A pandemic, a war, constant existential stress and ever-climbing work pressures do not make for the horniest of environments, and a survey on the sex lives of New Zealanders show that a lot of us are feeling the same way. We talk to two experts about what makes up female desire, and why a local product is one of the many easy ways you can increase your own.
Call us crazy, but the combination of pandemic-induced existential stress, the absolute disintegration of work/home separation and, for many families, round-the-clock parenting while working from home has been something of a dampener on the sex drive. If you’re feeling that your bedroom has become more of a place to collapse in exhaustion and then doom-scroll through the news, you might not be happy about it – but you’re certainly not alone. And that’s if you’re in a steady relationship. If you’ve been dating during the past two years, that comes with a whole host of added challenges – like not being able to see anyone outside your bubble.
No matter your situation, it’s probable that your levels of desire are quite often MIA.
“It’s quite easy for us to rationalise this pandemic,” says Morgan Penn, somatic sexologist and co-host of The Trainee Sexologist podcast. “We can say, ‘Yep, okay, I get it,’ but our bodies are having a very different reaction. When our bodies are filled with cortisol and stress – stress that we might not even be aware of – what happens to our bodies, on a very primal level, is that we go into survival mode.”
“When we’re in that space, we’re literally only aiming for the vital stuff – what our bodies need to do just to survive. And we don’t need to procreate in that kind of time. So the hunger for sex diminishes, because that is our primal urge – on a very old-school, physiological level, that is why we have sex.”
A study done by the Kinsey Institute in mid 2020 found that, even at that early stage of the pandemic, nearly half of the respondents reported a drop in sexual behaviour, including masturbation. Closer to home, Kiwi company No Ugly conducted a survey in Aotearoa with over 1,000 people – 80% who identified as female. The results painted a similarly un-horny picture: 69% of participants wanted to have sex more often, 81% felt their hormones were to blame for lack of sex drive and 58% wanted to improve their libido. It was these results that lead to No Ugly creating No Ugly Libido, a new wellness tonic designed to support sexual desire.
“Women’s libido is really, really complex and it’s greatly affected by hormones, general wellbeing, fatigue, inner confidence, calmness, stress, anxiety… just to name a few.”
But before you look at a solution, you first have to look at the nebulous range of complex factors that actually make up desire and – no jokes, please – desire is a lot more complicated to measure in some genders than others. “Women’s libido is really, really complex and it’s greatly affected by hormones, general wellbeing, fatigue, inner confidence, calmness, stress, anxiety… just to name a few,” says Sarah Walter, head of science at No Ugly.
“Men’s libido is not as complex as women’s libido – and men’s libido is a lot easier to measure. In many clinical studies done in this field, they’re mostly done on men because it’s so much easy to quantify and measure. It’s really difficult to quantify women’s libido – and it’s different for everyone, because there are different things that are important to different people. But what everyone does agree on is that having increased overall feeling of libido is a good thing.”
An interesting thread that ties together both Sarah’s research in this field and Morgan’s experience as a somatic sexologist is that both fields look to nature for many of the answers. “There’s a huge amount of research around what’s happening globally and what different ancient cultures have been doing, because there’s so much amazing functionality in nature,” says Sarah. “The botanical herbs that have been in the Indian Ayurvedic culture and in Traditional Chinese Medicine; those are just two different styles of Ancient medicine that have been used for centuries.”
“We have so much to learn from the old ways, because they kept it simple,” Morgan agrees. “Plant medicine is so potent… and our bodies are part of nature. Indigenous cultures knew that we aren’t separate from nature; so of course this kind of medicine, this rongoā is within us to transform this plant medicine to what we need.”
“Libido, or desire, can be so fleeting, how do we catch those moments and then invite the body to be part of it?”
When it came to creating the mix in a libido-supporting product, like No Ugly Libido, Sarah says it’s that combination of straight science and plant science that can be so effective. “Libido works on multiple levels and multiple pathways, so I’ve layered the science – like, we’ve got 25% of your daily intake of zinc in each bottle, because zinc is clinically proven to support testosterone levels in blood,” Sarah says.
“While people think of testosterone as being a male hormone, it’s actually a critical hormone for females in terms of libido. And then we’ve also got potent herbs like ashwagandha, and then shatavari and fenugreek. And shatavari is a funny one, because it’s an Indian botanical extract and it loosely translates as ‘she with hundreds of husbands.’”
The tonic isn’t a “silver bullet” Sarah says, more like part of an overall healthy, libido-supporting regime. Some herbs, like ashwagandha, have a more short-term effect but there are also herbs in there designed to give “a gentle, heightened vitality, which is quite nice because a lot of us are just tired!” But the combination of ingredients really does bring together some of the most potent herbs from around the world, everything from herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine through to extracts from South America.
Interestingly, ashwagandha is Morgan’s number-one supplement recommendation for clients, because it’s such an efficient multi-tasker for helping increase desire. But Morgan says a large number of her clients need help down-regulating their stress responses first, as a way to create space in their brains for the possibility of desire. “Libido, or desire, can be so fleeting, how do we catch those moments and then invite the body to be part of it?” she says. “What I see is a need for support, on quite a holistic level; there are so many layers that need to be scaffolded and cushioned and tended to.”
“We’ve forgotten how to be in our primal, animal body. And that’s pretty vital to having messy, wild, sexual relationships.”
Quieting the mind and tuning into the body is the best way to give ourselves the space we need to start feeling that desire. “Mindfulness that brings the placement of awareness into the body,” Morgan says. “We need to be able to be in the body to feel the small stirrings in the body, the small pleasures.”
Concentrating on our breathing can be our fastest track to getting out of our head and into our body, she says. “When we bring awareness to our breath, we realise ‘I’ve got this breath in my body, it’s moving everything – can I feel it in my chest, can I feel the expansion in my body, can I direct this breath down into my pelvis?’”
“The thing is, people can’t tell when their body is up-regulated, because we’re so used to this constant state of go, go, go. But concentrating on the breath, putting your feet on the earth, and starting to harness those small moments, harnessing pleasure. Feeling the sun on your skin, then maybe the breeze comes. It’s about staying in the body, and feeling the body.” And relishing in the nature side of who we are is also important – whether that comes from being outside, or harnessing the power of natural ingredients.
“I think we’ve forgotten how to be in our primal, animal body,” Morgan says. “And that’s pretty vital to having messy, wild, sexual relationships, which is important at times. We get so serious about sex sometimes, that it needs to be perfect, that we need to be looking good, that it’s all about the right positions. But it’s not – it’s not about how it looks, it’s about how it feels.”