feelings" (Lara, 24). Another woman said: "Like if I don't feel sexy, I don't feel that [sexual activity] at all" (Jane, 24).

Some women described the need to feel sexy as separate from their partner indicating that he felt she looked sexy.

Sometimes I don't feel sexually attractive so then I don't want to approach it, because I feel like, I don't know, maybe I'm being selfish, but I like to feel sexy when I'm having sex. Like not just attracting him, but also feel like I can look at myself and be like "yeah, that's hot." I don't want to look down and be like "Oh my gosh, my legs are really hairy, that's gross" because that'll turn me off. (Lily, 26)

Physical attraction to partner

Some women reported that being physically attracted to their partner increased sexual desire. A few women expressed that they experienced sexual desire because their partner was physically attractive. For example, "Because, um, seeing him without a shirt on is always something, where I'm always like "wow, I want you". So there is that physical component to it" (Trina, 23).

Sometimes [it is] just being really attracted to him. Like, I'm always the worst in the morning when he's getting ready for work, because he dresses up for work and he doesn't get dressed up most of the time. So I always think he looks so cute getting ready for work that I don't want him to leave. (Marcie, 24)

In contrast, if a woman felt her partner was not putting in effort, or was not looking appealing one day, her desire decreased. One woman described losing her sexual desire when her partner did not take care of himself physically.

Well, I'd say the two main things, well, the three main things are, on his side, would be like being sweaty from work. And it's not just sweaty from work, it's grease and dirt because he's outside, and um, like not having brushed your teeth from smoking or from eating something gross or whatever, like I'm very sensitive to smells so like, I'm very easily turned off by smells of cigarettes if he smokes or like coffee. He smells like my dad when be drinks a coffee and smokes a cigarette and then comes to kiss me, it's like "no." (Lily, 26)

Partner's attentiveness

Some women indicated that when their partners put effort into their relationship it made them more likely to want to engage in sexual activity. Generally, such attentiveness was demonstrated through gestures that were either romantic or thoughtful outside of a sexual setting. Women tended to stress the importance of their partner putting effort into romantic gestures.

When it comes down to it, when you're hopping into bed at night and there has been no romance throughout the day, for me, I'm like "Back off, you can't just expect that right away." (Jill, 28)

Another woman suggested that if her partner took her out to dinner this would increase her desire afterwards, instead of just proposing sexual activity when they were in bed together.

It just shows that he's planned something or that he put thought into what's going on instead of rolling over in bed and saying, "Hey, what's going on?" Like, it just feels like it's more thought being put into it and I think that's what I appreciate more. (Carly, 21)

Some women acknowledged that they liked it when their partner put effort into their relationship but that they didn't experience it as often as they would like. One woman indicated that her desire would increase when her boyfriend took time to do something romantic, although this was infrequent.

Like, there are specific things he can do to put me in the mood. Like, sometimes he'll cook me a really nice dinner, and he'll do something really cheesy romantic which he doesn't do often, you know? Like, he'll light some candles or he'll dim the lights in the bedroom and have the bedroom all set up or something. (Natasha, 29)

Intimate communication

Most women indicated that having an intimate, emotionally revealing conversation with their partner brought them closer. One woman explained that experiencing emotional closeness through conversations with her partner made her want to get closer to him physically as well.

Yeah often, I think it's just, like, I get so ecstatic that we're on the same level. Like, I guess in my life I never imagined that I would have such a deep meaningful connection with someone. So like, when it comes out in sort of those deep meaningful conversations, I just feel so connected and so excited and I feel an urge to be intimate with him. (Lily, 26)

Another woman explained a similar experience where an intimate conversation increased her desire to have sex with her partner.

Sometimes we'll have conversations just for, like, hours and doing nothing. Just lying in bed and speaking for hours. And I think that definitely makes me feel, ah, closer to him and it makes me want to have sex, and like, just because, because of that closeness because we're sharing deep thoughts and getting into things that I wouldn't get into with anyone else, like not even my family. (Emma, 26)

When women were not having intimate conversations with their partners, they often indicated that this would decrease their sexual desire.

