'I Thought I Was Asexual, Turns Out I Was Just Unhappy'
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
How does mental health affect libido? More than you might know.
Submitted by Emma (21), Netherlands
Asexual: (adjective) not involving sexual activity, feelings, or associations; nonsexual.
This is a very personal story that I want to share to draw more attention to how mental health and sex drive intersect. It is not my intent to trivialize asexuality, or someone’s asexual journey, nor to speak for others or to perpetuate a stereotype. This is my story.
Writing for INJECTION Magazine has encouraged a deep level of self-reflection. I feel very lucky that I have been encouraged to find and develop my voice, where I have been curious about what exactly has influenced that.
Particularly helpful to me, was putting into words the ‘Inconsiderate Slut Narrative’ - where you are not responsible for someone’s emotions or happiness; you owe them truth and respect and nothing more - as well as ‘How To Slow Down In A World That Never Stops,’ where I discussed my perfectionist overachieving ways and how to take a break and breathe.
Therefore, I hope this might be insightful to you just as it has allowed me to reflect and articulate some of what I have been feeling.
I have been single for several months now, where before I was in a two-and-a-half year (messy) relationship. I would again like to preface this that this is not about him but about me.
At some point I stopped loving him. I do not know when; I would not be able to pinpoint the exact day or month it happened. Maybe it happened slowly, day by day. Either way, I was in denial. I wanted to make it work. I wanted to make it last.
We (practically) lived together and we had a great routine. Yes, we got in each other's way a lot, and had many silly arguments, but I thought our routine worked. We were best friends too; not every moment had to be romantic. We would still make an effort to plan dates, or date nights-in during lock down, and I thought we had a good balance of all the important things. There was one crucial source of conflict, however. Sex.
At some point I stopped enjoying sex.
Feeling incredibly awkward about this, I delayed having the conversation by several weeks, claiming tiredness, stress, or period pain. But at some point it became unavoidable. As I expected, he did not understand what I was trying to say (I may have communicated this horribly), and he thought it was because of him. Unable to articulate what I was feeling, I felt sad and pressured to (at least pretend to) enjoy sex. When I eventually was able to communicate how I was feeling, the outcome of that conversation was essentially compromise: to respect each other’s needs. We eventually stopped having sex altogether.
I remember talking to my friends about it, about how relieved I felt, and while at first I felt like I had to defend myself a little bit, I realized that as I was speaking, I was describing asexuality. I did not enjoy sex, there was no sexual tension and no desire to create romantic* or sexual moments. And in realizing this I felt incredibly relieved that it was ‘ok’ for me to feel this way. That what I was feeling was valid. That I did not have to explain myself or defend myself.
*Later reflection would prove that I had some learning to do about the differences in being ‘aromantic’ and ‘asexual’ - can you still be in a (romantic) relationship if you are asexual? Yes! Just as you can be aromantic and still enjoy sex. Regardless of the linguistics in how I chose to define my sexuality, I still tried to navigate where I straddled the line between ‘aromantic’ and ‘asexual.’ I felt pressured to identify or categorize myself in order to explain (or defend) why I felt the way I felt. I thought that if what I was feeling was an aspect or version of asexuality, then I would be ‘allowed to’ not want to have sex. But this is ridiculous. Your sexuality is yours. You should not have to defend or explain it to anyone. It is allowed to be fluid; it is allowed to fluctuate and change.
When eventually the relationship fell apart for other reasons I was able to reflect about my behaviours, desires, and needs - both as an individual and within the relationship. I was surprised (and embarrassed) to find out that I was in fact looking forward to having sex again. This revelation had me question why exactly I had such a prolonged period of low sex drive.
There’s a myriad of things that can affect your libido. Hormonal imbalances, lack of sleep, illness, substance abuse, anxiety; the list goes on. It is also perfectly normal to have a fluctuating sex drive throughout your life. However, having a ‘lower-than-normal-libido’ (where “normal” depends on the individual) could also be indicative of underlying health problems.
For me, those included self-esteem issues, anxiety, and (constant) stress. Stress triggers the body’s fight or flight response, where the hormones involved inhibit sex hormones. Once we overcome a stressful moment, the body should return to its normal functioning, however stress can persist even in the absence of a trigger. This means that the body is consistently redirecting its resources away from “non-essential” functions such as sex drive.
I was not happy - not within the relationship, nor as an individual - and this bled into my (lack of) desire to be intimate or romantic. (A strong indicator of this was my lack of masturbating, but maybe that’s an article for another time.)
Anxiety can override sensations of pleasure. It can inhibit your ability to have an orgasm and even cause physical pain during intercourse. “Arousal non-concordence” is when your body and mind are not simultaneously aroused - you can be physically turned on, but have no emotional desire for sex, and vice versa. Anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD can all affect sex and libido in different ways. Ultimately, it’s about knowing what is best for you, and communicating that to your partner.
What helped me was putting everything into words and accepting that sexuality and sex drive are very fluid concepts. They should be allowed to change just as your preferences and lifestyle also fluctuate. What also helped me was the realisation that I was ‘allowed’ to not want to have sex and that it meant that there was nothing wrong with me. Your sex drive is allowed to fluctuate. And you don’t, or shouldn’t, have to defend yourself for having changing preferences.