Yeah, definitely I will get frustrated. And when, say, I'm doing dishes and cleaning, the same thing works out. Like, I try to ask him something intellectually, or, you know, something environmental. I'm a big environmentalist, so I try to ask him something like, "How do you feel about this issue? Or this?" and if he doesn't respond or gives a short snappy answer that is not satisfying my question, then yeah, I definitely, I just get disgusted with him and then of course I don't have any desire. (Jane, 24)

Life Transitions

Times of transition could be both a barrier to sexual desire as well as a facilitator, depending on the type of transition and the woman. One woman indicated that transitions were a barrier to her desire. She simply stated: "Times of transition tend to be stressful times for me, so they tend not to be times full of desire" (Laura, 21). Similarly, another woman said that times where she experienced life transitions, for example, moving in with her husband after they were married, her desire for sex suffered.

I always said, people always say that the first year is the honeymoon year, and I'm like, "No, the first year is the adjustment year." I'm like, after the first year things get better. And I found that with my desire as well. And I think that was just becoming accustomed to our living circumstances, really. It took a year really to fall into patterns to accept each other's faults, to get over the little idiosyncrasies like the toothbrush being left out or the toothpaste cap off. Little stuff like that. And again, that turned off my desire. (Jill, 23)

Other women felt that times of transition enhanced their desire. One woman suggested that this occurred for her because the transition led her to see her partner in a new way, which she described as being very new and exciting.

When we got married, I had a really big surge in desire because I was like, this is my husband and he's all mine, and it was really exciting and the sex was really good and it was like, very different. I kept telling my friends, "I'm screwing my husband" and "It's my husband!" and it was really different. (Lily, 26)

Similarly, another woman discussed that moving in with her partner was a new stage in their relationship and that it had a positive influence on her sexual desire because she viewed it as a new start to their relationship.

I find that because we were in a long-distance relationship for so long, we're only now are starting to work on the day-to-day stuff now, so it's kind of like we're dating all over again in a different realm. So I mean, in that sense our relationship is fresh. (Taylor, 22)

Possibility of pregnancy

One of the exclusion criteria for this study was that women could not have children. In addition, at the time of the study, none of the women were currently pregnant. When asked in the interview whether pregnancy or wanting children had impacted their desire, almost all of the women stated that they did not want children at this stage in their life. One woman said, "No, I do not want to be pregnant. That would kill the desire, talking about pregnancy" (Tasia, 23). Another observed:

No, I don't want to get pregnant. So that's sometimes an issue because that like, if I forget to take a pill, then I'll be like, 'Let's avoid it' because I desperately don't want to get pregnant at a time where I don't want to be pregnant" (Lily, 26).

In contrast, one woman said that previously she did want to get pregnant with her partner and that this had increased her sexual desire at that point in time. "Yes, yes, like I have really wanted to. And like just got a little easy going with the birth control and we'd see what happens. But now, I'm just very thankful and that's not the case" (Megan, 21).


The goal of the present qualitative study was to identify and document the factors that facilitated or inhibited sexual desire in a sample of young women identified as emerging adults who reported declining sexual desire in their relationship or who reported experiencing continuing high desire. Interviews with 20 women were analyzed. Using Grounded Theory Methodology, we identified 32 distinct factors that participants reported to be influences on their sexual desire that could be grouped under 4 thematic headings: Personal Factors, Partner factors, Relationship factors, and External factors. Each of these themes was represented in the seven most commonly cited factors highlighted in the current analysis of influences that facilitated or inhibited sexual desire. Those most common factors were: energy level (fatigue), feeling sexy, physical attraction to one's partner, partner's attentiveness, intimate communication, life transitions, and the possibility of pregnancy.

A number of the factors and themes documented in the current study were similar to those reported in Graham et al.'s (2004) study of women's sexual arousal. Specifically, factors such as partner's attractiveness, romantic settings, and the possibility of pregnancy that were found to affect both desire in this present study were also found to affect subjective arousal in Graham et al's (2004) study. Graham et al. (2004) and others (e.g., Both, Spiering, Everaerd, & Laan, 2004; Laan, & Everaerd, 1995; Laan, Everaerd, van der Velde & Geer, 1995) have suggested that subjective arousal and sexual desire in women might overlap considerably or be experienced in tandem. More recently, researchers have proposed that sexual desire and subjective arousal may be virtually indistinguishable for women (Brotto et al., 2009; Graham et al., 2010). Further, the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) proposes a merger of problems associated with desire and arousal (Brotto, 2010). The current study adds to the body of literature suggesting women experience desire and arousal similarly and that many factors impacting desire and arousal are likely analogous.

In another context, previous research on women's experiences of sexual desire during menopause suggests that factors such as mood and feelings for one's partner are stronger indicators of experiences of sexual desire than hormonal factors (e.g., Dennerstein, Lehert, & Burger, 2005; Dennerstein, Randolph, Taffe, Dudley, & Burger, 2002). This observation is consistent with the growing literature supporting the New View Campaign which posits that cultural, relational, and psychological factors are larger contributors to sexual desire than are biological correlates (Tiefer, 1991). Our study did not investigate hormonal influences but did document the impact of personal, partner and relationship factors on sexual desire among non-menopausal younger women.

Emerging adults

Energy level (fatigue)

The present study presented a number of factors affecting women's sexual desire that have also been noted in past research. Since few studies have addressed this issue in emerging adults it is of interest to make comparisons. For example, energy level (fatigue) was described as a barrier to sexual desire for many women in the present study. Similarly, in a national quantitative study of 1,637 women aged 17 to 89, Ellison (2001) found that the most frequently selected response for women not wanting to have sex was "being too tired and/or too busy." Being busy or fatigued has often been associated with the stress and responsibilities that accompany child rearing (Basson, 2000; Perel, 2007; Sims & Meana, 2010). Our current findings suggest that the sexual desire of young women can be similarly negatively impacted by stress related to work or school. Further, some women in our study indicated that despite feeling passionate towards their partners, feelings of fatigue prevented them from wanting to engage in sexual activity as it required too much energy. This finding suggests that some women may not have problematic levels of desire, per se, but instead may lack the energy to act on their desire and, consequently, they suppress those feelings. Among these women, low desire may be an entirely understandable and adaptive reaction to their current circumstances or situation in life (Bancroft, Loftus, & Long, 2003). Other women in the present study indicated that exercising helped them feel energy and, as a result, more desire. Thus, , at least in our sample of generally healthy women largely not in the dysfunctional range on the FSFI, it may be that desire is not a problem, but that stress or fatigue is. Perhaps therapeutic techniques that focus on stress management or exercise may be helpful for women experiencing fatigue as a barrier to desire rather than targeting sexual desire directly.

Feeling sexy

Many women in this study reported an internal need to feel sexy in order to feel desire. The importance of "feeling sexy" is frequently addressed in mass media such as magazine articles (e.g., Janes, 2005; Tilsner, 2003; Wilburn, 1989) and has more recently been demonstrated in academic research (Sims & Meana, 2010). However, Sims and Meana's study incorporated a slightly older sample (ages 26-40) than the current one, their participants were married, and a majority (68%) had children. The women in Sims and Meana's study described the difficulty they faced in feeling sexy when they were also experiencing other roles such as being a wife, mother, and professional. Other women in their study indicated that they stopped dressing in a sexy way after they were married or after they had children. Given that the women in our study did not have children, and the majority was not married, this finding suggests that it may be the comfort and familiarity of a long-term relationship that impacts feeling sexy, and not just salient factors such as marriage and children.

Physical attractiveness of partner

Additionally, some women in the current study described the physical attractiveness of their romantic partner and the associated desire they felt when their partner was near them. The incentive-motivation model of sexual desire (Singer & Toates, 1987) suggests that sexual desire is triggered by sexual cues. A partner's attractiveness or proximity might serve as sexual stimulus for women. In fact, the most frequently reported reason women reported for having sex in Meston and Buss's (2007) study on reasons for sex was "I was attracted to the person." Also in the top twenty reasons for sex was: "the person's physical appearance turned me on." Although physical cues, such as partner's attractiveness, have been typically considered to be precursors to men's sexual desire (Feingold, 1992), this may be an area in which the genders are becoming more similar. Alternatively, perhaps there is more support today for women to acknowledge the importance of partner attractiveness thus lessening their perceived need to respond to questions about desired physical characteristics in socially desirable ways.

Partner attentiveness

A number women in the current study also indicated that their partner's investment of time and effort in the demonstration of ongoing romance was crucial in order to experience sexual desire. Similarly, McCall and Meston (2007) also found that "having a romantic dinner" and "watching a romantic movie" increased desire in women. These findings are more in line with traditional sexual scripts for women in which sexual behaviour is sanctioned in the context of romantic relationships (Reiss, 1960; Wiederman, 1995). Interestingly, some men have reported staging romantic settings in order to attain sexual intimacy. In one qualitative study of sexual scripts adopted by urban men (predominantly emerging adults), a common theme was sexual seduction in which men reported creating a romantic mood in order to "'win [their] partners heart, followed by a sexual phase where a woman would make herself sexually available" (Seal & Ehrhardt, 1994, p. 303). Sexual scripts are effective, because they provide a sense of predictability as to how an individual should feel, and behave, and what they should expect from their partner (Weiderman). These findings, taken together, suggest emerging adults of both genders endorse and are responsive to a rather traditional romance script which may serve as a precursor to sexual desire and sexual activity.

Intimate communication

Women in the current study indicated that intimate communication helped them feel sexual desire whereas ineffective communication decreased desire. Communication has been linked to sexual satisfaction, of which sexual desire is part (for a review, see Litzinger & Gordon, 2005). Increasing the amount of communication, about any topic, within a romantic couple has been found to help increase relationship satisfaction and reduce sexual dissatisfaction (e.g., Markman, Renick, Floyd, Stanly, & Clements, 1993). However, none of literature on sexual desire has made this connection explicitly. Further, the direction of the relationship between communication and sexual satisfaction is unknown. It may be that communication leads to intimacy, which may lead to sexual desire. It may also be that communication is indicative of relationship quality. In either case, the route of intimate communication to sexual intimacy has been proposed to privilege women's ways of being in relationships while disadvantaging men (Perel, 2007). Perel suggests that couples develop "bilingual intimacy" in which multiple ways of communicating (beyond verbal) are practiced and valued in a relationship. Women's desire may be enhanced when they recognize the many ways their partners signify their love and affection, beyond verbal intimacy.

Life transitions

Many women indicated that a number of life stages and changes, such as moving in with their partner, starting a new academic or work-related career, or moving to a new city, had an impact on their sexual desire. Some research on transition and sexual desire focuses on childbirth (De Judicibus & McCabe, 2002; Perel, 2007) and menopause (Woods, Mitchell, & Julio, 2010). However, these studies include confounds such as hormones which can also play a role in decreasing desire which is not relevant to the present sample of women in emerging adulthood. Understanding transitions is particularly important for women in emerging adulthood because this stage is characterized as a time marked by change and flux. For example, transitions such as travel, exploration, returning to school, and potentially cohabitating with one's partner are all commonly experienced in this developmental stage (Arnett, 2000). Future studies exploring the impact of these transitions on sexual desire, sexual functioning and behaviours more generally would be of value.

Possibility of pregnancy

Although wanting to be pregnant has been suggested as a facilitator of sexual desire (Levine, 2002), the women in this study indicated that they did not want to be pregnant. Consequently they suggested that thoughts about getting pregnant would significantly reduce their sexual desire. Similarly, the women in Graham et al.'s (2004) focus group study (though ranging in age from 18 to 84) indicated that fears about unwanted pregnancy could have a strong, negative impact on their sexual arousal. Emerging adulthood is partially defined by the absence of children (Arnett, 2000). All of the women in this study indicated that pregnancy and children were unwanted at this stage of their lives and thoughts or worries about pregnancy inhibited their desire. Participants in the study by Graham et al. suggested that their arousal could be increasingly negatively impacted if their partner did not share their concerns about contraception and/or unwanted pregnancy. It may be particularly important for men romantically involved with women in emerging adulthood to be sensitive to these issues in order to facilitate their partner's desire.

Strengths and limitations of the present study

This was the first study to investigate sexual desire among women in emerging adulthood. Sexuality research in this age group currently tends to focus only on sexual behaviours and beliefs (e.g., Lefkowitz & Gillen, 2005), communication (e.g., Lefkowitz, Boone, & Shearer, 2003), and risk-taking behaviours (e.g., Willoughby & Dworkin, 2009). However, women in emerging adulthood are often engaged in long-term relationships and information about their sexual experiences within this context is needed. Further, even before emerging adulthood was considered a distinct developmental stage, younger women were largely ignored in the sexual desire literature. Ignoring young women because of an assumption that they have high levels of desire may be detrimental to young women whose experiences do not fit with this ideal. The current study makes it clear that perceived decreases in sexual desire occur among this younger age group. Further, a number of the women in the decreased desire participant group had scores on the FSFI that placed them below the cutoff point for sexual dysfunctions and sexual desire disorders.

Sexual desire is complex at any age and needs to be understood for all women. It is especially important to more fully understand "normal" and "healthy" women's experiences of desire as current conceptualizations of dysfunctional desire are being challenged and refigured with the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is also important to better understand women's sexual desire given proposals to merge arousal and desire disorders in upcoming DSM-5 (for a review, see Brotto, 2010). The current study provides some support for the idea that the factors which impact desire and arousal are similar. Specifically, there was a good deal of overlap between Graham et al.'s (2004) findings on factors influencing arousal and the factors elicited in the current investigation focusing on sexual desire.


The objective of the present study was to describe the factors that impact women's sexual desire. The interviews were conducted at one point in time, so causation cannot be determined. For example, women described experiencing cognitive distractions during sexual activity which decreased their sexual desire. It is possible that this group of women were prone to experiencing distractions that consequently reduced or diminished their desire. It is also possible that these women had low desire and, as a result, experienced distractions during potentially unwanted sexual activity.

The sample of women recruited for the present study was purposefully narrow in order to achieve saturation within groups and avoid other potential factors that could have ah impact on experiences of sexual desire. The primary aim of the present study was not to develop generalizable findings. Rather, the goal of the study was to present the descriptive explanations women gave about their sexual desire and their perspectives regarding factors which impacted their desire. However, the study is still limited in that it included mostly white, heterosexual women, who were, generally, highly educated. Thus, the results may not reflect the experiences of a more diverse group of women.


Although emerging adulthood is understood to be a distinct developmental stage, it appears that many of the factors that facilitate or inhibit sexual desire in this group may be more similar than different than from those experienced by women in other life stages.

Our findings suggest that emerging adult women are a potentially rich source of insight for researchers interested in the interplay of factors that have an impact on sexual desire.


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Sarah Murray (1) and Robin Milhausen (1)

(1) Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, University of Guelph, Guelph ON

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sarah Murray, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, University of Guelph, 50 Stone Rd. E., Guelph, ON NIG 2W1. E-mail: murrays@uoguelph.ca

Table 1 Summary of participant demographics

                                    Range    Mean     SD   # of "Yes"

Age (in years)                      21-29   24.25   2.76       --
Relationship length (in months)     32-120  59.80  20.74       --
Desire domain (of FSFI)              2-10   6.35    2.00       --
Live together?                                --      --       13
"Somewhat" or "a lot" religious               --      --        4
"Somewhat" or "a lot" spiritual               --      --        9
Good to very good physical health             --      --       15
University education                          --      --       20

Table 2 Themes, sub-themes and categories associated with influencing
women's sexual desire

Theme 1: Personal factors
  Emotional state
  Physical state
    Stress level
    Energy level
  Feelings about self
    Feelings about self-worth
    Feelings about body
    Feeling sexy
  Ability to stay mentally present
  Attitudes towards sex
    Sexual particularity
    Perceived importance of sex in relationship

Theme 2: Partner factors
  Partner as cause of sexual desire
    Physical attraction to partner
    Partner makes woman feel desirable
  Aspects of partner's sexuality
    Partner's level of sexual desire
    Partner's comfort with sex
    Effectiveness of sexual initiation
  Partner's attentiveness
    Partner's effort
    Partner's lack of consideration

Theme 3: Relationship factors
  Characteristics of relationship
    Support from partner
  Characteristics of sex life
    Desire discrepancy
    Monotony and routine
  Time spent together
    Sexual communication
    Intimate communication

Theme 4: External factors
  Life transitions
  Received messages about sex
    Parental messages about sex
  Health issues
    Medical problems
    Possibility of pregnancy
  Other stimuli
    Sexually explicit films

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A310364312